A Whiter Shade of Red

January 10, 2009

19/12/08 Urumqi, Xinjiang, China

Last Tuesday, the Xinjiang Flying Tigers won their eighth consecutive match, playing against Shanxi Zhongyu, and they continue to top the tables of the Chinese Basketball League. The stadium in their home-town of Urumqi, the boom-town city built on the back of Xinjiang’s oil profits, was packed with fiery supporters who eager to see their team continue its winning streak and consolidate their lead.

As I walked up the steps into the stadium, thankful to be out of the sub-zero temperatures that plaster Xinjiang in the winter, I was intrigued by the combination of the sickly-sweet smell of fresh popcorn being sold by the bucket and the opening chords of The Final Countdown that echoed out from the court: everything was so Americanised. This impression only grew as the game started, for were it not for the east Asian facial features of the cheerleaders who bounced around like poodles in heat in their skimpy outfits to Justin Timberlake tunes, I could have been watching any basketball match in any American city.

Indeed, the first time I visited China over a year ago, I was struck by the extent to which so many aspects of modern China emulated and amplified that global behemoth of rampant consumer capitalism. It was not only the popular culture, the imitation of the blinged-up, sexualised and slave-to-image superstar ideals exported by the West; this sort of imagery is generically regurgitated all over the world. It was much, much more.


It was city after city of dizzying skyscrapers, intersected by flyovers and billboards and neon signs boasting all the perks of a ultra-modern metropolis: mobile phone companies, investment banks, luxury apartment blocks, flashy SUVs. It was the clusters of shopping malls, four, seven, ten floors each, in department store layout with pretty, made-up salespeople and shiny, slippery tiles; many of which were often empty. It was the groups of middle-aged tourists who flooded the alleys and paths of UNESCO heritage sights, wearing matching orange hats and behaving more loudly and patronisingly towards the objects of their travel (often minority groups, quaintly decked out in their traditional costumes) than the worst stereotype of the brash, uncouth American in a foreign place. It was the Xinhua bookshop and the Dico’s fastfood joint in every town, even in rural areas. It was the ideals of profit and materialism on a grand scale, the stuff of nightmares for those of us who cringe at the thought of a totalising, homogenising globalisation based on an idea of modernity as the proliferation of technology and unfettered consumption.


* * *


This month, China celebrates the 30th anniversary of what it calls its ‘Opening up and reform’ policy. The policy was, in effect, a loosening of the tight controls of the Communist planned economy and a shift towards free-market competition, and it designated the end of the two year-long power struggle that occurred after Mao’s death in 1976 in which Deng Xiaoping emerged victorious. It has been credited with enabling China to achieve record annual growth rates of some 10% over the past three decades, and is the engine for the sky-rocketing development that has swept through the country in that time.


Since the beginning of December, the national televised media has been airing special reports, documentaries and interviews to mark the occasion. Local museums and galleries around the country have set up exhibitions geared towards highlighting the positive effects of the Opening Up and Reform policies on particular regions and cities. A couple days ago, I visited two in Urumqi. One was your standard montage of statistics regarding increases in literacy rates, access to healthcare, the length of roads built to connect remote villages to larger urban centres, etc. The other was a photo exhibition which contrasted grainy photographs of Urumqi from the 1970’s, 80’s and 90’s to digitally enhances ones of recent years. The black-and-white snapshots of a ramshackle yet thriving bazaar, a patch of desolate, snow-kissed countryside a lone cyclist on a tree-lined avenue were juxtaposed with gaudy technicolour images of glass and steel high-rise buildings and geometric public parks with artificial lakes. The set-up clearly demonstrated the Chinese vision of modernity.


All the fanfare culminated yesterday morning when the Chinese president Hu Jintao made a speech in which he praised the virtues of “the dynamic socialist market economy”. Reading an English translation of his speech on the Xinhua website, it was unsurprising to note that a predominant lexical set throughout was one linked to the official party line, socialism. However, it did seem odd that the virtues of socialism were being proclaimed so strongly in a context that seemed to stand in sharp contrast to it, namely, the rapid capitalist development that has resulted from the Opening Up Policy.


Looking closer at the extensive use the word “socialist” in the speech, one comes to feel that, rather than actually being used to articulate and reinforce substantive socialist principles, such as developing a universal welfare system or reducing the ever-increasing gaps between rich and poor and urban and rural populations, it is attached to a series abstract noun in order to appropriate the concepts. Instead of tangible proposals geared towards remedying China’s existing ills or alleviating the negative impact of the global financial meltdown on China ’s export-based economy, our ears are filled with the virtues of “socialist democratic politics”, “advanced socialist spirits and culture” and “socialist modernization”.


The use of the word in this way makes it come across as an empty signifier, a vacuous adjective that can be used to stamp the authority of the Chinese Communist Party on the series of blatantly un-communist policies being followed by the government, which have allowed a distinctively un-socialist society to come int being. Therefore, when Hu speaks of the “socialist market economy”, something that appears to be a contradiction in terms, it is apparent that he is discursively constructing the capitalist policies which are pursued by the Chinese Communist Party as legitimate.



This is significant because, free market economics aside, there is very little substantive socialism left in China’s domestic policies. Aspects of the welfare state that are taken for granted in many western European countries, including providing universal healthcare and education, are strikingly absent in China. For example, even though the state does adhere to a policy of nine years compulsory education for its young citizens, the content and quality of this varies depending on ethnic group. As I have noted in a previous piece on this blog, most schools in Xinjiang are segregated into schools for Uighur children and schools for Han children. In the Han schools, English is taught as a second language, whereas in the Uighur schools, Mandarin Chinese is taught instead of English. Though this approach offers Uighurs the possibility of accessing higher education, which is all in Mandarin, it also means that they are much less disposed towards education or jobs outside of China.

The lack of a viable egalitarian politics in comtemporary China means that, like so many ideologically charged cousins before it, including “freedom”, “liberty” and “democracy”, “socialism” is condemned to the death of rhetorical redundancy. Nevertheless, it is a purposeful death, a meaninglessness which perpetuates the raison d’etre of the CCP.


It was obviously tough for the architects of the Opening Up and Reform Policy to forge an image of continuation between the radical new measures and the founding principles of the Party. One of the mechanisms they used to do this was to officially conclude that Mao Zedong was “70% right, 30%”, through which they granted themselves a margin for effectuating change without rejecting the legendary image of the Chairman.


Still today, explicit links are made between a romansicised version of China’s communist past and its recent economic boom. CCTV 9, the English-language international channel of China’s central broadcasting agency, has been airing adverts for its series of shows commemorating the 30 year anniversary under the headline “China’s New Long March”. Interestingly, that slogan is being used for programs that interview farmers who are allowed to voice the hardships that they endured under Mao’s rule, such as being forced to eat leaves and bark in order to fend off starvation.


While initially this may appear to be a contradiction, on one hand eulogising an era while on the other revealing some of the horrors that took place within it, it actually serves as a dual-pronged way to congratulate the actions of the current government while maintaining their ideological putiry. Firstly, the articulating of the difficulties of the past is only allowed because it enables a point of comparison for the the ways in which peasants are relatively better off now then back then. The woman who spoke of feeding her family on soup made from the leaves of oak trees was then shown in her kitchen, cooking a meal with a variety of ingredients and modern appliances, even a microwave.


Secondly, the over-arching image of “the New Long March” links the present accomplishments with a grandiose, mythical past. Together, they encourage people to be both grateful for their embetterment (despite the persistence and aggravation of social inequalities), and to rally around the current policies with the same fervour that they alledgedly granted to the Red Army along its 2-year long retreat from the Guomindang in the 1930’s. Though the authenticity of the interviews with the peasants and their apparent wealth could be questioned, and while I am assuming that similar programmes are also broadcast on the other CCTV channels targeting a Chinese audience, I feel that, on the whole, the consolidation of the legitimacy of the CCP in the face of its capitalist policies is a message which is being conveyed loudly and clearly throughout this vast nation.

* * *


As the photographs in the Urumqi gallery illustrated, China is a vastly different place today than it was thirty years ago. But the same can be said of many other places in the world, so what makes China special? A variety of factors, doubtlessly among them the scale of its geography, the immensity of its population, its expansive history and its contemporary dogmatic commitment to a Machiavellian view of progress.

However, one thing seems to rise above the rest, namely the fact that the Chinese government remains able to walk the tightrope between a Westernised modernity and a sinified Marxism. It is impressive that the CCP, once demonised as an international pariah regime and now both coveted as an invaluable ally and feared as the looming impending superpower, has been so successful at surviving the rise and fall of the various tides that have been the ebb and flow of its history. It will be interesting to see for how much longer it can proudly, and, perhaps, justifiably, celebrate its increasingly White policies without completely renouncing its Red credentials.

(It will be more interesting to see if the CCP can appropriate another noun with deeply entrenched connotations, and shift the popular view of the colour Pink from one suggesting femininity to one representing its ideological limbo… Pink, methinks, is the new Red).


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