Louis Proyect: The Unrepentant Marxist

October 2, 2014

The Hong Kong protests and the conspiracist left

Filed under: China,conspiracism — louisproyect @ 8:56 pm

As predictably as day follows night, the conspiracist left has taken the side of the Chinese government against the Hong Kong protests. As the purest expression of this sort of Mad Magazine spy-versus-spy comic strip mentality, Moon of Alabama’s Berhard told his readers:

The (NED Financed) Hong Kong Riots

Some organized “student groups” in Hong Kong tried to occupy government buildings and blocked some streets. The police did what it does everywhere when such things happen. It used anti-riot squads, pepper spray and tear gas to prevent occupations and to clear the streets.

The “western” media are making some issue about this as if “western” governments would behave any differently.

So lets look up the usual source of such exquisite fragrance. The 2012 annual report of the U.S. government financed National Endowment of Democracy, aka the CCA – Central Color-Revolution Agency, includes three grants for Hong Kong one of which is new for 2012 and not mentioned in earlier annual reports:

National Democratic Institute for International Affairs – $460,000

To foster awareness regarding Hong Kong’s political institutions and constitutional reform process and to develop the capacity of citizens – particularly university students – to more effectively participate in the public debate on political reform, NDI will work with civil society organizations on parliamentary monitoring, a survey, and development of an Internet portal, allowing students and citizens to explore possible reforms leading to universal suffrage.

Moon of Alabama is an old hand at this, virtually writing the same sort of “follow the money” methodology for a decade. If you want another example of this kind of addled conspiracism, check out Tony Cartalucci’s article on Mint Press, an online newspaper that was in the middle of a controversy over a report on East Ghouta in the name of a reporter who subsequently disavowed the article and Mint Press entirely.

Titled “US Role In Occupy Central Exposed”, treats Hong Kong protesters as puppets whose strings are pulled by Washington:

If democracy is characterized by self-rule, than an “Occupy Central” movement in which every prominent figure is the benefactor of and beholden to foreign cash, support, and a foreign-driven agenda, has nothing at all to do with democracy. It does have, however, everything to do with abusing democracy to undermine Beijing’s control over Hong Kong, and open the door to candidates that clearly serve foreign interests, not those of China, or even the people of Hong Kong.

What is more telling is the illegal referendum “Occupy Central” conducted earlier this year in an attempt to justify impending, planned chaos in Hong Kong’s streets. The referendum focused on the US State Department’s goal of implementing “universal suffrage” – however, only a fifth of Hong Kong’s electorate participated in the referendum, and of those that did participate, no alternative was given beyond US-backed organizations and their respective proposals to undermine Beijing.

Keep in mind that Cartalucci has written the same exact article on every protest movement that has taken place for a number of years, always looking for the footprints of the NED, the State Department, the CIA, or any other American government agency or NGO. It has led him not only to condemn the Occupy Central movement in Hong Kong but the Arab Spring that he applied the same idiotic litmus test to:

In January of 2011, we were told that “spontaneous,” “indigenous” uprising had begun sweeping North Africa and the Middle East, including Hosni Mubarak’s Egypt, in what was hailed as the “Arab Spring.” It would be almost four months before the corporate-media would admit that the US had been behind the uprisings and that they were anything but “spontaneous,” or “indigenous.” In an April 2011 article published by the New York Times titled, “U.S. Groups Helped Nurture Arab Uprisings,” it was stated:

“A number of the groups and individuals directly involved in the revolts and reforms sweeping the region, including the April 6 Youth Movement in Egypt, the Bahrain Center for Human Rights and grass-roots activists like Entsar Qadhi, a youth leader in Yemen, received training and financing from groups like the International Republican Institute, the National Democratic Institute and Freedom House, a nonprofit human rights organization based in Washington.”

The article would also add, regarding the US National Endowment for Democracy (NED):

“The Republican and Democratic institutes are loosely affiliated with the Republican and Democratic Parties. They were created by Congress and are financed through the National Endowment for Democracy, which was set up in 1983 to channel grants for promoting democracy in developing nations. The National Endowment receives about $100 million annually from Congress. Freedom House also gets the bulk of its money from the American government, mainly from the State Department. ”

It is really quite extraordinary that Cartalucci never wrote a single article calling attention to the $1.7 billion per year that the USA was doling out to Mubarak but only got his balls in an uproar over a couple of hundred thousand dollars channeled to young people risking their lives in Tahrir Square against his dictatorship. People like him deserve to be taken out and horsewhipped.

The problem with this analysis is obvious. There’s hardly a country in the world where the NED does not ladle out money to influence a grass roots movement. If you go to http://www.ned.org/where-we-work and click Latin America and Caribbean, you’ll see a list of nations where the NED mucks about:

Argentina
Bolivia
Colombia
Cuba
Ecuador
Guatemala
Haiti
Honduras
Mexico
Nicaragua
Paraguay
Peru
Venezuela

That’s what happens when you have a budget of $118 million per year. Spending $460,000 to influence the Hong Kong movement barely scratches the surface. For that matter, the real issue is whether or not it serves American interests to have elections in Hong Kong rather than have the Chinese appoint someone. I guess that Cartalucci and Bernhard are in favor of Chinese control, a kind of “anti-imperialism” that makes a mockery of the term.

Buried deep inside a NY Times article, you get an indication of what is driving people into the streets:

Polls conducted by academic institutions over the past year have indicated that the most disaffected and potentially volatile sector of Hong Kong society is not the students, the middle-aged or even the elderly activists who have sustained the democracy movement here for decades. Instead, the most strident calls for greater democracy — and often for greater economic populism, as well — have come from people in their 20s and early 30s who have struggled to find well-paying jobs as the local manufacturing sector has withered away, and as banks and other service industries have increasingly hired mainland Chinese instead of local college graduates.

I doubt that the NED has any interest in paying such people to go out and protest. My guess is that it has much more of an affinity with the professor that Anthony Bourdain had dinner with in the first episode of the new season of his CNN show that was shot in Shanghai. As was the case with just about everybody he dined with, I was put off by the smug attitude of the professor who was tickled pink about the dynamism of the Chinese economy, all the while smirking over the irony that it was taking place under “communism”. Here’s an exchange between the two that sheds light on the discontent in Hong Kong that China’s ruling class worries might become contagious:

BOURDAIN: If you love in Manhattan like I do and you think you live in the center of the world, this place, Shanghai, will confront you with a very different reality. Turn down a side street, it’s an ancient culture. A century’s old mix of culinary traditions, smells, flavors. A block away, this. An ultra-modern, ever clanging cash register, levels of wealth, of luxury, a sheer volume of things and services unimagined by the greediest most bushwa of capitalist imperialist.

China has a population of around 1.2 billion people, and the number of them who were joining an explosive middle class, demanding their share of all that good stuff, infrastructure, the clothes, the cars, the gas to fuel them, his wealth, it’s the engine that might well drive the whole world.

ZHOU LIN: Do you like Chinese food?

BOURDAIN: Very much, yes.

ZHOU LIN: OK. What do you want?

BOURDAIN: Of course, yes some — dumplings.

ZHOU LIN: (speaking in a foreign language)

BOURDAIN: Professor Zhou Lin is an economist and current dean of the College of Economics and Management at Shanghai Jiao Tong University. I saw many people who live here who’s Chinese but was educated in American universities. Has had taught at Yale, Duke, and Arizona State.

BOURDAIN: So you — forgive me. Economics are not my area of expertise, I wallow in ignorance but China looks different every time I come. It’s changing so, so, so quickly. How did that happen?

ZHOU LIN: China enjoy, you know, this long period of peace. No serious enemy, no major wars.

BOURDAIN: Right.

ZHOU LIN: So the manufacturing industry really took off. Internally is reformed an open door policy, every country willing to trade with China.

BOURDAIN: There’s certainly no doubt that at this point, we — our destinies are inextricably bound up. We are hopelessly — our economies are hopelessly intermingled. If one fails, the effect would be disastrous.

ZHOU LIN: Global impact.

ZHOU LIN (on camera): So I really believe that the world is converging and China will again, will be privatizing more and more.

BOURDAIN: Right.

ZHOU LIN: But the difference — nowadays, it’s just the technology is so advanced, we don’t really need that many people. So too things that many use to do in which the population, 7 billion people, there was probably, doesn’t need that many people working…

BOURDAIN: Right.

ZHOU LIN: So the question is that what should human beings doing, you know? How can you let them not doing anything and then still living a good life?

BOURDAIN: Right.

ZHOU LIN: I don’t know. It’s going to be a big issue at the face of the whole world.

* * * *

So too things that many use to do in which the population, 7 billion people, there was probably, doesn’t need that many people working…

That’s the real explanation of Chinese unrest, not NED handouts.

July 28, 2014

Fallen City

Filed under: China,television — louisproyect @ 7:57 pm

This shows tonight on WNET in NYC at 10pm. Check your local PBS station to see if it is being screened in your city. This is from the PBS website:

http://www.pbs.org/pov/fallencity/film_description.php

Even for a country historically plagued by earthquakes, the 2008 quake in the Sichuan province was devastating. Nearly 70,000 people were killed and thousands more were missing and never found, making it the deadliest quake in the country in three decades. The old town of Beichuan, home to 20,000 people, was reduced to rubble. Fallen City is a revealing account of contemporary China’s response to the disaster: Within a scant two years, the government built a new and apparently improved town close to the old Beichuan.

Fallen City is the haunting story of the survivors, whose grief over the past and anxiety about the future cannot be resolved in bricks and mortar or erased by cheerful government propaganda about “the new Beichuan.” In today’s China, even the worst disaster can be an occasion for celebrating the country’s achievements and its anticipated great future. Yet in China, as elsewhere—and as movingly captured by Fallen City—suffering in the face of death and displacement follows a path determined more by humanity’s search for meaning than by the politics of the day.

—-

The film is the first directed by Qi Zhao, whose last credit was executive producing “Last Train Home”, about which I wrote:

“Last Train Home” is the latest movie that departs from the globalization-is-wonderful ideology of Thomas Friedman, Jagdish Bhagwati, and other prophets of neoliberalism. Some are fictional, such as “Blind Shaft”, a movie about miners forced to work in virtual slavery. Others are documentaries like “Still Life” that depict the loss of livelihood and ties to the land that the Three Gorges Dam posed.

Directed by a Canadian Lixin Fan, whose last film “Up the Yangtze” explored the same issues as “Still Life”, “Last Train Home” focuses on a single family whose life has been torn apart by China’s rapid industrialization.

Changhua Zhan and his wife Suqin Chen both work on sewing machines in a typical export-oriented factory in the Guangdong province. Each New Year’s holiday, they take a train back to their rural village to see their teenaged daughter Qin Zhang and her younger brother Yang Zhang. This is not as easy as it seems since there are far more people trying to get a ticket than are available. The train station is a sea of humanity with cops and soldiers trying to keep order. Although the film does not comment on why this is the case (it sticks to a cinéma vérité format), it strikes this reviewer as the likely outcome of a society that no longer places much emphasis on public transportation as it once did. (There are signs that this is beginning to change recently, but one doubts that it will have any impact on the poorer migrant workers for a while.)

full: http://louisproyect.org/2010/11/28/last-train-home/

I expect this to be a very important film.

July 1, 2014

2014 NY Asian Film Festival: “No Man’s Land”

Filed under: China,Film — louisproyect @ 8:01 pm

In the opening scene of “No Man’s Land”, we hear voice-over as a falcon swoops down upon another bird on an arid and foreboding plateau somewhere in Northwest China surrounded by mountains. The narrator, a lawyer who is the film’s anti-hero, tells us that in ancient times two monkeys decided to cooperate with each other. One would serve as a sentry against tigers, while the other would gather up peaches that the two would share. That act of cooperation led to an increase in the monkey kingdom, to the point where they became homo sapiens.

As this is being explained to us, a man pops up from beneath a pit beneath the ground and begins reeling in the falcon that has been snared by the bird left there as bait. We eventually learn that he is a poacher bent on selling falcons to Arab oil sheiks that domesticate them for hunting other birds.

Thus is established the primary message of a Chinese film that is a perfect blend of politics and action. On one level, the “no man’s land” is a remote area far from the nearest city. On another level, it is China today—a land of criminality, corruption and greed that is a rejection of that primal pact of cooperation made between our legendary monkey ancestors.

Shortly after the poacher begins headed toward the nearest city with his caged falcon, he is intercepted by a game warden who puts him under arrest. As they are headed down the road with poacher and bird in the back seat, a massive pickup truck broadsides them, killing the cop. The driver of the pickup is a poacher himself who will use murder as a means to ill-gained profits.

After the second poacher is arrested for killing the cop, he hires a lawyer from the big city, the same man whose words we heard at the beginning of the film and who is a perfect symbol of China’s new middle-class. He is banking on the possibility that a victory in court will catapult him into the top rank of his profession. After he successfully defends his client, the lawyer—one Pan Xiao—presents him with a bill for services rendered. Duobuji, the poacher, tells him that he will pay up in 10 days. Since the lawyer probably understood that his client was a murdering scumbag to begin with and not likely to pay up, he demands immediate satisfaction or else he would go to the cops. Duobuji offers him his red sedan as collateral, which was as near to hard cash as he would get from the villain except for the pirated falcon.

As he tools down the highway in the middle of nowhere headed back to civilization, the lawyer runs into one misadventure after another, always revolving around the poacher’s attempt to get back his car or various road rage incidents that make California look like a Quaker meeting by comparison. In most cases, it was the cynical and self-serving lawyer who triggered the other driver’s rage.

This is a road movie that evokes any number of other films, starting with the Mad Max series. However, director Ning Hao, who also wrote the screenplay, was not interested in a dystopian future. He is describing the China of today, taking artistic liberties but not that far from the reality:

A scooter rider in China is lucky to be alive after being repeatedly rammed for seemingly no reason by an angry motorist.

Video of the incident shows the driver of the car speeding towards the rider on a busy road, before ramming into it.

After successfully hitting the bike, the driver then swerves his car and again aims at the rider.

The film also suggests that the Coen brothers have influenced Ning Hao since the mix of homicide and bone-dry humor is cut from the cloth of films like “Blood Simple” and “Fargo”. There are also signs that he has absorbed the Spaghetti Western genre since his scenes of the northwest China desert and the mayhem that takes place within it have more than a whiff of “The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly” as one villain after another fight over the falcon like it was a box of silver stolen from a stagecoach.

“No Man’s Land” was made in 2009 but it was not released for theatrical distribution until 2013. Even though it might appear superficially as a noirish comedy about dirt-bags, the authorities figured out that the film was really about Chinese society. The censors objected to a film with so many “depraved” individuals and “accused Ning of nihilism and forgetting his social responsibility as a film director.”  I would say that Ning Hao had social responsibility in abundance. That is why his film was suppressed for 4 years.

I have a very high regard for Ning Hao and recommend an earlier film titled “Mongolian Ping-Pong” that is available as a DVD from Netflix or streaming on Fandor, an arthouse counterpart to Netflix. Like “No Man’s Land”, it has a poetic grasp of the beauty of the desert and mountains of that part of the world.

In April 2014, Oliver Stone made a trip to China to meet with the country’s leading filmmakers, including Ning Hao. Stone berated them for not having his guts. Why didn’t they take on Mao Zedong and the Cultural Revolution? Ning Hao shot back, calling Stone “belligerent” and reminding him that steps toward free speech in China must be taken “step by step”.

One hopes that “No Man’s Land” can be distributed nationally in the USA before long. It is first-rate filmmaking. For New Yorkers, I urge you to attend tonight’s screening just to make sure that you can catch it. If you have found my film reviews reliable over the years, I can assure you that this is 4-star entertainment as well as a powerful critique of Chinese society. You can’t ask for much more than that.

October 5, 2013

A Touch of Sin

Filed under: China,Film — louisproyect @ 7:44 pm

A scene from “A Touch of Sin”

For the longest time I have believed that the greatest filmmakers produce works that are both quintessential expressions of their national idiom and universal statements about the human condition. Satyajit Ray’s India, Akira Kurosawa’s Japan, and Ousmane Sembene’s Senegal spring to mind but so does the John Ford western.

With the arrival of Jia Zhangke’s “A Touch of Sin” at the Lincoln Plaza and IFC in New York yesterday, the third film I have seen by the Chinese director who has kept a sharp focus on social inequality throughout his career, it is reassuring  that a new golden age of cinema might be returning with Jia at the helm. His work is distinctly Chinese without the slightest concession to perceived “cross-over” marketing dictates, but universal in its compassion for working people. It is both puzzling and reassuring to see that this film could have been in made in censorious China today even if it benefits to a large degree from Japanese co-production. If China’s Communist Party has succumbed to the “one percent” values that are being protested everywhere in the world, it is noteworthy that a writer/director like Jia still adheres to the egalitarian ethos that motivated hundreds of millions of peasants and workers to rise up against a heartless and unjust order in the mid-20th century.

“A Touch of Sin” is a four-part narrative based on real-life outbursts of violence in China, all touched off by bitter class resentments.

  • A middle-aged coalminer returns to a village where he once worked in order to file a complaint against the Communist Party official who used his connections to become the owner of a privatized mine. The new boss comes to work in a Maserati while the villagers have never received a penny for the benefits they were promised when the mine became private property. When the miner approaches the boss in the midst of a welcoming procession as he steps off his private jet with his complaint, a bodyguard attacks him with a shovel after the boss leaves him in the lurch. The boss’s cronies begin mocking him as Mr. Golf after he leaves the hospital, finding the idea that his head was used as a golf ball a big joke. This and other offenses lead to the miner taking his revenge.
  • A young man who makes his living as an armed robber still adheres to traditional values, sending his grandmother money on a regular basis even if it is ill-gained.
  • A young woman has been forced by rural poverty to take a job as a receptionist at a sauna that serves as a front for a brothel. When a local thug insist that she give him a “massage”, she turns him away saying that she is only a receptionist. When he begins beating her, she defends her honor in the only manner left to her—through violence.
  • Another young man is working in one of China’s typical sweatshops. When a co-worker asks to borrow his smart phone to look something up, a conversation about how to use it leads to the borrower accidentally cutting his hand on a machine. The young man is told by his boss that it his responsibility to pay for the man’s lost wages during his two-week sick leave. His response is to leave the job and search ever more desperately for a way to survive in an economy where a lack of skills and connections turn you into a virtual slave.

Unlike China’s costume dramas that are geared to the international market replete with CGI trick shots of swordsmen floating through the air, “A Touch of Sin” is brutally realistic, shot on location in some of China’s most ugly industrial centers. Despite this, Jia, the consummate visual poet, turns every shot into something that will stick with you long after the film has ended. It is as if Antonioni decided to make films in places like Buffalo or Pittsburgh in the mid 1950s.

Despite the grim character of the tales, there is a dark comedy that pervades throughout. Like many of the class-conscious directors in China today, Jia loves to orchestrate dialog between family members or co-workers that bring out their saltiness and quick wit. If you are looking for dialog that advances what the critics call character development, you won’t find it in “A Touch of Sin”. In a way, there is no need for it. The miner does not have to explain what sets him on his homicidal path.

While watching “A Touch of Sin”, I made a mental note to say something about the naturalism that is found among all directors who belong to the “Sixth Generation”, a post-90s school of filmmaking in China that is strongly influenced by Italian neo-realism. The naturalism is not just an expression of life as it is really lived but also a throwback to the philosophy embodied in the novels of Emile Zola or Theodore Dreiser, even if the “Sixth Generation” has never read widely in this genre.

In the typical naturalist fiction, the main character is like a moth trapped in a spider’s web made up of capitalist society’s economic forces of coercion. The novel ends badly (not so much tragically since there was never a fall from on high) but inevitably just as is the case for millions of workers or poor farmers in China today with its miracle economy.

In the press notes, Jia describes his intention:

This film is about four deaths, four incidents which actually happened in China in recent years: three murders and one suicide. These incidents are well-known to people throughout China. They happened in Shanxi, Chongqing, Hubei and Guangdong – that is, from the north to the south, spanning much of the country.

I wanted to use these news reports to build a comprehensive portrait of life in contemporary China. China is still changing rapidly, in a way that makes the country look more prosperous than before. But many people face personal crises because of the uneven spread of wealth across the country and the vast disparities between the rich and the poor. Individual people can be stripped of their dignity at any time. Violence is increasing. It’s clear that resorting to violence is the quickest and most direct way that the weak can try to restore their lost dignity.

“A Touch of Sin” is opening throughout the United States over the next few months. Check http://www.atouchofsin.com/see.html to see if it is showing locally. I also recommend Jia Zhangke’s 2008 narrative film “Still Life” (http://louisproyect.org/2008/01/17/still-life/) and 2009 documentary “24 City” (http://louisproyect.org/2009/05/30/24-city/), both of which are class-conscious indictments of inequality in China. I have also heard that “The World”, a 2004 indictment of consumerism, is prime Jia Zhangke. All are available as DVD’s from Netflix.

July 17, 2013

Cognitive dissonance

Filed under: China,Film — louisproyect @ 1:16 am

Walking out from the press screening after the conclusion of Johnny To’s great new movie “Drug War”, I ran into an Asian woman about 50 years old or so who said she’d like to ask me a question. I said shoot.

Her: What did you think of the movie?

Me: I loved it.

Her: Really?

Me: Absolutely. Johnny To is the greatest.

Her: What is your name?

Me: Why do you need my name?

Her: I am a reporter with Xinhua.

Me: Oh. (I said as I was writing down my name). That’s Louis Proyect. I’m on the Internet. The Unrepentant Marxist.

She looked at me after I identified myself as if I had two heads. Seeing the expression on her face, I added: “You know, Karl Marx.”

The cognitive dissonance was so thick you could cut it with a knife. To start with, this is a movie that is nominally Chinese but it is really a Hong Kong product that plays by its own rules. A typical mainland movie is a costume drama about wicked Emperors being challenged by lesser nobility. Hong Kong movies, by comparison, are ultra-violent policiers cynical to the bone. Meanwhile, it is the same capitalist system that the two areas are united under. So, if this was her first Hong Kong movie, it must have been a jarring experience. But on top of that, what do you make of a Marxist who is passionate about Hong Kong gangster movies? Life is strange.

Trailer for “Drug War”:

July 2, 2013

New York Asian Film Festival 2013 (China)

Filed under: China,Film — louisproyect @ 10:30 pm

Even if it were possible for me to take in all forty-two films that are part of the 2013 New York Asian Film Festival, I doubt that any could surpass Wang Jing’s “Feng Shui” for its skillful combination of social commentary with human drama. It plays tomorrow at the Walter Reade Theater at 8pm and I strongly urge my readers to see it. The work it is closest to in spirit and in artistic realization is Iranian director Asghar Farhadi’s 2011 “A Separation”, which also examines the breakdown of a marriage and its effect on children against the backdrop of a society undergoing severe socioeconomic strains.

Feng shui is the Chinese word for wind-water and describes a system of occult beliefs similar to astrology. By examining the patterns of sand or stones thrown randomly on the ground, one could divine the future, mainly by avoiding bad luck. One of its main uses was to decide where to build a house. Unfortunately for the family that has moved into a high-rise as the film begins, the building has bad feng shui according to a woman who is the best friend of the lead female character Li Baoli (Yan Bingyan). Baoli scoffs at this suggestion even as things have taken a turn for the worse on the very day that she, her husband Ma Xuewu (Jiao Gang), and young son Xiaobao (Li Xian) have moved in. The two-bedroom apartment is twice the size of their old one and stocked with modern fixtures, so what could go wrong? The bad feng shui, however, is more a function of Baoli’s sadistic behavior toward her husband than the building’s alignment.

When the movers tell Baoli that they have to charge a higher fee than originally quoted, she explodes at them. In a constant state of ill humor, she has almost a Tourette’s like tendency to swear at people (men in particular) for the slightest offence. Her favorite epithet is dogfucker.

Ma Xuewu makes the mistake of offering the movers a cigarette, a glass of soda, and a small tip. He is not aware that Baoli has spotted them on the balcony of the new apartment. Even worse, she overhears the movers telling her husband that they pity him for being married to a woman who has so little respect for him. She then bursts out onto the balcony and curses out her husband and the movers like a drill instructor in a very bad mood.

That night, as they are about to tuck themselves into bed, Xuewu tells Baoli that he wants a divorce. He then grabs some blankets and goes into the living room to sleep on the sofa.

The breakdown of the marriage takes place against the high-tension background of economic insecurity and the son competing against other students to get top grades. With both husband and wife employed, their hopes for Xiaobao getting into a good university and moving up the ranks of some profession seem well-placed. But as the conflict between husband and wife escalates, the son threatens to become collateral damage.

While watching the film, I was reminded of Balzac. Like his typical novel focused on the irreconcilable differences between family members in a rapidly growing and class-differentiated Paris, director Jing Wang and screenwriter Nan Wu hearken back to the golden age of naturalism, fully understanding that its affinity for story-telling and compelling characters has never gone out of style.

It would be hard to imagine “Feng Shui” achieving the level of a masterpiece as it has without the performance of Bingyan Yan as the wife and mother Baoli. She manages to convey both the repulsiveness of the woman as well as her inner strengths. In the final two-thirds of the movie, she becomes a yoke-bearer, a primitive form of transporting luggage around the city that belongs to China’s “coolie” past. It is undoubtedly the filmmakers’ way of saying that as long as social conditions in China remain so constrained by the forces of production, it will be impossible for people to live free and happy lives.

“Beijing Blues” will be screened at 4:30pm on Tuesday, July 9th. It is a dryly comic cop movie whose main character Zhang Huiling (a real life cop played by Lixian Zhang) is the polar opposite of all the kung-fu fighting, sharp-shooting characters played by Jackie Chan or Jet Li.

Detective Zhang is a doughy-faced, out-of-shape man in early middle age whose main job is keeping swindlers and pickpockets off the street rather than taking on sadistic gangsters with armies of henchmen or North Korean spies.

The film is documentary-like with reenactments of the typical bust, reminiscent of what I have seen with my own eyes as New York cops sweep down Lexington Avenue to confiscate the bootleg versions of Gucci bags being sold by unlicensed Senegalese vendors.

Zhang is fatalistic about his job. He jails the perpetrators, fully expecting them to be back on the street in a couple of days. The best parts of the film pit Zhang against the men and women in custody who argue that they have no alternative, having lost their jobs or never being able to find one in the first place. You have no doubt that he understands their point of view even if he must put them away.

May 10, 2013

Wang Bing: cinematic bard of the Chinese working-class and peasantry

Filed under: China,Film — louisproyect @ 6:32 pm

In trying to explain to my wife the importance of Wang Bing’s tripartite, 9 hour documentary “West of the Tracks”, I described it as the equivalent of a time machine transporting a video camera back to 18th century Britain and into the hands of someone like Thomas Gray or William Blake—poets appalled by the rise of capitalism. In 1999 the 32-year-old film school graduate, went to Shenyang, a heavily industrialized city, with a small rented DV camera in order to capture a moment in time when the “iron rice bowl” would become a thing of the past. While the film itself is about as unadorned as the videos that I tend to make, their impact is overwhelming as Chinese workers confront their imminent demise as benefactors of one of the 20th century’s most powerful revolutions. Now they were becoming the equivalent of British self-sustaining small farmers dispossessed by the enclosure acts.

“West of the Tracks” is not easy to come by. I was able to borrow a copy from Columbia University’s well-stocked film library, but it is worth tracking down. But for those fortunate enough to be in close proximity to Manhattan’s Anthology Film Archives, I strongly recommend Wang Bing’s latest—“Three Sisters”—that opens today. It follows his long-form, cinema vérité approach but it is much more polished, even to the point of being described as an object of beauty, even as it depicts an ugly scenario, namely the bitter fortunes of impoverished peasants left out of China’s “economic miracle”.

The first part of “West of the Tracks” is aptly titled “Rust” and takes place almost entirely in the massive zinc and copper smelting plants in Shenyang as workers go about their jobs. Much of the action takes place in break rooms where they play cards or Mahjong and speculate about the pending bankruptcy of the state-owned factories that have provided them with health care, lunch, free housing, pensions and other benefits. Like their counterparts in places like Detroit or Cleveland, these are workers who are rapidly becoming redundant. The strain on their psyches is palpable as the opening scene depicts. A pointless argument in the break room leads a drunken worker to fisticuffs with those he has been annoying. As the fight winds down, he confesses that it is entirely his fault. He should not have gotten drunk.

Wang Bing’s use of cinema vérité functions both as a way of capturing lives in their messy, quotidian essence as well as a way of avoiding censorship. Just about every Chinese documentary filmmaker avoids making Michael Moore type agitprop since that would risk leading to the same fate as artist Ai Weiwei. As a gimmick that reminds me a bit of Alfred Hitchcock’s cameo appearance in most of his films, Wang Bing tips off his audience that it is still a movie and not reality. In part three of “West of the Tracks”, he shows a junk collector at his home near the rail yards picking up his pet dog Maomao, holding him up to the camera, and announcing: “Look at the camera, Maomao. Let them take your picture.” In “Three Sisters”, we see the father of the three young girls, who are the subjects of the documentary, get on a bus that will take him to a nearby city in search of a factory job. The bus driver then asks him for a ticket. He replies that he has already given him one. “Not yours”, the bus driver says, “one for the guy with the camera.”

Part two is titled “Remnants” and depicts the forced relocation of Shenyang’s workers who are losing their company housing to demolition. In every case, they are not only getting smaller flats that will force at least one family member to be left out; they are also required to pay a hefty price for being given that privilege. With most of the workers already a victim of layoffs, much of the film shows them passing time in their old neighborhood as they reflect on the raw deal they have gotten. There is no organized resistance shown in Wang Bing’s film since that would risk censorship or worse but the film gives you a good idea why 180,000 reported incidents of organized protests took place in 2010.

“Rails”, the final part, is about railroad workers whose trains operate in and about Shenyang’s industrial yards. As is the case in part one, most of the action takes place on the job and in break rooms but unlike part one the workers are less stressed out since they will likely not be impacted by plant closings. Although they refer to each other as “comrade”, there is little evidence of the workers thinking in broad political terms. As long as they have a job and the money to spend on prostitutes or Karaoke bars, they will accept the new system that is unfolding. The most moving part of “Rails” involves the aforementioned junk dealer who makes his rounds in the rail yards looking for discarded metal to sell in local marketplaces. One night some cops arrest him for an unauthorized collection, leaving his young son to suffer what amounts to a nervous breakdown. It is a graphic reminder of the cruelty of those with the power to enforce capitalist law and order in the new China.

As my regular readers probably know by now, my emphasis is on politics rather than style. That being said, it is worth noting what “Jump Cut”, a magazine geared to the byways of America’s film schools, had to say:

The four shots are taken from a camera mounted on the front of a small goods train as it traverses and penetrates Tiexi District’s factories and residential areas.  Snowflakes stick to the lens as if to one’s eyelashes, and this snow sticking, along with the occasional small jerk given to the camera by the old railroad tracks, serves to make the cinematography tangible, vulnerable, almost human.  Thus the camera does not just observe or record; it stares, it braves, it searches, and it salvages.

If much of the film’s stylistic power is arguably unintentional, there is little doubt that Wang Bing’s latest is a finely wrought work of art.

“Three Sisters” is shot in a remote and mountainous farming village where three young girls are fending for themselves in what amounts to a hut. Their mother abandoned the family long ago and the father has been forced to look for work in the nearest city.

Yingying is 10 and amounts to the head of the household that consists of her, her 6-year-old sister Zhenzhen, and Fenfen, the youngest who is 4. Like “West of the Tracks”, the 153-minute film is made up of the quotidian existence of humble people, in this instance not only humble but also highly vulnerable. Yingying is always picking lice out of her sibling’s hair while all three have coughs that alarmingly never go away.

Their grandfather lives nearby and tries to look after them as best he can but he has his own meager existence to look after. The children have little to look forward to outside of a visit from their father who brings them new clothes from the city or to festivals in the village that provide a good meal for the hungry.

Notwithstanding the obvious suffering, there is also much inspiration in watching three children trying to shore up each other against all odds. Yingying has almost unbelievable fortitude for a 10-year-old.

The village is perpetually cloaked in a fog that lends it the aura of a Bronte novel. When Yingying goes to a nearby mountaintop to look after her grandfather’s flock of sheep, you hear a constant rumbling as if in an approaching storm. It takes a while to figure out that the sound is that of the unrelenting wind rather than thunder. Wang Bing had the bright idea to remove the windscreen from his microphone to achieve this dramatic effect.

According to a 2008 World Bank report, 948 million people live on less than $5 per day in China. One imagines that if the three children had $4.99 per day to survive on, they would feel as if they won the lottery.

Recently it was reported that Mao Zedong’s granddaughter Kong Dongmei is worth about $815 million, placing her 242nd on Chinese magazine New Fortune’s 500 Rich List for 2013. Those in China, who share director Wang Bing’s values, call these Forbes type lists “sha zhu bang” or “kill pig list.

In March 1927 Mao Zedong wrote a “Report on an Investigation of the Peasant Movement in Hunan” that stated:

In a very short time, in China’s central, southern and northern provinces, several hundred million peasants will rise like a mighty storm, like a hurricane, a force so swift and violent that no power, however great, will be able to hold it back. They will smash all the trammels that bind them and rush forward along the road to liberation. They will sweep all the imperialists, warlords, corrupt officials, local tyrants and evil gentry into their graves. Every revolutionary party and every revolutionary comrade will be put to the test, to be accepted or rejected as they decide. There are three alternatives. To march at their head and lead them? To trail behind them, gesticulating and criticizing? Or to stand in their way and oppose them? Every Chinese is free to choose, but events will force you to make the choice quickly.

Surely as the conditions described in Wang Bing’s documentaries continue, there will be another “mighty storm” that will eventually sweep away the likes of Mao’s granddaughter. Ironically, despite the lack of a revolutionary party, it is a good sign that documentary filmmakers are serving as a kind of cultural vanguard exposing the rot at the heart of this vicious system. Sooner or later, the workers and peasants will mobilize as well to make another revolution to sweep “corrupt officials, local tyrants and evil gentry into their graves” once again.

April 12, 2013

American Meat; The Revolutionary

Filed under: China,Film,food — louisproyect @ 9:32 pm

Opening today:

“American Meat” at the Cinema Village

“The Revolutionary” at the Quad

A meat diet contained in an almost ready state the most essential ingredients required by the organism for its metabolism. By shortening the time required for digestion, it also shortened the other vegetative bodily processes that correspond to those of plant life, and thus gained further time, material and desire for the active manifestation of animal life proper. And the farther man in the making moved from the vegetable kingdom the higher he rose above the animal.

–Frederick Engels, The Part played by Labour in the Transition from Ape to Man

When my old friend Doug Henwood, America’s most brilliant left economist, posted this item on Facebook, I am sure he did it with a mischievous grin on his face since so many people on the left equate meat eating with imperialism. Since Doug cooks a mean meatball, he and other meat-eating leftists would appreciate “American Meat”, a fascinating documentary that makes the case for organic, grass-fed livestock and poultry. I should add that even vegetarians would get a lot out of the film since it deals with attempts to resolve a fundamental crisis in agriculture identified by Karl Marx:

If small-scale landownership creates a class of barbarians standing half outside society, combining all the crudity of primitive social forms with all the torments and misery of civilized countries, large landed property undermines labor-power in the final sphere to which its indigenous energy flees, and where it is stored up as a reserve fund for renewing the vital power of the nation, on the land itself. Large-scale industry and industrially pursued large-scale agriculture have the same effect.

–Karl Marx, Capital V. 3, Chapter 47, Genesis of Capitalist Ground-Rent

The indigenous energy referred to by Marx is a bunch of manure—literally. The lack of fertilizer was the environmental crisis of the mid-1800s, just as global warming is today. So desperate farmers were for fertilizer that the bones of dead soldiers were considered suitable input for fertilizer. The crisis also led to the “guano wars” in Latin America.

When Fritz Haber, a German scientist born into a Hasidic family, invented chemical based fertilizers in 1918, the crisis appeared to be solved. Henceforth, you did not have to worry about keeping livestock and poultry in close proximity to crops as a source of natural fertilizer. Industrial farming could now be launched on a scientific basis that Marx and Engels never dreamed about. As so happens with such “magic bullets”, the end result was a nightmare.

As the film explains, industrial livestock and poultry production is bad for your health, cruel to the animals, and a waste of precious resources—particularly the petrochemicals that are essential to large-scale production of the sort that Perdue symbolizes.

The film reveals that the major poultry companies own the creatures that farmers raise to maturity. They are dropped off in massive containers and then picked up after they are ready to be slaughtered and packaged. The poultry farmer is under intense pressure to maintain effective cost control since the Taylorist production methods require vast amounts of capital, including air-conditioning, computers, antibiotics and the like.

What comes off the assembly line goes directly to your Walmart and has the merit of being affordable—at least at first blush. It turns out that we are footing the costs of such cheap food by subsidizing the corn and soybean production that makes industrial production possible. What we get from it might be cheap but tasteless.

Grass-fed poultry and livestock is not only a pleasure to eat; it is also beneficial for the soil. Among the farms visited in the film, the art of combining different sorts of animals like chickens and pigs into a kind of organically linked cycle is stunning to behold. The question, of course, is how this can replace the system we operate under now. Can small farms ever compete economically with the Perdues of the world?

The film argues that they can through various strategies, including the direct to market approach embodied by the Union Square Greenmarket in New York. However, for most people of modest means a $25 per pound chicken is out of he question. There have been modest steps toward matching up such people with the suppliers but it has not made that much of a dent as a substitute for Perdue’s.

Among the answers put forward by the film is the growing influence of outfits like Whole Foods and Chipotle’s that are based on grass-fed meat grown by small farmers. Unfortunately, the film almost becomes a free commercial for the two corporations toward its conclusion. It is unfortunate that the film does not reflect on their track record on matters not directly related to what you eat.

In an article titled “Mother Nature, Make Me Rich”, Marxist economist Michael Yates gives the low-down on Steve Ells, who makes an appearance in “American Meat”. It turns out that Ells treats his workers like dogs:

The company has come under scrutiny by Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE), which has questioned the identification documents of hundreds of Chipotle employees.  Restaurants in Minnesota and Virginia have responded with mass and sudden firings, possibly in violation of state laws and, according to the workers, without paying wages due to them.  Workers, labor unions, and support groups have also said that Chipotle had often knowingly hired undocumented immigrants (even allowing them to change their social security numbers!), was using the ICE actions to get rid of senior and more highly paid employees (it takes three years of work to qualify for a one-week vacation), and had actually hired back some of the fired workers as new hires.

Furthermore, there is some question about how healthful the food is, notwithstanding the company’s public relations efforts (including its fiscal backing of the film.) Michael quotes from Wikipedia:

A Center for Science in the Public Interest report stated that Chipotle’s burritos contain over 1,000 calories, which is nearly equivalent to two meals’ worth of food.  MSNBC Health placed the burritos on their list of the “20 Worst Foods in America” because of their high caloric content and high sodium.  When a burrito with carnitas, rice, vegetables, cheese, guacamole, and salsa was compared with a typical Big Mac, the burrito had more fat, cholesterol, carbohydrates, and sodium than the Big Mac, and the burrito had more protein and fiber.

What good does grass-fed beef do you when it is slathered in bad cholesterol?

At least they haven’t taken money from Whole Foods (as far as I know), even though it gives one of its executives plenty of time at the mike. Here’s what the Washington Post had to say about these bastards on August 10, 2008:

Whole Foods Market pulled fresh ground beef from all of its stores Friday, becoming the latest retailer affected by an E. coli outbreak traced to Nebraska Beef, one of the nation’s largest meatpackers. It’s the second outbreak linked to the processor in as many months.

Even if Whole Foods did a better job of checking where their meat was coming from, there’s no evidence that its CEO John Mackey, an obnoxious libertarian, would ever do anything to treat his workers better. A Whole Foods employee spilled the beans to Socialist Workers newspaper on January 28th of this year:

Although it markets itself as a caring health foods store, Whole Foods doesn’t care about the welfare of its own employees.

In the last year, the company has instituted speedups through different policies store to store. In one store, all full-time non-managerial employees had their hours reduced to 30 hours per week. Management cited a decrease in sales numbers, but when sales picked back up, they continued to operate with the reduced hours schedule, resulting in a 25 percent pay cut for full-time employees.

In other stores, management has begun an “incentive” program for cashiers, rewarding increases in items rung up per minute (IPM) and stressing that all cashiers should be increasing their IPM to 30. The average IPM for most cashiers, when ringing at a comfortable and sustainable pace, is 14 to 20 IPM.

Mackey might be selling free-range chickens but he treats his workers much more like Perdue chickens, commodities to be exploited.

While I can recommend “American Meat” as a good presentation of the contradictions of industrial farming and possible prototypes for an alternative mode of production, I am afraid that like most films I have seen in this genre it does not face up to the class interests that make organic agriculture a possibility. The two-party system is owned lock, stock and barrel by agribusiness operating in partnership with big pharma, the arms industry, megabanks and other pillars of American capitalism.

Once we put control of the means of production into the hands of the people who produce the commodities we depend on, then we can talk about truly alternative food production. Until then, the solutions will be partial and somewhat utopian. (That being said, I will make a trip down to Union Square tomorrow to get some organic vegetables and meat.)

Sidney Rittenberg is the quintessential anti-Zelig. Like Woody Allen’s character, he shows up in key moments of Chinese history next to all the big-time players but unlike Zelig is in a commanding position, most of all in the Cultural Revolution.

He was born to a wealthy Jewish family in Charleston, South Carolina in 1921 and became involved with the labor movement while at the University of North Carolina, a long-time hotbed of the radical movement not unlike CCNY. Another famous red alumnus was the late Junius Scales, another scion of an upper-class family.

When he was in the army, he got sent to language school to learn Chinese. Afterwards he was sent to China just as the war was ending. With his radical sympathies, he was inspired to seek out Mao Zedong who was organizing his Red Army in Yan’an province for an all-out assault on the KMT army.

Upon meeting the 24-year-old Rittenberg, Mao invited him to take a senior position at Radio Peking, making sure that the CP’s communications with the West were conveyed properly in English. Rittenberg agreed to stay on but only on one condition—that he be accepted as a member of the Communist Party. That turned out to be a double-edged sword since this experience brought him terrible misery even as it offered him the most fulfilling moments of his life. Even though I and most of my veteran radical readers never reached such a lofty status, we surely can identify with him as he relates his being ground down as a member of what amounted to the largest socialist cult in history—Mao’s Communist Party.

Just four years after going to work at Radio Peking at a salary larger than Mao’s, Stalin sent Mao a letter accusing Rittenberg of being a spy. Rittenberg was offered the choice of being sent back to the U.S. immediately or going to prison in China. He chose China and then spent 6 years in solitary confinement until the Chinese brass decided he wasn’t a spy after all.

Oddly enough, the only other people besides Stalin who raise the possibility that Rittenberg was a spook was the Financial Times:

A feeling that Rittenberg must, surely, have been a deep-cover CIA agent still surfaces occasionally in the US. “There were actually no western agents in China in my time,” he says. “But former intelligence people are convinced to this day that I was an agent under deep cover. I get asked quite probing questions even today by retired CIA people. When I deny it, they say, ‘Wow, you’re good.’ I always considered myself a representative of the genuine American people, in the tradition of revolutionaries like Tom Paine. That’s why I always dressed as an American. I wanted to be an American friend of China, not Chinese.”

I find the CIA accusation hard to believe. Why would an asset such as Rittenberg be ordered to spend 6 years in a Chinese prison when his talents could have been deployed elsewhere? I think it is much more plausible that he did everything he did out of a conviction that he was a participant in the 20th century’s greatest anti-imperialist revolution. I did many stupid and self-destructive things for a much more marginal movement.

Rittenberg is still alive, having moved to the U.S. after his second imprisonment, this time during the Cultural Revolution and once again for being a foreign spy. Now in his 90s, he is an amazingly articulate man capable of deep insights about the Chinese revolution and the personal disasters stemming from both his idealism and the ambitions many of China’s top politicos harbored and still do.

March 15, 2013

Notes on China’s New Left

Filed under: aging,China,journalism — louisproyect @ 9:50 pm

Recent articles about China in Harper’s and N+1 remind me that there will always be a need for print publications, as long as they can deliver in-depth and trenchant analysis of the sort that is harder to find on the web. Before discussing the articles, it would be worth saying a word or two about the two magazines.

Harper’s has been around since June 1850 and is the second-oldest continuously published monthly magazine in the U.S. after Scientific American. I took out a subscription in the early 80s around the same time I took out one to the Nation. Eventually I grew tired of the tepid liberalism of the Nation and did not renew my subscription. Harper’s can best be described as close to Ralph Nader type politics with a strong patrician streak that was most pronounced under the editorship of Lewis Lapham who I adored. Roger Hodge, whose book on Obama, “The Mendacity of Hope”, is a great read despite its odd affinity for Thomas Jefferson, replaced Lapham in 2003. Hodge got on publisher John MacArthur’s wrong side and was fired in 2010. MacArthur is heir to a family fortune and apparently runs the magazine in a rather imperious fashion. Despite that, I find it a great read and especially value the monthly “difficult” crossword puzzles.

N+1 is published 3 times a year out of Brooklyn and has ‘tude to spare. Benjamin Kunkel, who has written for The Nation and Dissent, two mainstays of left-liberalism, was one of the founding editors. In an N+1 article commemorating Christopher Hitchens, Kunkel began:

In high school I was, like many incipient writers, too high-minded and self-involved to take any serious notice of the world as described by journalists. Wars, elections, and revolutions were trivial events beside the development of literature and my part within it. Later, as a college freshman, when I first discovered politics, it was on a summit of vertiginous abstraction.

I suppose I never got a paying job as a journalist because putting together a phrase like “a summit of vertiginous abstraction” is simply beyond me. My goal in writing has always been to express myself in exactly the same way that I speak to people. I suppose having read Ezra Pound’s “ABC of Reading” back in 1961 also had something to do with it: “Great literature is simply language charged with meaning to the utmost possible degree.”

“The Unraveling of Bo Xilai: China loses a populist star” appears in the March 2013 Harper’s. Written by Lauren Hilgers who lives in Shanghai, it—like most Harper’s articles—is behind a paywall. My feeling is that as long as such articles continue to appear in Harper’s, I will continue to be a subscriber. I had been following the Bo Xilai saga in the N.Y. Times but found it all totally confusing. I knew that he was one of China’s richest men and that his wife had been charged with the murder of a British citizen but the politics—you couldn’t figure out a thing from the Times.

Thanks to Ms. Hilgers, I finally have an idea of what was going on. Apparently, Bo was orienting to China’s “New Left”, a odd term for a group of people who express nostalgia for Mao. She writes:

Bo Xilai offered a potential solution— one that didn’t require real political reform. He relied on his populist appeal, his revolutionary bloodline, and an utter disregard for the law. He was undoubtedly corrupt, but in Chongqing, as in Dalian, he rolled out policies with something for everyone. Bo orchestrated a return to communist values, sending out mass text messages with his favorite Mao quotes. He promoted the singing of “red songs” and banned all primetime advertising on Chongqing’s television station, encouraging its executives to run patriotic films instead. Bo’s “red culture” campaign turned him into a figurehead for China’s New Left, a movement that lionizes Mao and looks to return to what adherents think of as a simpler, less corrupt era. Bo planted trees (Xilai trees), built low-income housing, and attracted investment. At the same time, Bo’s “Chongqing model” encouraged a greater economic role for China’s state-owned enterprises. His anti-mafia campaign, promoted with the slogan “Strike the black,” helped him wipe out his opponents and establish an extensive surveillance network— but it also helped Bo beef up the police force, making the city safer. Bo cast himself as a champion of China’s poor, a crusader against corruption, greed, and inequality.

Hilgers visited the Utopia Bookstore, an outpost of Maoist values and discovered broad support for Bo there:

The people at Utopia bookstore were Bo’s target audience. They wanted to be engaged; they worried about the fate of their country and were hungry for more information, whatever the source. And Bo, more than other Chinese politicians, was available. For them, a little accessibility went a long way. The regular old lady listed her concerns: Capitalism had made some people happy, but it had made some people rich and some people poor. It had also made people corrupt. Leaders weren’t concerned with equality or the poor. China bowed too easily to America’s demands. And Bo Xilai, she said, was the only leader addressing her concerns. “We all pretty much support Bo Xilai here,” a visiting volunteer from Shandong told me. He was a little bit suspicious of me and asked to be identified as a “reader.”

Bo Xilai was recently expelled from the CCP and his wife was arrested for murder. Clearly the party leaders were getting nervous about pretenders to the throne who were striking a chord in the restive population.

As I have pointed out to comrades on Marxmail recently, the Chinese boom appears to be coming to an end and the country faces a real estate bubble of biblical proportions. Under such conditions, having a Mao-spouting millionaire presents problems even if he doesn’t mean a word of it.

Nikil Saval’s N+1 article is titled “The Long Eighties” and deals with the problems facing the democrats in a country whose rulers seem to have stifled the mass movement through a combination of repression and state-managed economic growth.

It is a very probing and well-researched article that includes some insights into the affection the New Left had for a corrupt and demagogic millionaire like Bo Xilai:

Meanwhile the Chinese “New Left”—a loose assemblage of intellectuals that formed around the journal Dushu (Readings)—occupies the opposite position. The “New Left” is highly opposed to the country’s economic direction, yet its members are not only not in jail, but in some cases socially affiliated with the government. Its leading figure, Beijing-based intellectual historian and social theorist Wang Hui, has criticized intellectuals like Liu for remaining fundamentally unopposed to the neoliberal direction of the country. Wang argues that while China has the opportunity to craft an “alternative modernity,” a form of social democracy opposed to the creeping of market logic into every corner of existence, Chinese liberals simply accept a teleology of modernity that basically resembles America—a model that is visibly failing. Not that Wang is in fact against markets. On the contrary, following Braudel’s distinction between markets and capitalism, Wang argues that “a critique of an actual market society and its crises cannot be equated with repudiation of the mechanisms of market competition, as the principal task of critical intellectuals is to disclose the antimarket mechanisms within market society and to bring to bear a democratic and socialized conception of markets to counter the antimarket logic of actual market society.” Wang espouses, in other words, a kind of market socialism, which would preserve competition on a local, small-scale level, in contrast to China’s rather ostentatious collusion of government and business.

Unlike Liu, Wang has managed to stay aboveground and out of prison. (Though he is no longer editor-in-chief, Readings was and is published with state approval.) He teaches frequently in the US, and outside China his writing—unfailingly intelligent, though dense and laborious where Liu is fleet and lucid—has been best received among left-wing English and American academics, who are naturally skeptical of the liberals. (The liberals, meanwhile, attract the attention of every-one else.) Part of the reason Wang stays out of jail is the attitude he and his comrades display toward the political scene. Where Liu sees generalized abjection and totalitarianism, Wang and his collaborators see hope for criticism and a margin of openness in the political atmosphere. But they may be kidding themselves. The recent government has been in the habit of adopting “New Left” rhetoric while doing little to prosecute its aims. High-placed officials speak unctuously about equality and the continuing project of socialism while silently (but blatantly) cultivating their relations with factory owners and financiers.

While I generally find N+1’s articles compelling (except for the fiction that like most fiction leaves me cold), I do wish they would lay off the Young Turk posturing that can be found in a section at the front of the magazine called “The Intellectual Situation” that is obsessed with exposing well-established magazines like Harper’s, the Atlantic Monthly, and the Paris Review as “old fogies”. They have a particular animus toward Harper’s. You can actually read the latest “The Intellectual Situation” here: http://nplusonemag.com/the-intellectual-situation-issue-15.

While the Atlantic hustles women for page views, Harper’s can maintain a courtly, old-fashioned affect and a decorous remove from reality. It remains almost entirely male and for all practical purposes appears exclusively in print, where it pursues its passion for solving arithmetic problems, arranging newspaper clippings, and recounting logistically complicated vacat

Apparently the editor’s disparaging of people running Harper’s or other such moldy figs as “aged” annoys me to no end. After all, I am 68 but do not listen to Guy Lombardo or wear diapers. Some other old fogey got so fed up with some other such business they wrote N+1 a letter giving it a piece of its mind. I don’t know if it will do any good. You know how full of themselves young people can be.

AGAINST AGEISM

Dear Editors, I am surprised by the ageism of “Big Babies,” in a magazine that otherwise seems conscious of social injustice and the power of language. The authors adopt old age as a metaphor for the stupid and repugnant, as women long were used as a metaphor for evil. Adjectives such as “old” and “retired” are thrown around as insults; “senilely” is meant to ridicule. The image of old people with “suit sleeves flopping” (yes, many of our wrists become skinny and bony, as the authors’ may, should they live to old age) is taken to be patently repellent. I thought that was the worst until I came upon the sneering depiction of the “Autocrat of the Senior Center” in a “second childhood” in which “someone wipes his spills.” The dis-abilities often associated with old age, “confusion and impotence” and being “forgetful,” are invoked to demean, while “Napoleon in Depends” is presented as the ultimate insult. It’s not the old who are disgusting but this rhetoric. The authors condemn misogyny and the war on women but happily enlist in the war on the old and disabled. I wish on those who wrote that section a long old age in which they—without, I hope, confusion, impotence, or Depends, but don’t bet on it—will have to slowly chew, swallow, and expel their indigestible words.

—Alix Kates Shulman

February 23, 2013

11 Flowers

Filed under: China,Film — louisproyect @ 10:06 pm

As I contemplate the sorry parade of slop being considered for Academy Awards tomorrow night (chief among them “Argo”, “Zero Dark Thirty”, “Lincoln”, and “Django Unchained”), I consider myself fortunate to live in New York where an art theater circuit provides support for something like Wang Xiao-Shuai‘s “11 Flowers”. Opening yesterday at the Quad Cinema, this mixture of a coming-of-age tale and commentary on the Cultural Revolution puts Hollywood to shame. Frankly, the idea of the Chinese military hacking American computers to steal this doddering imperialist nation’s intellectual property would seem to be a joke if Hollywood was factored in.

The eponymous flowers refer to a still life that 11 year old Wang Han (Liu Wenquing) is learning to paint from his father, a trained artist anxious to pass along the same skills to his son. But the son’s real passion is for leading his classmates in morning calisthenics, an ability coveted much more than artistry in such a regimented society. When young Wang learns that calisthenics leaders are required to wear a new white shirt, his mother tells him that they lack the funds. When he begins to sulk, she slaps and berates him.

This, the first instance of violence in the film, is part of the social fabric being ripped to shreds in the town with the low-intensity-warfare waged by Red Guards on the local “conservatives” spilling into the family circle. After Wang’s mother scrapes together the money for a new shirt, he is met by disaster. While playing down by the riverbanks, a man grabs his shirt and runs into a thicket of trees overlooking the river. Desperate to retrieve the shirt, Wang runs after him no matter the risks. When he catches up to him, he discovers that the shirt is being used to stanch the bleeding from a wound the man received fleeing the cops.

Eventually we discover that he is the son of an artist just like his father who has been banished from Shanghai for his “petty bourgeois deviations”. After the local chieftain of the Revolutionary Guards has raped his sister, he takes the law into his own hands and kills him.

Throughout the film you can see skirmishes between gangs of men on either side in the Cultural Revolution. The film does not attempt to provide a documentary-like explanation of the issues but is content to tell the story of how that upheaval conducted in the name of the class struggle poisoned human relationships throughout the country.

In one of the most illuminating scenes in this inspired film, Wang’s father has returned home with his  head bloodied, a souvenir of a visit to a respected art professor who has also been banished to the boondocks. This is the gift bestowed upon him by a gang of Red Guards who were determined to punish the art professor for promoting “decadent” art.

The accusation does have a basis in fact as Wang’s father reveals a treasure that the art professor has bequeathed to his son. It is a collection of impressionist reproductions of the sort that can be purchased for a couple of dollars each in a museum store. For a nation that is anxious to purge every shred of “bourgeois” civilization, the reproductions become a challenge to national security.

Wang’s father explains the importance of Monet to him, saying that he was the first artist to abandon the studio and go directly out to see nature as it is without preconceptions. As you sit watching this extraordinarily beautiful film, you will understand that director Wang Xiao-Shuai must have incorporated these insights early in his career. He comes close to achieving the same intensity through his camera that Monet did through his palette.

Wang Xiao-Shuai is a member of the “sixth generation” of Chinese filmmakers, a reference to the post-1990s current that used low-budget “indie” techniques such as digital cameras matched to a neorealist esthetic, in other words the very type of film this reviewer treasures. Many of these filmmakers have run into heavy state censorship or are prevented from making films altogether. This is frequently a function of them presenting what amounts to a radical critique of Chinese crony capitalism found in a film like “Blind Shaft” or “Still Life”.

Wang Xia-Shuai’s press notes statement provides his personal experiences that map closely to those of his characters:

The story of 11 Flowers is infused with the memories of my life in Guiyang, in the province of Guizhou. In the mid ‘60s, my parents followed the Chinese government’s call asking families to move the main factories in charge of national production inland in order to defend China against a potential attack from the USSR. We left Shanghai to go and live in this poor province. I grew up in this countryside with my older sister, while our parents hoped to rapidly be able to go back to Shanghai. This period of my life left a profound mark on me. We lived in a small village that had been built for us near the Shanghai factory, then dismantled, then put together again. We felt the burden of the obligations my parents – and all other grown-ups in society – were tied down with. I saw how this movement and the Cultural Revolution changed them.

When I became an adult, I realized that very few people knew about the Third Front movement, which pushed these city-dwellers to live with their family in the middle of the countryside. In my films, it was important for me to speak about these people and their lives. I even started a documentary on the subject so that my parents and their friends could tell us why and how they lived there. One of my previous films, Shanghai Dreams, already had my life in the Guizhou province as a background. The film recounted these workers’ children awakening to the world, until their adolescence and their desire for independence. In 11 Flowers, the children are still young and do not understand the world that surrounds them. They do not question the situation they live in. This creates a gap between their point of view and the social and political backdrop.

“11 Flowers” is the best narrative film I have seen this year and will likely be at the top of my list for best of 2013, Hollywood be damned.

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