For China's New Left, Old Values

By Ariana Eunjung Cha
Washington Post Foreign Service
Sunday, April 19, 2009

BEIJING -- Zuo Dapei took the microphone and declared that China's leaders were going in the wrong direction. The country had become too capitalist. Things would improve, he continued, only if the state reasserted its control over corporate assets.

The crowd of about 220 people, who had come to hear Zuo and other authors and academics speak on the topic of "Unhappy China," cheered.

For a growing number of Chinese, the solutions to the problems of the country's present -- including the income gap between rich and poor and the manipulation of the court system by state officials and company executives -- lie in its past, with the teachings of Mao Zedong.

Although Chairman Mao continues to be revered here as the visionary who founded the country and transformed it into a world power, the Communist Party has broken from many of his ideals through market-based reforms over the past three decades.

Not everyone has been supportive of this shift, and a nostalgia for the old days has increased amid the global financial crisis. The most influential critics, known collectively as the New Left, are not like the dissidents or political exiles of a previous generation. They are not calling for an overthrow of the Communist regime. Their recommendations and criticisms are, instead, based on a belief that state power can redress the injustices created by free markets, privatization and globalization. Their views are also characterized by a fierce nationalism and criticism of the West.

Although the New Left has been publishing position papers in journals and on the Internet since the 1990s, the global financial crisis has brought the group's leading figures into the spotlight as never before. Their rise comes as the Communist Party, which has held absolute power since 1949, faces growing discontent over unemployment, contaminated infant formula that has sickened more than 300,000 babies, shoddy construction that led to the collapse of thousands of school buildings during last year's Sichuan earthquake and corruption among public officials at all levels.

In a country where the state is often quick to crush criticism, Communist officials have tolerated the New Left, which is just one part of a broader phenomenon of emboldened Chinese questioning officials and speaking out about the failings of their government.

In what commentators have called a "patriotic movement," ordinary citizens, or "laobaixing," are increasingly seeking to find a way to participate in government in order to improve it: to educate themselves about policymaking, to influence legislation and to increase transparency and accountability.

The new passion for politics can be seen in the existence of public seminars such as the one at which Zuo spoke this month. It is apparent in the popularity of such books as "Unhappy China" -- a collection of essays that reject the government's policy of increased international cooperation to help the world out of the financial crisis and argue that China should use its power to further its own position. There is also a new, wildly popular genre of fiction called "officialdom novels."

The books focus on the messy, behind-the-scenes workings of high-level government in China. One series, "The Beijing Office Representative," tells the story of a municipal official who observes real estate developers and company executives offering bribes or sex to government officials in exchange for favors. Another, called "The Mayor's Assistant," is told through the eyes of the assistant to a deputy mayor who watches as his boss gradually becomes more and more corrupt and, in the end, is sentenced to death for his crimes.

The New Left's appeal is built on the work of prominent academics, including Zuo, 58, of the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences, and Tsinghua University professors Cui Zhiyuan, 47, and Wang Hui, 50. They have become especially popular among young people, farmers and laid-off factory workers.

Wang, a professor of humanities who is considered the leading New Leftist, has said that China is caught between two extremes: "misguided socialism" and "crony capitalism."

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