Though nobody knows the identity of the man who stood up to a line of advancing tanks in Tiananmen Square in 1989, there’s little debate about why he did it. To Western commentators, this anonymous moment of courage suggested that Communism had finally lost control of its conscripted; the Cold War was over. Unable to speak for himself, he took on the features of the man standing at the end of history.
Noted Chinese literary critic Wang Hui rejects such definitive conclusions about the student uprisings of 1989. With the heart of an insider—Wang demonstrated and was exiled to central China—and the scrutiny of a grad student, Wang recovers this moment from post-Cold War orthodoxy.
By the mid 1980s, pro-market reforms were already signaling the weakening of China’s socialist core. To Wang, the students and workers of 1989 weren’t protesting the old order so much as one lost in transition; the expectations of the masses were outpacing the state’s ability to change. Ironically, the coercion necessary to put demonstrators down became an invaluable tool for forcing market reforms and thus opening Chinese society.
Wang’s problem comes when Westerners and Chinese alike misread reform as apologia for the past. Socialism may be lost, he reminds us, but its reason for being will remain unless China and the rest of the world can protect against the laissez-faire injustices inherent to global capital. Wang’s intense ambivalence toward both socialism and capitalism affords him space to maneuver—somewhere in globalization’s knot of contradictions is the possibility of justice, and the chance for the machine’s human fuel and grist to speak for themselves.