I am completing a series of three articles on the contrasts between European and Chinese Marxist approaches to human rights. The following slides are from a powerpoint that I use in different situations.
I am completing a series of three articles on the contrasts between European and Chinese Marxist approaches to human rights. The following slides are from a powerpoint that I use in different situations.
(An earlier version of this paper was given at a Sinology conference in Beijing at the beginning of November, 2018)
Has Western Europe lost its soul?
Before beginning, let me set a more personal context. My parents emigrated from the Netherlands to Australia in the late 1950s, so my nationality (or ethnicity) is Dutch, although my citizenship is Australian. To add to these personal connections, my education is in European classical languages, biblical criticism and Western European (and Russian) Marxism. Thus, at many levels I am steeped in the European tradition.
Some years ago, a change began in Western Europe. In one country after another, the confidence of the 1990s began to dissipate. With the supposed ‘rolling back’ of communism in Eastern Europe and Russia, many had thought the Western liberal tradition had triumphed. But just as it seemed to do so, it lost confidence. Whereas once such countries welcomed foreigners, now they became suspicious. Stricter controls began to appear on the borders, immigrants and refugees were increasingly seen as threats (to jobs, welfare, culture and so on). The targets are only peoples from the Middle East and North Africa – but also Russia, Eastern Europe and even southern Europe. Old denigrations took on a new currency, border checks became routine, more and more people were rejected.
With this gradual closing of the borders – about which much more can be said – came a closing of the mind. True, many Western Europeans have for long held a view of the world that places themselves at the culmination of history. But something has changed. Whereas in the past this attitude may have appeared as a distinct confidence, if not (colonial) arrogance, in more recent years it has evolved into a fearful view of the rest of the world as a threat.
Part of the reason – but only part – may be found in the profound geopolitical shifts that have become clear in the last decade or more. The North Atlantic financial crisis of 2008 brought to the fore a process that had been underway for much longer (think of the Reform and Opening Up in China since the late 1970s). Not only did the shakiness of the ‘world order’ that had been established after the Second World War become apparent, but the financial crisis marked most clearly that the centre of global economic and political power was in a process of shifting. We can use the metaphor of a seismic shift, in which the continental plates shift, grinding away until a series of earthquakes and volcanic eruptions make clear what is already underway. Too late has the ‘West’ realised what is at stake. The frantic efforts – for example – by the United States to reassert its splintering hegemony comes far too late. The horse has already bolted, to use another metaphor. But this situation creates a profound sense of unsettlement in many people. Whether they liked the previous order or not, they had become somewhat comfortable. Not now.
All the same, these developments may be seen as external factors, however important they might be. Let me now turn to more internal features, of an individual and collective nature. To begin with, one notices a profound lack of purpose in many parts of Western Europe and North America. I think not so much of drive to make short-term profits at the expense of the long-term future, but of the purpose of life itself.
Let me give an example from the Netherlands, although it could be replicated again and again. The only remaining sense of life is to ‘live well’. You may ask: what is the problem with this? It all depends on what ‘living well’ means. It comes down to nothing more than eating at expensive restaurants, having a nice home, travelling to selected destinations, and if one is no longer able to ‘live well’, opting for euthanasia. Further, if anyone else in the world who is not able even to find enough food for a day wishes to share a little of this ‘well-lived’ life, then they are rejected and reviled.
Perhaps there is indeed an awareness of something amiss. Of late, an increasing number of research projects have begun to dig back into Western European history to identify what is unique about this culture. The history may not be as long as many other parts of the world, but signs of a search have begun.
For example, a very large project, funded by the European Council, examines the origins of the idea of ‘privacy’. This is a large team project based at a leading European university, with eye-watering funding and a somewhat new approach that turns on privacy as both a quality and a risk: too little privacy threatens the individual while too much may ruin society. While the project claims to be ‘international’, a careful look at its focus reveals that the term ‘international’ refers to countries in Western Europe, in terms of both its research scope and team.
Clearly, the project sees privacy itself as a distinctly Western European discovery, although its agenda is to find a new way to trace the emergence of privacy. While the project risks a Euro-centric view, it also indicates that the very idea of privacy in this framework is specific and culturally determined. In other words, it is part of a European tradition that cannot simply be transposed and imposed elsewhere.
Further, the time period under investigation is telling: 1500-1800, precisely when capitalist market economies emerged in Western Europe, liberalism began its long road to dominance and this part of the world emerged from its backwardness to global colonialism. This is when Western Europe as we know it began to take shape not so long ago. With this focus, the project reveals a desire to re-anchor a relatively short cultural tradition that many sense has lost its way. What is it that makes Western Europe unique? Is it worth recovering and, if so, how?
In order to do so, a thorough reinvestigation of the role of religion in Western European culture lies at the core of the project. Tellingly, the project may be interdisciplinary to some extent, but it is based in a Faculty of Theology.
On this note, let me use another example. In the late 1990s and early 2000s, a number of Western Marxists turned to the Bible and theology to find a new revolutionary model. Their names may be familiar to you: Alain Badiou, Slavoj Zizek, Terry Eagleton – to name only the most well-known – turned or returned to the Christian tradition to find new ways to speak about the revolutionary tradition. The specific contributions may differ in the details, but the underlying claim was the same: Christian theology, and especially the Bible, provides the origins of the idea and practice of revolution. In other words, this is a uniquely European discovery and needs to be reclaimed.
Rather than pass judgement on this effort (which is highly problematic), we need to ask why they did so. Here the date of 1989 and the ‘fall of the Berlin Wall’ had a profound effect. We have not yet realized the full impact in Europe of this development, but one feature was the sense of crisis many Western Marxists felt. Although many had already given up on actual socialism further east, the breakup of the Soviet Union led to them to believe that all the old models were no longer workable. So they began to seek out a distinctly Western European model – based on theology.
My final example concerns cultural products, such as films, novels and so on. More and more of these products attempt to recover what is distinct about the Western European tradition. For example, a recent German film – called Ich bin dann mal weg, translated as I’ll Be Off, Then – tells the story of a successful comedian who collapses on stage. Aware that something is missing in his unhealthy and pointless life – he drinks too much, smokes heavily and makes much money – he decides to set off on a pilgrimage.
His destination is Santiago de Compostela, a distance of some 800 kilometres. He follows one of the ancient routes – known in English as the Way of St James – to the cathedral in the city. Dating from the ninth century, the pilgrimage was popular in the Middle Ages, only to see a gradual decline with the onset of modernity. Tellingly, since the end of the 1980s it has once again grown in popularity (note again the importance of this period).
At first, the film’s character is not quite sure why he has undertaken the pilgrimage. He continues to smoke, pays for an expensive hotel, catches a taxi and then a bus in order to avoid walking. Gradually he comes to spend time with a couple of other pilgrims, who learn to help each other. Now he walks, stays in hostels, and begins to ask questions about the meaning of life, if not God. By the time they reach the cathedral in Spain, they have come to an awareness – partial though it might be – of what a full life might actually mean.
The examples could be multiplied (The Dutch film Tulipaner is another), but in many ways the film functions as a European allegory. The man in the film stands for a Europe that seems to have lost its way and is searching for a soul. That this search inevitably involves religion – especially in light of the complex intersections between religion and European culture – should not surprise us.
Let me examine the implications of this distinct loss of soul. To begin with, looking back can have many functions. Obviously, historical investigation is necessary and important for charting a path into the future. But it can too easily fall into a conservative search for the mythical lost Golden Age – politics in the United States is an excellent example. In the case of Western Europe, it is more about a sense that something has been lost. Whether what is lost is valuable or not is another question.
A significant part of this loss concerns religion, for the obvious reason that Western European culture cannot be imagined without religion – as the examples of research projects, cultural products and the work of some Western Marxists indicates. But here we face a paradox: on the one hand, the churches are virtually empty and few see religion as important in their lives; on the other hand, in the face of perceived threats the Christian nature of European culture has been increasingly asserted. I leave aside here the more intriguing suggestions for answering this problem (such as the sinification of religion), for the paradox itself witnesses to my main point.
What are the implications? These thoughts were originally part of a paper delivered at a Sinology conference in Beijing. To my surprise, the paper generated much discussion, for it obviously has implications for Sinology, let alone China in the world. Let me identify three implications.
The first is negative, with the small club of ‘Western’ nations closing their doors out of fear and rejecting the rest of the world, apart from sporadic efforts at neo-colonialism.
The second is more intriguing, for – as was very obvious to these participants – the developments I discussed witness to the distinct nature of the Western European tradition, which must be understood but cannot be transposed to other cultures without serious disruption.
Third, are their other models where a purpose is quite clear? The Chinese project, with Marxism at its core, is an obvious candidate. Observers from different backgrounds – from the Vatican through to a small but growing number of Western Marxists – have become aware that Chinese Marxism does provide a clear purpose and goal, if not a soul that has been lost elsewhere. This is not to say that Chinese Marxism should become a new global hegemony, and thus a false universal, but that it can perhaps provide a model for how one might shape such a soul in a new way.
 The project focuses on eleven case studies deemed important for the development of privacy: Copenhagen, Amsterdam, Dresden, Westminster, La Rochelle, Helmstedt, Chatsworth House, Versailles, Altona, Glasgow and Arc-et-Senans. Clearly, all are in Western Europe.
Agence France Presse asked me recently about at item making the rounds in some quarters. It concerns a small group of Maoist sectarians who had travelled south to take part in some worker protests. Coming from a few universities in Beijing, some were put under house arrest upon return. I am told that Cornell University in the United States terminated a cooperative program with Renmin University of China over the issue.
Of course, all of this gains its inevitable spin and the full context is lost. The question is asked: why would a Marxist government seek to restrain a Marxist movement? Here is my response to AFP, although I am not sure they will do it justice:
These types of groups have been in existence for quite some time. One could, for example, outline earlier forms such as the ‘Utopia’ movement of more than a decade ago, which championed the corrupt mayor of Chongqing, Bo Xilai. There are also loose connections with what has been called China’s ‘New Left’, although the latter keep clear of these groups. Today one could perhaps say they are within the broad spectrum of Marxism in China, but they are really quite minor and on the fringe in relation to the vast reality of Chinese Marxism.
A brief outline of their main positions may be useful. Rather than simply calling them ‘Marxists’, they should really be seen as Maopai, Maoist sectarians. The phenomemon is in fact common in the history of Marxism and communist movements. A sectarian group typically assumes it is the bearer of truth, while other groups are heretics or betrayers.
The Maoist sectarians are no different. They believe that they witness to the truth of the last real expression of communism in China with Mao Zedong, especially during the Cultural Revolution. As any careful study of Mao’s extensive writings and acts indicates, their reading is quite selective, suiting their own agenda. For example, they stress a ‘break’ between Mao Zedong and Deng Xiaoping, suggesting that the latter ‘betrayed’ Mao and took China on the road to capitalism. However, if one studies Deng Xiaoping, it soon becomes clear that the continuities are equally strong, if not stronger. Further, their perception of the Cultural Revolution is rather idealistic and starry-eyed, instead of seeing it as the complex and traumatic reality that it was: a trauma that still runs deep in Chinese society.
Their focus on some workers also indicates a difficulty in dealing with Mao’s emphasis on peasants as the core of the communist movement at the time. Here they disagree among themselves: some recognize the importance of peasants/farmers, while others dismiss them and assert that ‘true’ communism focuses on workers. It is also worth noting on this matter that when workers do strike in China (as happened more in the past but less so today), it is normally in relation to bosses breaking the law. Workers typically invoke communist slogans in their protests, which is a point where the Maoist sectarians can make a connection.
More significantly, their approach runs into severe problems when examined further. They hold to a rather stunning conspiracy theory, which has been running for the 40 years of the reform and opening up. Thus, they see the CPC now as ‘fake’, as using deceptive speech when stressing Marxism, and so on. They also dismiss 40 years of very sophisticated Marxist developments.
They are also rather astute in feeding into a particular form of Western European Marxism, which has – especially after 1989 – felt that no authentic form of socialism could develop elsewhere in the world, especially in China. Thus, they position themselves as the ‘authentic’ voice of Marxism in China. For example, the French Marxist philosopher, Alain Badiou, has been promoting this perspective and is used by some of these Maoist sectarians in their work in China. The problem with Badiou is that he seriously misunderstands Marxism in China today. He has to my knowledge never been in China where he would see a strong communist party, with Marxism promoted everywhere, even to the point where it is becoming part of Chinese culture.
Why have such groups stepped up their activities of late, becoming more open? Xi Jinping is the key here. Everyone in China has known for quite some time that Xi Jinping is very serious about Marxism, directing the development of China’s economy, reforming the communist party (it was in relatively bad shape some years ago), shaping academic developments, art and literature, and so on. Only this year – since the CPC’s 19th congress in late 2017 and Xi Jinping’s major speech in May 2018 commemorating 200 years since Marx’s birth – has the rest of the world begun to notice. These events are beginning to lead to significant reassessment in other parts of the world. In the process, Xi Jinping has successfully claimed Mao’s mantle – as the majority of common people (laobaixing) clearly sense. But this development is quite disconcerting for the Maoist sectarians, for it seriously risks undermining their approach and indeed their conspiracy theory.
A specific event can also be connected to this activity. On 29 October, 2018, Xi Jinping gave a major speech to new trade union leaders on the relationship between workers, trade unions and the communist party. Again, this was a very Marxist speech with a clear articulation of how workers and unions function in building a new China under socialism in power. The challenge to the Maoist narrative should be obvious.
Lenin would have called them ‘left-wing communism, an infantile disorder’. However, one usually grows up and gains some wisdom. I have witnessed a number of people do precisely that: entertain a sectarian perspective for a while but then realise there is a greater and richer Marxist reality reality with which to engage constructively.
First posted in 2014, this observation is pertinent today to all manner of items, especially the press in some ‘Western’ countries in relation to China.
To set the scene, Marx had been accused of many misdemeanours, from being a bourgeois swindler of workers to master-minding global revolts, especially the Paris Commune. He reflects in a letter to Ludwig Kugelmann (1871):
Up till now it has been thought that the growth of … myths during the Roman Empire was possible only because printing was not yet invented. Precisely the contrary. The daily press and the telegraph, which in a moment spreads inventions over the whole earth, fabricate more myths (and the bourgeois cattle believe and enlarge upon them) in one day than could have formerly been done in a century (MECW 44: 176-77).
Guess that is what you get for not reading corporate, state-owned and ‘independent’ media in places like Australia. Within one day after returning, a number of people have been brought me up to speed on what is not merely selective sensationalism in regard to Xinjiang, but what can only be described as wilful misinformation. I have heard talk in the media and by government figures of ‘camps’ (invoking Nazi concentration camps), of ‘brainwashing’, of a whole minority nationality – the Uyghur – being subjected to ‘human rights abuses’.
My initial reaction was to think that this was a large science fiction plot, with another earth-like planet and a place called China, about which fanciful narratives had been developed. It is certainly not the China in which I live and work for a large part of the year. But then I realised that such narratives are supposedly speaking about the same place. So I enquired further and found that the following information is systematically not made available in this part of the world, even though one can easily find it (and not merely in an earlier post).
Ever since the incorporation of Xinjiang into China in the mid-eighteenth century, it has been a restive part of the country on the western border. However, from the 1990s, these problems have become more acute. The reason was a notable increase in influence from Islamic extremism from further west, with a number of outcomes.
To begin with, there were a spate of terrorist attacks. If we take only the period from 2008, we find: an attempted suicide attack on a China Southern flight in 2008; in the same year there were threats to launch attacks on the Beijing Olympics; a car ramming in Tiananmen Square in 2013, with injuries but no fatalities; a knife attack Kunming Railway Station in 2014, killing tens of people and injuring many more. All were perpetrated by radical Muslim Uyghurs. Further, some Uyghurs were discovered training with al-Qaeda in Afghanistan and had developed links with militant groups in restive parts of Pakistan. Radical fronts outside China were passing weapons, explosives and militants along drug routes. The list could go on, but the situation is quite clear: some Muslims among the Uyghur minority were engaged in organising and carrying out terrorist activities.
The question arose: how to deal with this distinct and deadly problem? It is not a problem facing China alone. In countries like Australia, there are strong pushes to have people stripped of citizenship and expelled. But this is hardly a solution, for it passes the problem onto someone else. In other places, the response is to lock them up and throw away the key. But this serves to radicalise them even further. More brutally, some countries send armed forces to the supposed source of terrorism, invade and destroy the country in question and thereby foster with even more extremism.
Some places, however, have decided to try a different approach. The primary problem was with mostly young people from a range of backgrounds. They may have been fighting in the Middle East, been to training camps in Pakistan or Afghanistan, married an extremist husband, or been radicalised at home and formed part of a cell. Upon returning home or having the their cell discovered, the problem was to find a way to help them fit back into their local communities. In close consultation with Muslim leaders, programs were set up. Given an often low level of education, the programs included classes to improve educational levels. Often unemployable and poor, they were give vocational training in skills for future work. Contact with outside radical groups was closed or monitored very closely. And – most importantly – a long process of cultural, ideological and theological education began, led by local experts and Muslim leaders, to try and get these young extremists to see that Islam is not about what they had been led to believe.
This approach has been and continues to be tried in many places around the world, with different emphases and different levels of success. For example, the city of Aarhus, Denmark, undertook a such a deradicalization program, albeit not without some controversy inside Denmark, since a good number wanted them expelled for good. Turkey has had significant success with its program, France some success, the UK perhaps less so and Australia even less. In fact, ‘deradicalization’ has become an in-word, journals have been established, businesses have tried to cash in. As is their common practice, Chinese scholars and government officials (both national and local – in the Xinjiang Autonomous Region) studied these approaches carefully and came up with one that is similar in some respects and unique in others (more information here, here and here). The Chinese prefer to call them ‘de-extremism’ activities, given the dangers of separatism, extremism and terrorism.
Of course, we may criticise one or another approach. None is perfect in dealing with a persistent problem shared by many countries. Some times they are too heavy-handed and alienate young people further. At other times they are too soft and make not enough difference. But the underlying purpose in a Chinese situation should not be forgotten: the recovery of a person’s life so that they may re-enter as a productive member the society they left not so long ago.
As I have mentioned before on a number of occasions, these programs are only part of an immediate response to a profound challenge to social and religious harmony (hexie), stability (wending) and security (anquan). But what is unique about the Chinese method relates to the basic human right to economic wellbeing. Thus, the longer term approach is to deal with the systemic poverty in Xinjiang, based on the position that poverty provides a breeding ground for radicalism like this. Not all such approaches in the past have worked so well, so now Xinjiang receives a massive amount of preferential economic incentives for people to innovate and find their own ways out of poverty. It is also a significant feature of the Belt and Road Initiative, for which Xinjiang is the pivot.
This raises the double question with which I started. Why Xinjiang? Why now? For a minority of ‘Western’ countries, Tibet used to be the flavour of the month, but now it is Xinjiang. Are the de-extremism programs new in Xinjiang? No, the programs in various forms have been under way for four or five years, although they were revised and updated in April 2017, with new regulations and the expansion of vocational and training centres. The more significant poverty alleviation projects span decades. So why do media outlets and some government figures in a relatively small number of countries focus so much attention on Xinjiang?
The first part of an answer is that 2018 marked the first real signs of significant success of the Chinese approach in Xinjiang. A minimal standard is that no terrorist activity has taken place since 2014, compared with 1,136 across the world in 2017 and 639 in the first half of 2018. More importantly the perception in China and abroad is that Xinjiang is now safe for travel. A few years ago I mentioned to a few people that I would like to travel to Xinjiang. Too dangerous! They said. Don’t go there. Now there is no problem. This year more than 100 million Chinese and foreign travellers flocked to Xinjiang. Further, with the Belt and Road Initiative, economic activity has noticeably improved, with investments doubling over the last two years and Xinjiang growing in 2017 by 7.6 percent. As has been pointed out again and again and again and again and again, stability has returned to Xinjiang as a result of the programs.
The second part of the answer comes from a Turkish perspective: 2018 saw the official launch of the Belt and Road Initiative, with close and pragmatic cooperation between all Central Asian countries, a number of European countries, nearly all countries in Africa, and many in other parts of the world. The initiative has been running already for some time, but 2017 was the launch. A significant plank in the initiative is Turkey, for whom China is its second largest trading partner (Germany is still the first, for now). Given the importance of both Xinjiang and Turkey in the Belt and Road Initiative, the rhetoric and misinformation concerning Xinjiang is seen – quite strongly in Turkey – as an effort by some ‘Western’ countries to drive a wedge between China and Turkey.
Turkey is of course not the only Muslim majority country to be involved in the Belt and Road Initiative. It includes Pakistan, the countries of Central Asia, some in the Middle East and in Southeast Asia. Noticeably, these countries have not joined the rhetoric and misinformation from a handful of ‘Western’ countries. But the Turkish perspective may give us an insight into why Xinjiang has become the flavour of the month among some ‘Western’ countries.
The catch is that the effort will not succeed. The Muslim majority countries are singularly unimpressed with some ‘Western’ countries, which have consistently demonised Islam for a good while, now trying to irritate China over its treatment of Muslim extremists. And the Chinese are confident enough that the Belt and Road Initiative has already developed too far for anyone to derail it.
After researching this material more than a decade ago, I did not think I would return to it. I speak of the curious philosophical positions of Alain Badiou – an old French philosopher (older than me) in whom some people happen to be interested. Recently I ran a small seminar on one of his first books to be translated into English, Saint Paul: The Foundation of Universalism. It took place at Renmin University of China, in Beijing, by request of some masters students who were trying to understand Badiou. There is also a Chinese translation, made directly from the French, so we were able to compare both translations.
Much could be said about the book: it is not so good upon a rereading; it suffers from a central contradiction, namely that the paradigmatic truth-event of Paul the Apostle is based on an event Badiou sees as a fable (the resurrection) – even though he tries mightily hard to tear it away from this basis; it is one of the more extreme statements of the sheer spontaneity of the event (to borrow a term from the Russian Revolution), which cannot be planned, expected or counted; it has a constitutive myopia concerning socialism in power; it suffers from a profound sense of crisis, common among Western European Marxists at the time; and it is in a curious way deeply conservative, if not imperialistic.
I will pick up some of these issues in a moment, but let me begin with a feature that the seminar participants saw as particularly nonsensical. Badiou suggests that the site of an event is necessary but not determinative. This proposal comes to the fore in the chapter on death and resurrection: death is the necessary site for the resurrection, but it does not determine the resurrection. I leave aside the theological problems with this strange reading, as well as the refusal of dialectical analysis (and thereby a refusal of Marx, Mao and Xi Jinping, to name a few). Instead, the seminar participants were interested in why Badiou tries to reject the determinative nature of the site or situation.
The obvious philosophical point is that it qualifies the universal, but Badiou has a particular target in mind. Repeatedly through the book he polemicises (and sneers) at identity politics, with its more immediate post-structural heritage. A longer view would see such politics as arising from the liberal tradition, with its emphasis on individual choice – a tradition with a distinctly Euro-American trajectory. We may agree or disagree with him on the criticism, but my point is that it arises from a specific context, a distinct site.
In fact, the way we examined this feature of Badiou’s thought in the seminar was to do what he rejects: examine the situation from which it arises. Any reader soon notices how thick the allusions and references are to specific French issues, let alone to the whole tradition of Western European culture and its philosophy.
More to the point, the book is one of a number of products by Marxist philosophers that witness to the profound crisis caused by 1989, for which the symbol is the ‘Fall’ of the Berlin Wall (or Anti-Fascist Rampart Wall). While many ‘Western’ Marxists had already fallen into the myopia that saw them ignore developments in the Soviet Union, let alone Eastern Europe, there was still at least a lingering presence of communism – in Europe and the Soviet Union. But now it had ‘collapsed’ or even ‘failed’. What was to be done? Apart from suggesting that Lenin and the Communist Party were now obsolete, Badiou (and some others) dug into what they saw as the ‘Western’ tradition. They sought a deeper model for revolution, a rethinking of communist politics. And it was to the Christian tradition, especially the Bible to which they turned.
On the one hand, we may see this as an unexpected recovery of the Christian communist tradition, but the move came at significant cost. The implication was that revolution came to be seen as a distinctly European-Christian invention, which was then exported to other parts of the world. By now it should be obvious how – and not only from a Chinese perspective – this implication is somewhat imperialist.
Further, the post-1989 crisis in Western Europe was part of a larger dynamic: in the very moment of apparent ‘victory’ over communism, the European tradition experienced a crisis of legitimacy, a loss of soul, if you will. This is a much larger topic into which I cannot go here, but it includes the closing of borders and minds, research projects and cultural products that increasingly seek to identify what is unique about Western European culture and tradition. And it includes a collection of Marxists who turned to the Christian communist tradition to recover some authenticity for Marxism itself. In this respect, it was a distinctly conservative turn.
The third upshot of 1989 – the ramifications of which we have not yet fully understood – brings me to the subtitle of this piece: how Badiou misunderstands China. It seems to me that the rise of the misperception that China has abandoned Marxism has much to do with 1989. If communism had ‘failed’ in Europe and Russia, then it obviously had failed in the global ‘peripheries’. The Eurocentrism of this view should be obvious.
Of course, it also has longer seeds in the curious phenomenon of European Maoism, of which Badiou was for a time the last living champion. That his pronouncements on Mao and China have gained some currency more recently is, however, due to the post-1989 phenomenon I have tried to outline. But it is a strange and non-dialectical Mao (how one can read Mao in this way is curious indeed), a Mao of the Cultural Revolution and not the much richer Chinese Marxist tradition, indeed a Mao strangely divorced from his context. For example, I have yet to find anywhere in Badiou’s work a careful engagement with Deng Xiaoping, subsequent leaders, or indeed the rich development of Marxist articulations of the reform and opening up. A few passing shots are hardly sufficient. The Chinese are usually very generous with someone like Badiou, calling him a maozhuyizhe, which can be translated as ‘Maoist’. But they know that he is really a maopai, a distinctly negative term that designates a Mao sectarian or factionalist.
I have also had a number of discussions concerning Badiou’s cancelled visits to China. To date, he has been invited on three occasions, only to cancel at the last moment for a variety of reasons. The sense here is that China today would really be Badiou’s ‘Real’, challenging his philosophical system to the core. If he did come to China, he could of course hammer on, oblivious to the reality around him. Or he might stop, listen and learn. He would find a communist party strong, secure and energetic, a leadership for whom Marxism is the guiding principle of all that happens in China today, indeed that the reform and opening up is a deeply Marxist project, let alone the extraordinary unfolding of the anti-colonial project (so Losurdo) now seen in the Belt and Road Initiative, African cooperation, and so on. But he has never been to China.
By now it should be obvious that Badiou’s situation is indeed deeply determinative of a philosophical system that seeks to negate such a situation. This approach to Badiou resonates deeply with Chinese assessments of Badiou, identifying his obvious shortcomings but also his potential insights.
All of this leads to the final point, which concerns nothing less than universals. One aspect of Chinese debates deals with what I would like to call the difference between false universals and rooted universals. A false universal is one that forgets or denies its specific location and asserts that the universal applies to all, irrespective of location or context. The European tradition has more than enough of such false universals. By contrast, a rooted universal is one that is always conscious of the context and culture in which it arises. This means that one is always aware of its insights and limitations. They are genuine universals, precisely because of their specific contexts. This distinction not only surpasses the very European opposition between absolute and relative, but it also very helpful in relation – for example – to human rights, where the rooted universal of the European tradition leads to civil and political rights, while the rooted universal of Chinese Marxism leads to the primacy of the right to economic wellbeing. In this case, specific contexts can contribute to a richer notion of the universal in question.
How is all this relevant for Badiou’s philosophy? He risks all too often a false universal, dismissing regionalism (in a very European fashion) and thereby rejecting socialism in one country and socialism with Chinese characteristics – a distinctly strange suggestion. All the same, there is potential in his thought for a rooted universal, specifically in terms of his rejection of ‘the One’ and the argument for a multiplicity of universals. I may have missed it, but I have yet to find any such argument in Badiou’s texts. If he did, he would realise that the Chinese situation and its rooted universals arise from a distinct historical rhythm and philosophical tradition, where Marxism has been transformed – or ‘sinified’ – in a Chinese context (makesizhuyi zhongguohua). Deng Xiaoping was not the first to propose this approach, for it comes from none other than Mao Zedong.