From Deng to the Demos? Han Dongfang’s Laborism, Wen Tiejun’s Peasantism, and the Future of Capitalism and Democracy in China

Andreas Møller Mulvad

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    This article deploys Bob Jessop’s strategic-relational approach to ask two questions: First, how is China’s party-based power bloc seeking to renew its hegemony, as the symbolic power of ‘Dengism’ erodes in an age marked by class formation and increasing social tensions? Second, how are subaltern social movements seeking to influence the articulation of a new, less elitist hegemonic project? Based on original interview data, I compare two of China’s most famous organic intellectuals, both centrally placed in class-based counter-movements triggered by China’s marketization. Both advocate a non-dissident strategy of change within rather than against the party-state, but their visions differ greatly. Trade unionist and 1989 protest leader Han Dongfang favors a social democratic vision based on strengthening the collective bargaining power of the Chinese working class within the market economy. In contrast, the self-declared ‘petty bourgeois’ vision of agricultural economist Wen Tiejun advocates resisting marketization, reinvigorating traditional lifestyles, and enhancing the power of the peasantry through self-organization. I argue that both visions are in partial tension with the status quo: While Han’s ‘laborism’ is compatible with the power bloc’s plans for a post-exportist accumulation strategy centered on domestic consumption, its liberal democratic premise contradicts the dictatorial state project of the Communist Party of China. Conversely, Wen’s ‘peasantism’ is symbiotic with the Communist Party of China’s hope to renew its political-ideological mandate by revitalizing Chinese culture, yet its radical economic underpinnings (emphasizing de-commodification and de-urbanization) make it hard to square with the overall logic of capitalist reform and opening-up. The successful articulation of a populist counter-hegemony depends on the extent to which the gap between laborism and peasantism is overcome both organizationally and intellectually.
    Original languageEnglish
    JournalCapital and Class
    Issue number1
    Pages (from-to)23-49
    Number of pages27
    Publication statusPublished - 2017


    • Capitalism
    • China
    • Class
    • Dengism
    • Han Dongfang
    • Organic intellectuals
    • Wen Tiejun

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