Wto Protests, Place-based Democracy, Tiananmen & 7-chinas



[Editor’s Note: Arif Dirlik is the author of Anarchism in the Chinese Revolution and co-author of Schools Into Fields and Factories: Anarchists, the Guomindang, and the Labor University in Shanghai, 1927-1932 (1991); (with Ming K. Chan). He also deals with Modern China as a Professor of History and Anthropology at the University of Oregon. He was interviewed by in Hong Kong by local activist Lenny Guo danian in late 2004]


Lenny Guo Danian: If you were to advise the students here on their relationship with Beijing, would you suggest them to accept an invitation to dialogue, or strike a more principled demand, to avoid being camouflaged as an official reconciliation?


Arif Dirlik: I hope I am at least partially right.  There is a leadership in Beijing now that is socially more progressive than their predecessors in the last 10 or 15 years.  Knowing what I do, it may be important and wise to open some kind of dialogue with them.  Realizing that they cannot overturn the verdict on their own.  That if they try to alter that verdict, they will be in real trouble.  But at least slowly work towards an acknowledgement of what happened.  I would be in favour of some kind of dialogue – not talking.  Talking doesn’t do anything for anybody, except perhaps make yourself feel virtuous.  It is not selling out on your principles to appreciate the other sides’ difficulties.



Next year, the WTO gangs are coming to HK for their forums.  A number of local NGOs are planning their actions during that time.  What are your suggestions on the possible actions to effect change on a larger scale against the WTO?


First, I am not sure that I completely understand the organizational foundation that gave birth to the anti-WTO protests in Seattle, and Genova afterwards.  I hope you don’t think I am being too scholarly.  I would like us to make more of an effort to understand the processes that brought about those protests.  From the present perspective, the 60s seems to be a failure.  But I don’t think they are a failure at all.  In certain ways, 1968 failed.  But in other ways, people learnt from the events of 1968 in France, in the States, and Mexico.  Among those people, 1968 in very serious ways led to new kinds of social movements that are locally based, place based, social movements.  In other words, local community organizing.  My feelings is, local community organizing played an important part in the success of something like the anti-WTO protests in Seattle, because they were able to bring out their constituencies in the State.  Looking at that history in the first place.  And second, before Seattle, there was the anti-APEC (Asian Pacific Economic Co-operation) protest in Vancouver and Manila etc…  And of courses that all linked up with the Zapatista struggles in 1993.  So, I think it is very important that we understand these moments; why is it important; the history is not for scholars, but rather making a judgment between an event –the anti-WTO protests in Seattle- and the organization that made possible that event.  And to me, the organizations that made possible that event, are in some ways, more important that the events themselves, because there are new social attitudes that are being formed, there are new experimentations that are being formed.  In other words, they may have a more lasting importance.  So that if those are the organizations that created the events, we should think of the events as something that is not just as a “anti-WTO protest,” but something that would further promote this kind of alternative organizations, alternative social relations.  I would rather look at it within this long term perspective, both historical and the consequences for the future of the events themselves.


We have got some kind of problems on our hands.  The anti-WTO protests in Seattle are very dramatic.  As well as the one in Genova.  But I have a sense that things may be frizzling since then, especially after 9.11 with this reason of terrorism.  And you know they will use police force to suppress these things.  I always say, Lenny, no matter how noble your cause, if they use enough power they can suppress anything.  So we got to take those things into account.  People can be tired.  So we’re going to protest against WTO in Seattle, then Genova, and next time in Hong Kong.  Ok, what are we going to do with the protest?  We really should not loose sight of this other thing that I am talking about: that the event leading to new kinds of social forms and new kinds of social relationships etc.  And keep it as a long term project rather than event-base activity.


In the case of Hong Kong, I think it is really very important to keep in mind the community bases.


The locality of the movement…


The local community bases.  And the linkage between the local bases with other local bases of other places.  Because they’ll be coming here too.  But not just protest against the event.  In other words, not making it into a happening.  But think of the aftermath of the event: where do we go from here?


What I wish to try is to link up with those activists who’d took part in the past confrontations in other cities to share their experience to organize influential actions here in Hong Kong.


Don’t forget the APEC demonstrations too.  Don’t forget Hong Kong is a close part of the Asian Pacific Economic Co-operation thing.  And those people they came from the Philippines, they came from Burma, they came from Malaysia.  It is very important for Hong Kong to link up with these Asian bases of these events.



As a scholar, you have been able to speak to some party officials in the PRC.  How would you speculate their respond to this possible protest in Hong Kong?


Obviously they’re going to be very much against it.  They made such a big effort to get into WTO.  Even though what the PRC government means by “globalization” may not be the same thing as Washington; nevertheless they have a commitment to this slogan of globalization.  They think they can globalize, but also create a Chinese way of development.  They’re not gonna like anti-WTO protests in Hong Kong



Do you think the CCP (Chinese Communist Party) would pressure the SAR ([Hong Kong] Special Administrative Region) government to suppress the anti-WTO protests?


They’ll certainly pressure the SAR government to suppress the protests.  I don’t think they’re going to use the PLA (People’s Liberation Army) troops here though.  Hong Kong is really interesting because Hong Kong was a global city before globalization!  It has economically been tied in so many ways with the world and that you have the local capital elites.  And they’re not gonna like this.  The PRC government is going to get together with them to suppress the actions.  You are the guys who know what forms of these protests might take.  It might take the form of confrontations in which case they are obviously trying to suppress it.  If we look back, in 97 Vancouver, at the anti-APEC demos, the Canadian government has no difficulties gassing protesters.  Same in Seattle.  Or this last year in New York City.  They always have their troops ready.  I don’t know about Hong Kong but I am wondering if we might be able to think of alternative possible models, like the Social ForumI wonder if it’s possible that while the WTO meeting is here, to have a counter meeting.  You can engage in some protest, but put the greater part of the energy on this other thing: organizing meetings through universities, educating people, talking about this and bringing out publicity.  In other words, do a Counter-WTO, rather than an Anti-WTO.  The alternative of what’s happening.  Contribute to the education of the people.  You might be able to include people from the PRC under those circumstances, because there are people willing to talk about the enormous waste involved in the so called globalization craze – the waste of money building the Olympic Centre in China, so that it could represent itself as a global power.  The problems of ecology, the problems of social inequality etc.  This might be the time to bring people together to talk about these things.  To talk about relationships between the PRC and South East Asia as part of a new kind of global economy.  What is happening in the PRC and the meaning of its development to the people in Indonesia and Philippines, for example.  There is always this competition of who’s going to get the foreign investments.  There are a number of issues.  But they could be organized.  You don’t have to make it academic.  You can involve the population as well as the academia, professional organizations, labour unions etc., to talk about these things.  It is possible to think of this more creatively than going into confrontation in the streets shouting “Down with the WTO!”  I am not saying that shouldn’t happen, but they should only be part of it.  The more important thing is to keep in mind this long term goal.



There are more than twelve months to go. We do have programs of forums and workshop to discuss the various aspects of globalization around campus and amongst the citizenry.  But the idea of the Social Forum model of organizing simultaneous meetings as a “counter-forum” deserves some dedicated effort. 


That’s right.  Because you want to dramatize your position.  So, it’s not just a year-long education program.  Just like the Social Forum, while the other forum is happening, you bring in your forum to give it a visibility of your own.  Also, let the forum serve the purposes of, as I say, discussing “alternative social relations,” “alternative possibilities,” so that you don’t appear only in your negativity.  “We don’t like the WTO, down with the WTO!”  Who cares whether you like it or not?  They’ve got the power.  Even if you disrupt the meeting they’re going to go some place else.  These guys don’t have difficulties paying for air-planes!



To work at it positively.


To work at it positively.  That should ultimately be our goal!  I mean if we are going to create a different kind of society, you don’t do it by simply yelling at it.  You use the occasion to think about these other things and let everybody know.  I really would urge not just to connect with people of Europe or North America, but fan out from your localities, from Hong Kong.  What is important to Hong Kong?  There are people here that you know very well who know about the labor conditions in Guangdong, or in Shanghai.  There are people who know about the ecological conditions in the PRC.  Bring those.  Bring in also people from Malaysia, from Korea, from Taiwan to talk about these things.  This is what I mean by fanning-out from places.  These linkages – bring them out.  And those people involve in the indigenous struggles from Taiwan!  And then, bring in people from outside, from North America.  But this is your point of departure, this is where you live.



There is a book published not long ago by a Chinese American writer Chang, who predicted that China is going to collapse in a decade, owing to its fragility of banking infrastructures.  What do you think of such speculation?


As you say, it is speculation.  I don’t know what “the collapse of China” means.  As far as I know, people have been predicting the collapse of the PRC for a long time now.  That is a particularly American wishful thinking.  That every time something happens in China, (they say) things are going to collapse.  They’re going to collapse during the Cultural Revolution, or when Mao dies, they’re going to collapse; then during Tiananmen, they’re asking on the TV “Is China going to collapse?” “Yes! Yes!  The troops are moving in!”  I don’t know.  Maybe the United States will collapse before China does – the way things are going right now.  Obviously there is a great deal wrong with the banking system in China, but do you remember when Japan entered into its crisis in the early 90s, there were a lot wrong with the banking system as well.  But they didn’t collapse.  United States owes money to all of these banks.  United States owes money to China.



However, the author put forth a strong allegation to back up this speculation, stressing the reality of China signing itself into the WTO, forcing its submission to the financial liabilities towards the international community.  So all these bad debts from the privatization of national enterprises would become too enormous for the PRC’s monetary system to tackle…


But you know what, even the people involved with the signing of WTO agreements with PRC, know that China is not going to do all that right away.  China is not going to privatize everything right away.  And though these guys are signing up certain kinds of agreements, they are not going to live up to those agreements.  China is still a very highly protected economy.  And nobody is going to force them not to protect their economy.  I don’t think the premise is correct that just because you sign laws and you’re going along with them.  As far as I can tell, I don’t know who’s going along with them anyway.  This is the problem with the WTO, they’re signing all these agreements, it is not clear; then North America and the United States, or Europe are suing one another for giving protections etc….  I’m not sure that the Chinese government now is willing to give up on this.  As a matter of fact, in my sense, to the extend that they get serious about this “Chinese Way” as they called it, that on the one hand they talk globalization, on the other they talk this “Chinese Way,” which is a particular way not losing yourself into the WTO.  As long as they talk about this, they are not going to do what is speculated.  It is difficult to say that they are going to collapse.  And if they’re going to do all that (privatization etc.), yes…  There might be a lot of things.  There are lots of contradictions in Chinese societies.  And I wish that they would recognize some of those contradictions and re-organize politically.  I am unwilling to make any sort of predication.  Look, in the Soviet Union with all those difficulties, but it didn’t collapse.  Sure you give some of the other republics away, but that’s not collapse.



You have also been actively communicating with intellectuals in Taiwan.  The other day you mention China with an ”S.”  “There are a number of China(s).”  Can you share your insight on the comparative social realities of the two China(s)?


Do you remember Li Tenghui said there are seven Chinas?  As far as I can tell, Taiwan is doing very nicely.  I find what is happening in Taiwan very interesting because of this business of indigenization.  This is sort of like Hong Kong but much stronger.  All of a sudden, stressing this “Taiwanese” identity.  (“???”)  To me, this should be an instance of creating a place-based identity, place-based politics.  In that sense I have a great deal of admiration of what’s going on in Taiwan.  You know, my hope would be something like that would happen in Hong Kong also.  I have friends in the PRC who said, “It’s a very good idea.  It should happen here too.”  But inside PRC, things are a little bit difficult.  I’ve got colleagues in the United States, Americans, political scientists, who think that China should unify.  There are foreigners who are advocates of a “greater China” or something.  I don’t know what all those are supposed to mean.  To me, it is really very important that these various Chinese societies achieve some kind of democracy.  And I don’t see how you can achieve a democracy in a country this size ruled from Beijing, according to habits which are very dictatorial.  I try to conceive of it in reverse, that the government in Beijing, instead of fearing that if Taiwan separates out, then maybe Tibet would follow, and then Xin Jiang too.  I think that’s what they are afraid of.  But they also could use Taiwan, or Hong Kong, as an example of creating democracy slowly from the bottom up rather than controlled from the centre.  That could happen.  Why not?  I’m really afraid that (while) you’re always playing this balance game, sometimes there is an emergence of this “Chinese Chauvinism,” that ends up as a racialized nationalism.  And that is a scary kind of thing for everybody, for the Chinese people more than anybody else.  And that is a possibility too.  Whereas there is this other thing easily recognized in local differences, and democracy must be based on differences, not homogenate.  In that sense, I am all for what’s going on in Taiwan.  By the way, Lenny, a few years ago, when I was in Taiwan… what’s that place, for a long time there has been an anti-dam protest going on…



Ah, Meinung. (http://www.mpa.ngo.org.tw)


Yeah, Meinung.  That happened to be a day of protest, you know, everybody was there, intellectuals from Tai Da (National Taiwan University), local indigenous people, local county people…and they put us on the platform shouting “Long Live Meinung!”  Within Taiwan itself, this is interesting.  There are different places that the Taiwanese government has to take into account in its own talk about democracy, right?  And this is the problem of place-baseness.  Both the problem and the promise: democracy from the bottom up.  It is very important for all of us.  This democracy that we speak up also has an ecological angle to go with it that I think is very important.  In a place like Meinung was very ecological in its orientation.  Its indigenous people are very ecologically orientated.



 You’ve been able to speak to different sectors of people in the academia of PRC, are they really releasing the grip on the intelligentsia and people are free to research and study anything they feel an urge for?


 I think so.  Whatever that is pushing it.  As I’ve told you, a graduate student in Fu Dan University, with the encouragement of his professor, translated my Chinese Anarchism book into Chinese.  We’ve got to the point where I’ve got the permission from the University of California Press to have it published in Chinese.  Then, in Shanghai, they couldn’t publish it as the authority says NO.  Because towards the end of the book, you remember, I had some comments about Deng Xiaoping, that couldn’t pass the censors.  So, there are things that you couldn’t publish.  There are things you can talk about though.  A few years ago, I was with a group of Chinese friends, of course quite an unusual group, the so-called China’s New Left.  It was a conference of literary people.  During the conversation I said, did you hear about what Li Tenghui said that there are seven Chinas?  Their respond was: “That’s a great idea!”  But this is a particular group who believe in local bottom up democracy.  People have political differences.  There are Chinese intellectuals, just like there are Americans who cannot tolerate the idea of many Chinas, different Chinas.  In other words, there are political differences among Chinese intellectuals.  These days, at least you can see not everybody is trying to follow the party line.  People in a meeting can make fun of certain things.  People in party institutions like the one that I gave my talk, can make cynical comments about the party line.  That means in a sense you can say certain things and get away with it.  But you cannot say everything.  It’s difficult to publish any books about Chen Duxiu, or any thing positive about Anarchism.



There are a number of reports lately about China’s stamp on free speech on the internet.  Police surveillance is rampant.  People got into jail simply because of posting dissident views on bulletin boards or blogs….


Absolutely.  You can get into trouble.  You have to make a certain distinction. When I talk to people, especially officially connected people…look, they think of me as a Marxist.  From the beginning they always say, Arif Dirlik is one of the few Marxist historians in the United States.  That’s how I was introduced when I gave my first talk in Nan Da (Nanjin University) twenty years ago.  Some people complained that I was a revisionist; nevertheless, they see me as the Marxist historian.  In a way, when they deal with me, they deal with me as a person who’s on the same side.  Even when I can disagree with them.  But then there are other people, who make up stories –sometimes you can easily sell stories- Americans love to hear things: about how bad the Chinese are, the communist China.  But this other consideration also enters: that are you hostile or are you a sympathetic critic?  I’ve never done anything that involved me with the (Chinese) government.  I’ve always been invited to talk with fellow academic friends.  But I’ve written things and my works are translated into Chinese, critical of what goes on after Marxism and after contemporary government etc.  Even when they translated sections of my “Origins of Chinese Communism,” my interpretation that the Chinese Communist Party in its origin emerged by suppressing other social alternatives, including Anarchism.  That part was translated into Chinese.  And the person who translated that, of high level official…



It is quite often in Chinese censorship that they have manuscript translated wholly but cutting away sensitive parts when they go to press…


But in my case they translated that part and they said, “This is the kind of things that we should openly acknowledge and realize if we’re going to have party democracy.  Suppressing dissident alternatives within the party is not always that good.”  On the other hand, if they cut out part of Hillary Clinton’s book, which contains a lot of nonsense that came from people who’re very much anti-Chinese; Hillary Clinton should not be complaining, but be more careful about what she includes and who she talks to.  I don’t think books should be cut, but there are a lot of professional anti-communists in the United States.  Most of them are.  They make a fortune.  They’ll get some negative information and goes to a hostile government, and said, see, this is what I discovered in the PRC.  And then it would be used as anti-propaganda.  One time I ask one of my friends in China, I said, we do all these cultural studies stuff, I write them and you guys are translating them into Chinese, is there a problem?  He says, na, the censors don’t care most of the time.  They don’t understand these cultural studies stuff!  It’s when you do some social science stuff, beginning to talk about class differences and these things that they understand more easily and interfere.  You definitely have to be careful.  Comparatively speaking, there are so many people writing so many things now….I’ve got these books (published in China), you can buy them here, on class formation in China, new princes in China, new aristocracy in China etc.  They are being written by Chinese scholars and read by the populace.  There are so many divisions within the party itself.  Between people who want to talk about these problems and people who don’t.  You can see these contradictions.  And every once in a while people got caught up……



Do you think this floodgate of ideologies could be opened up by scholars and writers putting in their effort to publish their new perspectives, so that a basis could be form to usher the central party to a social threshold more plural and tolerant so that a humanistic China could emerge?


Absolutely.  I think it is possible to write things critically.  It depends on how you write them.  Let me give you an example.  I tried to mix criticism with sympathy.  And that is how I was measured.  I think that’s the way why I could get along so nicely with the intellectuals in PRC.  They don’t think of me as an enemy.  I am not typically American because I came from a third world position.  So my approach to China is different from most of the American historians, and we can always communicate on those grounds.


Let me tell you about this case.  I forgot this guy’s name.  Some Arab scholar, an aborigine.  He lives in Europe some place.  Anyway, one of the universities in the States made an offer to the guy for a faculty position, because he was respected for his work in his field, related to Arab societies.  He got his work permit and work visa.  He was just about to come over to the States when the new National Security administration revoked his visa, on the ground that he had written anti-American things.  See, people who talked about China should always keep this thing in mind: that this guy because he had written critical things about United States policy and Israel, is being denied a visa as a fault member of a university!  How does this make a different with what happened in the PRC?  There are people like Leonard Peltier, the American Indian (http://www.ratm.de/politik/arm.html), and this activist in Philadelphia, what’s his name…Mum…



Abu-Jamal Mumia? (http://www.mumia.org)


Yeah, Mumia.  They are in still jail!  Even though people have testified!  There are political prisoners in United States.  My position is that, of course we should criticize the PRC government when it does badly, but that should always be placed next to what these other people are doing.  That there are political prisoners in the States, and there are people putting coercion on academic freedom.  In the United States, very often you can do it through private agencies so it doesn’t look bad.  Like the trustees in the universities.  Fifteen years ago, when the Soviet Union failed, some alumnus wrote to the Duke University alumni magazine saying that “now that Communism has fallen in Eastern Europe, we should do something about Marxists at Duke.”  The university administration stated that “we need intellectual diversity etc.….”  Which is good.  But there are people who ban books in the United States at local libraries etc.  So if we are going to be critical of attacks on freedom, we should be critical of attacks on freedom everywhere.  And just not speaking about what’s happening in PRC in isolation to other places.  In that sense there is no difference between Hillary Clinton and George Bush as far as I’m concern.



Coming back to Tiananmen, and dialogues, there must be some alternatives to keeping it as a ritual or vigil…


I think we need to bring certain kinds of sensitivity and sensibilities into question.  Yes, Tiananmen was awful.  But, fifteen years later, maybe there is room for dialogue.  Way back in the early 80s, I was the few scholars in the US, writing critically of Deng Xiaoping and at that time I was attacked as a Maoist.  I said, things are bad, and sooner or later things are going to break apart.  It’s going to turn into some kind of conflict.  Not that China is going to collapse.  There are so many contradictions.  In come party politics and things are going to happen.  Of course, then there are problems in 83, in 86, and finally in 89 it broke up in Tiananmen.  But, when Tiananmen happened --I was also really angry.  I wrote an article with my wife shortly after-- on the one hand it brought along many contradictions.  It brought in Deng’s dictatorship.  My colleague Mori Meisin in the States wrote: Deng is much more of a Stalinist than Mao.  He is a “party order guy.”  But I also was very much disturbed that Tiananmen was being used by lots of people to undermine the whole idea of socialism.  So it was not just a China kind of thing, it is a total attack on socialism.  And I think it is very important for the critics to bear in mind also, that Deng made a very interesting statement the following year.  He himself has been a revolutionary for very long, and has this memory.  In respond to Tiananmen, when there was a boycott of PRC that lasted a couple of years, including United States and England, Deng gave a speech, he said, “these people who have this boycott against China now, are the same people, who during the boxer uprising, invaded China.”  He said it is a legacy of imperialism that we have not forgot.  That too, was true.  I know how people in Hong Kong responded to Tiananmen.  I was in Hong Kong at that time, summer of 1989.  But there was no question Tiananmen was also used by all these people who are predicting and hoping the collapse of China.  If you have any sympathy for the Chinese people, would you really want China to fall apart?  What a disaster it would be!  It’s one thing to argue for local government and local democracy, it’s another to wish for the collapse of China.  With all these criticism, we have to keep in mind, the multiplicity of perspectives and not just look at it from one narrow perspective of what is happening. ? 

[This interview appears in issue No.8 of the 8a Post published by the Social Movement Resource Centre (HKFS)]

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