The Wind From the East

The Wind From the East

Richard Wolin: The Wind From the East

There are now two winds blowing in the world: the Wind from the East and the Wind from the West. According to a Chinese saying: either the Wind from the East will triumph over the Wind from the West, or the Wind from the West will triumph over the Wind from the East. In my opinion, the nature of the present situation is that the Wind from the East has triumphed over the Wind from the West.

IN 1973, the late Gaullist minister Alain Peyrefitte wrote a bestselling book called When China Awakes, the World Will Tremble. Peyrefitte?s title bespoke the West?s fascination with China?s emergence as a world power. His meditation on the Middle Kingdom?s new centrality appeared following an ebb tide of Western self-confidence–the self-doubts and political disruptions of the late 1960s and early 1970s. At the time, China had become a projection screen, a Rohrshach test, for disillusioned Western intellectuals who, in a classical instance of Orientalism, sought to find utopia in an exotic and distant setting. Interestingly, such knee-jerk pro-Chinese sentiment existed not only on the left. One could find it among leading Western sinologists and state department officials who were disillusioned with the West?s failings and who wagered that the Chinese path to modernization might provide a viable alternative. As Harvard Sinologist John K. Fairbank wrote in 1972: ?The [Chinese] people seem healthy, well fed and articulate about their role as citizens of Chairman Mao?s new China….The change in the countryside is miraculous….The Maoist revolution is on the whole the best thing that happened to the Chinese people in centuries.?

By now most of us are aware of the rough outlines of Maoism?s ascendance among the Western left during the 1960s–the Black Panthers, for example, who were particularly enamored of Mao?s notion that ?Power is found at the end of the barrel of a gun?; but also in France where, during the 1960s, ?la pensée Mao tse-tung? had become the height of intellectual chic. Godard?s whimsical meditation on Chinese politics, La Chinoise (1967), became obligatory viewing in the Latin Quarter. Soon after, Jean-Paul Sartre was reborn as the editor of the gauchiste organ, On a raison à se révolter (?It is right to revolt? ? a saying culled from The Little Red Book.) During 1971 Foucault labored intensively in the company of Maoists who staffed the Prison Information Group. And Dazibos, or huge Chinese character posters, proudly adorned the offices of the avant-garde journal Tel Quel. In the 1968 years, after ten years of Gaullist autocracy, prospects for progressive political change in France seemed all but blocked. Hence, a young generation and their maîtres-à-penser looked toward events that were transpiring half a world away–Mao?s launching of the Great Proletarian Cultural Revolution–to find the utopia they had been denied at home. Of course, the less they knew about what was actually happening in the real China, the better.

I was reminded of Peyrefitte?s study by a recent book, Martin Jacques? When China Rules the World, which was written with a similar purpose: to call attention to the fact that, if current economic trends persist, China?s GDP will surpass that of the United States in approximately two decades. In a newly revitalized China, it has become a commonplace that the global financial crisis heralds America?s demise as a world power and its all-but-certain replacement by the Middle Kingdom. However the crisis plays out in end, China?s status as a major regional and, very likely, world power, is, it seems, a fait accompli. Jacques? book–the fruit of nearly two decades of research–seeks to educate Westerners concerning the very different cultural realities and assumptions now confronting us. It is now common practice among Chinese leaders to invoke the prestige of a 6,000 year-old civilization as its birthright and entitlement to global preeminence. We Westerners are, it would seem, mere amateurs and upstarts in comparison. (For more, see the debate between Michael Walzer and David A. Bell on ?Reconciling Confucianism and Socialism in China? in the Winter 2010 issue of Dissent).

But how valid are Jacques? propositions and theses? How influential is contemporary China on a global scale?

Some anecdotal evidence arose last week during a trip to Copenhagen for a conference on European identity, at which my fellow conferees and I concluded that the optimal solution to the conundrum of European identity was to leave it undefined. As the conference ended, I debriefed my Danish colleagues about sightseeing prospects, such as Hans Christian Andersen?s Little Mermaid sculpture, which graces the Copenhagen waterfront. To my surprise, I was brusquely informed that the Little Mermaid had been removed. Copenhagen without its signature monument? Unimaginable. Where had she been taken?, I gamely enquired. It seems that, at Beijing?s request, she had had been shipped to the Shanghai Expo 2010–an enormous international trade show–where she will be on display this fall at the Danish pavilion. Thus, if you want to see Andersen?s Little Mermaid, go to China.

Socialist thought provides us with an imaginative and moral horizon.

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