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(Mis)Understanding Wang Hui

I’m not surprised to see demonization of the Chinese government these days but it’s more surprising to see demonization of Chinese intellectuals. I’ve just seen David Ownby’s misleading introduction and translation of Wang Hui’s article commemorating Lenin’s 150th birthday (https://www.readingthechinadream.com/wang-hui-revolutionary-personality.html). I feel I must intervene. Wang Hui is a friend and we have been co-teaching a course on Chinese political culture at Schwarzman College (Tsinghua University) for five years.

Wang Hui’s article was commissioned for an English language book on the 150th anniversary of Lenin’s book and there is an excellent translation by the Columbia Phd candidate Joseph Kindler. Wang Hui’s article was written when the Covid situation was at its height in China, so not surprisingly he added some comments on Covid that were meant to encourage the Chinese people. The main contribution of the article is its fascinating discussion of intellectual history, showing how Lenin’s ideas influenced revolutionaries in China such as Li Dazhao and Mao Zedong. 

But Ownby’s introduction does not discuss Wang’s intellectual history. Instead, Ownby mentions the critique of the “liberal” thinker Rong Jian titled “Wang Hui’s Heideggerian Moment”  charging “that Wang (and China’s state-hugging New Left in general) have embraced China’s current regime (and China’s supreme leader) in ways that recall the German philosopher’s controversial engagement with Hitler and Nazism.”
Ownby doesn’t explicitly take sides but he argues that “Like Jiang Shigong and many other New Left writers, Wang Hui is seeking a way to renew socialism, and an obvious vehicle for this renewal is Xi Jinping Thought on Socialism with Chinese Characteristics for a New Era” and Ownby highlights references to “leader” (领袖) in bold on the supposed grounds that Wang has President Xi Jinping in mind (“I might mention that Wang Hui would not be the only establishment intellectual to address himself directly to Xi Jinping.”).  

In the translation, Ownby misleadingly suggests that Gramsci’s idea of “君主“ (prince) is a single leader. Wang Hui’s interpretation of Gramsci’s idea is that the “prince” represents the people’s will and that the real “prince” takes the form of the political party (“Gramsci believed that “the modern prince, the myth-prince, cannot be a real person,  a concrete individual” but is rather “the political party”). (Here and elsewhere I rely on Kindler’s translation).

And far from defending the leader or the status quo in China, Wang Hui notes Lenin’s point that “to abolish open and frank intra-party debates, criticism, and self-criticism, would have entailed eliminating the life force of the party.” The contrast with what’s happening in China would not be lost on (non-hostile) Chinese readers.

In his discussion of Covid, Wang Hui criticizes local authorities: “in the early stages of the pandemic … the disease control and operating system did not operate effectively, and local bureaucratic systems have lacked sensitivity towards and epidemic that has spread with unprecedented rapidity, committing failures of judgment choosing instead to follow their habit of repressing public discussions in accordance with the logic of stable economic development.” He goes on to praise the central government’s response which borrowed ideas and practices from the “people’s war” and ends his discussion with the hope that the fight against Covid, involving all sectors of the population, might “re-ignite the agency and active role of the People … and provide a motive force for new social and political forms.”

In short, Wang Hui criticizes the lack of discussion and argument within the ruling organization as well as outside it. Such open struggles are necessary to re-energize and re-politicize the people as well as the ruling organization so that China can meet its future challenges. How Wang Hui can be so fundamentally misread is baffling to me. 


2 thoughts on “(Mis)Understanding Wang Hui

  1. David Ownby’s heart is in the right place, but he has a tin ear for Chinese politics.

    Posted by Godfree Roberts (@GodfreeTrh) | November 26, 2020, 6:57 PM
  2. Veery nice blog you have here

    Posted by Bianca M | May 15, 2023, 1:48 AM

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