Before I returned to China last year I was working on an essay entitled (borrowing and combining Raymond Williams and Juliet Mitchell) ‘Culture: The Longest Revolution’, explaining how difficult it would be to get rid of our dominant cultural heritage of patriarchy, and more specifically, what I called Chinese patriarchal socialism. To my great surprise, I found from this visit how wrong I was, if not about the entire patriarchal establishment, then at least about its socialist form which combined totalitarian repression and protection, and in which we used to take for granted our dependence on the authorities or the ‘state’, as it appeared in Chinese everyday language.footnote1

Travelling from prosperous coastal cities to the still poor rural hinterland, speaking with people of various backgrounds, interviewing those who had been at the centre of debates on reform policies since the late 1970s, and participating in various research projects, some of which were self-organized and supported, I learned a great deal about the country’s recent developments and realized how profoundly different Chinese society had become. It was not just that the isolated China of the Great Leap Forward and the Cultural Revolution—in which my generation grew up to believe in the Maoist version of Marxism and socialism—was long gone, nor even that the initial stage of reforms set in motion by the popularly known ‘Third Plenary Session’ (of the eleventh Central Committee of the Communist Party in 1978) that legitimated the goal of Deng’s ‘socialism with Chinese characters’ now seemed so remote. More surprisingly, the popular atmosphere of 1989 had also disappeared more thoroughly than would have seemed possible a couple of years ago. Tiananmen Square and political persecution were no longer of emotional concern, even for most young people and intellectuals in Beijing. Today the focus of attention for almost the entire population is neither class struggle nor ‘serving the people’, but money and wealth. Yet behind such evident materialist and individualist zest, a psychologically deeper and politically far more significant revelation to a hitherto dependent citizenry is that everyone now stands, or must be prepared to stand, on his or her own feet.

The larger context or material basis of this devastating breakthrough in undermining patriarchal socialism, linked to the ugly phenomenon of what Marx termed commodity fetishism, is of course the rapid growth of market forces. I remember being astonished in the early 1980s, like many others, at some bold attempts in newspapers to promote a then inglorious phrase, ‘All attention to money!’ (pronounced the same in Chinese as the ‘politically correct’ slogan ‘Look only forward!’). But before long this simply became quite acceptable and indeed a naked reality. Marx was absolutely right to pinpoint the magic power of money or exchange-value in relation to capital accumulation, which had destroyed all ancient communities, communal, feudal, patriarchal alike, wherever it reached. ‘All that is solid melts into air, all that is holy is profaned. . .’. What once happened in the age of triumphant bourgeois conquest, as brilliantly summarized in the Communist Manifesto, isrecurring even faster in China under Communist rule, though with a different historical content. In this regard, as a matter of actual historical possibility, culture is not necessarily very difficult to change. A cultural revolution could be accomplished within the short span of a single generation. In fact, it took the Chinese just about a decade to experience profound and indeed revolutionary changes in their ways of thinking and acting, or in a word, living. Values, beliefs, tastes, perspectives, attitudes, rhetoric and metaphors, political, moral, social and personal, have all been dramatically transformed, and continue their transformation.

It is by no means untypical today for a skilled state-enterprise worker to tell you that although he is worried about radical reduction in the welfare benefits provided to him and his family in the past, he agrees that the ‘big pot’ and ‘iron rice bowl’ for state employees should be broken, for both moral and practical reasons. He might also have or be looking for a second job to provide extra income (which was not allowed before), as a technical consultant for a local township factory, or become an individual producer after regular working hours. You may be puzzled in a crowded urban work site of self-employed migrant workers from the over-populated countryside (usually organized on the basis of kinship connections) by the very poor conditions of their accommodation and labour, yet the enormous cash payment they receive. Note that they were peasants yesterday, literally ‘locked’ into the rural places where they were born and fatally classified as agriculturalists. An underage girl in a clothing workshop now answers your query about child labour with the perfect assurance that in the fields of her home village she would have started working even younger and for little reward, yet ‘did anybody ever bother to stop us there’?

In any case, yes, she is actually supposed to go to school according to the newly compulsory nine-year education programme. But the immediate temptation of making money apparently overwhelms any consideration of a better future career, especially because she is female and hence, in the eyes of many, not worth the expense of schooling anyway. It has become a serious problem that schools, which are public and (poorly) financed by the government, have begun arbitrarily to charge fees and are thus unaffordable for low-income families. This also indicates one aspect of the general weakening of the state and state authority. Policies made at the central level can be really ignored at the lower levels in accordance with the (short-term) interests of individual units. Moreover, there is as yet little effective regulation of the marketplace (just look, for instance, at the messy financial market or the runaway real-estate business which deals in public landed property); or rather, government intervention is frequently confused or misplaced. Decentralization has gone so far that it permits not only a high degree of local autonomy but also numerous unruly practices in pursuit of money. It almost seems as if population control is the only remaining area in which authoritarian Communist power is both firmly maintained and rationally justified with sufficient social consensus.

Even the previously tight press censorship is greatly relaxed, producing delightful as well as nasty new publications. If you are patient enough to visit a busy street bookstall, or browse through all kinds of unofficial newspapers and magazines on a slow train or at bus and subway stations, you will find a dazzling amount of printed information, reliable or not, ranging from inside stories about the Gulf War to private lives of foreign and native vips and techniques of sex or gambling (on the stock market). Don’t be surprised if you read officially approved articles promoting not the spirit of cooperation but the law of the jungle while claiming a socialist moral. A photograph of a fish-tank with two huge fish was recently shown in the magazine China’s Non-State Enterprises, sponsored by the State Science and Technology Commission, its caption saying that the tank was put in the office of a new company manager who fed the fish with smaller ones every day to remind himself of the harsh environment of the market. The same publication also voiced the cry of a group of entrepreneurs, ‘Why can’t we be capitalists openly and respectably?’ In the state-operated Xinhua bookstores, one of the bestsellers is called My Explanation of Mysteries, proclaiming the ‘scientific grounds’ for superstition. Yet there are new books of better quality. A friend of mine has just published a study of the underground gay community in Beijing. A pioneer adventure in a hidden corner of our life, it really stunned the public and the authorities alike, who both deny the existence (hence the right) of such a thing as homosexuality.

The Western media have been reporting these changes more or less accurately at the level of appearances, basically with two lines of argument: either to celebrate the economic boom which is attributed to the mutually reinforcing processes of privatization and de-ideologizing, or else to reduce the whole course of reform to a series of its worst results such as corruption, pollution, deceit, crime, and prostitution. Both are based on a methodologically rigid view that China is on the road to capitalism since it is no longer recognized as socialist, be this socialism unfavourably identified with Soviet-style statism and Stalinism, or more sympathetically with an idealized Maoist utopian populism. Each of these observational stereotypes is only half-true, however, precisely because China’s still ongoing complicated social and cultural transformations do not really fit in with any either/or framework of analysis.