- Détourning the Chimera:Toward a Global Critical Practice
The variants of neoliberalism east and west of the Pacific—China’s “state neoliberalism” and the more epistemologically totalitarian version that has long been ascendant in the United States1—while providing cyclical alterations of anachronistic stick waving with the kind of symbiotic chumminess on display during Xi Jinping’s visit to Davos, do not portend any serious systemic fissures at the commanding heights of the global economy. The latest indications (June 2017) suggest that Donald Trump is, as many of us always thought he eventually would, falling into line. There is considerably more work to be done, however, in the ranks of the opposition. For US-based scholars and critics, an anticapitalist intellectual project that seeks to be global in its scope and orientation requires articulation with comrades in China.2 This is not because China is emerging as the new frontier of capital accumulation, coming to the rescue of a global system that may be nearing its structural limits in Europe, Japan, and the United States—a speculative proposition at best—but out of what must be a collective concern with our common humanity, in which, demographically speaking, China looms large. I take among the aims of this special issue to include a contribution to this project, as well as a contribution to a more properly global critical culture, and it is in that spirit that I offer some perspectives on the institutional and ideological character of contemporary Chinese critical practice.
As is the case elsewhere in the world, the overwhelming majority of critical China-based intellectuals work in universities. Higher education in China has been the site of massive expansion since the beginning of the reform period (1978), and there are currently over twenty-five hundred institutions of higher education enrolling over thirty million students. The numbers continue to grow. Placing a high priority on institutional ranking, central government initiatives for higher education have included the multibillion-dollar-funded 211 project—devoted to the strengthening of about one hundred of the top-ranked universities in China—and the 985 project, aimed at strengthening the international rankings, global reputation, and global impact of thirty-nine of [End Page 541] China’s top universities, and the latest iteration of the campaign, the recently announced “double first class” (shuang yiliu) program, prioritizing the creation of more universities and disciplines in the higher echelons of the global rankings. Although the “double first class” program aims to spread resources more broadly, to date most resources have been channeled to an elite tier of universities, as is the case elsewhere in the overdeveloped world, and this has correlated highly with the creation and reproduction of a socioeconomic elite, whose members are the initiatives’ primary beneficiaries.3
For university academics, however, particularly those outside the STEM (science, technology, engineering, and mathematics) fields, conditions are grim. Chinese academics are, in PPP (purchase power parity) terms, among the worst-paid academics in the world, with an average monthly salary of $720 and starting salaries averaging $259, at the bottom of world rankings.4 Universities are administered in a top-down manner, and administrators, even those with doctorates, are drawn largely from an administrative track. There is no tradition of faculty self-governance, and academics’ choices of courses to teach, dissertation, research, and grant topics are commonly not wholly their own. Advancement up the ranks is dependent on quantitative evaluation that makes the UK and US systems look benign. Normally, promotion depends on publication in one of the over five hundred publications listed in the “key publication list” (hexin kanwu), successful application for nationally sponsored research grants (on topics or in areas specified by the state), study or research abroad, and examinations, and all hires and promotions must be reviewed at the provincial Ministry of Education. The “key publications” do not include many of those critical analytical journals that have the most intellectual impact in the humanities and analytical social sciences such as Tianya, Nanfang chuang, or Refeng xueshu, and it is very difficult to add publications to the list. Often, academics have to pay to publish in the key publications. I could find...