- Soviet: noun
- an elected local, district, or national council in the former Soviet Union.
- a citizen of the former Soviet Union.
ORIGIN early 20th cent.: from Russian soviet ‘council.’
- an elected local, district, or national council in the former Soviet Union.
It may be better to invent new terms when talking about a “soviet-occupied territory” — a confusing term that, in the United States at any rate, often implies nothing more than human deprivation, and definitely not a self-sufficient base of action. But the soviet base, territory, or council is only adjectival in the sense that it announces what kind of land the occupants live on (for example, the question: “Is it a soviet republic or is it a corporate protectorate?”). The negative connotations attached to the term, however, are most prevalent in those languages expressed by entrenched corporate power — in countries where, ironically, soviets never existed, and even the notion of council-controlled land would pose the greatest threat to corporate power.
For a proper use or historical understanding of the term, it is necessary to use the term “soviet” as it is originally intended — that or succumb to intellectual mercantilism and historical amnesia. The only case in which what I am calling corporate use may be adequate is, glibly, when describing the effect of soviet life on those who have been forcefully deprived of their privileges — in the physical space where one class has overthrown another class. In that sense only can one speak of the “soviet” conditions — conditions that would break apart congealed, corporate, power structures, and establish new, inverse, ones — that would surely await the upper classes.
In a country so large as China, what has become a political tradition continues not only under the auspices of the government, but simply by widespread unreflective or cynical practice.
Being somewhat familiar with the history of Chinese soviets, I was asked to write a piece on radical Chinese politics. But the Chinese term for politics, 政治, is etymologically closer to the terms “government control” and “government management” than the Western πολιτικός, which implies a commons, open debate and consensus. For that reason, however, it is to me the more complex term, directly at odds with what is often considered to be the essence of benevolent governance. It is also the term that is directly reflected in the political practice of “free” Chinese soviets. The pre-1949 Chinese soviets made no pretext of finding “common ground.” There was an exploited class and a ruling class, and petty bourgeois intellectuals and bourgeois merchants would be incorporated according to the needs of the soviet.
This historical lack of a political commons was evident in the Chinese soviets, and also continues today. As much as it may be reported that Ai Weiwei and Gao Zhisheng are exemplary dissidents, somehow intellectual figureheads of the 100,000+ “mass incidents” that happen in China every year, it is important to remember that in a country so geographically large (and populated) as China, what has become a political tradition continues not only under the auspices of the government, but simply by widespread unreflective or cynical practice. The radical politics of the day — if there truly are any — are closer to wildcat strikes than they are to occupations or, especially, to soviets. As is well known, the Chinese soviets took protests to the level of establishing control as well.
First, we will take a look at the historical record1:
- After the failure of the short-lived Hailufeng Soviet in Guangdong Province (“Canton”), just and unjust disciplinary measures are taken.
- Later that same year (1927), Communists regroup in the Jiangxi Soviet. In Jiangxi they attempt to purge the area of landlords and other reactionaries, as well as establish a new currency and limited public works. The base is used as a fortification from which mobilizations can be carried out. Mao Zedong subsequently emerges as a superior tactician, and Zhou Enlai, much-loved for his diplomacy, begins playing second fiddle. Discipline is established in a base made up almost exclusively of peasants and intellectuals — the urban working class Communists having already been decimated by Nationalist “democratic” forces. After repelling multiple raids by the Nationalists, the Communists are severely weakened, and retreat on the Long March to Yannan, in the northwest.
- In Yannan, Party leadership brooks no dissent, and Party hierarchy hardens. Despite publication of the “philosophical essays” of Mao Zedong, and the establishment of the Lu Xun Art College, critical thought is henceforth “rightist,” and subject to reform.
The “Wukan Incident” has absolutely been the most successful group action of recent years, and may also have been the most comprehensive.
Now consider the establishment of bases of leftist action in contradistinction to the recent political activity in the village of Wukan, which is ostensibly without ideology, and hence heavily covered as an “anti-corruption” movement in the Western media. The “Wukan Incident” has absolutely been the most successful group action of recent years, and may also have been the most comprehensive.
- Villagers in Wukan (population estimated between 10,000 and 15,000), Lufeng township, in Guangdong Province, are given little to no notice that much of their land has been sold for industrial development by local Party officials, and are later given a pittance for compensation. In September 2011 villagers begin protesting these recent land sales, also establishing a committee and spokespeople in order to negotiate with local officials. Three village leaders are arrested, and one, Xue Jinbo, quickly dies in police custody from what appears to be torture. His body is not released. More arrests follow.
- By early December protests escalate. Villagers attack the local police station and Party headquarters. Party officials, as well as police, flee the village for Lufeng city. Police set up barricades, stopping food and other necessary goods from entering the city. Police also enhance internet firewalls, ending any communication with other area villages.
- By late December communication is established with Wang Yang, Secretary of the Guangdong Provincial Committee of the Communist Party of China. Secretary Wang leads negotiations with village leaders, securing the release of several prisoners, effecting changes in local elections, and opening the possibility of better compensation for (or return of) land. Villagers are told that local Party officials and police will be held responsible for their actions, and will suffer consequences for encouraging land use violations. Skeptics insist Secretary Wang is simply manipulating the villagers in order strengthen the Party. It is unknown if villagers actually contest Party leadership. Villagers await the outcome.
Wukan’s residents displayed remarkable determination and organization, while never resorting to the purges that quickly came to characterize the Chinese soviets. Change was affected by mobilizing villagers, emptying the area of local representatives of state authority, reasserting the cause in the face of privation, and entering negotiations with non-local authorities. Regional authorities will be able to test their solution to the “Wukan Incident” as they appeal to Central Party leadership for aid in working against recalcitrant local authorities, regardless of their actual intentions. In effect, at least on the surface of things, something closer to a “consensus model” of politics has been reached.
Fig. 1: An example of currency used in the Chinese Soviet Republic.
Despite this, in a recent editorial for the New York Times3, novelist Yu Hua seemed to mock average Chinese for exactly this belief in appealing to regional or national authorities (as opposed to local authorities), and for a lack of understanding of what he sees as the absurd futility of their political situation. His lampooning of locals bewildered by realpolitik is also a send-up of the supposed wisdom and benevolence of the highest levels of state, as well as the belief that an anti-corruption campaign can neatly solve China’s structural problems:
Victims of corruption and injustice have no faith in the law, and yet they dream that an upright official will emerge to right their wrongs…[P]etitioners seem to believe that the central authorities are less susceptible to corruption…
But that is what is at issue here: the belief that a protest can solve structural problems by presuming those problems to be the result of personal deficiencies (i.e. a greedy or ignorant disposition). The belief that each individual can have equal opportunity to air grievances, and possibly deliberate over solutions, often ends up bypassing the inhumane side of structural problems, demonstrating that, for example, fiscal divisions have nothing to do with fiscal markets or capital assets, but with one’s motivations. Here, akin to Yu Hua’s assertion that, for Wukan, the dispossession of land would have nothing to do with the systemic allotment of it, the problem seems to be either a perversion of that allotment or the inability to defend it. If officials behaved in an “upright” manner, or citizens were given stronger property rights, the problems would not exist. But as long as such a belief remains in place, neither a full understanding, nor a sustained critique of the structure of officialdom and representation, will be able to come to fruition. In such cases, political solutions are only found in intermediaries privy to the system, but also willing to bend an ear to its victims — such as Secretary Wang. Even the will to insist that reform can happen is turned into a reactionary symptom of the system. Villagers do not end up undermining or dismantling a system that not only denies them the right to deliberate over the public ownership of land, but also lords over them as a supernumerary “public.” In effect, they are demonstrating that the system can actually work — as long as the right people are performing their duties correctly, and villagers understand that they are only complements to that system.
Furthermore, when comparing various Chinese soviets with Wukan, one does not draw tired contrasts based on the degrees to which the soviets and Wukan’s citizen organization disciplined themselves. As much as is known about Communist purges, too little is known about Wukan’s organization to say. One is instead struck by the aims — a revolution, versus attempted reform — and how much we know about them, based on their representations by comparatively liberal media outlets. For example, until negotiations were in full effect, little was said in the “timid” Chinese press regarding Wukan, while it was celebrated elsewhere as democracy in action, similar to the kind of activist reform that Westerners imagine to be a human birthright. I imagine the situation would have been different if Wukan had announced itself a classical soviet, and that coverage would not have been reduced to platitudes of consensus and control, corruption and activism. But the moral persuasion at work when comparing these two different scenarios is truly an effect of an absurd situation, reducing historically complex situations and systems to swift judgments of “rightness” based on sedimented values and fossilized means of obtaining and processing information (which privileges observation and judgment over participatory action).
As such, one is really only guessing what would have happened if Wukan had had a more radical vision of how their village (and their province, and their country, and so on) should run. Or, what would have happened if they had refused to cooperate at all with state authority? Most likely, armed forced would have come in and emptied the place. On the other hand, I am afraid that, at the end of the day, by trusting authority to act in their best interests, the “Wukan Incident” will be an object lesson in what not to do if you want to effect long-lasting, structural change — the kind of change that emerges from a truly autonomous consensus. There is no easy scenario here, and it’s not as if a simple choice to go one way or the other can be made, but I can at least say kudos to both the Jiangxi Soviet and the village of Wukan for not losing themselves in rhetoric, and not allowing themselves to become totally corrupted by government sympathizers, whether apologists of a calcified political system or promoting a savagely idealistic vision of what should be (I will end saying apropos the American libertarians, who are simply humanized capitalists to the extreme).
Matthew Turner is a poet and professor of literature. He recently returned to the U.S. after six years of teaching in Beijing where he also worked as a journalist and editor for various newspapers and translation outfits. He can be reached at mateo.tornero.
Article CC-BY-NC-SA Main photo anticapitalistes CC-BY-NC-SA