Minqi Li: There has been dramatic change in terms of China’s intellectual life. Back in the 1980s, among most of the intellectuals who were politically conscious or politically active, among most of the university students, it was dominated by neoliberal ideas.
Paul Jay: The ideas of open markets, independent capitalist enterprises breaking down the sort of state-owned economy.
Li: Exactly. That was also the case for virtually all of the leaders of the 1989 democratic movement. But things started to change by the mid-1990s.
Jay: Just to be clear, you’re saying most of the leadership of the Tiananmen Square democracy type of movement were mostly connected to this neoliberal economic reform movement.
Li: Yeah, I would say probably all of them. And by the mid-1990s things started to change. You started to have some intellectuals who criticized the market-oriented reform, neoliberal ideas, so that by the late-1990s, the early 2000s, you could say that a new trend that was referred to as the New Left emerged in China. In today’s Chinese context, this term New Left is used to refer to a very broad category that ranges from social democrats, nationalists, left nationalists, to Marxists. What they have in common is that all to different degrees are critical of market-oriented reforms, to different degrees are critical of neoliberalism, and to different degrees have generally a positive view of the Maoist period, with different emphases.
Jay: They have more positive views toward the Maoist period.
Li: Right, they are more positive, that’s right.
Jay: You’re talking about things like there used to be more of a health care system for people than there is now and examples like that.
Li: In the Maoist period, for example, the people’s life expectancy increased from 35 years old around the 1950s to close to 70 years old toward the end of the Maoist period. That’s a very dramatic change, probably the biggest increase in terms of life expectancy, compared to other countries over the same length of period. And they also have developed some re-evaluation of the Cultural Revolution. So, instead of the Chinese official point of view — which is that the Cultural Revolution has to be totally denied, it’s ten years of havoc, ten years of disaster — they tend to emphasize that there have been many positive economic and social accomplishments.
Jay: What were some of those positive examples? Because the picture that’s painted in the West of the Cultural Revolution is a sort of tyrannical, crazed period. That’s the way it’s painted for us.
Li: They actually cited the Chinese official statistics published in the reform years. They used those statistics to argue that, in fact, China’s pace of industrialization had to be very rapid in the Cultural Revolution years. And also China accomplished many technical achievements, such as hybridized rice, and China was not far behind the US at that time in terms of computer development. And they also talk about the initial intention of Mao to start the Cultural Revolution that had to do with trying to reverse the trend toward the emergence of a new, privileged bureaucratic caste, which would later lead to the development of capitalism. They believe that has been, in fact, verified.
Jay: This trend that thinks the way you are describing, this must be, in terms of population, quite a small segment of opinion. Is that true?
Li: It’s actually not true. Even among the intellectuals these days, as well as among the politically conscious young students, I would say anywhere between one-quarter and one-third probably hold this kind of point of view. In terms of general population, not a small number of them have a quite favorable view about the Maoist period, especially for the workers because of the negative social consequences of the market development.
Jay: Which, according to the New Left, is critique of the current period. To what extent does that exist inside the party or is it mostly something that’s happening outside of the Chinese Communist Party?
Li: Well, this is pretty much outside the party. The party itself, in terms of its view of the Cultural Revolution, its view of the Maoist period, it’s actually very close to the mainstream Western view, as well as what in China now is called a liberal approach, as opposed to the New Left.
Minqi Li is Assistant Professor at the University of Utah specializing in Political Economy, World Systems, and the Chinese Economy. He was a political prisoner in China from 1990 to 1992. He is the author of “After Neoliberalism: Empire, Social Democracy, or Socialism?” (Monthly Review 55.8, January 2004) among other articles and The Rise of China and the Demise of the Capitalist World-Economy (London: Pluto Press, forthcoming). He also translated Ernest Mandel’s Power and Money into Chinese with Meng Jie: Quanli yu Ziben (Beijing: Zhongyang Bianyi Chubanshe [The CCP Central Committee Compilation and Translation Press], 2002). This video is Part 4 of a series of Real News’ interviews with Minqi Li titled “Winners and Losers in the New China.” Part 1 of this program was released on the Web site of The Real News on 14 August 2008, Part 2 on 15 August 2008, Part 3 on 16 August 2008, and Part 4 on 22 August 2008. The text above is a partial transcript of Part 4.