Lovell, Julia. Maoism: A Global History. London: The Bodley Head, 2019. 606 pages.
In the West, as popular trust in liberal institutions is eroded, an increasingly unapologetic left is confronting an ascendant right. In the United States, the word “socialism” has re-entered the popular lexicon through a new generation of voters who, faced with gilded-age levels of income inequality and impending environmental collapse, have gotten over their parents’ Cold War hangover. As for the People’s Republic of China, once the site of the most radical socialist experiments in the world, socialism seems to be a thing of the past. At an interview in the Oxford Union, Peking University Fellow Charles Liu grinningly shrugged off journalist Mehdi Hassan’s derision of the income inequality inherent to “socialism with Chinese characteristics,” saying, “We are certainly not as socialist as Norway, Finland, and Sweden.”1 Meanwhile, overzealous public security officers detain Marxist students who, inspired by Mao Zedong’s life and ideas, organize among factory workers and migrant labourers. Characters and ideas thought to be swept into Fukuyama’s end of history have re-emerged as fields of contention in a post-Cold War context. In the introduction to her book, Maoism: A Global History, Julia Lovell asks why a book like this had not been published already. The answer is that the question of Maoism is a living terrain of struggle, both as a set of ideas and as a legacy. The timeliness of Lovell’s book, and the book’s ability to draw an unbroken link between the history of Maoism to current events, lies in this ongoing competition over Mao and Maoism in China as well as the reinvigorated arguments over how left the Western left should be.
For the uninitiated, Maoism begins with a crash course on Maoist tenets through a parallel thematic biography of Mao himself, and it is in this crash course that the book takes a clear side on the question of Maoism today. Framing Mao’s lecherous womanizing or the thought reform of the Yan’an Rectification Movement with tenets like “women hold up half the sky” or “expose errors and criticize shortcomings,” Lovell selectively contrasts Mao’s thought with his life and practice, portraying him as a brutish hypocrite (albeit a charismatic one) so as to lambaste Maoism’s inherent contradictory impulses. In having set out to uniformly condemn Mao and Maoism, Lovell casts the Anti-Bolshevik League Incident in the 1930s as a sort of biblical fall defining Maoism for eternity as merely an ideology of indiscriminate purges. Having introduced the reader to Maoism within China, the book briefly charts Maoism’s earliest vectors out of China and into the world. Through the example of Clarence Adams’ decision to remain in China after fighting in the Korean War, Lovell recognizes that Western injustices like the U.S. Jim Crow laws and the racialization of the draft led to many in the West to empathize with Maoism. The book also paints a somewhat sympathetic picture of Edgar Snow as a carelessly misinformed eccentric forsaking due journalistic diligence in seeking a name for himself. However, Lovell derides Red Star over China a “puff piece” and frames such perspectives on China as nothing but sanitized or naive understandings of Mao and his ideas, thus setting the tone for how the book will discuss Maoism globally.
The core of Lovell’s warning against Maoism comes in her summary of “high Maoism,” or the peak of Maoist radicalism as experienced in the Great Leap Forward and the Cultural Revolution. Hoping her book will inoculate the reader against Maoism, a point Lovell reiterates throughout is that, like Snow, Maoists in China and abroad are either ignorant or misinformed about the disastrous outcomes of Maoism in power and are therefore prone to repeating those outcomes. Lovell links Vietnamese readings of the Rectification Movement and Great Leap Forward to the excesses of Vietnamese land reform. She discusses how Cambodia’s iteration of the Cultural Revolution’s radicalism led to the atrocities of the Khmer Rouge. She argues that the CCP’s class-inflected nationalism fostered competing communist nationalisms among the CCP and its fraternal parties in Southeast Asia, resulting in war between the three countries. A continent away, Lovell argues that iterations of Maoism in Africa were abject failures in every case but in Robert Mugabe’s Zimbabwe. Lovell observes that China’s revolutionary foreign policy was successful in garnering enough influence in Africa to join the United Nations and that emulating Maoism helped to prop up African dictators, but the book unequivocally judges Maoism as having failed Africans themselves. Returning to Asia, Lovell considers the Communist Party of Nepal’s ascent to power, beginning with their grassroots agitation, the Nepali Civil War, and finally with their leaders’ buying into the quid pro quo political machinations of Kathmandu. With Nepali Maoists having muscled their way into power, Lovell frets about their ignorance of China and the actual effects of Maoism there, saying that this was just revolution “by the book,” in the sense that it was completely (mis)informed by propaganda like Red Star Over China. In a similar vein, Lovell sympathetically portrays the Naxalites’ work fighting for the catastrophically poor Adivasi people of Northern India, noting their lack of awareness and even apathy about China and Chinese history, and yet insisting that their Maoist-inspired violence and “kangaroo courts” are not the answer to the bare existence endured by the Adivasis.
In addition to criticizing Maoism in power and exhorting against historical apathy, Lovell also makes a more abstract point on how Maoism has been weaponized both by self-avowed communists and the very organs of state repression they opposed. Lovell connects the American fear of Chinese “brainwashing” in the Korean War to America’s dark history with black psyops (see MKUltra) and the “enhanced interrogation” methods of the War on Terror, setting up the recurring theme of Maoist revolutionary tactics engendering their own reflections in what Lovell calls “Maoish” state repression. In a similar vein, the book depicts Western Maoists as violence-prone kooks only going through a phase before taking their own role in constructing our neoliberal present, a role they took both directly—by selling out or buying in—and indirectly—by provoking repressive organs of power to bring counter-insurgency methods from abroad to the home front, formulating programs like COINTELPRO. Lovell further illustrates this dynamic through an account of Sendero Luminoso’s accelerationist battle against the Peruvian state. The Shining Path both carried out atrocities modelled on Maoist ideas and intentionally provoked state violence as a means of fomenting violent rebellion. Moving like “fish in water,” the Shining Path deliberately implicated the desperately poor and racially discriminated-against Peruvian peasantry in their actions, only to retreat and abandon them to horrific police and military repression. Peruvian counterterrorism operators got wise and implemented a Maoism of their own, arming the peasantry and rebuilding whatever patriotic attitude the Peruvian people once had to finally encircle and defeat the Shining Path.
Lovell concludes the book by investigating how Maoism fares in its birthplace today. The final chapter examines the effort of the contemporary CCP to balance between quarantining itself from the populist chaos of Maoism and disavowing the PRC’s founding father altogether, a move which would risk the collapse of its historical legitimacy. This chapter contains portraits of some of China’s so-called New Left, a problematic moniker considering that these neo-Maoists are more akin to the red-brown alliance of the former Soviet Union than readers of E.P Thompson or Herbert Marcuse. The portraits include a Cultural Revolution nostalgic, a group of ultra-nationalists using Maoist language to oppose the new order of reform and opening, and a quasi-religious “teacher” with his own rural commune. Using the example of Bo Xilai’s mobilization of Maoist symbolism before his precipitous fall from grace in 2012, Lovell argues that both post-1976 de-Maoification and the recent reappearances of Maoist populism are symbolic only; that today’s China is “Maoish,” not Maoist. According to Lovell, Maoism in post-market reform China endures in the elevation of Xi Jinping to “core status” within the CCP. Lovell concludes remarking on the dynamic ability of Maoism to navigate paradoxes and contradictions such as the CCP’s management of one of the most vibrant players in global capitalism, speculating that this ability will extend the life of Maoism in China and abroad for the foreseeable future. However, rather frustratingly, the book does not dedicate any real space to the Maoist students who might be just as quick as Lovell to decry China’s so-called New Left, a glaring omission considering the worldwide attention the students have been able to garner for themselves since the 2018 Jasic incident.
Lovell’s Maoism is unique in its scope and in the seriousness with which it approaches a critically important topic. It is a timely, engaging, and succinct intervention in a field of study which is highly contentious and still evolving. By choosing various episodes from Cold War history and drawing on a wide variety of sources, Lovell’s Maoism offers a globe-trotting and roughly chronological account of Maoism’s influence on history, compacting what might be an unwieldy academic endeavour into an approachable and well-paced narrative with a purpose. Focused on this task, this book is not a deep dive into the nitty-gritty of Marxist-Leninist Mao Zedong Thought, but a narrative of what Maoism wrought on China and the world. Lovell characterizes Maoism like “a dormant virus,”2 amorphous and adaptable, spread by all kinds of vectors, enduring and producing catastrophe after catastrophe. Lovell’s narrative is an unsympathetic portrayal of the man and his ideas which is meant to serve as a warning against forgetting how Maoism actually played out in Great Leap Forward China, Khmer Rouge Cambodia, Peru during the Shining Path insurgency, and elsewhere. By examining key episodes in the global history of Maoism and connecting them to current issues and events, this book provides an effective introduction to the sphere of Cold War history which resonates most piercingly into the present.
However, this focus on making the story of global Maoism a cautionary tale operates by trivializing and obscuring the repression faced by global left during the Cold War. The brutal suppression, massacres, and civil war instigated by the Guomindang is set to one side in Lovell’s discussion of concurrent CCP purges in the Soviet areas, and the book’s treatment of the AB League Purge completely glosses over the broader context of the contemporaneous GMD encirclement campaigns or the exigencies of the CCP’s uneven attempts at state building in the Jiangxi Soviet. Although Lovell mentions the role of Western powers in the genocidal massacres of Indonesian communists and ethnic Chinese in the 1965-66, she somewhat troublingly focuses the blame on the massacre’s victims, arguing that under Mao’s direct influence the Communist Party of Indonesia carelessly adopted an overly militant posture thus polarizing Indonesian society against itself. This is not the only example of the book seemingly blaming the victim in order to make its overall point. Framing her discussion of Maoism’s influence in the West with the “secular-religious zeal” of the “extreme millenarian fringe of this scene,”3 Lovell is openly hostile to the idea that Maoism as a set of ideas armed oppressed people with a language of resistance and comes dangerously close to advancing a narrative of “cultural Marxism” reminiscent of the contemporary far right’s hysteria about the permeation of leftist influence in Western academia. Moreover, recognition of the repurposing of Maoism in Western philosophy and social sciences is so minimal as to do violence to the actual legacy of Maoism in the academy, and the context which may have elicited sympathy for Westerners influenced by Mao, like the story of the Black Panthers and Fred Hampton’s extrajudicial murder, is given short shrift. Instead, the concept of “Maoish” state repression through organs like COINTELPRO is also blamed on Western Maoists themselves.
Such lack of context makes the book’s orientation towards current events problematic. For instance, as universally loathed as the Shining Path may be, and as effectively as Lovell depicts the violence set loose against it and those adjacent to it, a key element to understanding Abimael Guzmán’s misguided revolutionary accelerationism, namely the background of U.S.-backed repression faced by Latin America’s left, is left out entirely. While the people of Peru faced the dual reigns of terror of the Shining Path and the Peruvian state, leftists and their families in the rest of Latin America were being disappeared en masse, thrown out of helicopters, and brutally massacred by roving U.S.-trained and armed death squads. Although Guzmán is now in prison, many of the architects of the U.S. Cold War policy in Latin America still haunt the halls of power today. During the 1980s, one of the orchestrators of such suppression, Elliot Abrams, advocated for a style of U.S. accelerationism (accelerating regime collapse and civil war by shipping arms under the guise of humanitarian aid while simultaneously immiserating a target country’s populace through sanctions) in Guatemala, El Salvador, and Nicaragua. This effort helped to produce the ongoing transnational humanitarian crisis stretching across Central America to the U.S.-Mexico border. Abrams is now the U.S. Special Representative for Venezuela where he supports a similar strategy for ousting Nicolás Maduro today.
Lovell’s book depicts Maoism both as a virus against which to inoculate ourselves and also as a weapon that the U.S. government now wields against its enemies. The October after Nikita Khrushchev initiated de-Stalinization in the Soviet Union, Mao worried that if the socialist camp threw away the sword of Stalin the West would pick it up and kill them with it.4 In foreclosing any potential usefulness for the oppressed and the left by erasing both the wider context in which Maoism arose as well as the post-modernist aspect of Maoism that Zhang Xudong called its “built-in passion for the masses” and “profound disdain for discursive or institutional reifications,”5 Lovell’s warning functionally surrenders Mao to Chinese neo-authoritarians in Beijing and undead Cold Warriors in Washington.
Thomas C. Burnham is a DPhil student at the University of Oxford whose research focuses on Chinese and Soviet development aid to Africa in the 1960s.”
2 Lovell, Maoism: 150.
3Lovell, Maoism: 268.
4“Meeting of the Delegations of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union and the Chinese Communist Party, Moscow, 5-20 July 1963 ,” July 8, 1963, History and Public Policy Program Digital Archive, SAPMO Barch JIV 2/207 698, pp. 187-330 (in Russian). Obtained by Vladislav Zubok and translated by Benjamin Aldrich-Moodie. https://digitalarchive.wilsoncenter.org/document/111237.
5 Zhang Xudong, “Postmodernism and Post-Socialist Society: Cultural Politics in China After the ‘New Era’,” New Left Review, vol. 237 (September-October 1999) 98.
“Politics is a protracted war. Do not be in a hurry. Try to see things far in advance and know how to wait, today. Don’t live in terms of subjective urgency.” Louis Althusser, letter to Maria Antonietta Macciocchi, 2 April 1968 1
It might seem strange to mention Antonio Gramsci together with COVID-19 in the title of this piece. After all, what could Gramsci possibly have to say about the 2020 epidemic? Furthermore, isn’t his connection to the contemporary left somewhat questionable? Doesn’t he stand as a symbol of Communist wishful thinking, of the unattainability of Leftist ideals? Doesn’t he represent the manifestation of the left’s inability to organize a revolutionary force against the relentless onslaught of the enemy? A plea for a Gramscian politics and the idea of re-actualizing him could appear to be useless, in these times. Yet, I argue that in fact Gramsci still has a great deal to offer, especially in these times.
Today, it seems there is a silent agreement between the radical Left (if there is still such a thing) and liberalism, an agreement to forget Gramsci and abandon his legacy—namely, affirming the importance of class struggle, the organization of the masses, and power struggle. But the COVID-19 pandemic has shown that in today’s tumultuous times, when silence has lost its ability to speak, Gramsci remains our contemporary and can shed a different light on the situation at hand.
The true hateful
As the epidemic continues and fear spreads, long lists of guidelines and explanations are published. All of these, despite their ideological differences, have one thing in common: the emphasis on the need for coordinated action and cooperation to combat the threat of contagion.
The ongoing crisis has also triggered broad ideological interpretations, from paranoid conspiracy theories to the explosion of racism fables. In order to move forward, we need to overcome a whole series of semi-leftist misconceptions. The first and the most disgusting misconception is the paranoid conspiracy theory, harbored by some leftists, that secrete agencies are deliberately responsible for the outbreak. Several “leftists” have gone so far as to claim that China has intentionally designed and spread the virus around the globe to undermine Western economies and establish PRC hegemony. This form of leftist paranoia must be pitilessly discarded. It confirms that, as Jean Baudrillard put it, we always have within us a demand both for a radical event and a total deception. The logic of this conspiracy theory is that it is preferable to believe humans have control and let things get out of hand than to endow obscure and stupid viruses with the power to inflict such horrors on us. In other words, “even if it is a serious matter to admit one’s own shortcomings, it is still preferable to admitting the other party’s power.”2The true “destructive” element which undermines the foundations of our societies is not an external threat, like the current health emergency, but the dynamic of the global capitalism itself which sets the stage for such risks.
These speculations tend to ignore the fact that capital-led agriculture produces hotspots in which pathogens can evolve the most virulent and infectious phenotypes. As Rob Wallace puts it, “capital is spearheading land grabs into the last of primary forest and smallholder-held farmland worldwide. These investments drive the deforestation and development leading to disease emergence.” Therefore, if we are to learn anything from our condition, we must focus on what Slavoj Žižek calls “capitalism with Asian values”, a new form of capitalism, which is more productive and functions even better than the usual western one, but which doesn’t generate a long-term demand for democracy.
Thus looking the imaginary “hateful” and creating paranoid narratives certainly illuminates nothing and it further elides the fact that the “state of exception” no longer offers any concrete solution. This crisis has shown once again that the state of exception is not an emergency breakdown or catastrophe, but the current system of capitalism as such. The actual “state of exception” is the normal and evidently unpoliced everyday, the un-freedom we experience as freedom.
The ghost of antagonism past
Our current predicament has given new life to one of the left’s oldest concepts: antagonism. One should note the undeniable fact that in the face of viral infections, it’s easy for many of us, with the means to self-isolate, to accept lockdowns and quarantines, to entertain ourselves with free books, music, and virtual museum tours. But what about those who are not able to do so? What about the “essential workers” and others who are forced to keep working in the current situation just to stay alive and to keep us alive as well? Here there is no better interpretive concept than that of class antagonism. We must reintroduce that classical category. To do so, we need a new radical form of political action, an intervention that changes the very framework which determines how things work. This intervention enables us to go beyond the “normal order of things”. As Jacques Rancière puts it, “it is this anomaly that is expressed in the nature of political subjects who are not social groups but rather forms of inscription of the (ac)count of the unaccounted-for.”3
It is precisely here that Gramscian politics should come in. Gramsci’s great insight was that in the face of changes that could wipe out the world as we know it, a new form of thinking and political act is needed to abolish the old regime:
“Events are the real dialectics of history. They transcend all arguments, all personal judgments, all vague and irresponsible wishes. Events, with the inexorable logic of their development, give the worker and peasant masses, who are conscious of their destiny, these lessons. The class struggle at a certain moment reaches a stage in which the proletariat no longer finds in bourgeois legality, i.e., in the bourgeois State apparatus (armed forces, courts, administration), the elementary guarantee and defense of its elementary right to life, to freedom, to personal safety, to daily bread. It is then forced to create its own legality, to create its own apparatus of resistance and defense.”4
This contagion has shown that the principal problem of capitalism is not neoliberalism, austerity politics, nor new and varied forms of authoritarianism, apartheid, sexism, homophobia and racism, but rather it is the capitalist form itself, that is, the value-form. Instead of referring to neoliberalism as the cause of our plight, we should return to older critiques and the overcoming of capital as the ultimate goal of our thinking and actions.5
To achieve this goal, there is another misconception that must be set aside. We should brutally dismiss left populism as the way to overcome this predicament. There is no doubt that, as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic, we are experiencing a massive increase in unemployment, a severe economic crisis, and widespread social unrest. Of course, from a leftist point of view, it is difficult not to empathize with uprisings against the ruling order. However, this quick judgement in favor of protest, this all-to-easy , should give us pause.
Today, one should shamelessly emphasize that left populism does not provide a feasible alternative to the system. All those who make abstract demands in response to the ongoing conditions secretly know that their demands will never be satisfied. Here we witness the ultimate embodiment of the Hegelian “Beautiful Soul”, which feels superior to the corrupted world while secretly participating in it; they need this corrupted world as the only terrain where they can exert their moral superiority. This means that the left must play a double game here and make governments its main target: controlling the epidemic and providing accurate information is the main task of governments, and the authorities must use all their resources to achieve this! In a Lacanian sense, hysterical subjects are needed here, to take aim at the master’s discourse, to review and question it.
If we don’t do this, worse pandemics than current Coronavirus will await us. A few years ago, BBC portrayed what might be waiting for us as a direct result of the ways we intervene in nature:
“Climate change is melting permafrost soils that have been frozen for thousands of years, and as the soils melt, they are releasing ancient viruses and bacteria that, having lain dormant, are springing back to life.”
According to this report, with the continuation of global warming, and as a consequence of permafrost melt, the vectors of deadly infections from the 18th and 19th centuries may re-emerge and re-infect animal and human populations. These warnings may seem more like an exciting scenario for an apocalyptic movie. But we must not forget that the environment—and the changes that have taken place in it—are an integral part of our daily lives and can easily disrupt its course.
To return to my initial point about Gramsci, what is interesting in his ideas is that he sought to provide a revolutionary reading of historical materialism. He emphasized that the core of Marxism was based on the rejection of the idea that history was a “natural organism.” According to Gramsci, to get out of a dreadful predicament (in his time, fascism), the left must emphasize mobilizing forces to overthrow the bourgeois dictatorship. Within the framework of Gramsci’s thought, Marxism becomes a revolutionary act that can oppose the hegemony of the bourgeoisie, in various fields and contexts. The greatness of Gramsci lies in the fact that he did not intend to portray the ideal image of the New World but made every effort to portray the path that must be taken to achieve it.
The lesson the left must learn here is that the only realistic solution to the current impasse is to re-introduce the classic concept of antagonistic social relations. It may be true that the virus does not care how much money its host has in their bank account, but the handling of this health crisis is rooted in class antagonism and we must unashamedly place that antagonism at the center of our analysis.
Furthermore, contrary to many assumptions, what we need today is not the easing of pain and the diminishment of suffering. If psychoanalysis has taught us anything, it is that in catastrophic times, we must abandon the vulgar logic of self-knowledge and replace it with the struggle for a greater, external cause. The goal is not to alleviate the pain but to understand that there are things more important than our daily suffering. As Mark Fisher put it brilliantly, “the rebuilding of class consciousness is a formidable task indeed, one that cannot be achieved by calling upon ready-made solutions—but, in spite of what our collective depression tells us, it can be done.”
Change on trial
It seems that a demand for change is the new slogan of our times. Almost everyone is talking about change, including former U.S. Secretary of State Henry A. Kissinger. “The reality is the world will never be the same after the Coronavirus,” said Kissinger in a Wall Street Journal editorial. “The U.S. must protect its citizens from disease while starting the urgent work of planning for a new epoch.” Today we are bombarded with slogans like “things will change after this epidemic.” Even Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, who recently tried once more to blackmail Europe by sending a wave of refugees to Greece, is talking about a new world arising from the remains of the pandemic.
Nevertheless, one of the main problems with change is that it can lead to constant transformation, and continuous transformation can lead to no change at all! This is precisely what we are facing in today’s economy. The main question is how change or innovation can lead to something that is at the same time static, something that offers new principles, but not principles that can be used to maintain the same framework.
There is no doubt that after the dust settles, the world needs radical change and we’ll be facing a new reality. But change for whom and for whose benefit? The present state of affairs is a unique chance for the Left to represent itself as the “true solution.” The biggest triumph of the ruling class has been to present themselves as the only ones who can effect change, while presenting leftists, conversely, as naïve utopians who call for changes that cannot be effected. Now, we have the opportunity to manifest a practical and modest model of the future and show everyone that, on the contrary, the true utopians are those who advocate the same ideological system over and over again!
Referring to Italy’s experience during Risorgimento, Gramsci listed two types of revolution; the active revolution led by Giuseppe Mazzini and the passive revolution led by Camillo Benso di Cavour. The passive revolution entails an attempt to create cultural hegemony and change through a meaningful process that, from Gramsci’s perspective, would be achieved by patiently preparing for radical and revolutionary transformations. Today, there is a need for that same kind of comprehensive, global, and concrete project (to address everything from the political and economic crises to the ecological one).
Nowadays, more and more people realize that they are genuinely disposable, that there is no necessary job, role, or place for them in society. In other words, we are witnessing the emergence of a critical mass of individuals, who are newly conscious of their precarious positions, on the fringes of communities, who were waiting for their moment to cross over, to join their more prosperous neighbors, but for whom that moment never came. This is an excellent example of why we need a Gramscian politics based on intervention that is at once revolutionary and molecular. This micro-politics emphasizes getting our hands dirty and urges us to mobilize and redefine the very idea of the left. As Gramsci said in the early 1920s, “the socialists have never understood the spirit of the period through which we are passing in the class struggle. They have not understood that the class struggle may be converted at any moment, at any provocation, into an open war which can only be concluded with the seizure of power by the proletariat.”6
The present global situation may provide a unique chance to reexamine ideology and ideological state apparatuses. From a scientific perspective, a virus such as COVID-19 is nothing but a micro-mechanism that blindly reproduces itself. Can’t we say the same thing about the dominant global capitalist economy? Is it not just a mindless mechanism that endures on speculation and blindly reproduces itself? The answer to our predicament is not mere enthusiasm for crisis, but hard work to analyze the situation and provide an appropriate and accurate alternative. This is a task that Gramsci emphasized years ago, and now we must take the same path and embrace the hard work ahead.
Crisis at the gates
What should put fear in our hearts is the widespread and frightful sense that capitalism is the only viable political and economic system and that it is now impossible even to imagine a coherent alternative to it.
On March 23, Reuters reported that the “Head of International Monetary Fund Kristalina Georgieva has warned that the damage done to the global economy by the COVID-19 pandemic could be as bad or worse than the global financial crisis in 2008 and lead to a recession.” The report continued, “Georgieva said the outlook for global growth was negative and the IMF now expected a recession at least as bad as during the global financial crisis or worse.” Aren’t we once again witnessing the same paradigm that Naomi Klein once described as “shock doctrine”: the exploitation of national or global disasters to establish controversial and questionable policies while citizens are too distracted (emotionally and physically) to engage and develop an adequate response and resist effectively? One should recall that after the 2008 financial meltdown, billions of dollars were hastily poured into the global banking system in a frantic attempt at financial stabilization. And the main victims were those who lost their life savings in the blink of an eye and had no chance to rebuild. It is important to note that capitalism not only faces crises but also feeds on them and, by implementing socialism for the rich and the destruction of the most ordinary types of social services, strengthens itself even more. We should also bear in mind that there should be an agent (or agents) who will give the “final crisis” of capitalism a positive and pragmatic twist and this is the role the Left needs to take in these troubled times.
Isn’t the COVID-19 crisis the best example of what Walter Benjamin described as “Geschichte ist Choc zwischen Tradition und der politischen Ordnung” (history is the shock between tradition and political organization)? If the present system is a train with broken brakes, speeding towards disaster, then the messianic moment is like a stop-chord. Again, as Benjamin put it, history is awakened with a slap born of long-contained frustration, not a kiss! Are current events a slap? Can this slap wake us up?
Kamran Baradaran is an Iranian translator, author, and journalist. He has translated works by Slavoj Žižek, Paul Virilio, Jean Baudrillard, Antonio Gramsci, Paul Mason, among many others. He has also published a book about Écriture féminine titled Feminine Writing: Improvisation in the Mist.
1 Maria Antonietta Macciocchi, 1973, Letters from Inside the Italian Communist Party to Louis Althusser, translated by Stephen M. Hellman, NLB, p. 21.
2 Baudrillard, Jean, 2003, The Spirit of Terrorism, translated by Chris Turner, Verso, p.78.
3 Rancière, Jacques, “Ten Theses on Politics” in Dissensus; On Politics and Aesthetics, Edited and translated by Steven Corcoran, 2010, Continuum International Publishing Group, p.35.
4 Gramsci, Antonio, 1978, “Real Dialectics” in Antonio Gramsci; Selections from Political Writings 1921-1926, translated and edited by Quintin Hoare, Lawrence and Wishart, p. 17.
6 Gramsci, Antonio, 1978, p. 25.
Author: Kun Huang
Translators: Roy Chan, Shui-yin Sharon Yam
Notes on English edition: This essay was originally published in Chinese on the “Trading Thoughts” column of thepaper.cn (澎湃思想市场) on June 20, 2020. The current version has made the following changes: it contextualizes and explains the controversy around the permanent residency bill proposed this year, the controversial Qiaobi laundry detergent television advertisement of 2016, and other events or terms that were more familiar to the audience of the original platform; it condenses the history of anti-Black violence in the U.S. as well as issues that were specifically aimed at public debates in Chinese media. Some sections that were abridged in the Chinese version have been restored here. With regard to terminology, “African” and “Black” are sometimes used interchangeably in Chinese public discourse that often does not distinguish between the two.
Kun Huang is a PhD candidate of Comparative Literature at Cornell University. Roy Chan is Associate Professor of Chinese and Comparative Literature at the University of Oregon. Shui-yin Sharon Yam is Associate Professor of Writing, Rhetoric, and Digital Studies at the University of Kentucky.
In recent years, each time a mixed-race Chinese-African person went viral on social media, a nationalist uproar erupted online. A mixed-race Chinese-African child and intermarriage between Chinese and Africans have come to symbolize anxieties over “Chineseness.” Undergirding these anxieties is the social imaginary of the “endogamous family” (同族家庭) founded upon heteropatriarchy. The intermarriage between a dark-skinned non-Chinese man and a Han-Chinesewoman is therefore seen as a violation of “Chineseness” and an affront to the national-reproductive community. Moreover, Africans are often pathologized in supposedly scientific literature on the HIV/AIDS pandemic and are therefore scapegoated as sources of contamination of the Chinese national-reproductive community. This article explores how Chinese racial-nationalism, ideologies of sex and gender, and the biopolitics of disease prevention combine to form the affective and discursive justifications for contemporary Chinese anti-Black racism.
Mixed-race Chinese-African Children and the Dilemma of Interracial Marriage
In his Miscellaneous Notes of Yanpu, Zhao Yi (1727-1814), a writer during the Qing dynasty (1644-1911), recorded the folklore he heard circulating in Guangdong province on the southern coast of China. One of the entries introduced readers to non-Chinese groups distinguished by skin tone. They were given such labels as “white devils,” “black devils,” and “red-haired barbarians.” Zhao Yi’s narrative indicates that the colorist racial hierarchy constructed through oceanic slave trades had already become a salient epistemic framework for Chinese people to distinguish between inferior and superior groups of foreigners. Historical violence was disguised as a seemingly objective natural order: “Whites are the masters, Blacks are the slave; the noble and the base are determined from birth.”1
One of Zhao Yi’s main concerns were marriages between Han-Chinese and “barbarians” in Guangdong. In particular, he recorded a tale of a Black slave and a Cantonese indentured servant-girl that carried tragic overtones reminiscent of Othello: “A family purchased a Black slave and coupled him to a Cantonese indentured servant-girl, from which a child was born. Some teased the Black slave, ‘As a black devil, your son should be black like you. But your son is white, how can he be yours?’ The black slave began to doubt whether his son belonged to him. Brandishing a knife, he cut open his son’s shin. Thereupon he discovered that the exposed bone was completely black. He immediately broke into sobs of grief. It was only then he realized that his son’s bones were inherited from the father, but his flesh came from the mother.”2
This tale recounts the violence inflicted on a mixed-race child by his own father. Similar to Shakespeare’s Othello, the story involves a dark-skinned man living in a colorist society. After being paired with a light-skinned woman, he hears rumors that lead him to doubt his partner’s faithfulness and their child’s legitimacy — so much so that he inflicts violence on his own kin. Those who spread malicious gossip, on the other hand, can easily absolve themselves of responsibility, laying blame instead on the father who had lost control and became violent. As individuals internalized existing social hierarchies based on skin tone and race, the foundation of this tragedy is already staunchly set in place. In the story, the man’s discovery that the bones belong to the father and that they are completely black lends the tale a dramatic twist. By symbolically returning the dead child to the father, the story highlights how unnecessarily jealous the man had been when he committed this lethal mistake. As a Black man stigmatized in a colorist society, he revolts violently against his marginalization, and inevitably commits a self-fulling prophecy: his act reinforces the racist myth that dark-skinned men are prone to violence.
The main difference between this story and Othello lies in the key role played by skin color as a supposedly hereditary trait. In the Chinese tale, the gossip centers on the baby’s skin color that functions as the psychological source of the man’s anxieties over his partner’s infidelity and ostensibly provides the physical proof thereof. The focus on inherited traits reveals a deep-seated social imaginary that views the child—the product of heterosexual reproduction—as necessary to extend one’s own lineage. By highlighting the tragic outcome of a mixed-race family, this story symbolically disavows the possibility of extending one’s lineage through interracial marriage in a racist society. At the end of the tale, when the father discovers the “fact” that his son’s bones were black, the rhetorical boundaries of inside vs. outside and depth vs. surface are crossed. The story, hence, reaffirms biological determinism. While this racial tragedy cannot end with the common trope of a reunited happy family , the revelation of the son’s inheritance from his father nevertheless provides the emotional catharsis by fulfilling the heterosexual familial ideal.
The dark-skinned man is marginalized, mocked, and deceived not because he is an “outsider” of that society. Rather, it is only because he is already a member of this society that he can then be marginalized. It is precisely because he can communicate with the gossipers that he becomes ensnared by malicious rumors. It is also precisely because he and his partner have produced a child that the rumors can cast doubt on his family. That is to say, racial marginalization does not stem from any natural, objective, or unbridgeable differences between oppressed groups and the dominant society. Rather, it stems from a collective imaginary that sees the society as an intimately connected organic whole: the racialized Other must therefore be separated from this imagined organic unity. Skin color is deployed as a tool to bring this imaginary into reality.
As scholars of Macau history Tang Kaijian and Peng Hui have pointed out, historical sources from Ming and Qing eras recorded instances of Black and mixed-race children being abandoned and left at Macau’s Holy House of Mercy (also called the “Orphans’ Temple” at the time). This reveals the long history of transnational and inter-racial reproduction in Chinese society. The two-centuries’ old tale of the Black slave murdering his son serves as proof that during, or even prior to, the expansion of European colonialism, racial hierarchies based on colorism had already traveled transnationally and dwelled in the social consciousness of people in East Asia.3 The tale also acutely articulates the crucial roles sex, reproduction, and family play in constructing racialized communities.
The abandonment of Black and mixed-race children in the late-Imperial era highlighted the marginalized status of their parents who could not enter into formal institutions of marriage and build stable households. By contrast, the controversy surrounding Lou Jing, a young mixed-race woman of Chinese and African-American parents who appeared on Shanghai’s Dragon Television’s variety show Let’s Go! Oriental Angel demonstrated that for Chinese netizens, colorism informs how they define Chinese identity. Studying the case of Lou Jing, Robeson Taj Frazier and Lin Zhang argue that the controversy reflected anxieties regarding “who can be Chinese, who can produce Chinese children, what kinds of interracial relationships are acceptable for Chinese women, and the impact of foreign immigration by people of African descent into China.”4 If Black and mixed-race children of the late-Imperial era were excluded from the collective social network of the traditional family, then the online attacks on Lou Jing and her mother revealed how they were symbolically excluded from social acceptance in the public mediasphere. The absence of Lou Jing’s Black father and her mother’s status as a single mother combined with Chinese netizens’ increasingly fanciful speculations about her family appeared to confirm racist myths about Black masculinity and broken interracial families. But in actual fact the controversy brought attention to the real challenges facing many Chinese-African families in building stable households.
In her research on marriages between Chinese and Nigerians in present day Guangdong province, Shanshan Lan has shown that many of the problems these couples face are due to the social immobility of the Nigerian husbands, the social isolation of the Chinese wives, and long term separations between the two due to visa policies. The women in these marriages are often migrant workers without a proper hukou status in the city they live and work in. They thus lack many of the social resources available to other women with proper hukou. Because of visa issues, Nigerian men often try to stay in China for as long as they can, justifiably fearing that once they leave Chinese borders they will be unable to return. In both their romantic relationships and in their business partnerships with each other, Chinese-Nigerian couples are constricted by systems designed to control “non-natives” (including both Chinese and non-Chinese migrant populations). Because the non-Chinese spouses of Chinese citizens are often unable to obtain long-term residency status, many of them can only rely on the constant renewal of short-term visas in order to stay in China. The short-term visas given to non-Chinese spouses do not allow them rights of employment. These visas are also unavailable to non-Chinese partners who, due to the lack of proper documentation, are unable to register their marriage in China. For non-Chinese partners who do manage to obtain marriage registration, they are not always eligible either for a visa extension. As a result of so many unfavorable conditions that work against forming long-lasting, stable families in China, many African men who come to China for business tend to enter into temporary romantic relationships. These relationship patterns and unstable families are largely caused by policies of social control. However, many Chinese people attribute them to existing negative stereotypes against African men. It further marginalizes these African men and their Chinese partners in Chinese society.
Nation as a Racial Community: Imagining Social Unity in the Image of the Endogamous Family
In biological taxonomy, the notion of “species” has long included a sexual dimension. As early as the 18th century, French naturalist Buffon (Georges Louis Leclerc, Comte de Buffon 1707-1788) in his Histoire naturelle, générale et particulière, defined “species” as the following: “a species was a constant succession of similar individuals that can reproduce together.”5 Afterwards, even as this definition evolved, it never deviated from the requirement that a species be capable of mating and propagating a new generation itself capable of reproduction. Hence, the species is a basic unit for reproduction. Between one species and another was reproductive isolation. Even after scientific racism was disavowed and Homo sapiens was thereafter defined as a common species, gender, family, and reproduction remain contentious terrains—they are often mobilized to distinguish one’s status as an insider or outsider of a society. In other words, precisely because humans can reproduce with one another, communities have to rely on social systems and cultural attitudes to regulate and police intimate relationships.
Etienne Balibar has further pointed out the links between racism, nationalism, sex, and gender. Balibar argues that racism almost always informs the construction of nationalism: nationalism and racism have historically functioned in concert and racism has time and again been borne out of nationalism. Gender and sex, including the gendered division of labor and sexual relations, are also intimately connected with racism. Racism and sexism often function in tandem with one another. Balibar claims that the biological logic of racism is not a simple affirmation of biological principles, nor is it an application of biological sciences to the study of society. Rather, it is a “vitalized metaphor” for gendered and sexualized social values. These values include, on one hand, energy, decisiveness, initiative, and virile representations of domination; and on the other hand, passivity, sensuality, and femininity. They also encompass the imaginary of social cohesion based on notions of the “endogamous family.”6
The imagined social cohesion rooted in the trope of the “endogamous family” is thus intrinsic to nationalism. As a constructed narrative, nationalism relies on the imagined unity and historical continuity of the subject (the “nation”). Nationalism perpetuates the belief that a social group has been living in the same geographical territory for generations, and that they have been passing down unchanging traits from one generation to the next; as a result, this group of people can be referred to as a singular, unified subject. Based on the assumption of a singular subject that possesses historical continuity, the construction of nationalism depends on an orientation towards futurity. An emphasis on futurity drives the assumption that everyone in the nation shares a common destiny, which is in turn passed down to the offspring they produce. Since the nation’s future is tied to reproduction, there is a strong emphasis on making sure that people are continuously reproducing and passing down shared traits to promote a robust progeny.
In other words, within the narrative of nationalism, the relationship between temporality, gender, family structure, and reproductive norms are closely related. Balibar suggests that the nation-state has not at all ceased to emphasize premodern political systems’ concern with bloodline. Rather, it has taken “normal” and “natural” relations of endogamy from smaller arenas, such as family, territory, and social strata, and expanded them to encompass the field of “national kinship.” That is to say, there is no significant social factor that inhibits people from coupling with others from the same nation; conversely, this type of marriage is seen as the most normal and natural form of constructing a family. Within the frame of the nation-state, the private sphere of the family is continuously subjected to state control and is thus incorporated in the process of nation-building. The family becomes the social unit that continuously reproduces labor and kinship ties.
Within this structure of an imagined national community based upon the notion of the “endogamous family,” migration (including immigration and emigration) and intermarriage become the twin mechanisms that challenge the community’s borders. The recent controversies surrounding questions of residency rights for non-Chinese have demonstrated how nationalism employs the social metaphor of the “endogamous family” in order to racialize reproductive politics and to gender and sexualize racial issues. This February, a draft bill titled “Regulation of Permanent Residency for Foreigners” elicited waves of opposition online. The new rules aimed to relax China’s stringent immigration policies, broaden the criteria for foreigners to acquire permanent residency, and protect the rights of such permanent residents. However, netizens’ expressions of outrage swamped the bill’s comment section on Weibo and eventually pushed the policy makers to suspend the bill’s further consideration.
While some of the critical comments were motivated by economic concerns regarding wealth distribution, others were explicitly or implicitly xenophobic and racist. The idea of relaxing border control instigated collective nationalist paranoia targeted at certain imagined figures of foreigners, whose inclusion, some claimed, would threaten both the survival and development of the national body. Many commentators deployed a strong sense of victimhood by calling forth a “we” distinguished from a “they” that threaten “our” values and wellbeing. One anti-immigrant argument that gained traction among Weibo users concerned the “sacrifice” made by Han-Chinese parents and their aborted babies due to China’s family planning policy. Many commentators composed or reposted comments that condemn the bill’s “betrayal” of the Chinese people on the grounds that Han-Chinese have been subjected to stringent reproductive restrictions “for the past four decades.” Admitting immigrants would mean betraying the “400 million unborn babies who sacrificed their lives for family planning” and the Han-Chinese couples who up to now still face exorbitant fines and risk unemployment if they bear an extra child.
The comparison between immigrants’ “gain” at the expense of the purported “harm” to Han-Chinese couples and their aborted babies highlighted the extent to which the racial-national body is conceived as a reproductive community in the image of the endogamous family. The immigrant was viewed as taking advantage of the “absence” left by the collective national progeny that did not make it to childbirth. Admitting the immigrant thus became an offense against the “legitimate” couples who withheld or were denied the right to bear more children. The comparison of immigrants with the unborn babies “sacrificed” for state policy was made possible by nationalizing the historical trauma suffered by some families, transforming the trauma into a necessary evil for the sake of the national body as a whole. The figure of the immigrant, construed as biologically unrelated to the national-reproductive community, was excluded from claiming a legitimate position within the imagined national body predicated on reproductive futurity.
To further preempt the incorporation of non-Chinese immigrants into this national-reproductive community, anti-Black racial-nationalist discourse made use of the immigrant-as-rapist stereotype. These commentators selectively cited reports of crimes committed by African men in China (sometimes linking them to the racist myth of crime-prone African Americans translated from U.S. sources), and exposed private photos of Chinese-African couples as visual evidence to prove how Black men seduce and violate Chinese women. In these cases, non-Chinese men were regarded as sexual predators and threats to Chinese women, and competitors for sexual and reproductive resources (e.g. women’s bodies and fertility) with Chinese men. Similar episodes can be traced to the nationalist panics of the 1980s centered on the friction between African and Chinese students on Chinese university campuses in which anti-African protestors proclaimed the need to “protect Chinese women.”7
Biological racism thus became the baseline for excluding “male foreigners” while subjugating women. Favoring the trope of “invasion,” racism based on biologism suggested the threat to a community that comes from the outside. These external threats always exhibited the desire to invade and attack, as well as the desire to seize and compete for the Chinese race’s space for survival and development. The metaphor of “invasion” on the one hand feminized the idea of “the nation” as a woman’s body. Geopolitical threat, hence, was seen as a violation of Chinese women. On the other hand, the relations between non-Chinese men and Chinese women were seen as a violation of the reproductive endogamy of the Chinese race. As non-Chinese men were collectively imagined as a threat to Chinese women, Chinese men thus claimed the right to possess Chinese women in the name of protecting them. Problems of gender that emerged in intercultural families were “externalized” as the problem of “the invasion of foreign races.” Unlike the zero-sum game that defined the population calculus of immigrants vs. unborn babies, these racial imaginaries were articulated through the gender divide and sexual policing that reflect and defend the structures of hetero-patriarchal racial-nationalism.
Similarly, nationalist heteropatriarchy also manifested itself in the notion of “Chinese men” possessing “non-Chinese women.” Quite a few Chinese proponents of anti-Black discourses only opposed letting non-Chinese men “seize” Chinese women. However, they did not oppose, and at times even welcomed, the idea of Chinese men possessing non-Chinese women. The ultra-nationalist blog Yanhuang zhijia (the Home of Yan-Huang, referring to the two mythic ancestors of the Han people) was a staunch opponent of the proposed revision to China’s permanent residency laws, claiming that “if the one-child policy is a war of extermination, granting permanent residency to foreigners signals its triumph.” But in their own proposed revisions, they were in favor of discrimination based on the principle of “One Encouragement, Three Prohibitions,” which included the following provisions: “Non-Chinese women who marry Chinese (men) should be granted residency; the more children they bear, the shorter their wait time; residency should be denied to non-Chinese men who marry Chinese women as well as their children.” Nationalism and racism’s construction of gender thus produced its own perfect mirror image: protecting the “benefits of the nation” lay in allowing Chinese men to “enjoy” the sexuality and reproductive resources of both Chinese and non-Chinese women. In contrast, the very same logic justified the expulsion of non-Chinese men who would “seize” Chinese women and produce mixed-race children.
The racial metaphors and sexual discipline of infectious disease
The anxieties triggered by relationships between non-Chinese men and Chinese women were nested within an existing hierarchical understanding of racial difference. The racialized discourses about different “foreign men” were always grafted onto a larger system of racialized knowledge. The gendered and sexualized racial discourses of the “Black man” were no exception. The myth of the Black man as hypersexual and prone to violence was not confined to China, but instead had circulated in Europe, the US, and European colonies since the transatlantic slave trade. These myths were formed by Whites who enslaved and exploited Black bodies and their (sexual) labor. These myths, in turn, were mobilized to sustain systems of racial exploitation. For example, the film The Birth of a Nation glorified the Ku Klux Klan for controlling violent Black men who threatened to rape white women. But the extreme inverse of this image was that of the asexual, obedient Black servant, such as Uncle Tom in Harriet Beecher Stowe’s famous novel, or the “Mammy” character in Gone with the Wind. These myths sustained White supremacy and anti-Black violence by condoning White-on-Black crimes committed on the slightest suspicion or false claims of Black transgression of White space and White women’s safety.8
The racialized rhetoric of infectious disease provides another seemingly scientific basis for the racist metaphor of the “invasion” of the dark skinned non-Chinese man. Locating the source of infectious disease in the body of the Other is the racist norm. Before the rapid spread of COVID-19 in Europe and the US, the “bat-eating Chinese” and the “mask-wearing Asians” became the racialized target of both verbal and physical assaults. But in China, the long standing media narrative which pathologized dark-skinned non-Chinese became part of the latent collective consciousness. Before the violent eviction of African residents in Guangzhou during the COVID-19 pandemic, the misplaced connections between HIV/AIDS and Africans had already occupied a prominent place within the racial-nationalist discourse, and functioned in coordination with heteropatriarchy’s regulation and discipline of gender and sexuality.
Johanna Hood, a scholar who studied how Chinese media portrayed the HIV/AIDS epidemic, discovered the Chinese media’s tendency to exoticize the disease. Since the 1980s, the vast majority of media sources have informed Chinese audiences that those afflicted with HIV/AIDS were primarily non-Chinese. Among these non-Chinese people, black Africans were disproportionately featured. The image of typical HIV/AIDS sufferers were impoverished populations of rural Africa. Moreover, they were often portrayed as having become infected through engaging in deviant sexual or social behaviors. Such portrayal in turn affirmed the racist assumption that Africans were “primitive,” “backwards,” and being “proximate” to the non-human sources of the disease, i.e. African primates. The visual portrayal of HIV/AIDS’ physical symptoms often zeroed in on images of minimally clad Black people afflicted by the disease—the visible, exposed dark skin became closely associated with the disease’s manifestations.
In contrast, when the media portrayed HIV/AIDS in Chinese cities, these Chinese patients usually appeared healthy and dressed in normal attire. Media tended to emphasize that they had already received treatment. By relentlessly focusing on Africans as disproportionately representing the carriers of HIV/AIDS, Chinese media reinforced the racist impression that African and Black people were responsible for accelerating the transmission of disease. African and Black people’s bodies were portrayed as particularly vulnerable to infection and as a pathological conduit capable of high transmissibility. The racialization of HIV/AIDS was at the same time a gendered and sexualized process: the reproductive capacity and the sexual relations of African and Black people were simultaneously subjected to racialization and pathologization.
Hood’s research also explored the formation of women’s role in China’s anti-HIV/AIDS campaign. By emphasizing mother-child transmissions as a major source of HIV/AIDS infection in Africa, Chinese media bolstered the stereotype of African women as “bad mothers” who bore too many children but could not guarantee their children’s health. The image of African women as “bad mothers” served to contrast the image of Chinese urban women as “good mothers” who, under the family planning policy, were able to maintain their health and take care of their children. However, this positive image of Chinese mothers relied upon a hidden discipline over women’s bodies, sexuality, and “suzhi” (quality). The sexuality of women during their reproductive years (including sexual behavior, sexual relations, and reproductive capacity) required restriction and regulation in order to guarantee the population’s quality and the nation’s future. The undisciplined and deviant woman’s body was thus seen as a vector of pathological transmission, and threatened the well-being of both the family and the nation. As a result, women’s bodies, their reproductive capacity, and their sexual behavior became the object of state control in nationalist discourse.
Nationalist sentiments that lurked behind the biopolitical controls taken during public health crises led to histrionic outrage about intimate relationships between African/Black people and Chinese people. Distinct from Hood’s focus on the role of African women, Chinese online nationalism mainly targeted Black men and Chinese women’s relationships. Black women were nearly absent in this conversation. In these discourses, African/Black men were seen as competing with Chinese men, and were illegitimately benefiting from possessing the limited resource of Chinese women. In addition, African/Black men were regarded as the “prime culprit” for the transmission of HIV/AIDS among Chinese women and in Chinese society in general. Nationalist masculine anxieties were thus projected upon the bodies of non-Chinese men and enmeshed with the racialized social discourse of disease prevention. The authority of the supposed “scientific objectivity” of disease prevention discourse provided legitimacy to these hetero-masculine anxieties.
But nationalist attitudes toward Black men who date Chinese women carried further ambiguities. On one hand, Chinese women were treated as the real or potential victims of Black men’s hypersexual desire. Their victimization led them to become vectors of disease transmission. Their “silent suffering” justified the denunciation of Black men in online nationalist discourse. On the other hand, Chinese women who had intimate relations with Black men were also seen as promiscuous, deviant, and therefore did not deserve sympathy. Their behavior was viewed as irresponsible toward both themselves and society. They were also seen as potential carriers of disease, thus posing a threat to the health of Chinese men. Thus, they had to be distinguished and then disqualified from being desirable romantic partners for Chinese men.
But Chinese anti-Black discourses’ maintenance of heteropatriarchy also had to rely upon Chinese women’s consent and cooperation. In other words, the successful operation of racial-nationalist heteropatriarchy required that women willingly subject themselves to social and sexual discipline. In online anti-Black discourses of recent years, quite a few commentators modeled themselves upon stock images from online historical romance novels in order to demonstrate how Han-Chinese women should “freely” choose marriage with Han-Chinese men.
What follows are examples of such expressions: “Chinese women will save themselves for a perfect wedding with a Chinese groom while dressed in crimson Chinese robes.” “Either a crimson dowry of ten li, or a white cloth of three feet.”9 “My ultimate life’s wish is to marry a Chinese man while dressed in full bridal robes and being transported in a grand sedan carried by eight men. I swear on my life to never marry a non-Chinese man. In fifteen years I’ve never once known a black flower to be among the fifty-six flowers.”10 These comments on behalf of single women promoted images that romanticize female martyrdom for the sake of both nation and true love. They employed traditional Chinese symbols of aristocratic bridal customs in order to express their vision for an ideal marriage. Their identification with these traditional Han images was deeply entangled with erotic desires, a sense of national identity, and an idealized gender role. Such entanglements constituted strong affective motivations for Chinese women to marginalize non-Chinese people.
Concerns revolving around Chinese women’s “free” choice of intimate partner can be seen in the controversial television advertisement for Qiaobi laundry detergent in 2016 that featured a Chinese woman about to do the wash at home. An attractive, young Black man doing house painting unexpectedly appears in the doorway, wearing a white T-shirt riddled with paint stains, and attempts to seduce her. Right before they kiss, the woman suddenly stuffs a detergent pod into his mouth, pushes him into the washing machine, and turns it on, leading to the man’s audible shrieks of agony. After being “washed clean,” he emerges, but has transformed into an attractive, light-skinned Asian man to the woman’s gleeful delight. His T-shirt, once stained, is now sparkling white. The advertisement suggested that one should wash off blackness in the same way one would remove a clothing stain. The advertisement moreover used the racial rhetoric of cleaning clothes until they are “sparkling white” [xibai, i.e., spotless] to demonstrate the effectiveness of its product.
But the advertisement’s racism concealed even deeper-seated ideas about gender: a capable Chinese woman (most importantly, capable of doing housework) should go out of her way to choose a light-skinned (Han) Chinese man to be her partner. He would always be a more appealing partner than a Black man. The advertisement thus dramatized the agency granted to Chinese women in selecting a partner. However, Chinese women were shown to exercise such agency only insofar as they were tied to a specific role, i.e., the young wife responsible for household chores, thus affirming the typical division of labor under heteropatriarchy. A “better” male partner (i.e., a “clean,” light skinned Chinese/East Asian/Han man”) becomes the “reward” for a young woman who assumes responsibility for housework. If the discourse of “female martyrs” on Weibo dramatized a nationalist version of chastity by romanticizing self-sacrifice for both nation and true love, Qiaobi’s advertisement employed the liberal ideals of gender equality to promote women’s right to choose a partner endorsed by racial-nationalism.
The varying discourses about an imagined “self” and “other” were not without their internal contradictions; and yet those who held onto them made use of all sorts of sophistry in order to justify their conclusions. To borrow Taiwanese author Lin Yi-han’s words on how educated Chinese men perpetuated violence against women: “This ideology has so many cracks, but how do they manage to seal them up? They seal them up with words, rhetoric, and all sorts of metaphorical tricks, and as a result the ideology becomes impregnable.” And the imagined “others” in the racial-nationalist discourse, to borrow the metaphor by Toni Morrison, are but a dream—“the subject of the dream is the dreamer. The fabrication of an Africanist persona is reflexive; an extraordinary meditation on the self; a powerful exploration of the fears and desires that reside in the writerly conscious. It is an astonishing revelation of longing, of terror, of perplexity, of shame, of magnanimity. It requires hard work not to see this.”11
1 Quoted in Peng Hui, p. 173.
3 Don J. Wyatt traced the presence of black slaves in Southern China and colorist racial consciousness in Chinese writings to the mid-imperial period (starting from around the seventh century).
4 Frazier & Zhang, p. 238.
5 Quoted in Bernasconi, p. 16.
6 Balibar & Wallerstein, p. 58.
7 Sautman, p.421; see also Cheng.
8 See Davis; and Collins.
9 The crimson dowry of ten li refers to a wedding custom whereby the bride’s dowry of furniture and other personal items are transported by a parade of carriers to the groom’s home. The “white cloth” refers to the story of Imperial Consort Yang of the Tang Dynasty. Emperor Xuanzong, under pressure from his soldiers that threatened to mutiny, reluctantly sentenced his beloved concubine to death. The “white cloth” is a reference of what was used to strangle her.
10 The “fifty-six” flowers is a reference to the fifty-six recognized ethnic minorities of China. The speaker implies that Black people are not part of the imagined Chinese nation, even among its minorities.
11 Morrison, p. 17.
Balibar, Étienne, and Immanuel Maurice Wallerstein. Race, Nation, Class: Ambiguous Identities. Verso, 1991.
Bernasconi, Robert, ed. Race. Blackwell Publishers, 2001.
Cheng, Yinghong. “From Campus Racism to Cyber Racism: Discourse of Race and Chinese Nationalism.” The China Quarterly, Vol. 207 (Sep 2011): 561-579.
Collins, Patricia Hill. Black Sexual Politics: African Americans, Gender, and the New Racism. Routledge, 2004.
Davis, Angela Y. Women, Race & Class. Vintage Books, 1983.
Frazier, Robeson Taj and Lin Zhang. “Ethnic identity and racial contestation in cyberspace: Deconstructing the Chineseness of Lou Jing.” China Information, 28:2 (2014), 237–258.
Hood, Johanna. “Distancing Disease in the Un-black Han Chinese Politic: Othering Difference in China’s HIV/AIDS Media.” Modern China, 39:3 (2013), 280-318.
Lan, Shanshan. Mapping the New African Diaspora in China: Race and the Cultural Politics of Belonging. Routledge, 2017.
Morrison, Toni. Playing in the Dark: Whiteness and the Literary Imagination. Vintage Books, 1992.
Peng Hui. Ming-Qing Shiqi Aomen Heiren Wenti Yanjiu [Research on Macau’s Black population during Ming and Qing dynasties], Beijing: Zhongguo Shehui Kexue chubanshe [Chinese Academy of Social Sciences Press], 2017.
Sautman, Barry. “Anti-Black Racism in Post-Mao China.” The China Quarterly, No. 138 (Jun 1994), 413-437.
Tang Kaijian, Li Changsen, and Xu Jieshun. “Aomen Tusheng Zuqun Yanjiu Sanren Tan” [Discussions about the research on the Macanese populations in Macau]. Xinan Minzu Daxue Xuebao [Scholarly Journal of Southwest Nationalities University] 25:7 (July 2004).
Wyatt, Don J. The Blacks of Premodern China. Philadelphia: The University of Pennsylvania Press, 2010.
“das Höchste wäre zu begreifen, dass alles Faktische schon Theorie ist.”
Johann Wolfgang von Goethe, Wilhem Meisters Wanderjahre
I scribbled down a draft of these Theses in the parking lot of Wegmans Food Market in Lawrenceville, NJ. It was late morning of May 25th, 2020, and I was in a foul mood for some decisions in my institution that I firmly rejected. I posted some of them on Facebook, and the reactions from my contacts suggested I prepare some thoughts for a wider audience.
The immediate inspiration for these theses, painful as it was, is irrelevant. They result from years of increasing discomfort with some tendencies within the scholarly field I belong to. Their untimeliness is a direct effect of the predicament they address, namely the disavowal of theoretical labor in academic life. Thesis #1, the most important of them all, takes this as its starting point.
This disavowal takes different forms. It may take the shape of emphasizing “expertise” and praising technical skills and competence over reflection and critical inquiry. It may mask itself as archival empiricism that downplays the role of interpretation. Most often, it takes the form of an absurd opposition of empirical vs. theoretical approaches, as if theories were built upon nothing and facts not already wrapped in a theoretical frame, as in Goethe’s quote above.
I leave the Theses as I originally wrote them: they are rough, hyperbolic, angry, almost preposterous. To be clear, I don’t intend them to be normative but only wish to inspire discussion. My goal is simple: to defend the value and necessity of critical reflection in knowledge production and its autonomy from heteronomous control, as well as to reassert the emancipatory nature of education in general.
So long as theoretical reflection is not acknowledged as intellectual labor, all intellectual production, even (and especially) the most empirically oriented, is alienated from its intellectual substance.
There is no act of writing that is not already enfolded in a theoretical framework, however minimal or disguised as narrative. Concomitantly, there is no act of reading—of a textual, visual, auditory, or material source—that can be completely exhausted through technical expertise.
Every act of reading is, in fact, interpretation, and as such it is theoretically grounded.
The disavowal of theoretical self-reflection must be understood as a refusal to question or justify one’s claims.
At a minimum, theoretical reflection consists in critical examination of the epistemological labor behind one’s claims.
Direct consequence of the disavowal of theoretical reflection in intellectual production is the reliance of scholars on the legitimating authority of the institution rather than on their discursive labor.
The more scholars rely on institutional authority to give epistemological legitimacy to their research, the less autonomous their inquiries will inevitably be.
An educational and research system that disavows theoretical reflection inevitably tends to rely on formulaic models and on the reproduction of received claims; i.e., in more precise terms, on an unrecognized dogmatic orthodoxy.
If today the Humanities are the only division where theoretical reflection is not yet completely disavowed, their systematic defunding will inevitably reduce the autonomy of intellectual production in other fields as well.
Scholarship that disavows theoretical reflection—and is therefore dependent on institutional legitimation for the authority of its research—renders its practitioners marginal and useless to intervene in society. Scholars are asked to be mere technicians, whose expertise is demanded only for the reproduction of the current social order.
Divya Dwivedi is a philosopher and author based in India. She is currently an Associate Professor at the Department of Humanities & Social Sciences, IIT Delhi. She co-authored Gandhi and Philosophy: On Theological Anti-politics with philosopher Shaj Mohan.
The outbreak of the corona epidemic has put the working class in a new crisis. We now see that the proletariat is devoid of economic minimums and must actually fight for its survival. In this situation, what can be done to revive the working class?
Dwivedi: There is the “demos” in an epi-demic, which indicates that something terrible has befallen the people. But the “demos” are always distributed unequally. Both epidemics and health flow through the channels which already exist, that is, there is no sickness which is in itself able to determine its pathways. Therefore, there is no sickness-in-itself, no suffero noumenon.
The question of the “proletariat” has to be posed again, anew, under these new conditions—of the pandemic and of technological exuberance—where the concept designated by this term might appear to be a stranger to us. Once upon a time the proletariat meant those who have no belongings other than their biological progenies. But this meaning was radically transformed by Marx to mean that the proletariat were the people who worked in the peripheries of machines and political systems, and they were not allowed by their material conditions to imagine a future beyond their wages. That is, the proletariat are all those who are denied the collective faculty of imagination. I would like to be precise here about imagination; imagination is not fantasizing about an uprising against a regime or a sudden beneficent collapse of a repressive order. Imagination is the making of a precise bauplan for the future which can materialize from the here and now.
For this reason, the link between the pandemic and the conditions of the proletariat—those who are denied the power to imagine—is augmenting an older process in our times. The people had already been denied any right to determine those processes which develop into the conditions in which their interests manifest through a subversion of nationalized democracies. This subversibility is of course the inner possibility of any regional politics. As you know there is global agreement when it comes to most economic processes, technological protocols and standards, and there are global institutions dictating terms to national governments. Nobody took our votes on IPv6 or Goods and Services Tax.
This is the reason we find that the far right and what is often called the left are in agreement when it comes to regional containments of the people; they seek to confine the imagination of the people to birth and soil. So, to answer your question regarding the 1st of May which is also the month that gives another name — May 68 — towards a moment of proliferating uprisings all over the world : We have to make imagination available as a power again so that the proletariat are able to raise progenies who will be conceptual and organizational monsters from the point of view of their oppressors. In other words, uprisings around the world will not count, instead the world must now rise up together.
Many leftist thinkers see the current situation as a sign of the crisis in capitalism. Throughout history, however, capitalism has shown that it can use crises to reproduce itself. Does the current situation give the Left a chance to reorganize or all remains would be a more brutal capitalism?
Dwivedi: Of course, the end of capitalism has always been around the corner as we take turns in its spiral! The way you have posed this question contains something important. It is the question: is the Left capable of crisis?
Here I must say, with all the possible meanings, Lenin was once the crisis of Marxism, with whom, simultaneously, the capability for crisis was exiled into the enclosure of the soviet empire. Crisis is the experience within a system that it has reached the limits of relations and reciprocal tolerances of its components; for example, a combustion engine that is overheating. What comes over the crisis is always another system which picks up the components left over by the crisis and sets them in new relations with each other, and with new components.In most instances what we call the left suffers from what the philosopher Shaj Mohan called an idyllic a priori. That is, it thinks from the idylls of someone or some select people and then sets up this idyll as the impossible teleology. One can find Marxist activists in the subcontinent who think and act on the basis of the material conditions of the 19th century Germany. Can we have any such telos today? We must, each and everyone of us, at first experience the fact that we are the forsaken by any transcendent ends.
Instead, if there is to be a Left—those who are capable of collective imagination—they must also be capable of suffering a collective crisis. Such a left will be able to gather from the present stasis, with the shared experience of forsakenness, to be the community of the forsaken. This community of the forsaken will then be able to raise itself from the present stasis, which is properly anastasis. One is tempted to give outlines of how this could begin, but it must be the work of a collective imagination.
In 1845, Friedrich Engels said that the Left’s understanding of the real conditions of proletarian life was very limited. Today, the proletariat has a much more complex concept than what Marx and Engels had in mind and consists of day laborers, farmers, industrial workers and different forms of blue collars. Do you think the leftist understanding of the working class situation improved?
Dwivedi: These misunderstandings of the workers are not the same everywhere. The left, rather the party left as I can see in my surroundings in the subcontinent has been seeing the proletariat from their upper caste feudal idyllic a priori. I do have a certain intimacy with the party left. My parents were members of the communist parties at the extreme left who undertook unarmed direct action, and went to prison. I grew up traveling with them from village to village.
In India the party left, and whatever is left of it, deliberately refused to understand something fundamental: The racial social order of caste is the regular form of all divisions of labour in the subcontinent. The upper caste leaders of the communist parties organizing and leading the lower caste labourers to their infinitely deferred liberation is the very repetition of the caste order. Unless, as Lenin could do in Russia, the left imagines the proletariat in both their specific forms of poverties and their powers while gathering in the singular human experience of belonging to the community of the forsaken, any leftist politics will be a minor disaster within the crises which are upon us.
Today workers are more and more either the peripheral components of the technological systems, or they are being displaced by the technical apparatuses, or they merely polish the machine. Let me be provocative here: to conceive a worker properly in this time is to think of workers abandoned by work. I am not joking, we do see the emergence of universal basic income as a transitory response to this situation which is the automation of all work. This is a radically new scenario for left politics because the machine cannot be called a proletariat as it does not have progenies in any sense, and a man without work is not a man who has broken his chains. I have dealt with the conceptual crisis of the possibilities of machines having progenies and its relation to the proletariat in my book on Gandhi.
“People who are at the top cannot anymore govern, this is true; but people who are at the bottom — workers, peasants, intellectuals, etc — are still able to support the existing regime; they still support it”, Louis Althusser said once. It seems that this logic still holds true. Today, one of the problems of the left is that in many ways the working class is still reluctant to fight and break free from its chains. How is this awareness achieved? What is the way out of this deadlock?
Dwivedi: For my generation Marx was primarily mediated through Althusser and the Althusser circle. The brilliance in Althusser was about a certain directness of thought which revealed the stasis of Marxist thought with elegance. I know this interview that you have cited, which is intriguing for another reason. In it Althusser said something like he was catholic—which possibly meant someone who experienced the common—and therefore a communist.
But in the university I encountered the works of Jean-Luc Nancy where he was often discussed as the left Heideggerian. But I found in Nancy a new founding of “the common” because he had seized philosophy as the activity that is capable of crisis; the crisis of having arrived at the end of all determinations of transcendent ends. This new experience of the common revealed the conditions to imagine first of all what can be called a philosopher’s communism. This was important to me because in most versions of communism one finds that the end of philosophizing is the prelude, starting with Marx’s 11th thesis. As I had noted earlier, philosophy as the creation of freedom must necessarily accompany a left that is capable of crisis.
This logic of Althusser, at the level of analogy, may hold true for all the times in which a political arrangement is in stasis. But the processes of our stasis are rather different. Today the left and the right both agree on regionalization of politics where, in some cases, shared Fascist tendencies are apparent. As you may know Agamben recently gave an interview to a far right journal on the coronavirus pandemic. If one looks closely at the responses of many leftist writers from across the world their responses to the pandemic sound very similar to Trump’s conspiracy theories and denials.
There is a reason, or if you prefer a homology, which has ordered the matters of politics in this way. As I mentioned earlier, nationalized democratic forms do not have any sovereignty when it comes to economic and technological matters, where they obey a global system of control. Then, the only choices left for the people is to choose their local monopolist capitalist; then divide amongst each other on basis of ethno-nationalistic and racial criteria; and then fight each other so that the global processes of techno-economic integration can take place over them without a fuss. This is why everywhere we see the anti-politics—the collective rejection of freedom—in the form of racial and ethno-politics.
If politics is to be the fight for freedom then it must be capable of the seizing of the conditions of action, which are more and more global today. If anyone gives you the pill of regional autonomy they are trying to sedate you and confine you to a region determined by a developing techno-economic world order. Instead, we must begin to recognize this: national forms of politics are the locus of the real crisis, and democracy can now be secured only through the assertion that the world belongs to all. A left worthy of its name today shall have the courage to refuse the regional power deals from snake oil salesmen of anti-politics, who roam India in the garb of subaltern and postcolonial historians. Such a left will have the courage to imagine collectively and arrive at bauplan of a world democracy. It will have the courage to be infinitely open in order to gather the people of the world as the people of the world. The only thing left then is ana-stasis.
Interview by Kamran Baradaran
©2020 positions editorial collective. all rights reserved