31 March 2013

Christ is risen indeed

Alleluia, alleluia!

And for some Easter-themed German power metal, courtesy of Grave Digger:

28 March 2013

For Good Friday – a meditation on the political economy of Our Lord

It may seem ill-fitting to speak of the economics of Jesus Christ on the day on which we remember his death. After all, that death was the means by which death itself was defeated, and the powers of the earth (though they did not know what they were doing) ultimately failed to wield death, their ultimate power, against the Son of Man who will one day sit in judgement of us all. To speak of something as this-worldly as economics in the awe-inspiring, numinous light of Jesus’ death and holy resurrection may seem somewhat… petty. But we have to remember that the combined powers of the Sanhedrin, the Roman Empire and their Herodian puppet-king executed Jesus because they feared him for his message, and that message carried political and economic implications as well as spiritual ones. Indeed, because many in the Sanhedrin (such as the Sadducees) simply did not believe in Jesus’ message of eternal life, the political and economic dimensions were of greater concern to them. If we are to believe in the way of Our Lord, the true manner in which he lived his own life and by which we are to order our own, of course we are called to heed his spiritual message. But if we take seriously the message of Jesus, that thought, word and deed are of equal importance, that theory and practice are to be united rather than separate, we ignore the political and economic inferences of his message at the world’s peril and our own. We risk becoming like the Essenes or the Gnostics rather than like the early Christians.

It is only analogically and in literary terms that we can hope to understand the meaning of Jesus’ self-sacrifice. (As one of my references, of course, I take Ched Myers’ excellent literary-historical reading of the Gospel of St Mark, Binding the Strong Man.) If we crudely try to impose the economic and political categories of (post-)modernity on Jesus and his world, it stands to reason that we will get a warped view of the end result. Thus you will see everywhere online lazy exegesis and quote-mining to prove a ‘cookie-cutter Jesus’ – it’s common to see ‘Jesus was a socialist!’, ‘Jesus was a capitalist!’, ‘Jesus was an anarchist!’, ‘Jesus was a liberal!’, ‘Jesus was a conservative!’, with each interpretation using its favourite out-of-context Scriptural quotes (with the Sermon on the Mount and the Parable of the Talents being subject to the greatest degree of such abuse) to prove its point. The Gospels are not allowed to speak for themselves, but are used as tools to promote modern-day political agendas which have very little to do with the Kingdom of Heaven Our Lord proclaimed has come near.

Some of these abuses are easy enough to debunk with counter quote-mines. The people who believe that the Parable of the Talents indicates that Jesus was a neoliberal who approved of usury are obviously, studiously missing the point of the parable, whose broad context is the Parable of the Bridesmaids, the Parable of the Wicked Servants and the foretold Judgement of the Nations. Jesus was very clearly not encouraging literal investment or literal usury (by literal slaves, for that matter), but criticising those in positions of trust and authority who did not do their duty: people who claimed to tend to the law, but failed to feed the hungry, clothe the naked and heal the sick. Others are not so easy to parse. Instead, it is wiser to review the political and religious context in which Jesus lived and preached, and attempt to reason by analogy from those, rather than working backwards from a modern political ideology which we attempt to impose back onto Scripture.

During Jesus’ time, the Hasmonean kingdom had been replaced with a Roman client kingdom, the Herodian state. Religious authority was invested in the Second Temple and its legal scholars. Various political-religious parties had variously formed around (or in opposition to) these nuclei of political, economic and cultural power. What follows are ‘rough sketches’ of their beliefs, along with some parallels to modern-day groups which might be drawn from them:
  • The Seduqim (Sadducees) – Scriptural literalists who accepted only the Torah and a selection of written works as authoritative, and who preached ontological and metaphysical voluntarism along with a denial of the afterlife. They were one of the parties who dominated the Second Temple establishment of the time, and can be analogically likened to Scriptural literalists in our own time – conservative evangelicals and fundamentalist Protestants, who are likewise narrowly voluntaristic and dogmatic, and who (though they proclaim a literal afterlife) are notably worldly in their concerns, with their afterlife often taking the form of a physical ‘rapture’.

  • The Perushim (Pharisees) – followers of the oral traditions which would become Midrash, the Perushim were the forebears of modern Judaism, who placed a high priority on ritual purity and cleanliness. Also one of the parties which dominated the Second Temple establishment, they did believe in an afterlife and also in a form of predestination – but they placed an emphasis on individual moral self-sufficiency. Though not ‘bourgeois’ in the narrow use associated with Marx, they were certainly quite ‘bourgeois’ in Berdyaev’s sense of the word: focussed narrowly on material concerns and individual piety through the Law. Being so focussed on individual health, property and purity, they had insufficient concern left over for the widow, the orphan, the homeless, the sick and the indebted. Modern liberals, libertarians and followers of moralistic therapeutic deism take note!

  • The Isiyim (Essenes) – ascetics with an intentional-community lifestyle who withdrew from society and preached an immanent end to the world. In common with some religious communist communities, they shared all their property in common and treated each other as equals, but believed that the rest of the world was damned. In modern times, they can be compared with the various schismatic and sectarian millennial movements which have chosen self-isolation to the neglect of the community: in the United States, the Radical Reformers (particularly the Amish and the Hutterites) are perhaps the best-known examples.

  • The Kana’im (Zealots) – people who preached an immanent (and violent!) end to the Roman occupation of Judaea, often associated with assassins (Sicarii) and ‘social banditry’. Often they came from, and preached liberation to, the lower rungs of society – and were often the targets of crucifixion by the Romans. It is understandable to find in their preferred methods and ideology some distinct parallels with Marxism, liberation theology and other forms of revolutionary socialism… and it should be noted that at his crucifixion, Jesus was placed alongside two such ‘criminals’ (as over-against the Roman Empire and the Second Temple establishment), indicating empathy as well as solidarity.

  • The Herodian clique – people who collaborated with the Roman puppet regime, most notably including ‘tax collectors’ (who may have been aligned with Rome for purely pragmatic reasons) along with more ideological collaborators who had Roman sympathies or religious affiliation. The ideology of power is certainly not a new one; nor is apologetics for the Kingdom of Caesar. One can certainly find echoes of it in modern liberal interventionism and neoconservatism.

  • The Baptisers – led by St John the Baptist, this small group taught non-violent rejection of Roman rule and ‘repentance of sins’, which amounted to a radical renunciation of involvement in debt structures and purity codes. Our Lord was explicitly a member of this group, until he began taking followers of his own.

In Scripture, it becomes clear that the approach of Our Lord in the social realm is opposed in a number of ways to several of these movements. Obviously there are strong and direct denunciations of the Second Temple establishment in Scripture – the scribes, the Pharisees and the Sadducees. These take direct issue with a number of the basic tenets of their political and economic approaches, of course – the Pharisees he charges with tithing mint and dill and cumin but neglecting the weightier matters of the law, like justice and mercy, so concerned are they with individual piety. He told his followers to do as they do in terms of following the law, but also cautioned that it wasn’t enough. Our Lord also took issue with the Sadducees’ propertarian treatment of women in marriage, turning their own loaded question about the afterlife back upon them. Jesus was neither a classical liberal convinced of the self-sufficiency of individual moral judgement and practical reason, nor was he a fundamentalist concerned with legalistic and literalistic interpretations of Scripture.

Likewise with Our Lord’s approach in the realm of economics. If he is to be analogically likened to the socialists, he is emphatically not of the parliamentary sort or the authoritarian sort. The libertarian criticisms of Jesus-as-state-socialist are actually valid; the kingdom of God is not like the kingdom of Caesar (which is not, of course, to say that the kingdom of Caesar has no place – he cautioned those indebted to Caesar to repay to him what they owed him, and repay to God what they owe to God). But it has to be noted likewise that neither is he a fan of the marketplace, as is shown in the miracle of the feeding of the multitudes. The disciples ask Jesus if he should send the multitudes away to buy food at the market – and Jesus told them that wasn’t necessary. He told them that sharing what they had with the multitudes would be enough; and to their surprise, it was. The communal, mutualist economics of Our Lord are shown to be diametrically opposed to the self-interested logic of markets. (I think I hardly need make mention of that scuffle Jesus had with the Temple moneychangers?)

But, unlike the Isiyim, Jesus did not advocate seclusion from or disengagement from, let alone damnation of, the world. He told his disciples to be leaven: the ingredient in the bread, though transient and of a different nature from the bread, which transfigures it from within. And he told his disciples to live by example. The kingdom of God would not come about through political violence – whether of the imperial-interventionist or of the revolutionary kind. Nor will it come about by taking the Pharisaical, atomistic individual attitude of ‘it’s not my problem’ endemic to bourgeois liberals and libertarians, or by withdrawing completely from and refusing to participate in society as the Amish do. It starts with solidarity, and with hearts and hands in the heavy labour of engaging the world where they are.

The mystery of the Resurrection which this week we commemorate stands at the centre of what we are as the Body of Christ. Our Lord dies to be risen again, and dies so that the world might again know life. He dies and is risen to remind us that we are not sufficient to ourselves, but need each other as we needed him. These are not mere empty pieties, recited half in sleep on a Sunday morning; they are directives. They make claims not just upon our beliefs but upon our words and deeds as well. This is something the Church must remember.

21 March 2013

The choice of the third China

I realise that it is very difficult for Anglo-American expats like me to write about China – one can write a book about a day spent here (so the saying goes), a short paper about a month spent here, and maybe a sentence if we choose to linger for a year or more. As members of a hegemonic society which still manages to retain a vast degree of power internationally, facing what may or may not be an up-and-coming hegemonic society, our writing is due to be examined from many angles; it is therefore imperative that we write with care and perspicacity. And it is imperative that we speak as much of the truth about China that we can comprehend. It is enough to deter many from contributing. But write we must.

Much as I may disagree – occasionally vehemently – with Charlie Custer at ChinaGeeks, the contributors to Tea Leaf Nation, Dr Sam Crane over at The Useless Tree, Gil Grundy over at Fear of a Red Planet and Richard Burger at The Peking Duck, not to mention Kaiser Kuo, Jeremy Goldkorn, Dr David Moser and Didi Tatlow over at the excellent Sinica Podcast, I nevertheless have a profound respect for what they do, and often stand amazed by the sheer quality and depth of what they put out. It is really, really difficult for someone who has been here long enough to write about China without becoming jaded or superficial. I certainly don’t always succeed. I often feel like a lot of my work takes on a needlessly confrontational tone, to the government, to the dissident community and to the expat community – the art of smoothing over conflict in conversation is a Chinese talent I have yet to master. And often I feel like I’m only catching a part of the truth in my hermeneutic.

Which is actually one of the reasons I’m writing this article.

It strikes me that when one arrives in China for the first time, one is immediately struck with the impression of a deep divide between the outward face, the ‘official culture’ of Party pronouncements and People’s Daily articles, and the inner convictions of a lot of China’s people, particularly the young people one is most likely to meet in Beijing-Shanghai or the Guangzhou megalopoleis. My friends at Capital Normal University certainly fit the mold. I remember two of my classmates in particular – Jessy and Alex are their English names – who did not identify at all with the ‘official culture’, and who were eager to study abroad themselves and hopefully find a culture, perhaps in the United States, that they could better identify with. They got along better with those of us in the CET exchange programme, it often seemed like, than they did with their own countrymen.

I certainly do not blame them in that. That’s the story of my life, after March 2003, when (as a tenderfoot of seventeen years) I began to lose faith in the inherent rightness of democracy qua democracy, began to look with a jaundiced eye at the supposedly ‘free’ press which was very decidedly closed to the opinions and questions of those of us in the anti-war movement, and generally began to despair of American culture. There is absolutely no shortage of foul play in the Chinese ‘official culture’ to prompt such cynical reactions amongst young people, particularly the technologically-savvy denizens of Weibo who are the most likely to have access to information from beyond the Great Firewall.

At the same time, though, I think there is a tendency in the expat community to oversimplify. Sure, there is a broad swathe of China’s East Coast urbanites who have beefs with the government (and naturally the ethnic minorities in the China’s west), who tend to look toward the political and economic doctrines of pseudo-Western modernity as their nation’s salvation. And sure, this broad swathe of the Chinese grassroots gets pretty roundly ignored by the mouthpieces of official culture. But, having made more Chinese friends both here and in the US, having married a brilliant and wonderful Chinese woman, having worked with Chinese colleagues and having gotten past a lot of the inhibitions people have to discussing politics in China, I feel that this is also only a small piece of the larger picture.

Graduate students who come to the United States to study are often taken aback by the ease of access to information. Once they use it, however, they will often come to see that what is said in the ‘free press’ is to be doubted every bit as much as what is said in China’s state-run media. Often they will come away with an appreciation for the way their government does things that they did not have before. Which is naturally not to say that they become fifty-centers, by any stretch of the imagination. But, as my wife put it, ‘the more I read about the United States, the more respect I have for China’s government; if the United States had as large a population as China, its problems would certainly be far worse’.

One of my colleagues, Vivian, said that living in the interior of China is very different from living in Beijing or Shanghai. People here tend to be much more traditional, much more reserved. Parents and grandparents are respected – the word ‘孝順’ is not mere empty piety. In part, that is due to necessity: Inner Mongolia is traditionally quite poor, particularly when compared to the rest of China, and people depend on their family members for support.

Another interesting aspect to note is the resurgence of religion in China. I have remarked on some of the ways in which the Christian message gets really distorted here, with really ignorant and destructive exponents of Christianity like Yu Jie. But one has to bear in mind that we are witnessing resurgences of Buddhism, Christianity and Confucianism in post reform-and-opening China, in part because of the growing dissatisfaction with both the dialectical materialism of Mao and its logical successor in the consumerism which flourished under Deng. Buddhism, Christianity and Confucianism all, of course, provide very different responses to these excesses, but they are apparently finding wide enough audiences for scholars to perk up and take note.

The China which I see around me, and with which I interact daily, is neither the ‘harmonious society’ of Hu Jintao nor the liberal Western-leaning anti-society desired and embodied by ‘public intellectuals’, the Weibo commentariat and (most of) the expat community. Both of those elements are there, of course, alongside another pull which is not fully satisfied with either one. This pull may or may not be appropriately labelled ‘Confucian’ – I think Sam Crane makes very valid points when he critiques the reductive nature of many amateur commenters on Asia attribute all cultural distinctions, real and perceived, between China and ‘the West’ to the work of Confucius – though certainly it has Confucian elements in what it marks off as ‘shameful’. Among these elements are: a respect for the elderly and for familial duties, a non-negotiable value placed on community and relationships, a desire for an egalitarian-leaning (if not necessarily egalitarian) just social setup, and a growing scepticism toward profit merely for profit’s sake (if not necessarily toward profit itself).

Those who subscribe to this pull face a false choice – and the same choice is offered them by both the CCP and the liberals. The CCP would put it to them that to choose the liberal path would be to reject a just order in favour of an undisciplined, decadent licence; and the liberals would put it to them that to choose the CCP’s path would be to reject freedom in favour of totalitarian tyranny. Each presents itself as the ‘only way out’ – just as, between the Soviet Union and Reaganite / Thatcherite neoliberalism, each presented itself as the only alternative. TINA still appears to be dogma amongst the young coastal elites: China must adopt liberal-democratic capitalist modernity in the Western mold, or die. This was Liu Xiaobo’s entire intellectual conceit – along with a visceral bigotry against Muslims and a cringe-inducing enthusiasm for the Bush doctrine.

As Wang Hui noted in The End of the Revolution, there is a de facto, if not necessarily intentional, collusion between China’s neoliberal and neoconservative ‘dissidents’ (whose voices are magnified by attention from the press and funding from Western governments) and China’s own government to ensure that the range of acceptable political discourse operates solely in the field between these two poles. Criticism of China’s prevailing social and economic setup from the (non-Marxist-Leninist-Maoist) new left is always hogtied rhetorically, both by the government and by the liberals, to the Cultural Revolution; criticism from the (non-capitalist, non-liberal, non-interventionist) old right are hogtied rhetorically to a benighted and inegalitarian Chinese past and made to carry the legacy of the 國恥 – the ‘national humiliation’ of the Qing Dynasty by the West.

And yet, even as the local experimentation of Bo Xilai has been ruthlessly and extralegally stamped out (at the hands of China’s government, with the broad blessings and support of China’s liberals and the Western press), it must be emphasised that China needs these alternatives. As Cambridge institutional economist Chang Ha-Joon has pointed out on numerous occasions, Taiwan, Japan and South Korea became successful economies because, and only to the degree that, they did not conform, in full, to the dictates of the neoliberal Washington consensus; that they did not follow Mao’s path in its entirety either is a point not worthy of mention. China’s current economic and political model is not sustainable, as an increasing number of Chinese people, and – to be fair – the government, both realise.

If and when procedural democracy does come to China, we may indeed find that the third-direction pull is stronger than either the government or the Western expat community anticipates. I have a strong suspicion that it would do so in Baotou. It is a pull which may find itself in sympathy with either the Chinese neoleftists, or the political Confucian movement, or both – but as these movements are both largely academic and as yet hold no mass appeal, they are unlikely to gain immediate traction.

Still, it is this third-direction pull which has to find an outlet of some kind in public policy. History shows that when this pull is ignored, those subscribing to it will create their own (the White Lotus, the Taiping Rebellion, the Boxers, and more recently the Tian’anmen Square protests); and that the consequences can be quite disastrous.

19 March 2013

Find the cost of ‘freedom’

There is a country with a population of thirty million people. Half lived in slum conditions two years ago, and nearly a quarter live below the global poverty line. In nine years of war, anywhere between 150,000 and 400,000 innocent civilians died violent deaths. Four and a half million are orphans; six hundred thousand of these are homeless. One million people fled the country to Syria, where another today threatens to displace them yet again. Still again as many are internally displaced, wayfarers within their own homeland. It is a country which remains mired in corruption, violence, dependency and terrorism.

This country is Iraq.

Ten years ago today, this country was invaded by the United States. My country. Four thousand five hundred of my countrymen were killed and over thirty five thousand were wounded in the invasion and its aftermath, lives squandered on the basis of their government’s lies. That is not to mention the goodwill of the world and the moral capital of the United States on the world stage, which were likewise squandered in the murderous folly.

Today, al-Qaeda in Iraq essentially has free run of the country, in a way it simply did not under Saddam. The ‘democracy’ which has been brought to Iraq is run by crude systems of party patronage which make Tammany Hall look like a beacon of transparency and fair play. The weapons of mass destruction which were supposed to be in the country simply failed to materialise.

All facts and figures. Sobering enough, but they still do not carry the true impact of the war. Instead, one must always bear in mind that under each statistic there are hidden as many stories as that figure recounts. Mark Shea links to one such story, of an Army psychologist who saved many lives and sanities during a completely insane war, and yet succumbed himself to PTSD and depression, which in the end robbed him of his life. The story is heartbreaking and enraging, but it should be read and reflected upon.

Other stories abound. Humanitarian workers shot. Places of worship bombed. Iraq’s native Christian women raped or disfigured because they do not wear the veil. Most of Iraq’s Christians have by this time fled to Jordan or to Syria, crippling perhaps forever one of the oldest and most venerable congregations in the Middle East.

Mehdi Hasan of the New Statesman is right. As terrible as Saddam was, Iraq is nevertheless worse off without him. This is no apology for Saddam, but rather a serious indictment of a failed foreign policy stance that neither party in American politics has fully learnt from.

Mark Shea, in fine form this week

Mark Shea is here to kick arse and chew bubblegum. And apparently, today his supply of gum ran out.

He has two spectacularly devastating articles which are calling out banality and drivel left and right, with regard to the bigoted Malthusian misuse of evolutionary theory in an anti-theistic context in the one, and with regard to the ressentiment-filled embrace of idiocy of the American Thing-That-Used-to-Be-Conservatism in the other.

(Also, incredibly quotable stuff, this. ‘The basic rule of thumb is that you stick to your guns when you are right and the crowd is wrong, not when you are proven multiple times to have been disastrously and stupidly wrong and your critics are right.’)

But taking the two posts together, it becomes very clear that the post-Christian cultural American ‘left’ and the aggressively Calvinist cultural American ‘right’ actually share a great deal in common. The technocratic hubris of the cultural elites who believe they can replace God, and those who embrace a post-modern rejection of historical and scientific fact in order to bolster their far-right political worldview, seem to come to the same place. And in that place, the poor and the non-white are made to feel highly unwelcome indeed.

If that sounds forbidding and gloomy, it always bears remembering that the converse also holds true.

The salvation of the Left lies in its embrace of economic and social equality, and of the traditional Abrahamic provenance of that idea, without which support wears very thin indeed. The salvation of the Right lies in its embrace of the transcendental non-negotiable value of the ‘permanent things’, and in a scepticism following from that value of the levelling and social disruption which comes out of materialist capitalism.

17 March 2013

Kiki’s Delivery Service and the gently-radical imagination of Miyazaki Hayao

Warning! This post contains movie spoilers!

If I were to choose my favourite movie directors of all time, some familiar names might appear prominently on the list: Peter Weir, Paul Verhoeven, Kurosawa Akira. But the top name would not be a person associated with films in the traditional sense – Miyazaki Hayao. As an animator, though he is very well-known in the West and in China, not to mention Japan, and many people are familiar with some of the radical political themes in his work (whether ecological, feminist or socialist), I think one film of his in particular gets pretty roundly overlooked.

Kiki’s Delivery Service is not a typical Miyazaki film, in spite of the prominent themes which generally recur in Miyazaki movies (like flying). In Kiki’s Delivery Service there are no primal, elemental Shinto nature-gods warring with (or helping) humans; no legendary lost flying cities; no crypto-Christian Messianic prophecies to be fulfilled; no malign curses to be overcome – in spite of the fact that the protagonist is a witch, Kiki’s Delivery Service is a wholly human story. However, this being a Miyazaki film, there are definitely religious and mystical overtones to it (including some he himself did not intend, perhaps, since he is on record as viewing religion with a somewhat distrustful eye). The most striking thing about Kiki’s Delivery Service, though, is the imaginative way in which Miyazaki portrays human relationships and motivations, and thus begins to offer a commentary on modern economic, social and religious life.

The basic conceit of the story is that when a girl born into a witch family comes of age, she must leave her parents’ home on the night of a full moon and seek out a new town to train herself and practise her craft. We see Kiki, accompanied by her black cat familiar Jiji, leaving her parents’ home (her mother is a skilled potion-maker with a slight tendency to be distracted, causing her potions to explode) – in spite of this radically-individualist custom the witches seem to have with regard to their trade, both her parents clearly love her and wish her the best, and she is surrounded by friends and neighbours who come to see her off. This is part-and-parcel of the rural intimacy which Miyazaki uses his incredible artistic talent to portray: the beautifully-drawn brooks and dirt roads, the man on the bike, the broken old picket fence and flower garden surrounding Kiki’s home. Notably, her mother gives her her own old broom to ride on – a broom which never loses its way even in a storm, which Kiki (reluctantly) accepts: filiality and the value of the old, the established and the personal are themes which return often in the film.

There is a definite shift in tone when Kiki arrives in her new town. The rural, intimate setting of her hometown, where people know her and her family, where the old lady Dora remembers perfectly well when Kiki’s mother arrived in their town, is replaced with a huge, impersonal city. Kiki is initially enthralled with the port city Koriko with its beautiful towers and bustling streets, but she soon discovers that she can easily be brushed aside in it. She stands at a corner, asking for permission to stay there and expecting the same kind of intimate, hospitable relationship her family had with their hometown. The scene is a heart-breaker: when confronted with this girl, the people around her all give her a wide-eyed look, before trading uneasy glances with each other and then hurrying away. It’s none of their business, after all. And that before a police officer threatens to ticket her for unwittingly blocking traffic. It’s little wonder that after this experience, she ends up blowing off the one person who does show up to help her – the flight-obsessed boy Tonbo.

Koriko certainly has its saving graces, though, and plenty of them. Not just Tonbo, but the baker Osono who runs the shop “Gütiokipänjä” – who stands as a striking counterpoint to the city folk we have seen thus far. She actively cares about her customers, which we see instantly as she is trying to return a pacifier to one of her customers who left it in the shop. Kiki returns it for Osono, and Osono immediately invites her in for coffee and gives her a place to stay. When Kiki comes up with the idea of running a delivery service, Osono offers to give her the use of the bakery’s phone to start up her business, with free room and board in exchange for some part-time help in the bakery. The economics which the protagonists of Kiki’s Delivery Service engage in are not capitalist economics – Osono does not charge Kiki rent or offer her a pittance in exchange for running errands, for example – but rather mutualist economics. No thought of reward is given when Kiki offers to return the pacifier, when Osono offers her a place to stay, when Kiki offers to help around the bakery or when Osono offers the use of her phone. Certainly both Kiki and Osono are entrepreneurs, and no governing authority makes its presence obviously felt here, but they treat each other with dignity and kindness rather than trying to swindle each other – Kiki helps out in the shop, and Osono steers customers toward Kiki. Both seem to do so out of deep-seated non- (if not counter-) capitalist values: in Kiki’s case, the customs of the witches; in Osono’s case, a sense of hospitality and pride in her trade which goes well beyond the profit motive.

Kiki takes pride in her craft also, and the customs and moral values of the witches in Miyazaki’s universe continue to take on their radical bent. When making a delivery, even though she is in a rush to get off work, she still refuses to take payment when it turns out the elderly woman who requested her services does not have what she was meant to deliver: a pie for her granddaughter’s birthday. ‘I can’t take money for nothing,’ Kiki says as she helps her elderly customer build a fire for the old wood-fired bread-oven which will be used to make the pie. Miyazaki’s attitudes toward technology are somewhat on display here as well.

Miyazaki’s attitude toward technology generally seems to be a Schumacherian one: it becomes more dangerous the less it conforms to human scale. In Nausicaä of the Valley of Wind, the small torches and wind turbines, even Nausicaä’s Möwe, are placed in a sympathetic light. Anything larger, though – the airships of Pejite, the tanks of Tolmekia, not to mention the gigantic God-Warrior – is seen to provoke the wrath of the giant insects. In Castle in the Sky, the very same destructive technology of the lost city proves to be the ruin of Muska and the city itself; Lucita, the true heir to the city, warns against the use of technology for its own sake, without its natural aims and without its connexion to the earth. The same pattern seems to hold true for Kiki’s Delivery Service – though no giant insects show up as the instruments of divine wrath, the dirigible Freedom Adventurer stands in for the sort of technology which defies the human scale. It crashes into the clock tower and very nearly kills Tonbo. Even the smaller-scale technologies are treated with a sceptical eye. The elderly Madame’s microwave breaks down, and no one knows how to fix it – only a wood-fed oven can save the day. Very notably, “Gütiokipänjä” does not use electric technology; even the phone is old-fashioned. (But Kiki does use her dad’s old radio and Tonbo ends up building a pedal-powered plane.)

And even some of Miyazaki’s old class politics show up. When the Freedom Adventurer breaks its tethers and nearly kills Tonbo, Kiki has no time to bring her own broom, but must borrow the old implement of a middle-aged proletarian in a work cap and overalls – and this is the broom she is seen riding ever since. It does not seem accidental that in the end, the day is saved by this humble broom and the talents of the brave young girl riding it.

It is in exploring the nature of talent that Miyazaki treads onto the religious ground that seems to offer at least a partial underpinning for the mutualist economic and social relationships of his characters. Miyazaki, being an artist himself, seems to offer a voice for his own craft in Ursula, the barefoot young artist who lives in a cabin in the woods. Shortly after Kiki loses her powers, and is no longer capable of flight, Ursula comes to visit her. They discuss the loss of her powers, and then start talking about inspiration and the creative spirit: ‘the spirit of witches; the spirit of artists; the spirit of bakers! I suppose,’ says Ursula, ‘it must be a power given by God. Sometimes you suffer for it.’

‘In today's society… where anyone can earn money going from one temporary job to another, there is no connexion,’ Miyazaki states, ‘between financial independence and spiritual independence. In this era, poverty is not so much material as spiritual.’ It is part-and-parcel of Miyazaki’s gentle radicalism that he recognises that poverty is not just something physical – though it certainly is that also – but something spiritual as well. He is not uncaring toward views of poverty which focus on the physical aspects; this is best demonstrated by his sympathetic portrayal of the flawed Lady Eboshi (and the women of Irontown) in Princess Mononoke. But at the same time, each of his films tries to point beyond that existence.

15 March 2013

Off the rails - China edition

Apparently, Xi Jinping and the Twelfth People’s Congress have decided to take as their model for China’s future rail system one of the worst examples of privatised rail in the western world, which an overwhelming majority of British voters want undone.

To be clear, the Wenzhou rail crash was truly a tragedy, and its aftermath indicated a strong need for reform of the existing system. But, even though it is taken as an article of blind faith among many in the Western press and expat community, it is highly unclear if privatisation will do anything to help prevent future accidents, or indeed anything at all, except the bloat of the state and the profit of the newly-created corporation (undoubtedly to be owned by a family member of someone on the State Council), at the particular expense of the migrant workers who depend on the rail to get to their jobs, and to get back home to their significant others and their children.

To this effect, two economics professors in the US and three graduate students have sent an open letter to the People’s Congress, expressing their concerns. The original has (perhaps unsurprisingly) been censored out of existence from the Sina blogs, but I have translated it in full, and provided the original here:

Open letter to the 12th National People’s Congress, regarding our views of the State Council reform plan

Esteemed delegates:

We are professors and doctoral students of economics; all of us are Chinese citizens. On the occasion of the first meeting of the Twelfth National People’s Congress, we wish to provide you, for your earnest consideration, some of our views on the issue of the railway management system.

According to news reports, the State Council’s institutional reform programme will be considered at the National People’s Congress; the content of which includes both the revocation of the Ministry of Railways and the chartering of new railway companies, to facilitate the introduction of private capital. We are deeply concerned about this reform programme, and must not be remiss in exercising our responsibilities as citizens to express our views.

The Ministry of Railways was founded in the early days of the People’s Republic. For the past 60 years, the employees of the Ministry of Railways have worked tirelessly to bring about socialist economic development and contribute to the national defence. Since reform-and-opening, railway construction has developed tremendously, has aided the development of each of the national economy’s various sectors, and has met the long-distance transportation needs of the vast majority of the Chinese populace (particularly those in the middle and working classes).

Currently, the volume of China’s rail business has reached second place in world rankings, with the volume of electric and high-speed rail business having reached first place. Looking at the statistics, from 2000 to 2010, China’s rail system transported thirteen billion passengers, with a death rate from serious accidents of only two passengers per hundred million. Contrast this with Japan’s death rate from serious accidents of nine passengers per hundred million over the same period, and India’s death rate of nine-hundred twenty passengers per hundred million; it is clear that China’s rail system is comparatively safe when compared with the performance of other systems internationally.

It is common knowledge that our nation’s ordinary passenger rail service is affordable, and in the 18 years since 1995, to meet the transportation needs of China’s many struggling labourers, the rail prices have never risen. For the high-speed rail services which cater primarily to middle- and upper-class passengers, the average high-speed rail fare per kilometre is equivalent to 4 euro cents. By contrast, the average high-speed rail fare per kilometre in Germany is 27 euro cents; in Japan, it is 22.

These facts demonstrate that the current rail management system basically aligns with the actual goals of China’s economic and social development. Our nation’s railway growth and operational conditions are the pinnacle of those in the developing world, and even surpass those of some developed nations.

Based on these facts, we believe that the State Council, having failed to account for the full range of views on the topic and particularly having failed to consult the broadly-held views of the vast majority of the Chinese people, and lightly advocating the repeal and privatisation of the Ministry of Railways under their institutional reform plan, are being completely careless and irresponsible.

Firstly, the full argument must be set out publicly: what important, tangible benefits (as opposed to benefits supposed by academic conjecture) the repeal of the Ministry of Railways, establishment of a private rail corporation and introduction of private capital will have for the vast majority of the Chinese people, should be clearly stated to them. The opposing view should also be accorded the full opportunity to be published and to be heard.

Conversely, will the repeal of the Ministry of Railways, establishment of a private rail corporation and introduction of private capital have any great risks and heavy costs? Rail is hardly a cutting-edge industry; every country on earth has plenty of historical experience with rail to draw upon. In comparing our railways with those of capitalist nations - which experiences were successful, and which failures we can take lessons from - there is a great wealth of empirical data for each. And the lessons of the failures of rail privatisation in many other nations of the world are painful. Do we wish to learn from these painful lessons? Is the State Council prepared to avoid these failures? If these preparations haven’t been made; if institutions are lightly changed; if the fundamental well-being of 1.3 billion people is made into a plaything; how is this not careless and irresponsible behaviour?

The [proposed] railway corporation will be organised according to market principles, with the acquisition of profit as its goal. Train tickets will no longer be affordable. Undoubtedly there will be grave consequences for the middle and working classes, particularly for the vital well-being of migrant workers. Also, in order to develop new railways in remote middle and western regions of China, the railway corporation must receive state subsidies. With the introduction of private capital into this railway corporation, state subsidies are no longer used to meet the needs of the public, but rather become a disguised instrument of corporate welfare. Take the United Kingdom for example. After private capital was introduced into the railway system, UK train fares have become the highest of any country in the world. Simultaneously, the government of the UK is forced to acquire vast amounts of funding to subsidise private capital, ten times what was required before privatisation. Since privatisation, not only has the quality of rail transport not improved, but indeed has become Europe’s most crowded. Also, the UK rail transport system’s has suffered one accident after another, including the disastrous Hatfield accident in 2000 due to inadequate maintenance.

Even though we are unable to understand the decision-making process of the relevant departments of the State Council, from all available news reports we were still able to learn that those members advocating the dissolution of the Ministry of Railways hope to thereby clear away all obstacles to full privatisation and marketisation of the rail system. On the topic of planning and markets, Comrade Deng Xiaoping said, ‘Planning and market forces are not the essential difference between socialism and capitalism. A planned economy is not the definition of socialism, because there is planning under capitalism; the market economy happens under socialism, too. Planning and market forces are both ways of controlling economic activity’. Obviously Comrade Xiaoping wanted to use the market as only one of many methods of economic development, not as the only method, and certainly not as the only form of a socialist economic system! If capitalism can use [certain elements of state-directed] planning, socialism certainly can also; further, Comrade Deng never advocated full privatisation, and never believed that the people could be served only by the introduction of private capital.

Over the past period [of reform-and-opening], although China’s economic reforms brought great achievements, they also incurred heavy costs in many areas. In these areas, the one-sided emphasis on marketisation by the leaders of the reform caused de facto privatisation for a large number of state-owned enterprises; the results were an unprecedented wealth gap, a massive drain of state assets, a deluge of political corruption, exacerbated environmental pollution; on top of that, many people could no longer afford housing, medical care, education, or even secure food for themselves - such were the ill effects. Thus can the enormous social and environmental costs to this point in history be summarised.

The ill effects of the blind marketisation of the past have not yet been fully accounted for or diagnosed, let alone corrected one at a time, but [the government is] already eager to launch new marketisations, especially in the domain of the national and popular welfare (as the rail system is). When one day this causes massive problems, who shall be held accountable, and how shall they exercise their accountability? In front of the entire nation, who can possibly take this level of responsibility?

Naturally, the rail system and its management as they stand indeed have many shortcomings and defects. Inside the Ministry of Railways there are problems of political corruption, insufficient supervision, and so forth. Nowadays these problems exist in varying degrees in every branch and every level of China’s government. If our country’s leadership truly has the will and the ability, they should strive to end or at least constrain political corruption and make the government more efficient. In this way, even if we retain the Ministry of Railways, the problems the Ministry of Railways has will naturally follow suit. The Ministry will become better as the other branches of government do, thus becoming transparent, honest and effective.

If the government has no means of resolving the problems of political corruption and inept supervision, please inform us: what problems will reorganising the Ministry of Railways into a railway corporation solve? Can the government really simply discard its responsibilities to supervise the railways by selling the Ministry of Railways to private investors? If we cannot expect the government to resolve the problems of the Ministry of Railways, what basis do we have to believe that the government is capable of solving the problems associated with establishing a new railway corporate office? Or those of the Ministry of Communications? Or those of the State Council?

Of course the existing railway system certainly has problems, but more important are the results it has achieved. It has embodied the excellence of socialism, and its vast staff have proven their merits. Whatever considerations ultimately led the relevant authorities to this recommendation, it is inconceivable that a system our nation uses, which has proven superior, should be discontinued; it is inconceivable that we should not strive to improve on the basis of this system; and it is inconceivable that we should not learn the lessons of systems which have no advantage over ours and which have no shortage of failures.

Esteemed delegates, you are the National People’s Congress: under our nation’s Constitution, you wield the supreme powers of the state on behalf of the people. As ordinary citizens, we earnestly hope that you are capable of taking seriously your powers of representation, seriously consider the State Council’s reform plan, approve those sections which are in the interest of the nation and her people, and reject those sections which do not conform to those interests.

The eyes of the entire nation are upon you.

Li Minqi - Associate Professor, Economics Department, University of Utah
Xu Zhun - PhD, Economics Department, University of Massachusetts-Amherst; Lecturer, School of Economics, Renmin University
Li Zhongjin - PhD, Economics Department, University of Massachusetts-Amherst
Chen Ying - PhD, Economics Department, University of Massachusetts-Amherst
Qi Hao - PhD, Economics Department, University of Massachusetts-Amherst

致第十二届全国人民代表大会的公开 信



我们分别是经济学领域的大学教师、 博士 研究生。我们都是中国公民。值此第十二届全国人民代表大会第一次会议召开之际,就铁路管理体制问题向你们提供一些意见,望得 到你们认真考虑。

据新闻报道,此次全国人大会议,将 要审 议国务院提出的机构改革方案,其中一项内容是要撤销铁道部,另成立铁路总公司,为引进私人资本提供方便。对于这个改革方案, 我们深感忧虑,不能不行使公民的职责、表达我们的意见。

铁道部成立于建国初期。铁道部的广 大职 工为六十多年的社会主义经济建设、国防事业立下了汗马功劳。改革开放以来,铁路建设大发展,很好地配合并且促进了国民经济各 行业的发展,并且满足了广大人民群众(特别是广大中下层群众)在长途交通运输方面的需要。

目前,我国铁路营业里程已经达到世 界第 二位,电气化铁路里程和高速铁路里程均达到世界第一位。据统计,2000年至2010年,我国铁路系统累计运送旅客130亿人次,每亿人次重大事故死亡人数2人。相比之下,同期,日本铁路每亿 人次 重大事故死亡人数9人;印度每亿人次重大事故死亡人数920人。可见,我国的铁路系统与世界其 它国 家相比,是比较安全的。

众所周知,我国的普通旅客铁路是经 济实 惠的,1995年以来18年没有涨价,在困难的情况下满足了 亿万普通劳动者的需要。就主要以中高层收入者为服务对象的高速 铁路来说,我国高铁每公里平均票价仅0.04欧元。相比之下,德国高铁的平均票 价为 每公里0.27欧元,日本为每公里0.22欧元。

这些事实说明,我国目前的铁路管理 体制 基本上符合我国经济和社会发展的实际需要。我国的铁路发展和运营状况在所有发展中国家中是领先的,有些方面甚至超过了发达国 家。

根据这些事实,我们认为,国务院有 关部 门,在没有充分听取各方面意见特别是征求广大人民群众意见的情况下,轻易推出撤销铁道部的机构改革方案,是十分草率的,是不 够负责的。

首先,撤销铁道部,另成立铁路总公 司并 引进私人资本,对于广大人民群众来说,有哪些重大的、实实在在的好处(而不仅仅是理论上的、学术上的好处),要经过充分论 证,要向广大人民群众讲清楚。反面的意见,也要给予充分发表和听取的机会。

另一方面,撤销铁道部并成立铁路总 公 司、引进私人资本后,有没有重大风险、有没有重大代价?铁路不是什么新兴产业,世界各国的历史经验是很丰富的。资本主义国家 的铁路与我们相比,有哪些成功的经验、有哪些失败的教训,都是有大量资料的。世界上许多国家铁路私有化失败的教训是惨痛 的。 这些惨痛的失败教训,要不要吸取?国务院有关部门对于避免这些失败教训有没有准备?如果没有准备,轻易改动体制,拿事关十三 亿人民根本利益的大事开玩笑,难道不是草率和不负责任吗?

铁路总公司一旦按照市场原则把利润 作为 目标,火车票将不再廉价,这无疑会影响广大中下层群众尤其是农民工的切身利益。同时,铁路要想在中西部偏远地区发展,必然需 要国家财政的补贴。铁路总公司一旦引入私人资本,国家补贴就不再纯粹用于满足人民群众的需要,而成了变相补贴私人资本的 工 具。以英国为例。私人资本进入铁路系统后,英国成为全世界火车票价最高的国家。同时,政府要拿出巨额资金补贴私人资本,是私 有化之前的数十倍。自私有化以来,英国铁路的服务质量不仅没有提高,反而成为欧洲最拥挤的铁路系统;同时,英国铁路交通 事故 层出不穷,包括2000年因铁路维护不力而发生的哈特菲尔德火车事故。

虽然我们无从了解国务院有关部门决 策的 具体过程,但是根据各方面新闻报道,仍然了解到,主张撤销铁道部的一些人士希望通过撤销铁道部为铁路系统全面私有化、市场化 扫清障碍。关于计划和市场的问题,邓小平同志讲过:“计划多一点还是市场多一点,不是社会主义与资本主义的本质区别。计 划经 济不等于社会主义,资本主义也有计划;市场经济不等于资本主义,社会主义也有市场。计划和市场都是经济手段。”显然,小平同 志只是将市场作为经济发展的手段之一,而决不是唯一的手段,更不是社会主义经济制度的唯一形式。既然资本主义可以有计 划,社 会主义更可以有计划。邓小平同志更是从来没有主张过私有化,也从来没有认为社会主义的经济部门只有靠引进私人资本才能为人民 服务。

过去的一个时期,我国的经济改革虽 然取 得了很大成绩,但是在许多领域也付出了重大代价。在某些改革领域,由于改革主导者片面强调市场化,客观上对大量国有企业搞了 私有化,结果造成贫富差距悬殊、国有资产大批流失、贪污腐败泛滥、环境污染恶化以及许多人民群众住不起房、看不起病、上 不起 学、吃不到放心食品等恶果。对于这些巨大的社会和环境代价,是到了好好总结一下的时候了。

过去盲目市场化造成的恶果,还没有 充分 总结,找出病因,并且一一纠正,就急于发动新的市场化,又是在铁路这样关系国计民生的领域,一旦将来出了问题、出了大问题, 由谁来负责,要负什么样的责任?在全国人民面前,又有谁负得起这个责任?

当然,铁路系统管理的现状,确实有 很多 不足和缺陷。铁路系统内部,也存在着贪污腐败和管理不善等问题。这些问题,目前也是在我国各级政府管理部门中不同程度存在 的。如果咱们国家的领导人确实有决心、有能力,要努力杜绝或者至少遏制贪污腐败、提高政府管理效率,那么,即使保留铁道 部, 铁道部现有的一些问题自然也会随着各级政府部门的改善而改善,从而成为清正、廉洁、高效的铁道部。

如果政府对于贪污腐败和管理不善的 问题 没有办法,那么请问,把铁道部改组为铁路总公司又能解决什么问题?就是把铁路都卖给私人,政府能丢弃监督管理铁路的责任吗? 如果政府解决不好铁道部的问题,我们凭什么相信政府可以解决好新成立的铁路局的问题,可以解决好交通部的问题,可以解决 好国 务院的问题?

本来,我国现有的铁路管理体制,虽 然存 在一定问题,但是成绩是主要的,是体现了社会主义优越性的,铁路系统的广大职工是有功劳的。对于我国现有的有一定优越性的体 制不坚持、不在坚持的基础上努力加以完善,而非要去学资本主义国家并没有什么优越性并且不乏失败教训的体制,有关部门到 底是 出于什么考虑,实在是匪夷所思!

各位代表,你们都是全国人大代表, 根据 我国宪法代表人民行使国家最高权力。作为普通公民,我们殷切希望,你们能够认真行使代表权,认真审议国务院机构改革方案,批 准符合国家和人民利益的部分,否决那些不符合国家和人民利益的部分。


李民骐 犹他大学经济学系副教授

许 准 中国人民大学经济学院讲师,麻省州 立大学经济学系博士

李钟瑾 麻省州立大学经济学系博士研究生

陈 瀛 麻省州立大学经济学系博士研究生

齐 昊 麻省州立大学经济学系博士研究生

How do you say ‘pretentious attention-seeking poseur’ in Chinese?

Funny you should ask, since apparently, they have a very appropriate term for the phrase: 艾未未 (Ai Weiwei).

Chinese dissident artist Ai Weiwei, whose oeuvre already spans genres from film to architecture, is taking on a new medium with plans for a hard rock album, he told AFP on Tuesday.

Ai’s avant-garde works, which also include visual arts and sculpture, have been exhibited around the world, but he admitted his musical limitations.

He was not a long-standing hard rock fan and had no favourite bands, he said.

“My favourite band will be myself,” he added. “I don’t play instruments, I sing and I wrote the songs. It’s about my condition and China’s condition.”

The music, composed by a friend, is in the final stage of mixing, while videos are also being produced. The album, provisionally titled “Divine Comedy”, is due for release within two months, he added.

Now, I’m the last guy you’ll catch saying that politics has no place in metal. But at the very least it shouldn’t be the driving force for making music - that’s aesthetic Stalinism (however ironic such an appellation might be in Ai’s case). And the fact that he isn’t a metalhead, the fact that he doesn’t even have a favourite band, and most tellingly of all the fact that he claims himself as his favourite band, all show that we’re dealing with some Geoff Tate-worthy levels of wankery here.

Ahh, my gentle readers, you know I’ll listen to it. Hell, I managed to sit through Founding of a Republic without being bored to tears, and even managed to find a couple of praiseworthy thematic elements in it. Who knows, Ai might surprise me. Suffice it to say, though, I’m not holding my breath.

13 March 2013

Long live Pope Francis!

St Ignatius of Loyola is certainly smiling today. Not to mention St Francis of Assisi, after whom Jorge Cardinal Bergoglio took his regnal name.

A Pope who names himself Francis to remember the Saint who witnessed and agitated ‘for the poor, for the disenfranchised, for those living on the fringes and facing injustice’, is a Pope I can gladly honour as a spiritual leader even from my perch outside the Roman Catholic Church looking in.

Praise be to God, and viva il Papa Francesco!

12 March 2013

The continuing ironies of discussing the Great Leap Forward

Well, actually, I’ve been deliberately avoiding it for the past while. I find I am increasingly unable to debate on things China without getting frustrated and angry with both sides, and that is never a useful position to start from. This past month there was a bit of a spat between two of the blogs in my sidebar, Dr Sam Crane’s The Useless Tree (and here) and Hidden Harmonies. Both are equally, and I think unfairly in both cases, dismissive and belittling of the other, because each generally have valid points to make. Not so on this subject, however; what both blogs are hyperventilating over in this case is China’s Great Leap Forward (or, as my China Studies teacher in high school put it, the Great Lurch Sideways).

I’m not a GLF famine scholar, though most of the credible econometric and other statistical work I’ve read on the subject (Amartya Sen and his students) does tend toward a ‘low-ball’ estimate of 13-16 million excess deaths (I hate such objectifying language, but apparently that’s what you have to use in the business of describing human catastrophes like famines). Amartya Sen, of course, is no more an apologist for Mao than I am, which Dr Crane clarified in his follow-up. What is notable about Sen, though, is that he has no dog in this fight, except in the idea that famines do not happen in ‘democratic’ societies (which I think is as contestable as the democratic peace theory, but that is a different argument).

What I find so offensive about arguments like these, is that each side is a mirror image of the other, and each side is trying to control the debate for contemporary political reasons which have nothing to do with respecting history and respecting the memories of the millions of people who died, as Yang Jisheng does in his book. The Great Leap Forward and the Cultural Revolution were heinous crimes on a mass scale, such that the modern CCP doesn’t defend them. There is no point in denying either part of this, so the entire argument between Dr Crane and melektaus (two people for whom I normally have a high degree of respect) seems utterly ludicrous to me. What is happening now, however, is that both atrocities have piled a further crime atop them to complete their awful legacies: a forceable closure of the political imagination.

It has to be noted – it is imperative to note – that the reforms of Deng Xiaoping could not have happened without the Great Leap Forward and the Cultural Revolution. I mean this not in the standard Marxist sense that the Chinese economy had to industrialise before bourgeois capitalism could take root, but in the sense that Mao’s spirit-destroying project ended up devouring and discrediting itself through these two initiatives, leaving the Chinese people with no grounds for creatively formulating a humane alternative to the authoritarian gangster-capitalist project of Deng. It should further be noted that the Western ideological imports which accompanied the ironically-named ‘reform and opening up’ actively encouraged this reading. Far from denying the Great Leap Forward and the Cultural Revolution, the Chinese government has used them (particularly the Cultural Revolution) ever since the Tian’anmen Square protests as blunt instruments to silence criticism of their policies from the left, and to discredit any political alternatives and experimentation which deviates from the accepted authoritarian-capitalist norm. This phenomenon has been noted and criticised by none other than Wang Hui, himself no Maoist, with regard to the airbrushing of the Chongqing Model out of the scope of tolerable debate.

Thus, supporters of grassroots democracy, open access to information and more equal distribution of wealth in China (many of whom supported Bo Xilai and the Chongqing Model for what ought to be obvious reasons), running the risk of being labelled neo-Maoists by both the Western and the domestic Chinese press, find themselves in the intolerable position of having to ‘own’ the legacies of Mao, for whom they are not responsible. Reprehensible as it may be, it is perfectly understandable from a psychological standpoint why some would want to take refuge in denial. The few people who want to make the careful argument which firmly separates the modern desire for more egalitarian economic policies from the disasters of the Great Leap Forward and the Cultural Revolution – like Wang Hui and Cui Zhiyuan – often find themselves marginalised anyway on account of their social status and on account of the political alliances they find themselves having to make. Denial is easier and has more visceral appeal.

The irony, for which I have never quite been able to forgive my fellow China-expat bloggers long enough to stop laughing at them, is that in spite of all their posturing about being in favour of transparency, democracy and all that jazz, in practice they are contributing to the repressive official climate surrounding political speech. They belittle, they alienate, they polarise and they dismiss those Chinese neoleftists with whom they might share common ground on questions of corruption and (one hopes, in the cases of Sam Crane, Richard Burger and Kaiser Kuo, at least!) distribution of wealth. To add further insult to injury, they contribute to the official climate of polarisation, wherein Thatcher-and-Reaganite supply-siders, neoliberals and market-fundamentalist kooks are unduly fetishised as brave defenders of liberty and speakers of ‘truth’; and even the reasonable, moderate neoleftists who saw something innovative and valuable in the promises of the Chongqing Model policy platform are demonised as fenqing, fifty-centers, reactionary monsters and brainless Mao worshippers.

(And this in spite of the fact that the CCP condemned the Chongqing Model, and used the rumour machine to actively discredit its proponents. If there are fifty-centers who support Bo Xilai, they’re obviously doing something wrong.)

So, again, even though Dr Crane is correct on the point about the GLF being primarily Mao’s responsibility, his entire approach is counterproductive (which I hope, given the storm of back-and-forth anathemas his post provoked, he came to realise). He is providing correct answers to the wrong questions. That Mao was responsible for the GLF is a fact, and it is a fact that deserves to be fully articulated, but in focussing the discussion in the way he does, he ignores the poisonous context in which that fact is used as a weapon by the ruling party against activists and political thinkers who simply do not deserve to be associated with Mao’s crimes. In respect to the victims of the Great Leap Forward famine, I should hardly imagine they would want their memories to be used as political weapons against those among their children and grandchildren who are striving for a more egalitarian China than the one currently on offer.

08 March 2013

Two sides of the same coin

Every time I behold the most recent argument from the nouveau atheist movement, it strikes me anew with the conviction that they are the exact mirror image of the fundamentalist Protestants they claim to oppose. Both movements are overwhelmingly white and overwhelmingly and aggressively bourgeois, for a start. Further, they are equally reductionist in their ontologies, and thus equally hubristic in their faith in human capacity to know ‘the Truth’ in its entirety (and equally certain that their group ‘has it’); equally fetishistic in their metaphysical approach to the natural sciences (a set of academic disciplines which by definition make no metaphysical claims whatsoever); equally cavalier about the value of human life, and thus equally eager to promote and engage in brutal force against those they see as the ‘enemy’; equally possessed of Manichaean worldviews which immediately separate the ‘saved’ from the ‘damned’ (or the ‘rational’ from the ‘benighted’, the ‘bright’ from the ‘dim’ and so on); equally predestinarian; equally problematic in their treatment of religious minorities and women; and equally emphatic about how different they are, the one from the other.

Of course, such emphatic declamations of difference in light of all these similarities can only be a form of psychological projection on either end. The only true demographic difference I can tell is that one movement is primarily urban and the other primarily suburban – though even there the characteristics tend to blur. The only true philosophical and theological difference I can tell is that one movement believes in precisely one less God than the other – though it should be noted that that God has precisely the same characteristics and foul temper.

Aesthetically, both are equally tone-deaf, and insist upon a levelling of all artistic and linguistic values to their chosen measure. Not only is it not enough for them that everyone behaves and believes the same way they do, but they also do everything in their power to make people amenable to the terse, prolix and mechanistic way that they like to think and speak. Both groups have a demonstrated taste for mass-market diatribes which exist solely to tell their readers that of which they are already convinced, and the way in which both groups have a tendency to communicate is studiedly ugly and dismissive, preferring (to employ the analogy that JRR Tolkien might) the brute monosyllables of the Orcs to the lyrical poetry of the Elves.

Anti-religious epithets like ‘brain-dead’ and ‘sky-fairy’ and ‘childish’ routinely pepper the speech of nouveau atheists (see the combox here), as do the various tropic extensions of those conceits – religion is for the mentally-ill and for children in their view (which shows as much as anything their contempt for children and their inhuman attitude toward the mentally-ill, as subrational things to be brushed aside rather than people who require love and care). On the other side, certain segments of the fundamentalist movement (like the people who seem to enjoy the Left Behind series or the preaching of Mark Driscoll) seem to enjoy selectively borrowing from apocalyptic literature the most violent images they can find, to make Jesus out to be a Hollywood-style action hero who will slay all the bad guys and send them screaming to hell.

In the end, it may not truly matter so much whether fundamentalists are merely atheists who haven’t yet quite managed to convince themselves, or whether atheists are merely fundamentalists who worship Matter rather than God. But the nagging suspicion that the two as sides of the selfsame coin, and that of a thoroughly 19th-century mint, continues to haunt me.