Illiberal China: The Ideological Challenge
of the People’s Republic of China

By Daniel F. Vukovich

Reviewed by Gabriele de Seta

MCLC Resource Center Publication (Copyright April, 2020)

Daniel F. Vukovich, Illiberal China: The Ideological Challenge of the People’s Republic of China London: Palgrave Macmillan, 2019. 250 pages. ISBN: 9789811344466 (Paper); 978-9811305405 (Hardcover).

Daniel F. Vukovich’s Illiberal China is an unabashedly provocative book, both in the sense of stringing together provocations that spare no academic field or political camp (except, perhaps, the author’s own) and in the sense of being thought-provoking (if, at times, in a maddeningly disagreeable way). The title of this book is almost a détournement of Elizabeth J. Perry’s 2012 article “The Illiberal Challenge of Authoritarian China,”[1] which is herein repeatedly referenced and functions as a springboard for Vukovich’s own argument. A few pages in, it becomes rapidly clear how Vukovich has taken Perry’s sensible conclusion—that “under certain conditions, a robust civil society may actually work to strengthen and sustain an attentive authoritarian regime” (Perry, 15)—and subtly reshuffled the terms of her formulation: instead of the illiberal challenge posed by Chinese authoritarianism, the author identifies instead China’s illiberalism as a challenge to the liberal world. The latter is often equated with the West, which conveniently overlaps with the other target of the book’s critique: orientalism, and more specifically the brand of “Sinological orientalism” that was the target of Vukovich’s previous monograph (2013).[2] Illiberal China is chronologically situated after 1989—Vukovich has previously written about orientalist interpretations of the Tiananmen square protests[3]—and maps the vicissitudes of liberal and illiberal politics during China’s “definitive and even epochal” rise on the world stage (vii).

Writing from an interpretive position and through a textualist approach, the author seeks to disentangle three Chinas: the socialist one charted by “new left” thinkers; the liberal one of Dengist state policies and intellectual elites; and the “China watcher” variety of orientalist representations that emphasizes China’s fundamental lack of democracy and freedom (viii). Most of the discussions woven through the book’s six chapters oscillate between these three poles, tracing intellectual debates and trying to answer the central question posed by the author: “Is China illiberal?” (ix). While Vukovich’s answer—at least in the introduction—is a coy “yes and no,” he clearly believes that China’s illiberalism offers, along with excessive repression and speech policing, a welcome refusal of liberalism. This refusal combines a strong statist commitment to livelihood with an “anti-imperialist rejection of Western universalisms” (xi), both developed organically over decades of CCP rule. The problem with the “illiberal China” narrative, Vukovich argues, is that the charge of illiberalism coming from the West is a normative one, ignoring that all states can be—following a Schmittian reading of Weber’s monopoly of violence—completely authoritarian, if only in potential.

China’s illiberalism turns the country into an insolvable problem or an unanswerable question for liberal observers: with its contradictory and often unexplainable coexistence of authoritarian overreaction and socioeconomic inequality with Party-state stability and a supportive citizenry, the PRC remains a historical-materialist thorn in the side of liberalism (2). Vukovich strives to counter this reductionist understanding and argues that, in fact, censorship and other forms of intellectual policing reveal how “the PRC takes the power of ideas, policies, and ideologies far more seriously than other ‘normal’ or ‘free’ societies” (3)—in short, illiberalism is proof of the Chinese government’s attentiveness and responsiveness to social problems and political criticisms. While Sinological orientalism perpetuates the expectation that China will, eventually, become as liberal and democratic as the West, the PRC rejects liberalism, rearticulates heterogeneous local intellectual traditions ranging from Confucianism to Maoism, and eschews imperialist temptations by focusing on the realization of a xiaokang shehui (小康社会) of moderately prosperous livelihood. According to Vukovich, this takes place among “waves of de-politicization and economism” that illiberal China needs to fend off and push back against in order to keep political praxis alive.

While the book’s titular concept is illiberalism, it is its (evil?) twin liberalism that occupies most of the author’s theoretical overview. Vukovich outlines a “new liberalism” that is a “diffuse but powerful intellectual political discourse” incorporating classical liberal theories as well as postmodernism and postcolonial theory, and currently decaying into neoliberalism (13). China becomes both a problem for and a challenge to this discourse, and its illiberal drive—increasingly visible under Xi Jinping’s leadership—should not be dismissed as an entirely negative phenomenon: for Vukovich, Chinese illiberalism “has its positive and ‘interesting,’ complex and ambivalent, aspects” (18) that should be examined in their own right. At the same time, the author recognizes that China’s illiberal challenge is “far from a wholly good thing” (19) and draws on Raymond Williams’ genealogy of liberalism to argue that both terms are ultimately rooted in hierarchical judgments of social distinction, and are hence suspect. Again, the conclusion Vukovich draws in the introduction is ambiguous: “the PRC both is and is not an illiberal regime and society” (26), and if China can be charged with illiberalism it is not because of its repressive apparatuses or authoritarian government but because of “its self-positioning and self-understanding, as being anti-liberal on principle; it sees liberalism as an enemy and this is what in the end makes it illiberal” (27; emphasis in original).

Having locked onto China’s illiberalism as discursive positioning, Vukovich sets out to examine its unfolding in two distinct dimensions: intellectual culture and protest. The second and third chapters are dedicated to the former, and function as a dialectical comparison between the tactical illiberalism espoused by Chinese “new left” thinkers and the economist depoliticization pursued by contemporary Chinese liberal intellectuals. Vukovich’s overview of the Chinese new left describes it as a movement that takes the country’s revolutionary past seriously in order to articulate a “Chinese difference” in opposition to Occidentalist reformism. In spite of its precarious positioning—constrained by the very same illiberal censorship and surveillance it ends up arguing for—the new left manages to engage in a dialogue with the state and occasionally even influence policy decisions. For Vukovich, the new left is illiberal in the best sense of the term: it sees liberalism as a problem, and “writes back” against the production of colonial knowledge about China by foreign observers (56). In order to understand the role of the new left in Chinese intellectual culture, the author argues, it is necessary to frame it in the longer history of Maoist discourse, of which he illustrates the contested construction through examples such as Bo Xilai’s 薄熙来 “Chongqing model,” the experiment of Nanjiecun 南街村 in Henan, and the Great Leap Forward famine debate triggered by Sun Jingxian’s 孙经先 revisionist calculations of the number of dead.

The following chapter mirrors Vukovich’s examination of the new left by introducing different varieties of Chinese liberalism. Defined from the Maoist perspective as “an economism that seeks de-politicization and ‘stability’ or peace” (89), this sort of liberalism has its roots in the post-Mao 1980s rather than in the early twentieth-century May Fourth movement, which was “mostly irrelevant as an indigenous intellectual and political movement” (92) and, if anything, provided only a useful antagonistic foil for the articulation of the Maoist variety of Marxism-Leninism. Liberalism has made a comeback with the end of Maoism, and while most mainstream liberal intellectuals focus on modest proposals for economic reforms, only a few of them—who end up as dissidents or exiles like Liu Xiaobo 刘小波 and Ai Weiwei 艾未未—openly demand more. Vukovich connects the genealogy of liberalism in China with the new left’s diagnosis of depoliticization, resulting in the Dengist “Party-state with depoliticized politics” (106), and identifies liberalism as a persistent enemy of Maoist politics and leftism in general. A sizable section of this chapter is dedicated to a convoluted evaluation of Liu Xiaobo’s positions, mainly based on his involvement with Charter 2008, which Vukovich considers “the most explicitly anti-regime and to that extent genuinely courageous expression of Chinese liberalism” (111). The author acknowledges that Liu’s incarceration illustrates the worst of China’s illiberalism, but also insists that his politics were “objectionable” (113), “rife with generic human rights rhetoric” (113) and marred by his international coronation as a Nobel Prize-winning dissident, concluding that “one cannot realistically fault the PRC . . . for being defensive or perhaps even vigilant about what some political scientists have called ‘ideological and cultural security’” (115).

Chapters 4 and 5 stage a similar dialectical opposition between two case studies, focusing on popular protest rather than intellectual culture. The “liberal” pole is here represented by the Occupy Movement and Umbrella Revolution in Hong Kong: for the author, the city has become the primary hotbed of liberal ideology on Chinese sovereign soil because of its colonial past, and the impasse reached by the 2014-2015 protests reveals the convergence of Occidentalist ideology and xenophobic nativism around the unrealistic demand for universal suffrage (132). Vukovich argues that attributing any “actually democratic and ‘radical’ aspect” to the representational aspect of the protests is a form of reification (137): the politics of these events are thoroughly liberal, and no postcolonial interpretation of Hong Kong’s exceptionalism can offset this fundamental problem. In contrast, the 2011 Wukan Uprising charted in the following chapter offers an example of a protest fighting for land rights while simultaneously countering Western conscription into liberal narratives and navigating China’s illiberal context. For Vukovich, Wukan villagers dealt with the politics of knowledge to a much greater effect than Hong Kong protesters, and even though the Wukan Uprising eventually failed, it still offers much to learn about how protests can challenge Chinese state capitalism and push toward what the author identifies as “economic democracy” (193).

In the book’s conclusion, Vukovich updates his answer to the question at the center of his investigation: “China is clearly not-liberal and therefore in a sense ‘illiberal’ on semantic or etymological grounds alone” (199), but this illiberalism should not be equated with its being authoritarian and repressive. For the author, the titular “Illiberal China” embodies a challenge to liberalism, and its illiberalism remains “fundamentally ambiguous, and neither simply negative and objectionable nor merely ripe for a perennial liberal debunking” (200). Vukovich’s arguments in support of this conclusion are the following: China has a functioning civil society and public sphere, as proven by the fact that popular protests happen and force the government to take action; China’s governance has some democratic aspects; and the Party-state has a proven track record of economic growth and improving citizens’ livelihood. For these reasons, China’s illiberalism can be instructive, and “at least help us understand why, and where liberalism—always the dominant ideology and politics of modernity, now unchallenged by socialism or communism—has reached its limits” (202). Ultimately, the author’s conclusion is a prescriptive one: China (and especially Hong Kong) needs more state intervention and more discursive engagement against liberalism, and this “progressive illiberalism” (226) should come from an egalitarian left rather than from the right because, as Vukovich claims, “the Party is the only entity and agency that could conceivably address the very real problems subtending China’s rise” (232).

Illiberal China is written in dense but captivating prose and demonstrates a profound engagement with Chinese intellectual discourses and ideological positions. Preferring thematic breadth over philological detail, the two diptychs at the center of this book foreground the clash between liberalism and illiberalism across two distinct but related domains of politics: intellectual culture and popular protest. Of the first pair, the chapter on the new left is a rich and convincing analysis of this emerging illiberal discourse, while the one on Chinese liberal thought is marred by the author’s puzzling (and at times callous) insistence on passing judgments on individual thinkers rather than developing a convincing argument. The second pair of chapters suffers from a similar bias: Vukovich’s analysis of the Wukan Uprising raises interesting points regarding the role of protest mediatization and discursive triangulation, but his critique of the Hong Kong protests forgoes analysis and instead revels in accusing protest leaders and participants of espousing right-wing, reactionary, or racist ideologies. Regardless of whether or not one agrees with Vukovich’s judgments, this double standard undermines the book’s premise, because liberalism and illiberalism lose their dialectical productivity and are themselves reified: whatever the author disagrees with is liberal, and hence dismissible. New left thinkers’ strategic positioning under China’s authoritarian constraints is evaluated with empathy, while Liu Xiaobo’s arguably much worse fate is tortuously justified by his “bad” politics; Wukan protesters occupy the streets “in a real, militant way” (172), whereas what Hong Kong people do is not even worthy of being called political.

The overall impression is that with this book Vukovich bundled together convincing arguments developed throughout his career in order to tackle a much larger and amorphous enemy—liberalism—but ended up blunting their edge in the process. While the variety of topics and the construction of comparative cases is commendable, the textualist methodology behind this volume leaves the central concept of the book undertheorized: Vukovich answers the “is China illiberal?” question and argues for the productive challenge of illiberalism but never engages with debates around the definition of the term nor does he provide a workable definition of it. Instead, he argues that positioning his work vis-à-vis the global rise of illiberalism would not be useful, and he decides to leave the nuanced analysis of the term to future scholarship (x). This lack of theorization flattens the productiveness of illiberalism as a concept and actually risks reproducing the moral hierarchies of orientalist comparisons between China and the West.[4] If the challenge brought by China’s illiberalism is to be identified and analyzed in detail, it is necessary to avoid reducing it to a mere opposition to, or negation of, liberalism; pitching liberal and illiberal discourses against each other merely contributes to the reproduction of the existing order, with hidden pockets of “meaningful resistance.”[5]

Despite these critiques, Illiberal China develops an original—and candidly partisan—angle of attack on a topic that is clearly relevant for contemporary political debates and shared global futures. Vukovich acknowledges the dilemmas faced by China as the country is increasingly forced to reckon with its entanglement with global capitalism and its socialist commitment to livelihood. Similarly, the recurring opposition between China and the West is wisely offset by the author’s recognition of how these heuristic descriptors consist of “overlapping territories and imagined geographies” (16). Overall, the book is a stimulating read, offering an equal measure of unsettling provocations and interpretive insights into a wide range of intellectual currents and contemporary events. And while it is easy to enthusiastically agree with Vukovich’s diagnosis of Sinological orientalism within China studies expertise—especially when it is confronted with the country’s illiberal aspects—it is also legitimate to wish that Vukovich had avoided the occasional and circuitous straw-clutching required to settle some personal scores with protest movements or individual thinkers, and had instead expanded on a wealth of interesting topics that are mentioned only in passing, such as the New Qing historians debate (30), the ambiguity of Hong Kong’s Basic Law (147), or the difference between Hong Kong’s pro-democracy and its localist and nativist movements (167). Similarly, Illiberal China would have benefitted from a more structured articulation of its layered arguments, especially since they are built on radically different case studies; most of the analytical work of tying together the multiple lines of thought and critique pursued by the author are left to the book’s conclusion, which ends up reading more like a thrilling proposal for a work yet to come—one that I would look forward to reading.

Gabriele de Seta
University of Bergen


[1] Elizabeth J. Perry, “The Illiberal Challenge of Authoritarian China.” Taiwan Journal of Democracy 8, no. 2 (2012): 3–15.

[2] Daniel F. Vukovich, China and Orientalism: Western Knowledge Production and the P.R.C. (London: Routledge, 2013).

[3] Daniel F. Vukovich, “Uncivil Society, or, Orientalism and Tiananmen, 1989.” Cultural Logic: An Electronic Journal of Marxist Theory and Practice 16 (2009): 1–37.

[4] Jason Luger, “Questioning Planetary Illiberal Geographies: Territory, Space and Power.” Territory, Politics, Governance, 8, no. 1 (2020): 1–6.

[5] Reijer Hendrikse, “Neo-illiberalism,” Geoforum 95 (2018): 171.