A contentious struggle between reformers and conservatives marked Chinese politics in the first decade of Deng Xiaoping’s reforms. That battle seemed to have disappeared after the 1989 Tiananmen crackdown, but in fact it had migrated from politics to intellectual life. As the post-Deng leadership was busy shrinking the role of state-owned enterprises and pushing China deeper into the global trading economy, intellectuals on the left used academic conferences and the Internet to mount critiques of neoliberalism and globalization, arguing that these policies coddled capitalists, hurt workers, and sold out China’s sovereignty. Although some leftists called for a “second Cultural Revolution,” they did not use violence, as the Red Guards had done in an earlier era. But they shared with the Red Guards the same veneration of Mao Zedong as the avatar of an egalitarian, anti-Western development model. With his rich description of personalities and issues, Blanchette brings these sometimes windy debates to life, revealing a little-known inner script of Chinese politics.
During the same period, other thinkers retreated from the ambitious theorizing that had been fashionable in the 1980s to focus on the concrete problems of migrant workers, sex workers, petitioners, and victims of Maoist persecution. Veg thoughtfully situates these “grassroots intellectuals” in a social history of Chinese thinkers and delves into their personal histories, their work, and their debates with one another. They used fiction and essays, newspaper reports, oral history, documentary films, blogs, and lawsuits to argue for creative freedom, expose the crimes of the Mao years, and promote social justice and the rule of law. Their program converged with that of the Maoist left in its concern for the underprivileged, but they did not share the left’s hatred of the West or its endorsement of authoritarianism. The authorities for the most part tolerated the leftists—partly because many of them came from elite Communist families—but subjected the grassroots liberals to censorship, tax investigations, closings of publications and think tanks, detentions, and arrests.
Since he came to power in 2012, Xi Jinping has acted on the belief of Blanchette’s “new Red Guards” that the state must be dominant in order to withstand attacks from enemies at home and abroad. He also shares their view that any criticism of Mao is an attack on the legitimacy of the Chinese Communist Party. The regime clamps down hard on liberal writers and activists and arrests leftist students who try to support workers’ strikes. Yet on the evidence of these two books, it is unlikely that even a regime as repressive as Xi’s can completely stifle Chinese intellectual life.