Our journey led from Beijing, the capital, to Shanghai, the financial centre, to Guangzhou, the manufacturing heartland and then to Hong Kong, which defies quick categorisation. Inevitably this was a path along a spine of urban power centres. Perhaps it was a route that would inevitably reinforce three major concerns, the nature of power, the meaning of citizenship struggles and the persistence of orientalism. If our reflections reveal something about China, no doubt they reveal more about us, about how we look at the world and how the world challenges us to reconsider what we thought we knew.
Power: seen, unseen and imagined
After over three weeks in China, one of the unsolved questions remains that of power in its phenomenological form. Power here seems to cut across the rigid divides that differentiate between familiar and unfamiliar, visible and invisible. 'Uncanny' best describes the sort of strange familiarity that we experienced when attempting to articulate between the imaginary and ideological horizons of the phantom Party and the redundancy of western cultural hegemonic models.
There are countries where power likes to appear in all its splendor, certitude and visibility, manifesting itself openly and theatrically through the magnificent and pervasive presence of its police patrols in the most remote streets of its land, so that no doubts can be raised about its presence, efficacy, and ubiquity to the unsettled eyes of the foreign observer.
Walking as a ‘tourist’ in the street of Shanghai or Guangzhou, one could hardly draw assumptions on the level of political control in the country. Easier to recognise were intense spots of capitalism here and there. Power here is not part of the architecture of the city. The signs of power we have come to associate with all sorts of securitising agencies, authorities and their technologies (witness the ubiquity of CCTV cameras in the UK) have been strangely absent in public spaces. The presence of the state in Europe seems more obvious than in ‘authoritarian’ China.
It is present, nevertheless. It is perceivable. It is not what you see, but what you don’t see as a stranger that makes power detectable in China. This biopolitical indeterminacy, this being, at the same time, visible and invisible, familiar and unfamiliar can elicit some sort of paranoid phantasy in the observer who looks for the clear signs of power. Yet, its workings behind the scenes, through the words that are missing, allowed us to gain a sense of its magnitude.
But are these the inevitable reflections of the outsider, of those who do not know how to interpret the signs? Is this an effect of divisions of language and culture? Does it stem from an insatiable desire to render the unfamiliar understandable? What do we think about when we think about the state in China? The modern project called China tells an amazing history of land reforms, production control, population management, and market-oriented capitalism backed by authoritarian rule. The scale and increasingly the pace of the project compares to nothing else in human history. Perhaps this is not a static modern state system, but a society still in the process of revolutionary transformation: political, social, and economic, and nothing about the future can be very certain at all. During the three weeks of our stay, we were fascinated and belittled by it at the same time.
How many layers of civil society confront and negotiate with the state. Can these points of interaction always be accurately identified? Despite the strong presence of the state and the party, dancing citizens of Guangzhou, clan networks, Chinese diaspora, Kung-hu masters, street mahjong players, mafiosi, tea drinkers, film-makers, and revolutionaries, all seem to be able to organise their lives and maintain a sense of civility and to control violence and conflicts amongst themselves.
South China, particularly Guangzhou, is often seen as a centre of independence, openness and experiment; distinct from everywhere else in the country to varying degrees, and definitely in contrast to its capital, Beijing. Being at the edge of the empire for centuries, many layers of civil society seemed to have survived. On our arrival in Hong Kong, we were told "The mountains are high and the Emperor is far away". Looking back to a month of travel, meetings and workshops, we feel more and more strongly the openness of the South to political and social criticism. It was in Guangzhou that we came in closer contact with the intellectual work on citizenship of students and more established academics. Historically, this region has often been where new revolutions start.
Is Chinese authoritarianism a myth of the Western imagination? Is this monolith, with its unseen presence, only what we expect to see from the vantage point we take up? The Chinese government exercises sovereign power in many places, but how far does it really penetrate the society? People do not exercise complete freedom of speech and do not take part in plebiscites very often (but then neither do 'we'). Perhaps it is a question of interpretation.
Citizenship, perhaps the most common word in our discussions, remained the hardest to define. As we discussed last week, the twentieth century saw the words “Gongmin” and then “Guomin” both used to describe citizenship. Many academics we spoke to seemed to believe a sharp and uncrossable line existed between political and cultural citizenship. Yet the knot of meanings was, we discovered, the beating heart of an urgent political issue.
Our impression was that the way citizenship is taken up in the academic circles we had access to is quite fragmented. Only partially and occasionally did we find discussions of citizenship as practices, movements, and resistance (the familiar ways in which we understand it). It remained a question for us whether the scholars we met with were struggling to articulate the question of collective resistance outside the frame of a single-party authoritarian and paternalistic state. Perhaps, the real issue for us was that this question is often articulated using mainstream social science concepts, leading to narrow interpretations of how and where citizenship struggles are taking place. We were left with a question. What caused the gaps in our understanding of citizenship? Obvious answers to do with a single-party state or even orientalism cannot be easily put aside but neither should a more obvious reason: the methodological and disciplinary boundaries that divide academics everywhere.
The persistence of orientalism
Should we have been surprised at how few of the Chinese academics we met saw orientalism as a key problem in the development of citizenship (or indeed in politics more generally)? All of us, in our different ways, have written about how orientalism is under the spotlight even when it is not mentioned, even when it is reduced to a problem the West has to deal with to do with its own intellectual history.
If the problem was not addressed in the ways we expected, it still appeared. During one of the workshops a PhD student said: "We read Mill as part of the canon, but he did not understand anything about ancient China".
Was there an underlying reason for this silence on orientalism? Was China's unique relationship to western imperialism a reason? We had to ask ourselves, were we mistaking Chinese capitalism or perhaps Chinese modernity for westernisation? Such a question defies easy resolution. One of the most potent manifestations of Euromerican imperialism is in the way in which cities have been built especially over the last thirty years. It is impossible to overlook the sheer physical structure of cities all over China, and in almost every other part of the globe, that bear witness to two linked phenomena. On the on the one hand, they affirm the mantra of modernisation as starting from scratch without tradition (hence bulldozing rather than making over cities). On the other hand, they exhibit the handing over of the power to build cities by and large to Euromerican architecture firms and their master-celebrity culture of muscular and phallic design fantasies. The result can seem like the orientalisation of ‘brutalism’ (a term used by architecture critics in the 1980s to describe where Euromerican architecture was heading).
Oecumene after China
Inevitably, a collection of reflections such as the present article must either downplay the characters of the individual contributors that make it or it must retain inconsistencies in expression, apparent contradictions, sudden changes in mood and a general juxtaposition of certainty and doubt. The latter is, in our opinion, entirely appropriate for a short article that tries to condense and sum up our experiences of China.
Before travelling to China we had a very vague picture of what to expect. Introductory reading and tourist guides somehow always sound similar no matter where you are going. So much of one's imagination changes when it becomes populated with the experiences, feelings, smells and tastes of a place.
The impressions that have formed remain overwhelming and confused as if we hadn't learned enough about the place to understand it 'in practice'. Our academic discussions about migrant workers, minorities and citizenship struggles still unsettle as much as they have informed. The way people responded to routine queries did not seem to follow the patterns we expected. Even the weather surprised us; rain seemed to appear out of a cloudless sky but seldom when it was forecast.
Trivial though they may seem, such observations are important when we try to draw conclusions about China, its citizens and their struggles. General statements about repression, about the triumph of capitalism without democracy, about political apathy, about failures to understand, all may have appeared over and again in what we read about China and, we must admit, in what we have written about it. But such sweeping observations are belied by the great flashes of the lives we saw, we briefly shared and we remember from our time in China.
- The Oecumene Team, 30 June 2013