China at a crossroad: Right or left?
By Jian Junbo
SHANGHAI - As China feels the pinch of the economic downturn, its government is
under increased pressure from the "neo-leftist" and "rightist" camps. The
rightists want Beijing to speed up democratization, while neo-leftists demand
the restoration of some sort of socialism. The two camps have recently
intensified their criticism of each other to compete for public influence.
The conflict shows the crossroads China is at after 30 years of economic reform
and opening up. If it has learned from the past, then the Chinese Communist
Party will reject both extremes and seek a middle path.
The neo-leftists first became active a few years ago, but their influence
remained limited until recently. Amid the economic
downturn, social injustice issues such as official corruption and the widening
wealth gap have risen in importance, and this offered them a golden political
opportunity. Recent surveys have showed that social injustice is the public's
top source of discontent.
The neo-leftists are made up of young or middle-aged intellectuals such as Zuo
Dapei from the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences, Wang Hui and Cui Zhiyuan
from Tsinghua University, Wang Shaoguang from the Chinese University of Hong
Kong, Gan Yang at the Hong Kong University, and Wen Tiejun from Renmin
University of China.
They are called neo-leftists to separate them from the old leftists from the
1980s, who staunchly opposed late paramount leader Deng Xiaoping's economic
reforms of the time. The neo-leftists do not oppose a market economy but do
advocate a stronger role for the government in the economy and wealth
The rightists are a much larger group, mostly made up of liberal intellectuals,
party veterans and economists. This group supports capitalist-style economic
reforms and China's "opening up". It is often regarded as pro-West.
The global financial crisis has been seen in China as the failure of a
laissez-faire economy, and neo-leftists have seized on this opportunity to
intensify their attacks on the somewhat crestfallen rightists. Through such
attacks they can press the government for fundamental changes in economic
policy, and by highlighting social issue the group has attracted public
Several days ago, at Wu You Hometown Bookshop, a well-know neo-leftist center
in Beijing, a lecture session on social problems was so full that latecomers
had to stand in its passageways. This was not a one-off, as the bookshop
regularly attracts neo-leftist crowds to lectures and seminars. The name of the
bookshop, Wu You Hometown, is symbolic of neo-leftist idealism, as in Chinese
literature it refers to a visionary world similar to utopia.
Generally speaking, neo-leftists believe they represent the interests of the
grassroots, especially in rural areas. Pointing to the widening gaps between
the rich and the poor, and between cities and the countryside, neo-leftists
have questioned the Chinese road toward modernization. They claim this road has
been based on the Western values that rightists advocate, such as a free market
economy and "small government".
The rightists have pinned the blame for the downturn on political reform
lagging behind economic reform, and not on the free market economy. They
advocate political reforms that would implement what they call "universal
values", such as democracy, human rights and liberty.
For a long time, the rightists were in favor as their views were in line with
the government's policy of reform and opening up, which many say has led to
China's economic rise. This has led many rightists to think they are on the
"right" side of history, and that China's rise occurred due to its integration
into the "civilized" world dominated by Western countries, especially the
Because of this, the rightists sneer at the neo-leftists claiming they know
nothing about economic realities. They criticize them for their lack of "moral
sense", as they do not believe in the rightists' "universal values" of liberty
Both camps have made false accusations against each other. The rightists have
said neo-leftists want to restore Maoist-style authoritarianism, but
neo-leftists are different from the traditional leftists that advocated this.
Neo-leftists on the other hand have said that rightist's proposals for
integration with the West will damage China's sovereignty. Yet not all
rightists think Western values should be adopted by China.
Common ground has been found in the groups' criticism of the government. The
neo-leftists are not satisfied with the fast development of the capitalist
economy, as they claim it has caused social injustice. While the rightists have
criticized the government for the slow place of political reform leading to
It is hard to predict how long the dispute will last. But it is certain that
China's success cannot be based solely on only one of the groups, as neither
wants to attain a balance between social justice and national development.
The social justice advocated by neo-leftists cannot automatically lead to
national growth, while the rightists' support for a free market economy will
affect inevitably affect equality levels.
Neo-leftists' emotional criticism of the rightists often stimulates
nationalistic sentiments like those expressed in the new best-selling book China
Is Unhappy. (See
The Chinese are not happy, Asia Times Online, Apr 22] Meanwhile, the
rightists' claim to the moral high ground is a myth. If they consider
themselves to be universalists, they should ask why they are considered by
neo-leftists to be the accomplices of "villainous" capitalists from China and
The dispute between neo-leftist and rightists reflects contradictions facing
Chinese society. When more and more issues arise, deeper or even more radical
reforms will be needed to resolve them. Both of the groups claim to be on the
right side of history and truth, but especially in this time of global economic
crisis, they should be thinking more about China's future.
The balance between these economic success and social justice is important both
for Chinese people's lives and for the government's legitimacy. From this
perspective, the current leadership is most likely to follow Deng's wisdom and
take a middle road between the left and the right. No doubt, this task will be
easier said than done.
Dr Jian Junbo is assistant professor of the Institute of International
Studies at Fudan University, Shanghai, China.