Not all Chinese intellectuals belong to the party-state establishment, or toe the mass line. Although open dissent in Tibet is not tolerated, in Beijing there is open debate on many matters, and polite but persistent disagreement with official policies on many issues. Yet, when it comes to Tibet, even the dissident intellectuals, who critique contemporary China, fall back into conventional views.

Bold voices in Beijing continue to dissent from the compulsory mass line of a party that once championed the revolts of the masses as legitimating its’ own revolutionary uprising. Having succeeded in seizing power, the revolutionary party thereafter insisted that its “mass line” is forever after the embodiment of the will of the masses, including the Tibetan masses. Uprisings such as that of the villagers of the Jinsha River just below Tibet are the nightmare of a deeply institutionalised party-state that above all fears “mass incidents” that portend a threat to the stability required for the elite to continue, uninterrupted, with their wealth accumulation.

A star of new leftish thinking is Wang Hui, who also has a global audience, since he has read all the theorists of globalisation, the social theorists famous worldwide, whose writings are these days all available in Chinese translation. Enormously erudite, Wang Hui himself is on the global lecture circuit, offering a distinctively Chinese perspective on the debates on capitalism, and how the contemporary world works. A harbinger of things to come, Wang Hui is a global intellectual celebrity, welcome in  seminar rooms everywhere for offering a challenging fresh take on familiar debates on topics such a modernity, globalisation, capitalism and the nation-state. His 2014 lectures during his visiting professorship at Goldmsiths College, London, are livestreamed, a sure sign that China can produce its own brands of intellectual star.

Wang Hui is interesting, too, because he has not simply ignored Tibet, as many Chinese intellectuals do. He has written much about Tibet, both a sympathetic reflection on Tibetan environmentalists campaigning against hydro dams, and a lengthy dismissal of the Tibetan protests since 2008. That essay, 90 pages long in English translation, has attracted little attention from Tibetans, but does much to explain the deep seated obstacles to any meaningful dialogue between Tibetans and Chinese.

Like so many of China’s leading intellectuals, seeking, through their guoxue or “national  learning” to save China by reviving concepts that Confucius himself thought of as antique, Wang Hui’s voluminous rereadings of ancient texts unsettle familiar dualisms without advancing new alternatives. Wang is a textual scholar, a professor of language and literature. The present moment in China is his overriding concern, yet there is no investigation of it, only the grandest of generalisations, and a selective light of the past directed onto the present.

In a party-state which in 2013 made a point of officially banning all discussion of past mistakes of the party,[1] it is understandable that Wang Hui, for all his researches and writings, has only achieved one half of the task he set himself, to investigate the origins, in China and the west, and likely futures of two key modern concepts: science and democracy. Wang’s work on China’s embrace of “Mr. Science” as one of its saviours is deeply illuminating. Understandably, he has not yet felt the time is right to explore with equal depth China’s need for “Mr. Democracy.”

But the external pressure to avoid critiquing the absence, in China, of a self-conscious, mobilised, organised, articulate, citizenry and civil society –the key elements of actual democracy; added to Wang’s reticence and inconclusiveness, leave a big gap, which the social sciences could be expected to fill. Wang fruitfully hints at what might be discovered. He suggests that China today is creating modernisation without modernity. This is a cryptic suggestion, which could readily become a research agenda for both political science and economics, both of which struggle –in places beyond China where such open struggle is possible- to depict the dynamics of today’s China.

The dilemma is readily expressed. On one hand, China is booming, wealth accumulation is accelerating, entrepreneurs have unparalleled opportunity, and the Market-friendly reforms announced by Xi Jinping late in 2013 are intended to allow market forces to become the drivers. Yet on the other hand China remains highly repressive, the party-state fixated on command and control, ruthlessly quelling dissent, and with state-owned enterprises dominant, and given favoured treatment. Neoliberal orthodoxy suggests private enterprise is the engine of growth and prosperity, not a heavy governmental hand addicted to social engineering, the agglomeration of favoured SOEs into national champions, the state picking and choosing its favoured winners. Today’s China seems to be both neoliberal and a profound contradiction of neoliberalism. Equally, China cannot be dismissed as totalitarian, dirigiste, a monolith of state control. So what is it?

Wang Hui has a simple answer, characteristic of his usual move, when faced with a seeming dichotomy, which is to exclude neither and lean to including them both. The repressive regime clamping down on “mass incidents” and popular protest is the essential precondition, he suggests, for the primitive accumulation of wealth by an elite of bureaucratically well-connected entrepreneurs, and entrepreneurial bureaucrats. In this sense, China achieves modernisation: fast rates of growth and wealth accumulation monopolised by an elite, massive state-led investment in the infrastructure of modernisation, while the masses remain poor, and without an adequate welfare system or social safety net. Political repression holds back modernity, an active participant citizenry advocating their interests, and renegotiating their identities, as modernity steps the individual out of the shadows of the ancestors. Thus we have modernisation without modernity. This could be a substantive research agenda for the social sciences, but that is not politically possible. Wang himself has little opportunity to develop this further, and no inclination to do so by fieldwork.

To proponents of the vaguely defined “China Dream”, the party-state’s mass line insists that this is the best of times, wherein China comes to realise its dream of modernity, prosperity and global eminence. However there is in China a liberal new left, highly critical of China’s embrace of state capitalism, with its corruption, monopolies, primitive accumulation, concentrations of wealth in the hands of a few, bloating inequality and contempt for the masses silenced by the coercive power of the state. Despite the censorship and repression, these leftish intellectuals continue to speak up, and critique the obscene rush to get rich, while exploiting the excluded. Yet on the new left, a patriotic insistence that global norms do not apply to China is as strong as among the insiders of the party-state who are busily getting rich.

Wang Hui is not a leftist in the sense of nostalgia for the good old revolutionary days under Mao. But his skepticism about today’s China extends only so far: in many ways he remains a conventional patriot, with conventional views about the inviolably sovereign Chinese nation-state, China’s transition from dynastic empire to modern nation-state, and the role of minority nationalities. Not only does he follow convention, as a renowned historian of philosophy, he has come up with lengthy and ingenious new arguments for closing Chinese minds to Tibetan calls for breathing space.

To achieve this, Wang Hui takes his usual roundabout route, displaying at length that he has read and digested everything ever written, before gradually arriving at the present. In the case of the Tibetans, this requires a lengthy excavation of what European philosophers said about Tibetan Buddhism centuries ago, which of course was largely nonsense. This excursus through the history of European ideas might seem entirely irrelevant to an understanding of the pain of today’s Tibetans, yet the Tibetan uprising of 2008 and how China should respond is Wang Hui’s ultimate objective, in an essay of 90 pages.

Wang selectively overlooks the ways the greatest of European philosophers of the 18th and 19th centuries mistook Tibetan Buddhism, and Buddhism generally, as a gloomy, other-worldly faith emphasising only the suffering of existence and the bliss of non-existence. He instead accentuates the positive. Gradually Wang Hui moves forward, always looking at Tibet through western eyes, filled with romantic fantasies, arriving, in Zurich at the turn of this millennium, at an exhibition of the fantastic western imaginary of Tibet, painstakingly assembled by leading contemporary European deconstructionists seeking to debunk the Shangri-la romanticism.

But to Wang Hui this is final proof that Tibet is a figment of western imagination, as are western concerns about contemporary human rights in Tibet. Dreamworld Tibet, the 2000-01  Zurich exhibition of utopian and dystopian fantasies of Tibet, western and Chinese, was assembled in order to clear space for Tibetans to represent themselves, but Wang Hui takes it as an opportunity dismiss all nonChinese voices, leaving the way open for an exhaustive reprise of Chinese imperial annalists on Tibet as a tributary of China.

This is Wang Hui’s characteristic move, surveying comprehensively what the west has said on any topic, only to dismiss it all as Eurocentric,  in favour of the unique contribution available from Chinese tradition, as interpreted by Wang, with ingenious novelty. Wang dismisses the idea that China’s 20th and 21st century tasks in Tibet are to turn an 18th century empire into a modern nation-state in which everyone identifies as a citizen of a unitary state that transcends ethnicity. The dichotomy of empire and nation-state he dismisses as just another western dualism that does not apply to China, which has for a thousand years shown every sign of being a nation-state, since the times of the Song dynasty. Drawing on Japanese analyses done at the height of Japan’s imperial advance, Wang suggests that the Song dynasty “uses economic rule as the base of centralized authority and was the first dynasty in which a ruler governs the myriad people in a unified manner. The results of this economic centralization would be an extremely solid legacy for later dynasties. The decline of an aristocratic culture and its replacement with a mature prefectural system, namely a system of absolute centralization and a bureaucracy, which greatly influenced political culture and made it different from that of the Han and Tang dynasties because the Song government standardized the imperial examinations, which gave rise to a new class of gentry and bureaucrats.”[2]

To Wang Hui, the distinction made between empire and nation-state is meaningless, just another Eurocentric claim to superiority that has no basis. “The dichotomy formed within the narrative of European world and political history between the so-called ‘empires’ and ‘nation-states’ was in reality a theory to legitimize the European nation-state. What I really wish to do is to break down this dualism, and to negate the dualistic relation. Neither do I see the transition between empire and nation-state as a necessary condition for the transformation into political modernity; I would not describe the problem in this way.”[3]

China’s leaders over the past century and more have all felt it was essential to adopt the western model of the nation-state, as a way of regaining national strength and a sovereign place in the world for China. Yet to Wang those Chinese Republicans and Marxists were pursuing a goal that required only reasserting the achievements of Song China 1000 years ago, since “the seeds of modernity already existed”, under the Song “system built around a core of imperial authority, the prime minister, and the civil service [which] was a highly rationalized state system.” The Japanese too felt the need to build a strong state, and so did the Japanese scholars of the 1930s on whom Wang relies for discovering the modern state in China a millennium ago. So Wang then quickly parts ways with the Japanese, critiquing “the opposition they constructed between empire and nation-state according to the framework of European world history.” This European idea, Wang says, is to be repudiated because empires fail to accord formal equal sovereign relations to other nations, “instead being characterized by relations of tribute and a hierarchical structure of social relations.” By contrast, the nation-state, at least legally, “is formally defined by relations of equality within the nation-state system.” It is this dualism Wang is keen to dismantle as yet another European imposition on the world, but he refuses to categorise China as either.

To Tibetans, the distinction matters. China, at its fullest imperial stretch, under the Manchu nomad rulers, the Qing dynasty, in the 18th century, controlled Tibet, which had to pay tribute. But during the 18th, and 19th centuries, up until the mid 20th century, there was no attempt by China to actually govern, to change or intervene in ground realities in Tibet, to establish the modern system of  “economic rule as the base of centralized authority in which a ruler governs the myriad people in a unified manner.” That is exclusively the project of the Chinese Communist Party.  China under the CCP was determined to achieve was the assimilation of Tibet into a unified nation-state with secure borders, a loyal population and all imperial influence driven out.

Converting an empire into a nation-state was of the highest importance to the party-state, and remains an unfinished agenda, especially in Tibet. To Tibetans, the distinction between empire and nation-state is crucial. Wang Hui dismisses the drive to create the modern, unitary nation-state as a Eurocentric teleology, but it remains a teleology, a destiny prescribed for Tibet, that has driven CCP policy for its 65 years in power.

China felt it must become a recognisable nation-state, recognised by the other nation-states, in order to stand up and regain sovereignty. The nation-state, by the time China grew determined to repulse the western imperialists, at the end of the 19th century, had become a necessity, and in its strongest form, the unitary nation-state with no concessions made to federalism or autonomous minority ethnicities. It took a century to realise the vision of the unitary state, in which ethnicity is no longer a collectivity, a nation with collective claims, within the nation-state, but is merely an individual choice of identity, as a member of a chosen ethnic group.

Empires make no such claims. Empires contain the raw and the cooked, a jumble of ethnicities, the conquered, unassimilated peoples who often have quite different legal systems and gods of their own. China has often accommodated such difference, and often been itself ruled by outsiders, notably the nomads of the north, the Mongols for a century, and later the Manchu for two and half centuries. As Wang Hui says, “empires understand both sides of borders or the various frontiers as their own”. They are fluid, opportunistic, expanding when circumstances are favourable.

Why does Wang Hui dismiss this highly useful distinction between empire and nation-state? Because it is a western invention, and some western theorists have added a teleology, in which the nation-state becomes the highest form of government, a melding of territory and culture, thus the highest stage of human social evolution.  Hence it is to be rejected. The idea of empire is a manifestation of western imperialism.


But there is more to Wang Hui than nativist reprise of versions of Confucianism. He did not come out with his elaborate insistence on Tibet as a tributary of China, and Tibetan protest as a phenomenon of western romanticism, until the events of 2008, months before the Beijing Olympics, forced him to declare his patriotism. Prior to that, he wrote an unusually warm, uncomplicated story celebrating his friendship with young  Bai and Tibetan minzu intellectuals, and his involvement in their successful  campaign to persuade China’s highest leaders to cancel a plan to hydro dam one of the most beautiful rivers, within a UNESCO World Heritage area. This essay appears in English in a collection of his 2004-08 writings, and seems to have not had publication in Chinese.[4]

The essay is a tribute to the “Son of the Jinsha River”, the activist Xiao Liangzhong, who died young, exhausting himself in his round the clock campaigning to mobilise communities against the construction of a hydro dam across the Jinsha (upper Yangtze)  at  Hutiao Xia or Tiger Leaping Gorge in 2004, not far below the areas designated officially as Tibetan Autonomous Counties.

Wang Hui, then editor of the liberal Dushu journal, had published  a 2001 ethnographic piece by Xiao, and they had met. Wang published more by the energetic young anthropologist, but, he says, never found time to take a look at a novel Xiao wrote. As the campaign against the dam gathered strength, a Tibetan scholar Ma Jianzhong, recruited Xiao to join, and they organised a symposium in the prefectural capital of the Tibetan portion of Yunnan province, Zhongdian, later renamed Shangri-la (Shang-er-li-la) to attract tourists. The symposium, an attempt at framing the hydro debate on Tibetan terms, was called “Tibetan Cultural and Ecological Diversity.”

Xiang recruited the famous editor into his world, persuading him to stay, in Zhongdian, in Xiao’s family home, during the symposium. There Wang discovered the modern Tibetan academy, authors of encyclopaedic Tibetan histories, erudite Tibetan monks who had come from Qinghai, and, from Beijing, “Mr Zhambei Gyaltsho, a colleague of mine from the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences who as in the Institute of Ethnic Literature. I was part of the Institute of Literature, and purely due to this separation, we had never met.”

In this region of many nationalities, with Han Chinese the newcomers, the Tibetans of the upriver  uplands made a strong, inclusive case for “ecological and cultural diversity as being very closely linked, and that any attempts to differentiate groups within a community based upon ethnicity and religion would rapidly erode its cultural multiplicity and any other of its organic relations, producing new inequalities. Xiao Liangzhong’s interest in his hometown did not arise from his interest in a particular ethnic or cultural group, but rather in the social networks woven together through history and their multiplicity.”

Seeing this Tibetan move to include all, Wang Hui became involved in the drafting of a proposal calling for the dam project to be halted. Wang was able to appreciate that the Tibetans were not chauvinists, and skilfully included everyone, and he got further involved.

This essay in praise of a few activists of Tibetan, Bai and other minority ethnicities displays Wang Hui’s Confucian piety, but it also precedes his rejection of the Tibetans as a people and their call for breathing space. The essay opens with Wang Hui arriving in a remote village to pay his respects to the young man’s grave, on Tomb-Sweeping Day, a scene he evokes in detail, without explaining that, as others have since said,  Xiao’s death galvanised the villagers, who “believed he died to protect his homeland, and his death motivated them to protect it, too. Some if the villagers thought of him as a river spirit who could bless and protect their home. The death of Xiao Liangzhong caused an upsurge in local sentiment against the dam project.”[5] When the community put up the memorial declaring Xiao “The Son of Jinsha River”, an old farmer said: “Rivers on the earth are like veins in the human body. If you were to block off your own veins, you would die. The earth is the same.” An old woman said of the young man who died that he “was just 32 years old when he left us. I’m more than 60 –I’ve lived long enough. If I could exchange my body of flesh and blood for the long-term peace and stability of this land, so that the Tiger Leaping Gorge Damn wouldn’t be built, I would be willing today to have my body smashed to pieces and my bones ground to powder.”

It was this mobilisation that succeeded in pressuring the Yunnan provincial government to cancel the dam, as long as the protesters dispersed quickly, which they did. This account, more detailed than Wang Hui’s, makes it clear that the climax, well after Wang’s Tomb-Sweeping Day homage to his young friend, was achieved by 10,000 angry villagers surrounding government buildings, demanding justice, holding officials hostage, and refusing to disperse despite the threat of the ruthless armed police quelling them. Only when it was clear that both the Tibetan prefectural officials and the Yunnan provincial officials accepted their demands did they save everyone’s face by going home.

The skill of the Bai and Tibetan intellectuals in the Confucian arts of recruiting Wang Hui as protector and patron did much to give the social movement momentum, but it was won by mass protest, the courage of people who have been lied to too often. That’s not how Wang Hui tells it, but in Liu Jianqiang’s retelling of a long personal involvement with reporting the issue.

The villagers, victorious until a renewed hydro damming push by Beijing in 2012, drew deeply on Chinese tradition, as does Wang Hui, both in his Tomb-Sweeping Day homage and his rejection of the Tibetan demand for cultural space, on the grounds that it was the nation-state of China that has long ruled Tibet, and Tibetan protests are western fantasies.

Chinese tradition, Confucian but also Buddhist and Taoist, is rich in precedents, exemplary stories and concepts of propriety, enabling everyone to pick and choose. The old woman, offering her body to be smashed to pieces and her bones ground to powder, succinctly summarises a classic Tibetan meditation practice, called Chöd, in which the meditator cuts clinging to existence by imagining, as vividly as possible, exactly the old woman’s scenario. For the meditation practice to work, transforming the inborn subjective attachment to “I”, it must be done with total sincerity and conviction, as the old woman demonstrates.

This old woman, spontaneously offering, in specific detail, that her body be smashed and ground to dust, is clearly familiar, through long practice, with imagining just that experience, as her offering of the self, of all attachment to existence,  the core of self-ish-ness.[6] This is beyond the comprehension of Chinese people today. The willingness of Tibetans to die, in order to perpetuate the inner strengths of Tibetan culture, in the face of Chinese ignorance, indifference and persecution is equally inexplicable, as Wang Hui demonstrates, at length, in his long essay on the 2008 Tibetan uprising.

That’s the focus of the next blog in this series.


[2] Viren Murthy,  Modernity Against Modernity: Wang Hui’s critical history of Chinese thought; Modern Intellectual History,3,1(2006), pp. 137–165

[3] Wang Hui, The End of the Revolution: China and the limits of Modernity, Verso, 2011, 126

[4] Wang Hui, Son of the Jinsha River: In Memory of Xiao Liangzhong, 173-190 in Wang Hui, The End of the Revolution: China and the Limits of Modernity, Verso, 2009

[5] Liu Jianqiang, Defending Tiger Leaping Gorge, 203-235 in Sam Geall ed., China and the Environment: The Green Revolution, Zed Books, 2013

[6] Edou, Jerome. Machig Labdron and the Foundations of Chod. Ithaca: Snow Lion Publications, 1996.

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