The Long Eighties

Still Life
From Still Life, Jia Zhangke, 2006. Courtesy of Richard Lormand Film Press Plus.

The Long Eighties

Spend time among the Chinese intelligentsia today and you’ll hear many frank expressions of nostalgia for the 1980s. “Our Eighties are like your Sixties,” someone inevitably will say — in other words, the moment when the possibility of tremendous political transformation flared up only to be extinguished, sending shocks of longing through the dark years that followed. It was an emancipatory era, at once joyous and deadly serious. An entire Chinese generation now describes itself as “post-’80s.” And there’s the detritus of kitsch, too: if the gleaming efficiency of the Shanghai subway system gets you down, you can buy postcards with photos of old ’80s buses, their riders masked by the thick square eyeglass frames once again popular in the West.

Unlike most ’60s nostalgia in the West, which is anodyne and decorative (and forgets, among other things, the influence of the Chinese Cultural Revolution on the American left), the Chinese ’80s still opens painful wounds. Much of the country’s predicament today can be traced to those years, when a mass movement for democracy coincided with a nascent capitalist economy, the mass movement frustrated, the economic juggernaut rolling on. Much of China’s future depends on which of these ’80s wins out, the democratic or the capitalist one, or whether they can be combined. In the aftermath of 1989 — with its successful revolutions against the Communist parties of Eastern Europe and its failed rebellion against the Communist Party ruling China — capitalism and democracy were, held, at least by most Westerners, to be natural and inevitable allies. This no longer seems so certain, in China or elsewhere.

Nothing testifies to the power of the Chinese ’80s like its total absence from official party discourse. A recent exhibit at the Beijing Capital Museum detailed the changing fortunes of Tiananmen Square, from its dusty, cramped beginnings in the Qing era to the wide, smog-choked expanse of the People’s Republic. Each year gets a photo. Years in the 1950s witness the appearance of a thin Chairman Mao above the entrance to the Forbidden City. Parades during the Great Leap Forward advertise impossible farming outputs: growth by 300, 400, 500 percent! By the years of the Cultural Revolution, the sea of little red books colors the pictures pink, and Mao has grown doughier, balder, his smile difficult to read, his hair ringing him like a halo. Your heart quickens as you reach the ’80s — 1985, 1986, 1987 . . . but the image for 1989 is small and quiet, focused on an arrangement of roses that spells out “1949–1989,” in honor of the fortieth anniversary of the People’s Republic. The square, appropriately enough, is empty.


Over two days in 1989, June 3 and 4, the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) was ordered by the Central Committee of the Politburo to clear Tiananmen Square of hundreds of thousands of democracy protesters. The army’s stolid brutality in executing this order left the fate of the country’s Open Door policy, introduced ten years before by Deng Xiaoping, momentarily in doubt. George H. W. Bush expressed “deep regret” over China’s actions and threatened to withdraw the US ambassador; the Italian Communist Party informed their comrades in Beijing that massacres have no place in a Communist movement; François Mitterrand issued a statement claiming that a country that shoots its young has no future. But Deng, who had emerged from retirement to crush the students, was unmoved. “This little tempest is not going to blow us over,” he declared with characteristic nonchalance in a Politburo meeting two days after the massacre. “We’re not trying to offend anybody; we’re just plugging away at our own work. Anybody who tries to interfere in our affairs or threaten us is going to come up empty.”

Deng’s confidence did not seem altogether warranted. By 1989, the market mechanisms he had introduced early in the decade were faltering. These measures initially benefited the struggling countryside. Farmers had been exploited under Mao, kept at or beneath subsistence in order to support urban workers. From 1956 to 1958 they suffered one of the great famines in history, caused by the forced collectivization of agriculture. Deng made things easier on farmers: the old rural communes were dismantled, and land redistributed among families. Not only did agricultural productivity rise, but farmers were allowed to sell at higher prices. Meanwhile the Chinese countryside prospered in other ways. Rural industrial collectives, producing such things as cement, fertilizer, iron, and farm tools, became known as “township and village enterprises” and were permitted to operate relatively free of central directives. With industrial and agricultural output rising together, rural Chinese began to make money. This led to a steady increase in rural incomes, diminishing the sizable wealth gap between city and country that had long characterized the People’s Republic.

Deng had approached reform with zeal and a “whatever works” improvisational attitude. A hardened veteran of the revolution, he had endured successive rounds of abuse and demotion from Mao, his close comrade on the Long March, which ended with Deng’s exile in 1969 to Jiangxi, where he toiled in a factory during the Cultural Revolution of the late 1960s and early ’70s — in theory an attempt by Mao to deepen the revolution by eliminating the Communist bureaucratic caste and curtailing the power of cultural elites, in practice an excuse for Mao to strengthen his hold over power while sanctioning social chaos and episodes of mob violence throughout the country. Deng became the object of mass derision, condemned in one lurid Red Guard poster after another. His son was pushed from a window by Red Guards, rendering him a paraplegic. It is an understatement to say that the experience scarred Deng. Much of his tenure as premier would be devoted to tamping down the political arguments and passions for which he had once been prepared to die. Deng watched millions starve to death during the Great Leap Forward; he also saw the Party bureaucracy scythed by the Cultural Revolution and its grotesque Mao cult. Perhaps most importantly, he had traveled — as an aged president visiting Jimmy Carter’s United States, where he was wowed by NASA; and also in the East, where he envied East Asian “Tigers” like Singapore, with its thriving authoritarian capitalism. What mattered to Deng in the end was wealth and practical expertise in getting it: things Maoism promised but delivered inconsistently. “It doesn’t matter if the cat is black or white, as long as it catches mice,” was one of his maxims, delivered in support of a pragmatic agricultural policy in 1961 and later recalled as a justification for abandoning certain aspects of the planned economy. But his anti-ideological approach concealed an unyielding commitment to the Communist Party and its unquestionable authority to carry out reforms free from democratic input. The success of growth-promoting reforms would bolster the authority of the Party, and the Party could therefore carry out more reforms.

These early reforms, focused on the countryside, boosted growth, but they were not enough. In 1985 the government shifted reform to the cities, beginning with the state-owned enterprises (SOEs) in urban industry. For a generation the SOEs had turned out goods according to a central plan, and “sold” them to the government at or near cost. This reserved the right of the central administration to determine the general tempo of productivity growth, and any possibility of a individual enterprise’s expansion. Now the running of SOEs was increasingly delegated to local managers, who were permitted to produce — and sell — beyond state quotas and retain much of the resulting profits. Many SOEs came, in other words, to resemble private businesses. At the same time, the government allowed the entry of small entrepreneurs into the industrial sector. Together the managers of the SOEs and the entrepreneurs formed a new bourgeoisie, encouraged by and often overlapping with the Communist Party. The corruption of party officials, previously minimal, also became extensive and blatant in the 1980s; many bought industrial goods at “plan” prices, at or below cost, and sold them on the open market. Rather than raising the incomes of the poor, as the rural reforms had done, the urban reforms produced garish inequality. The Communist Party recognized the poverty of Chinese workers as the country’s greatest asset. Before the 1980s, Chinese industry had been almost exclusively oriented toward domestic consumption: goods made in China mainly stayed in China. In the late ’80s this began to change, as a handful of “special economic zones”—cities accorded special tax and investment privileges — were established in coastal southern China, with the aim of producing exports for the global market. The world-beating competitiveness of these goods had everything to do with the cheapness of Chinese labor in comparison to that of industrial workers in the developed world. In 1986 Deng spoke of the need for political reform, heartening the intelligentsia, before reversing course and engaging in censorship and repression with renewed vigor. The antidemocratic push of 1987 to 1988 coincided with significant inflation, which erased the wage gains of urban dwellers.

By this point, nearly everyone was angry. Students brought their call for democracy and human rights to a fever pitch; economic liberals were upset by corruption and economic mismanagement; workers, devastated by inequality, increasingly recognized the official language of socialism — still enshrined in the Chinese constitution and ritually invoked by cadres — as pious nonsense. Only farmers, who continued to benefit from liberalization, remained content. Hu Yaobang, the Party general secretary and supporter of the reforms, was purged after being blamed for inspiring a wave of student protests in 1987; two years later he died, and on April 22, 1989, 50,000 students gathered in Tiananmen to perform an unofficial funeral — they had seen Hu as sympathetic to their cause — carrying with them a petition requesting a more official ceremony. Their petition was rebuffed, and so, having nowhere else to go, they stayed.

Like Solidarity in Poland — which inspired a great deal of fear in the upper levels of the Chinese Communist Party bureaucracy — the 1989 protesters challenged the legitimacy of the state by voicing liberal ideals that the Communist Party had proclaimed but found it convenient to forget: democratic representation, freedom of speech and assembly, an end to bureaucratic privilege. One portion of the movement wanted steps toward democracy without challenging the Party; another wanted the Party overthrown; and in both of these groups were those who wanted to see economic reform intensified. Viewed in the broadest sense, the movement was calling for democratization — for a broader section of the public to determine the country’s course.

But in retrospect (as the movement activist Wang Hui has argued) the movement’s aims appear contradictory in a way none of its participants were able to grasp fully at the time. The pressure the movement exerted on the Party created an opening through which the nascent capitalist class could push its own causes, such as further privatization and the expansion of temporary contracts. The heads of private companies, which had emerged after the reforms, cannily saw that the movement was right to challenge the Party’s monopoly on power; it was only wrong in thinking that the “people,” rather than the companies, should govern instead. This wing of the movement, which we would now recognize as “neoliberal,” also took to denouncing the left’s calls for social equality. Egalitarianism, they argued, was a rhetorical throwback to the bloodstained Cultural Revolution; one minute you’re calling for higher wages for workers, the next you’re calling on the young to kill the old. The students wanted democracy and equality, though they may have had trouble articulating exactly what this meant, while the neoliberals knew exactly what kind of “democracy” they wanted: the kind that would give capitalists more freedom to direct government policy. Recent Nobel Peace Prize winner Liu Xiaobo embodied these contradictions. One of the brave leaders of the student hunger strike at Tiananmen, he was also a lover of Hayek and an ardent defender of the sanctity of private property. The biggest contradiction, though, was the lingering one between city and country: the protests counted no rural participants among them. Deng recognized the lack of coordination between city and country. “The economy is still the base; if we didn’t have that economic base, the farmers would have risen in rebellion after only ten days of student protests — never mind a whole month. But as it is, the villages are stable all over the country, and the workers are basically stable too.”

It was the military, of course, and not political contradictions, that put an end to the movement of 1989. But rather than precipitating a crisis in China’s market reforms and threatening its improving international reputation, the brutal violence at Tiananmen would give these processes, and the Party’s role in them, an unexpected legitimacy. The movement was ultimately seen as threatening the stability of an emerging Chinese capitalism—“stability overrides everything” (wending yadao yiqie), Deng had said — and stability had no better guarantee than the heavy hand of the Party. The spontaneous alliance in Tiananmen between economic liberals and social democrats dissolved. The social democrats’ arguments were shunted into marginalized “aboveground” political journals, and those of the liberals (many of whom, as Liu Xiaobo himself would note, endured softer prison sentences than the average worker who participated in the protests) were repurposed by corporations, which found the shaken Party bureaucracy newly hospitable to their aims.

By 1991, at least 72,000 members of the Chinese Communist Party had been expelled. These were the officials seen as too sympathetic to the protesters; they also happened to be those who had pushed hardest for rural reform. Tiananmen had cracked the Party, as the students had hoped, but the crack was only wide enough to let in those who wanted to intensify economic reforms without instituting political reforms. The replacements for the softies were neither reformers nor hard-liners, but rather hard-line reformers, who would remake China as a haven for globalizing corporations. Since communism soon collapsed almost everywhere but China — thanks in part to the spirit of Tiananmen spreading across the globe — the failure of the 1989 movement would be interpreted as a mere hiccup in the neoliberal advance of free peoples and free markets. History was ending, and China would have to arrive at “liberal democracy” one way or another. China’s liberals knew better: property rights, let alone democracy, were still nowhere to be found. But their demands for more reforms and more thorough capitalist development lost force when the government simply took these demands on board, so to speak, by incorporating the capitalists themselves (private entrepreneurs, employees of foreign-funded firms, self-employed and freelance professionals) into the Party.

China not only failed to become more politically liberal (not a political single reform was undertaken in the 1990s), it also failed to become more economically liberal. In fact, in an important sense China’s economic liberalism was not liberal at all. As the economist and management theorist Huang Yasheng has documented in his important Capitalism with Chinese Characteristics, the direction of reforms shifted drastically after 1989. In place of the jettisoned rural reformers came technocrats from coastal cities, who sensed the possibilities latent in globalization. They shifted their attention to the cities, with foreign direct investment in business-friendly places like Shanghai becoming the preferred model. This was meant to solve the problems that plagued previous urban reforms: the state’s shedding of SOEs had increased unemployment and depleted workers’ buying power, but now the influx of foreign investors would more than make up for the shortfall. And it worked. Under the new Party–capitalist coordination model, China soon became the scene of the most extraordinary economic boom since Europe’s postwar reconstruction, posting GDP numbers that were the envy of everyone. Skyscrapers bloomed all along the coastline. A middle class developed distinctly uncommunist buying habits. Factories flooded unprotected markets with their cheap wares. The cities grew prosperous with pollution. On summer days you can hardly see from one end of Tiananmen to the other. Mitterrand was wrong, and Deng was right: a government that shot its young turned out to have the most promising future of all.


In the sphere of culture, too, the legacy of the 1980s has been ambiguous. The founding of the People’s Republic in 1949 did not stimulate the same outpouring of avant-garde art and literature that followed the Russian Revolution of 1917. China’s modernist moment had come earlier, during the crack-up and fall of its last imperial dynasty, out of which emerged a panoply of utopian visions and programs from reformers (including Communists) and a thorough renovation of the literary language by its greatest 20th-century writer, Lu Xun. A sarcastic excoriator of his country’s backwardness and conformist tendencies, Lu lived until the very cusp of the revolution, in principle committed to socialism but fearful of its costs to intellectual life.

His fears proved well founded. Upheld as the father of the country’s writers by Mao (himself an accomplished poet in classical Chinese), Lu would cast a long shadow over the increasingly barren field of writers in the early years of the People’s Republic; his habit of disturbing received doctrines became even less common in a doctrinaire time. Mao Zedong may have admired Lu Xun, but by the 1950s all that was left to anyone else was basically to admire Mao Zedong. A harsh pattern of repression and relaxation characterized the three decades of Mao’s tenure: relaxation during the “Hundred Flowers” era of 1957 (“Let one hundred flowers bloom, and a hundred schools of thought contend,” Mao proclaimed), followed by the repression of “rightists” who had been unwise enough to cultivate their garden; an opening in scientific research following the catastrophe of the Great Leap Forward (1958–61) was closed by the single-minded Mao adulation of the Cultural Revolution (1966–76). In the ’60s and ’70s, the universities were shut down, and Quotations from Chairman Mao—the “Little Red Book”—became the basic substance of literature. Theater was limited to model “Red” operas and theater; some of these works, such as the Red Detachment of Women ballet performed for visiting President Nixon, were in fact extraordinary in aesthetic quality. Ideologically, they suffered from a certain repetition compulsion, celebrating again and again the ideals of the Chinese Communist Party’s resistance to the Japanese invasion: stoicism, commitment, hatred of the class enemy.

The dampening of the Cultural Revolution, and Mao’s death in 1976, led to a period of uncertainty. Students, many of them still languishing on the farms to which they had been “sent down,” groped toward a different world. In 1978 Deng came to power, reopened the universities, and announced his reforms. The horizons of China were shifting away from the third world toward the first; away from “Red” culture toward culture in general. The ’80s continue to be the center of much art and thought in China, and the limitations and betrayals of that first period of hope continue to be remembered with pain, embarrassment, and most of all fondness. “We were in a state of extreme spiritual hunger,” wrote Liu Xiaobo. “Our thirst to absorb new ideas was so great that we devoured anything and everything, indiscriminately.” Yet memoirs of the ’80s disclose not a cultural plenty but a few endlessly recurring examples: the love songs of the Taiwanese chanteuse Teresa Teng, transmitted through smuggled Japanese radios and listened to in large groups late into the night; the rebelliously allusive and obscure poems — named the “Misty” school by their detractors — of the short-lived literary journal Jintian (Today), where Bei Dao’s famous lines from “The Answer” made their first appearance:

I came into this world
Bringing only paper, rope, a shadow,
To proclaim before the judgment
The voice that has been judged:
Let me tell you, world,
I — do — not — believe!
If a thousand challengers lie beneath your feet,
Count me as number one thousand and one.

The effect of poetry like this was galvanizing. “Belief,” once enforced by a centralized doctrine, had given way to open and liberating disbelief. “Between the hazy lines of Misty poetry,” wrote Lijia Zhang in Socialism is Great!, her memoir of the ’80s, “the dignity of individualism and self-expression were clearly being restored.”

The Party encouraged exposure of the horrors of the Cultural Revolution: the physical humiliation of “capitalist roaders,” the lost years of students “sent down” to the countryside. Many Party members, especially Deng, had viewed it as a colossal mistake back when it was happening, but now, as China entered the world economy, there was a new reason to denounce the past: to do so served as a kind of loyalty oath to Western modernity. “Scar” literature and cinema, which told the stories of people traumatized by Red Guard violence, proliferated under official sanction. Less heralded were the debates, in newly formed journals, on nontraditional subjects. Translations of Georg Lukács’s Marxist writings inspired a wide-ranging discussion of the concept of “alienation,” and whether such a thing could be said to exist in a socialist society like China’s. Kant and Rousseau became important figures for a group of writers advocating a “New Enlightenment,” who attempted to trace a path toward Western modernization that recent Chinese politics had abandoned.

All these thoughts, currents, and dreams came to a head in Tiananmen in 1989. A protest and an encampment, Tiananmen seemed to offer a glimmer of an alternative society: one characterized by open and often endless debate over all aspects of everyday life. But beyond that there was confusion. The question was not whether people wanted reform or not; the question was what kind of reform they wanted. The answers differed — from students who wanted liberal constitutional rights to workers (sometimes excluded from the protests by the students) who sought better social guarantees. The movement, unable to debate or proclaim its goals publicly, could not pose its questions clearly. The lasting Western image of the protests — noble individuals arrayed against the tyranny of the state, wanting market and democratic freedoms — minimized the complex relationship many protesters had with the Communist Party and with socialism in general.

From outside one saw the brinksmanship of hunger strikes, the erection of the “Goddess of Democracy,” the panoply of red flags, banners declaring “All Power Belongs to the People,” students’ heads circled by white bandannas. But inside there was also tension and tedium, as the students became pawns in a power struggle within the government over what to do. “Why do we have to use such boring methods?” complains one of the students in Ma Jian’s Beijing Coma (2008). “There are more exciting ways of resisting violence than sitting on the ground!” Between the declaration of martial law and the crackdown lay fourteen days of waiting; then deep into the night of June 3, the PLA stopped firing their guns into the sky and trained them horizontally. The government has since claimed no one died on the square. Testimonies from In Search of the Victims of June Fourth suggest otherwise:

Chen Renxing, a 25-year-old student at People’s University, was about to withdraw from the square when a random shot felled him. He collapsed at the base of the flagpole that faces Tiananmen.

Dai Jinping, a 27-year-old MA student at Beijing Agricultural University, was shot to death around 11 PM on June 3, 1989, right beside the Mao Zedong Memorial Hall.

The crash of a hundred million hopes led to soul-searching, the inevitable flurry of recriminations, and hurried flights into exile. An enduring wave of disappointment inundated intellectual life; even the PLA suffered a steep drop in morale, suggesting that deep guilt followed their enforcement of martial law. Meanwhile Chinese growth rates began to skyrocket — as the industrial growth and international relations that China invested in throughout the second half of the ’80s began to yield plum contracts from American textile and sneaker manufacturers, if not yet Apple and IBM — and the choices facing Chinese artists and intellectuals began to change.


The contradictory legacy of the 1980s can be seen in a single artist’s career. Born in 1970, Jia Zhangke is often called one of the greatest filmmakers alive. The most famous of the so-called “sixth generation” of Chinese directors (grouped together because they attended the same film school around the same time), his early works departed from the Zhang Yimou style of epic costume drama — the international face of Chinese cinema in the ’90s — to examine marginal lives in his native Shanxi province. In a country where everything was happening, these were towns where nothing happened, places ambitious people left to go to Beijing, Shanghai, or elsewhere. The third of his “hometown” movies, Unknown Pleasures (2002), told the story of two would-be gangsters, unemployably arch and melancholy, too self-conscious even to live the enjoyable low life on offer, but perennially aware of the presence of real money entering the country. In love with a C-list pop performer and inspired by Tarantino’s Pulp Fiction, they attempt to rob a bank to impress her and get arrested. Like others in his generation, Jia developed a meditative, lingering camera style, focusing on empty scenes or repetitive actions long past the point of comfort, as if he were always waiting for something to turn up.

Jia’s second and best film, Platform (2000), narrated the history of a Maoist theater troupe as it endured the humiliations of privatization in the 1980s. The theater troupe, which once performed Cultural Revolution classics about the life of Mao, devolves into an Allstars Rock and Breakdance Electronic Band and then gradually falls apart under its own failure. Both faintly nostalgic for the transition era of Chinese socialism and full of longing for an impossible future, Platform captured the promise that the ’80s generation once felt — along with its constant boredom, its desire for a quicker, deeper life, its sense of waiting for some messianic moment that would never come. (“The long and empty platform/ the wait seems never-ending” run the lyrics of the kitsch ’80s love song that gives Platform its title.) Scattered throughout Jia’s films were stories about more traditionally working-class people — miners, construction workers — who found plentiful but extremely unsafe work in the new China. While his middle-class characters were often self-indictments, each careless death of a worker, suffocated by a gas leak or buried by a caved-in mine, indicted the deregulation of state enterprises, and, implicitly, the government’s failure to protect the people. For this reason his films were distributed underground, without approval.

A number of Jia’s fellow underground filmmakers felt deeply betrayed when Jia began to seek government approval for his films. His first sanctioned effort, The World (2004), was an excellent parable of globalization, about a theme park of world monuments; aside from the superior production values, you wouldn’t have known anything had changed. But by the time he released 24 City (2008), the costs of complicity were clear. A mix of documentary and fiction, the film covered the transformation of the Chengfa factory from a military aircraft producer into a luxury condominium complex. So far, so good — except the film was financed by the developers of the complex. Jia’s usual themes (and talent) were on display: nostalgia for the socialist past, the irrepressible forward motion of China’s modernization and its disregard for spatial and environmental constraints. But the anger and ambivalence had vanished, replaced by seeming reverence for luxury and affluence. At the end of the film, the young heroine, a child of Chengfa workers who has returned with an art historian’s degree to become a luxury shopper for the local nouveaux riches, weeps with joy at the thought of buying a condo for her parents — in the factory where they once worked! “I can do it,” she concludes through her tears, “I’m the daughter of a worker.” The affirmation is bizarre, suggesting continuity, rather than violent disruption, between the tough world of her parents and the luxury blitz of the present. But it also reportedly caused many audience members to burst into tears themselves. Despite charges of commercialism from fellow filmmakers, Jia continues to insist on his artistic integrity. Among his latest projects is a film sponsored by Johnnie Walker.


Writers, like filmmakers, face the problem of accommodation: each major city in China has a “writers’ association,” which guarantees an income to writers who produce a certain quota of words every year. Other options include compromising one’s writing to achieve “bestseller consciousness” (changxiao yishi), or boxing oneself into an experimental “modernist consciousness” (xiandai yishi). Some, like Ha Jin and Ma Jian, leave China altogether. Liao Yiwu, the great interviewer of Chinese society’s lowlifes and castoffs, has fled to Germany; Liu Xiaobo, the country’s most famous liberal, languishes in prison. A startling number of recent breakout books have been urban sex novels, along the lines of Sex and the City. But writers who have found both respect and commercial success have tended to look for their stories in the countryside, and in the movement of migrant workers to the factories of the southern cities — far beyond the spaceship towers of the Shanghai skyline and the endless expanse of hermetic Beijing compounds. A few of these — among them, the recent Nobel Prize winner Mo Yan — have been widely translated. Some are too acute in their depictions of state violence and deprivation to get past censors, but enough make it, or circulate in samizdat or in editions pirated from Hong Kong and Taiwan, to give readers a vivid picture of the underbelly of the new China. Western recognition can help. Mo Yan’s The Garlic Ballads (1988), an extraordinary novel full of loving encomia to the Chinese countryside, was initially banned for its depiction of corruption by local cadres; later, as Mo’s fame grew abroad, it was republished with state approval.

As in other Communist countries, there are avowedly dissident writers, and the grandest of them is Liu Xiaobo. With his recent coronation in the West as China’s leading oppositionist, older anticommunist figures have been conveying the sense that they are passing the torch from an earlier generation. Vaclav Havel contributed the foreword to a recent translation of his essays; the Dalai Lama did the same for his June Fourth Elegies, a book of poems commemorating the Tiananmen massacre. The praise centers around Liu’s “moral passion.” One writer claims that, like Havel before him, he “lives in truth.” This may be true enough, but it’s also a hand-me-down that eludes Liu’s real complexities. A man of letters in the old-fashioned sense — disseminating ideas through whatever form he finds convenient — his style is unexpectedly sarcastic, sometimes unstable, veering constantly between rhetorical and emotional extremes and rarely shying from obscenities. His Tiananmen elegies are not especially successful as poetry, but they are impressive monuments of political rage:

Refuse to eat
refuse to masturbate
pick a book out of the ruins
and admire the humility of the corpse
in a mosquito’s innards
dreaming blood-dark dreams
peer through the steel door’s peephole
and converse with vampires
no need to be circumspect
your stomach spasms
will give you the courage of the dying
retch out a curse
for fifty years of glory
there has never been a New China
only a Party.

At the same time, he represents a distinctly different brand of dissident from the Walesas and Havels of the past. Their veiled neoliberalism made a certain rough sense in countries decaying under state socialism; Liu, by contrast, advocates a harder laissez-faire line in a country that has already made substantial moves toward capitalism. He rarely has a harsh word for America, and has expressed his support and admiration for a number of violent American adventures: Afghanistan, Iraq, even Korea and Vietnam. And yet, despite a certain convergence between his economic opinions and those of the government, Liu remains one of the government’s highest-profile enemies. He has been jailed several times for his activities and opinions, most infamously on the day he was to accept the Nobel in Oslo, and has become a cause célèbre across the world.

Meanwhile the Chinese “New Left”—a loose assemblage of intellectuals that formed around the journal Dushu (Readings)—occupies the opposite position. The “New Left” is highly opposed to the country’s economic direction, yet its members are not only not in jail, but in some cases socially affiliated with the government. Its leading figure, Beijing-based intellectual historian and social theorist Wang Hui, has criticized intellectuals like Liu for remaining fundamentally unopposed to the neoliberal direction of the country. Wang argues that while China has the opportunity to craft an “alternative modernity,” a form of social democracy opposed to the creeping of market logic into every corner of existence, Chinese liberals simply accept a teleology of modernity that basically resembles America — a model that is visibly failing. Not that Wang is in fact against markets. On the contrary, following Braudel’s distinction between markets and capitalism, Wang argues that “a critique of an actual market society and its crises cannot be equated with repudiation of the mechanisms of market competition, as the principal task of critical intellectuals is to disclose the antimarket mechanisms within market society and to bring to bear a democratic and socialized conception of markets to counter the antimarket logic of actual market society.” Wang espouses, in other words, a kind of market socialism, which would preserve competition on a local, small-scale level, in contrast to China’s rather ostentatious collusion of government and business.

Unlike Liu, Wang has managed to stay aboveground and out of prison. (Though he is no longer editor-in-chief, Readings was and is published with state approval.) He teaches frequently in the US, and outside China his writing — unfailingly intelligent, though dense and laborious where Liu is fleet and lucid — has been best received among left-wing English and American academics, who are naturally skeptical of the liberals. (The liberals, meanwhile, attract the attention of everyone else.) Part of the reason Wang stays out of jail is the attitude he and his comrades display toward the political scene. Where Liu sees generalized abjection and totalitarianism, Wang and his collaborators see hope for criticism and a margin of openness in the political atmosphere. But they may be kidding themselves. The recent government has been in the habit of adopting “New Left” rhetoric while doing little to prosecute its aims. High-placed officials speak unctuously about equality and the continuing project of socialism, while silently (but blatantly) cultivating their relations with factory owners and financiers.


For the past thirty years, Chinese pop music has been a vehicle for the political moods of the young. The ’80s especially were a haven for the union of schlock and protest, after years of nothing but Red songs (and the occasional Bollywood hit). Straight love songs like “Platform,” and those of Teresa Teng, could crystallize in a few bars the hopes of an entire generation. The heavily orchestrated strings and breathy, pliant voices, heard at the right time, stayed with people their entire lives. (“‘Platform’ is . . . the very first rock-and-roll song I ever heard,” Jia Zhangke wrote. “For me, that song represents a key to unlock my memories of the ’80s. . . . I always loved the title of that song, which captures the exhaustion and sadness of life.”) The genius of Chinese rock in the ’80s was to convert erotic and commercial satisfactions into the politics they were already on the verge of becoming. Most famous in this regard was Cui Jian, the “godfather” of Chinese rock, whose anthem “Nothing to My Name” was an allegory of lost youth after the Cultural Revolution posing as a love song. It was popular among the 1989 protesters, sharing aural space in Tiananmen Square with the Internationale. It had the symbolic heft of one of Bruce Springsteen’s songs but was about a political landscape more abstract than the deindustrializing mid-Atlantic. Anguished and macho, filled with ominous silences, straining gutturally to land its notes, “Nothing to My Name” had an emotional resonance that overlapped with listeners’ political yearnings. It helped, too, that pop music on the Chinese mainland was still a novelty, not yet consolidated into a soul-crushing industry.

Post-Tiananmen repression, and the renewed push for globalization, changed all that. As the Chinese economy accelerated, the divide between commercial pop and underground cred widened. Mando- and Cantopop, which came from Taipei and Hong Kong (with Shanghai an emerging third center) kept the kitsch and consumer ethos but discarded the politics; a popular heavy metal band called Tang Dynasty, which sometimes mixed in traditional Chinese instruments, exemplified a new, conservative nationalism. Meanwhile a network of rock clubs in Beijing maintained an intransigent and marginal subculture (subsidized, in some cases, by Western émigrés), with angry noise rock and introverted post-punk strumming sounding the dominant mood. The post-Tiananmen era in Chinese underground rock is audible in a recent cultish (and, sadly, dissolved) band, Carsick Cars, who in their simple hit from 2007, “Zhongnanhai”—built around a repeating, vaguely danceable five-chord melody of grinding guitar distortion — numbly lament a favorite brand of cigarettes:

Zhongnanhai, Zhongnanhai . . . Zhongnanhai, Zhongnanhai
Zhongnanhai, Zhongnanhai . . . I only smoke Zhongnanhai
Zhongnanhai, Zhongnanhai . . . I can’t live without Zhongnanhai
Zhongnanhai, Zhongnanhai . . . who fucking smoked my Zhongnanhai?

The sentiment and sound are reminiscent of the microtonal Sonic Youth that once sang, “Takes a teenage riot to get me out of bed right now” at the end of the American 1980s, broadcasting a worldview at once political and resigned. Lost on few Chinese listeners is the fact that “Zhongnanhai” is also the name of the main government compound in Beijing. “Zhongnanhai” becomes the name of the consumer object, and also the institution that guarantees consumption — the sense of freedom in smoking, and the imprisonment of addiction. But the gap between political allegory and blank desire remains. Is it really a song about the government, which the singer “can’t live without”? Or does the endless verse promise nothing but a cycle of consumption — smoking, loving cigarettes, abjectly needing more? “Zhongnanhai” remakes the special hybrid of the ’80s. Rather than a coded title, the song gets an obviously political one; but the point of politics may turn out just to be to buy more stuff.


The China depicted by its artists is different from the one depicted by the Western press. In a society renowned for its dynamism, China’s artists mostly lament industrial decline, vacuous overconsumption, and political stasis; in cities bursting with new residents, the intelligentsia is skeptical and involutionary. In the country that most Americans see as the future, whose economy is widely and erroneously believed to have already overtaken that of the US, one encounters many expressions of national self-doubt, even despair. This might simply be a reaction to the self-satisfaction that attends garish economic growth. But it also suggests a deep recognition, among activists and intellectuals, that the current Chinese path is unsustainable.

To find the clearest expressions of this recognition, one must go underground. There, among filmmakers whose work never reaches the censors’ eyes, the impulses of the protesting ’80s have been preserved, its concerns amplified. Since the early ’90s, China’s left-wing documentary movement has served up harsh, unpalatable stories from the New China: thousands of factory workers jettisoned into unemployment; residents of rural towns forcibly uprooted, the streets where their homes once stood flooded by newly dammed rivers; peasants’ grievance petitions denied day after day by unfeeling courts. Sustained by surreptitious internet circulation and local screenings by cinephile groups across the country, these messages from the dispossessed spread.

Among a host of excellent documentaries — including one by Jia Zhangke, Dong (2006), about a painter living in a village about to be inundated by the Three Gorges Dam — two masterpieces stand out. Wang Bing’s West of the Tracks (2003) is a monumental chronicle (nine hours long) of the lives of factory workers in China’s rust belt who are being forced into unemployment. The other, Zhao Liang’s Petition (2009), sums up Liang’s thirteen-year effort to document the fates of rural Chinese seeking legal redress in Beijing for abuses by cadres. These filmmakers, and others like them, commit to living with and exploring family and worker dynamics over many years; they expose themselves to the possibility that the story they are looking to tell will disappear, or that no story will emerge at all. In their hands, filmmaking becomes a kind of listening, an art of silence and slow time, in which days go by without apparent consequence: another part of the factory is dismantled; another petition rebuffed. Yet this is precisely what makes these films a form of resistance. They record not the extraordinary event of a mass demonstration, but the slow wearing away of proletarian identity. The filmmaker becomes analogous with his subject in his willingness to contest, to hear and make oneself heard. Above all, he stays in place; he waits it out.

These two films refract the best analysis of recent Chinese history, Ching Kwan Lee’s extraordinary Against the Law: Labor Protests in China’s Rustbelt and Sunbelt. Based on her fieldwork in the deindustrializing north and on the transnational corporations that set up shop in the south, Lee’s book examines the logic of labor protest in the old and new China. The older members of the working class, like those depicted in West of the Tracks, revive the Maoist language of fraternity and solidarity that the state is betraying; younger workers in the south use China’s new labor laws to lodge their claims, like the protesters in Petition. If West of the Tracks shows the dissolution of one political identity, Petition shows the birth of another. Chinese law was erected to harness and contain protest, but it has proven instead to be a weapon in the hands of younger people who, contrary to the government’s expectations, have come to understand it. In strikes throughout the south, workers demand legally promised wage rates, pensions, and overtime pay. If their petitions stall in court or are summarily dismissed, they often take to wildcat strikes or machine sabotage. The number of labor petitions brought to local bureaus was 78,000 in 1994; by 2003, it had jumped to 800,000. Meanwhile incidents of labor unrest have grown from 10,000 in 1993 to 87,000 in 2005 — which was the last time the government released figures. (A leaked report from 2008 revealed an official count of 127,000.)

Another looming change may contribute to the country’s instability. At the time of this writing, the Chinese government is going through a once-in-a-generation transfer of power as the president and premier step down. Even if the transition continues to be orderly, it will be marred by the spectacular downfall of Bo Xilai, the party’s former chief in Chongqing, who was recently implicated in the murder of a British businessman named Neil Heywood. Bo had become notorious for leading mass revivals of Great Leap Forward– and Cultural Revolution–era performances and songs, and these displays weren’t mere show; under Bo’s leadership, Chongqing strove to diminish inequality through housing provisions and infrastructural development. In 2009 Bo launched a highly publicized campaign to fight organized crime and corruption; in 2010 he began promoting plans to give rural migrants more access to urban welfare benefits. He encouraged a relative amount of open debate and participation. Chongqing in 2010 began to bring back memories of Beijing in 1987. As a consequence, internal ill will against him seemed to grow; many politicians felt he had become too proud for his own good. What happened next remains murky: this February, Bo’s chief of police sought asylum in the US consulate; he left a day later in Chinese custody. Online rumors — the basic substance of Chinese politics for ordinary citizens — proliferated, suggesting Bo had had a power struggle with his police chief, or, worse, had attempted a coup. Websites disseminating these rumors were shut down. A day later, Bo was fired. His wife confessed (truthfully or not) to planning Heywood’s murder, and is expected to serve at least nine years in prison. Bo’s own trial is upcoming. But the political message has been sent: an editorial in the Party-run Guangming Daily declared that with Bo gone, there was no longer any fear of the Cultural Revolution returning.

This language was code. In China, “Cultural Revolution” has become a byword for any kind of mass activity — in other words, for the terror of Tiananmen. To talk about the Sixties is to talk about the Eighties. Attempts to revive the era of Mao raise images of the era of Deng; workers’ songs suggest democracy protests. The memory of what happened in Tiananmen and elsewhere, in cities and squares now ringed with silence, refuses to go. Outside the city walls, on the outskirts, in the factories, the number of disturbances mounts. Often these are put down, the people’s grievances dismissed. The Party’s fear is what may happen when one day the people are turned back, but they choose, instead, to stay.

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