Wang Hui on ‘China’s Twentieth Century’

In short, China’s experiment with socialism in the twentieth century has allowed it to enter the twenty-first century with elegance

Wang Hui on ‘China’s Twentieth Century’

China carries its own understanding of society and the politico-economic system. This is the central idea of Wang Hui’s book, “China’s Twentieth Century: Revolution, Retreat and the Road to Equality,” edited by Saul Thomas and published by Verso in 2016. Hui was named one of the top 100 public intellectuals in the world in 2008 by the US magazine Foreign Policy. This opinion piece intends to discuss Hui’s certain ideas expressed in the book.

Whereas nowhere in the book does Hui give the meaning of Asia, he gives a boundary of Asia on page 8: “The Russian Revolution of 1905, the Iranian Constitutional Revolution of 1905-7, the Turkish Revolution of 1908-9, and the Chinese Revolution of 1911 were central to the ‘awakening of Asia’.” This description reflects Chinese understanding of Asia in the twentieth century.

Hui affirms that the concept of individual’s sovereignty and inalienable rights were bequeathed by the West, as he writes on page 92: “The spread of the concept of individual rights in the eighteenth century resulted in American Independence [1775-1783] and the French Revolution [1789-1799] ...This surge of ideas travelled from the Pacific and Indian Oceans to East Asia reached our country and resulted in the 1911 Revolution [i.e. the Xinhai Revolution that overthrew China’s last imperial dynasty, the Qing Dynasty (1644 to 1911), and established the Republic of China]. Our nation’s war of ideas has its root in this phenomenon.” Further, Hui writes on page 9: “The ‘awakening of Asia’ [expressed through the string of revolutions] and the outbreak of the First World War [in 1914] signified the age of the collapse of empires.” In this way, Hui acknowledges two points. First, the inspirational pedigree of Asia’s awakening, including the Chinese (Xinhai) Revolution, was not local but foreign. Secondly, Asia was not immune to the changes affecting the West: China captured and treasured zeitgeist.

Within the context of Asia, Hui claims that it was the Chinese revolution which inspired Russians to borrow something from it, as hewrites on page 10: “The October Revolution of Russia [in 1917, by revolutionaries of the left led by Bolshevik Party leader Vladimir Lenin who launched a bloodless coup with the help of the working class against the provisional government] was a product of European wars, but it echoed the Asian revolutions, and particularly the 1911 Chinese Revolution, in its combining of national revolution with a socialist economic program and state-building project.”Later on, in 1922, the Bolsheviks (or Reds) founded the Soviet Union. This point reflects the existence of an important learning process between Chinese and Russians from the experience of each other; certainly, 1991 was no exception. Hui asserts that, before 1905, China was inclined toward Japan under the rubric of pan-Asianism, the mainstay of which was the yellow race, as he writes on page 70: “After 1905, the pan-Asianism that centred on the yellow race and was predicated on a Sino-Japanese alliance receded. In its place came an expansionist strategy by autocratic countries, including Japan, which modelled itself after the Western imperialists [to construct Japanese pan-Asianism]. Along with this trajectory, it was only natural that a political nationalism based on the defence of national interests would follow suit”. Here, Hui makes three points. First, Japanese imperialism undermined the unity of the yellow race. Secondly, Japanese imperialism pushed China toward political nationalism. Thirdly, Chinese abhorred imperialism coming from whichever quarters.

Hui justifies Chinese aversion to Japanese imperialism, as he writes on page 72: “Japanese ‘pan-Asianism’ was ‘greater Japanism’ derived from an Asian form of the Monroe Doctrine; its nature was ‘not pacifism but aggression; not national self-determination, but imperialism that conquers the weak, not Asian democracy, but Japanese militarism, not an institution that adapts to world institutions, but one which subverts international institutions’.” That isChinese valued pacifism, national self-determination, Asian democracy and amenability to international institutions.

Hui has not mentioned his understanding of Asian democracy, but a clue can be obtained from what he writes about an Asian society on page 73: “The influence of religion on Western civilisation is minimal, but religion forms the basis of all Asian civilisation. As a result, the pragmatic white men use economic concerns [i.e. the accumulation of wealth] as a foundation while the coloured men set the foundation for morality. In my opinion, white men do not understand contentment. In terms of filial relations, coloured people have stronger filial relations than the irresponsible white men. Consequently, the sense of society is acuter in Asia and individuals suffer less.” This point may broach a debate, especially when seen against Hui’s earlier acknowledging the flow of ideas and changes coming from the West. It seems that Hui bifurcates China into a political half receptive to western political ideals and a social half resistant to western social models. Nevertheless, within the former half, China sees individual’s sovereignty and inalienable rights strictly in the socialist context.

Hui says that China also cherished to see itself in the framework of a civilizational nation, as he writes on page 87: “[D]istinct from the competition among the European nation-states, the competition between China and the West was one between civilizational nations…[T]he nation-state was not the universal form of statehood, but a product of a particular civilisation ... [‘P]olitics’ must be founded on a unique national civilisation and its way of life.” This point also introduces a debate, especially when seen against Hui’s earlier admittingChina’s embrace of political nationalism. Nevertheless, the difference may lie in the context (i.e. Japan or the West) in which China is equated.

Hui promotes social democracy, as he writes on page 222, 229 and 234 respectively: “[T]he end of the Cold War gave the capitalist side a discursive monopoly over ‘democracy,’ rendering other conceptions of democracy hostile to it. Understood as a political system, democracy embraces such concepts as the franchise, protection of individual rights, freedom of expression and pluralism, whereas the core meaning of democracy at the level of society is equality, embodied in social security, the availability of public goods to all of the society, redistribution and so forth. Together, these two levels constitute what we mean by social democracy. Distributive justice and equality [of opportunity and outcome] are part of the heritage of socialist movement.” Here, Hui makes two points. First, social democracy is essentially a post-1991 concept. Secondly, China prefers to find solutions for its modern problems strictly within the socialist context.

In short, China’s experiment with socialism in the twentieth century has allowed it to enter the twenty-first century with elegance.


The writer is a freelance columnist and can be reached at