Realistic Revolution: Contesting Chinese
History, Culture, and Politics after 1989

By Els van Dongen

Reviewed by Brian Tsui

MCLC Resource Center Publication (Copyright August, 2020)

Els van Dongen, Realistic Revolution: Contesting Chinese History, Culture, and Politics after 1989 Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2019. xii + 276 pgs. ISBN-13: 978-1108421300.

At a recent conference on Maoist China I attended, a historian gave, in proxy, a presentation on the People’s Commune experiment. The scholar, who was with the school of Marxism at a prestigious Beijing-based university, cited Friedrich Hayek and Karl Popper as his inspirations. I was bemused, to put it mildly. “What does a scholar attracted to the doyens of Cold War liberalism,” I almost thought aloud, “have to do with Marxism?” Had I read Els van Dongen’s Realistic Revolution then, I might have been able to put my unease in better perspective.

Writing on the recent past is a risky business for historians. In the case of China, the Maoist era is now a burgeoning field. Yet, the same cannot be said of the decades after Mao Zedong’s death. The dust, it seems, has yet to settle. Van Dongen’s choice of topic and period is a bold one. She focuses on the period from 1989 to 1993, arguably the most tumultuous period in the history of the People’s Republic from Mao’s death up to the current epidemic and all-out competition with the United States. Confronted with the onslaught of the Tian’anmen crackdown, the Soviet bloc’s dramatic demise, and the marketization of society, Chinese intellectuals in the immediate post-Tian’anmen era were forced to adjust their priorities and commitments. The “high culture fever,” as Jing Wang puts it, of the 1980s gave way to a much more sober and somber but no less complicated intellectual culture.[1] This complex development is the subject of van Dongen’s study. Many of the figures van Dongen discusses are not only alive, but are still highly influential in their fields. Van Dongen’s training in Europe and current position in Singapore, both removed from China and the United States, have given her a unique outsider vantage point from which to scrutinize transpacific events.

Lest readers mistakenly assume that van Dongen’s achievements are mere results of her physical location, it bears stressing that Realistic Revolution presents a masterful account of the ideological landscape that still largely governs intellectual life in the Chinese-speaking world during the first two decades of the present century. Her analysis moves seamlessly from Fredrick Hayek and Frederic Jameson to Xiao Gongqin 蕭功秦 and Zheng Min 郑敏. She aptly takes a transnational perspective on this topic, stressing the role played by institutions, publications, and figures located in places like Hong Kong, Singapore, Boston, and New York in sustaining shifts in intellectual dialogues in mainland China. This global circulation of ideas was a result of both the Tian’anmen incident, which drove many scholars and students from the People’s Republic to overseas locations, and the rapid integration of China into the global economy. Until early spring of 2020, this pattern of Sinophone intellectual synergy across the ideological spectrum, taking mainland China as its base and leveraging more amenable environments in Hong Kong, Taiwan, and abroad, seemed to hold, however tenuously. Time will tell whether the ongoing Covid-19 pandemic, recent events in Hong Kong, and the threat of a renewed Cold War between Beijing and Washington, with Taipei thrown into the mix, will put an end to this dynamic.

One of van Dongen’s most critical insights is her foregrounding of the People’s Republic’s incorporation into the global capitalist order. Deng Xiaoping’s determination to transform China into an export-oriented economy, symbolized by his widely publicized inspections of coastal Guangdong (his so-called “Southern Tour” of early 1992), is highlighted as an event as pivotal as that of the 1989 political turmoil insofar as the country’s intellectual life is concerned. Marketization, as much as the chilling effect on Chinese civil society brought about by the Chinese Communist Party’s (CCP) brutal suppression of the student movement, undergirded the anti-radical trend that has pervaded much of the intellectual community in the Chinese-speaking world since 1989. It is these two dramatic shifts in China’s political economy that prompted figures discussed in Realistic Revolution to accord to the intelligentsia, supposedly detached from both state politics and an increasingly commercialized society, a privileged and commanding role in steering the development of the nation’s culture. Paradoxically, van Dongen demonstrates, anti-radicalism oftentimes dovetailed with the modernization project espoused by the CCP. Chinese intellectuals’ distancing from the Communist establishment and the capitalistic economy it spearheaded, ended up converging—though mostly unwittingly—with post-1989 state imperatives.

The bulk of van Dongen’s enquiry focuses on conservatives, although compared to the doctoral thesis on which this book is based, the author gives the term less prominence.[2] Perhaps this is designed to highlight the tension between anti-radicalism and postmodernism, the latter of which lays claim to radical epistemologies (180-84). She also cites, with good reasons, the slipperiness of conservatism as a concept in contemporary China (210). Yet, as the book makes abundantly clear throughout, van Dongen’s protagonists—Xiao Gongqin, Lin Yü-sheng 林毓生, Yü Ying-shih 余英时, Gan Yang 甘阳, Chen Lai 陈来, Tu Wei-ming 杜维明—all harbor unmistakably conservative sympathies. It is not mainly because most of these figures hold high views of China’s Confucian traditions, although reverence for Confucianism has been a hallmark of cultural conservatism since the May Fourth Movement; more importantly, these prominent intellectuals display salient traits of political conservatism that will be recognizable to readers both inside and outside Chinese studies. Friedrich Hayek and Edmund Burke, who appeal to Lin and Xiao respectively, provided ammunition for the neoliberal policies of Margaret Thatcher and Ronald Reagan.[3] Admiration for the Glorious Revolution and disparagement of the French Revolution cannot but recall Thatcher’s 1989 Le Monde interview, where the Conservative prime minister suggested that the Magna Carta and the American Revolution were more important events than the French Revolution. Indeed, around the centenary of the 1911 Revolution, legal historians in mainland China had a debate as to whether the abdication decree of the Qing emperor could have empowered Yuan Shikai to facilitate a bloodless transition to parliamentarianism and, presumably, made unnecessary the violent revolutions that ensued through the twentieth century.[4] Anti-radicalism in early 1990s China was part a global trend, with political scientist Francis Fukuyama as its poster child, that triumphantly took for granted the demise of alternatives—revolutionary or otherwise—to market capitalism.

To be sure, there were many shades of conservatism in the early 1990s. Historian Xiao Gongqin was attracted to the late Qing reformer Yan Fu 严复. He read Yan, who introduced Social Darwinism into Chinese intellectual discourse, through “a liberalism à la Hayek and Popper” (69). Xiao is labelled a neoconservative, someone who subscribed to modernization theory and owes little to Confucian or other “traditional” world views. Chen Lai, on the other hand, was very much inspired by Confucianism. His New Confucianism is infused with ideas from the likes of Tu Wei-ming, a “Boston Confucian” who spent much of his career at Harvard University. The version of modernization Chen embraced was akin to capitalism without capitalism, a position with a fraught history in modern China.[5] For Tu and Chen, not only was Confucianism compatible with capitalism, it also brought succor to a society ravaged with the ills capitalist development introduced. As “Asian values,” Confucianism attracted support from outside China, most noticeably in Lee Kuan Yew’s Singapore where Tu contributed to the city-state’s school curriculum. The US-based Lin and Yü are in the tradition of “conservative liberalism” (120), interrogating both the revolutionary tradition and what they have seen as the statist tendencies of “Asian values.” The poet Zheng Min, arguably the least well-known among the figures examined, contributed to the postmodernist suspicion of grand narratives, including both Anglo-American liberalism and China’s socialist and revolutionary traditions. On many issues, these intellectuals did not see eye to eye, and would probably be surprised to find themselves featured in the same study. Yet, insofar as they renounced Maoist utopianism in particular and modern China’s revolutionary tradition in general, van Dongen is most astute in treating them together in a coherent study.

The book’s title, Realistic Revolution, warrants some unpacking. Insofar as they have not directly challenged the authority of the Chinese Communist Party, the intellectuals van Dongen studies are undoubtedly realists. Yet, with the benefit of hindsight—the 2008 financial tsunami and the on-going public health disaster in the libertarian polities of the United Kingdom and the United States—it begs some rethinking as to whether the faith they placed in modernization and/or liberalism was really pragmatic and commonsensical. As van Dongen points out, the Whiggish adoration of the allegedly bloodless Glorious Revolution was probably misplaced (12). One wonders if admirers of Anglo-American experiences among van Dongen’s subjects were, despite their claim to rationality and moderation, themselves tinged with utopianism. Intellectuals in the 1990s obviously did not have a unified revolutionary program. What made them revolutionary was their interest in emulating or dismissing China’s and other societies’ various revolutionary experiences as they contemplated their own country’s path of development. Van Dongen puts her finger on the apparent paradox between intellectuals’ attraction to conservatism and their future-oriented outlook. In this sense, intellectuals in early 1990s China were hardly alone. Conservatives through the modern era have been adept in forging visions for the future by adapting and reacting to historical developments, in particular the rise of mass politics.[6] While Chinese intellectuals might not have been inspired by as strong a desire to preserve privileges and hierarchies as their counterparts in Euro-America, their urge to shape future developments in their own images was not very different from conservatism abroad. Conservatism in 1990s China was less an outlier than most scholars are ready to acknowledge.

The book covers the period from the Tian’anmen saga through the months after Deng Xiaoping’s Southern Tour, but the conservative strand in the post-Mao Chinese intellectual scene identified by van Dongen was and is not confined to the early 1990s. Anti-radicalism was an important trend through the 1980s and its influence continues, as I have learned from my own experience, in the current millennium. Its relationship with the state remains ambiguous. The Chinese Communist Party no doubt rejects liberalism, but it invests heavily in promoting Confucianism as “national learning” (guoxue), avidly pursues capitalistic modernization, and is suspicious of and, recently, even hostile to student activists who take Marxism and Maoism seriously. Van Dongen’s study is, therefore, most timely and vital for readers interested in China’s conservative tradition. In additional to her sophisticated close readings and historical analysis, the short biographies that conclude the book form a brilliant primer to the movers and shakers of intellectual discourse in the Chinese-speaking world.

Brian Tsui
The Hong Kong Polytechnic University


[1] Jing Wang, High Culture Fever: Politics, Aesthetics, and Ideology in Deng’s China (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1996).

[2] Els van Dongen, ‘Goodbye Radicalism!’: Conceptions of Conservatism among Chinese Intellectuals during the Early 1990s (Ph.D. thesis, Leiden University, 2009).

[3] David Harvey, A Brief History of Neoliberalism (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2007), 123-125. Harvey charges Deng for cultivating, à la Thatcher and Reagan, a “democracy of consumption” in China to paper over social injustices.

[4] See, for example, Gao Quanxi 高全喜, “‘Qingdi xunwei zhaoshu’ yu xiandai Zhongguo xianzhi”《清帝遜位詔書》與現代中國憲制 in Zhengzhi xianfa yu weilai xianzhi 政治憲法與未來憲制 (Hong Kong: Xianggang chengshi daxue, 2016), 245-278. For a less enthusiastic assessment, see Zhang Yongle 章永乐, Jiubang xinzao: 1911-1917  旧邦新造 1911-1917 (Beijing: Beijing daxue, 2011), ch. 2.

[5] Brian Tsui, China’s Conservative Revolution: The Quest for a New Order, 1927-1949 (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2008).

[6] Corey Robin, The Reactionary Mind: From Edmund Burke to Donald Trump, 2nd ed. (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2018).