Marx in China: Modern Art, Modern Conflicts, Modern Workers

Marx in China: Modern Art, Modern Conflicts, Modern Workers

In our day everything seems pregnant with its contrary . . . .Some parties may wish to get rid of modern arts, in order to get rid of modern conflicts . . . .We know that to work well, the new-fangled forces of society [need only] to be mastered by new-fangled men—and such are the working men. They are as much the invention of modern time as machinery itself.
—Karl Marx, Speech on the Anniversary of the People’s Paper, 1856

THE GREAT DEMONSTRATIONS in Tiananmen Square in 1989 were powerful arguments with a government that celebrated the fall of Maoist authoritarianism but never recognized its people as free people or citizens. Today’s Chinese government seems as adamant as yesterday’s in keeping closed the doors to democracy and human rights. But today’s government has been brilliantly successful in opening up the nation’s economy and in enabling China to participate in global economic life. In the last decade, China’s economy has become the most dynamic in the world. The factories of southern China are now the world’s leading producers not only of relatively simple articles such as clothing and shoes, but of increasingly sophisticated machines: personal computers, DVD players, photocopiers, digital cameras. Not only has China mastered techniques of mass production; it has shown an impressive flair for high finance. In the summer of 2005, the state-controlled China National Offshore Oil Company made an $18.5 billion cash-in-hand takeover bid for Unocal, one of the largest oil companies in America. The deal was blocked by political pressures in the United States. But a whole new deference has now appeared in Western discussions of China. “A New China Rises,” said a Time magazine headline in June 2005, as it noted, “The People’s Republic has embraced the modern world as never before. Is that cause for celebration or anxiety?”; “Chinese Strength, U.S. Weakness,” proclaimed the New York Times in the same month, while in July 2005 it asked, “Who’s Afraid of China, Inc?” and described “The New Power Brokers, Born in China, Closing Deals for U.S. Firms” and “The China Syndrome on Wall Street.” Meanwhile, China has developed a brilliant film culture, a cinema reminiscent of Italian Neo-Realism, which has brought the world a vision of both the marvelous expanse of Chinese streets and the internal pressures that drive Chinese lives. China’s power surge and rapid development form one of the most exciting stories of the late twentieth century.

Twenty years ago, Deng Xiaoping erected huge billboards throughout China that proclaimed, “Development is the Irrefutable Argument.” The way Deng’s slogan is translated today, China’s spectacular growth rates not only win the argument, they end the argument. The government speaks in a triumphalist discourse that is actually a remarkable echo of the language of nineteenth-century England, in the heyday of w...