‘Ugh, here we are’ — Q&A with Geremie Barmé

Politics & Current Affairs

We talked to renowned scholar Geremie R. Barmé about Shanghai under lockdown, Xi Jinping’s “empire of tedium,” nationalist thugs, and much more.

Illustration by Alex Santafé

Australian sinologist, author, translator, and filmmaker Geremie R. Barmé first went to China in 1974. He’s seen a thing or two.

He’s written and edited a number of books on modern and traditional China, and held a variety of prestigious academic positions, most recently as the founding director of the Australian Centre on China in the World in Canberra. He is also an occasional contributor to The China Project, and an old friend of mine.

Geremie is the founding editor of China Heritage, where he is currently publishing a series of his essays on “Xi Jinping’s Empire of Tedium.”

We spoke by video call on April 7. This is an abridged, edited transcript of our conversation, part of my Invited to Tea interview series.

—Jeremy Goldkorn

Earlier this week, we published a translation of yours of a rant by a Shanghainese man captured on video, that circulated virally in China for a couple of days before being censored. The man looks to be in his late sixties or seventies, and he rails at quarantine workers in hazmat suits about the lockdowns in Shanghai, comparing them, unfavorably, with earlier periods of crisis in China’s 20th-century history.

Can you talk a little bit about why somebody would talk about the death of Máo Zédōng 毛泽东 and Dèng Xiǎopíng 邓小平 now, and compare it with the way he’s being treated in Shanghai in the lockdown?

Well, it’s a fairly typical way to frame things for people of that generation — he says he’s in his late 60s and he’s labeled as an ‘old man’. Guess we belong to the same era as I’m 67 myself and the way he puts things resonates with me, as much of my “China life” overlaps with aspects of his generation.

So, since he is of that vintage, it’s hardly surprising that hardline government control today immediately brings to mind other periods when the government has intervened in daily life in an outrageously invasive fashion. For example, the fellow starts off by mentioning sparrows. This is a reference to policies of the Great Leap Forward era of his youth when, since the nation was starving due to Mao’s botched “leap” in Communism, the call went up to eliminate sparrows and other pests that threatened already-depleted food stocks. Then he mentions other events, like the Cultural Revolution. He scoffs at the “Big Whites” in hazmat suits for trying to outdo the extremism of the Cultural Revolution, to put on a show of being more revolutionary than everyone else.

He also makes reference to the official histrionics surrounding the death of Mao — ‘the red sun’ — in 1976 and the demise of ‘the son of the people’ Grandad Deng’s in 1997. Listeners attuned to the political codes of China will immediately pick up what he’s saying about those two very different leaders. The speaker is mentioning these moments in history in a rhetorical way to make the point that even during those times of extreme national anxiety the authorities did not go over the top as they are in Shanghai right now. Sure, people behaved badly in the Cultural Revolution, but he’s saying what’s happening now seems even more extreme.

His ad lib comments are a reflection of what I think of as “totalitarian reflux.” A political acid reflux or an autoimmune response. He’s literally had a gutful and suddenly the memory of all those other stomach-churning meals comes welling up, the bile fills the mouth, you feel grossed out and you just have to vent.

This is what he’s doing; it’s a coping mechanism of a kind familiar to anyone who has experienced the policy cruelties of the past. What he’s saying to anyone who will listen is that we’ve all been through this kind of thing before, but you lot really are making a fist of it this time.

Right. Right. Totalitarian reflux!

Here’s this guy, and from the video it looks like he’s in a fairly modest part of the city, and he’s probably not part of the booming Shanghai middle-class. But nonetheless, he lives in a place that’s proud of being China’s most hypermodern city and a global metropolis, and as he vents he makes it clear that he feels that it’s an incredible affront to be under the control of what he refers to as mere peasants — that is, the people brought in from outside of Shanghai to manage and control the outbreak, because the central government doesn’t trust the local authorities to act in an efficient fashion.

He refers to them in terms of the peasant army, the People’s Liberation Army, that surrounded Shanghai during the civil war that then forced its way in and “liberated” Shanghai from the Republican government.

He makes the comparison in a fit of pique because he’s affronted by what is going on; that Shanghai is being brought to heel once more. Throughout his comments, history provides immediate points of reference as he “uses the past to mock the present”(借古讽今 jiè gǔ fěng jīn), as the saying goes.

It’s common for people to use historical allusions and analogies to frame their views of the present. He’s also saying we’ve been here before and I’m making these comments to shame you and to express my outrage: You’re handling things as badly or even worse than in the past. It’s a rhetorical ploy; after all, he knows he’s being filmed and he’s playing to the camera as he vents. He probably also feels that he’s speaking out on behalf of many who are forced to remain silent and, from the fact that this clip circulated so widely so quickly in China, he’s probably right. One of the things about education under the Chinese Communist Party is that people are trained to perform, to be articulate and also to give voice to outrage; however, for the Communists it’s very unsettling when all of that training is used against them.

Anyone who has lived in China will have friends who have the gift of the gab and, in their mashups of contemporary life, can readily draw on history, contemporary politics, economics and what have you to entertain with a monologue.

By saying this, I don’t want to distract from the fact that this guy is frustrated and furious. He’s got a heart condition and, despite the anomalous fact that he takes a break to light up a cigarette, he remains furious; in part it is because he knows that countless others are also furious.

Let’s put this in the context of what you’ve been writing about recently, a series for your website, China Heritage, on “the empire of tedium” of Xí Jìnpíng 习近平. Can you describe what you mean by that phrase?

The idea of tedium has to do with repetition, a return to the past, the obvious; it sums up the sense of boredom and monotony that to my mind has been a major feature of the Xi Jinping decade. It’s what in my student days we were taught about Engels and the historical dialectic: how chance and necessity are interwoven.

My ongoing series on Xi-era tedium reflects the sense I’ve had for many years that something like Xi and his reign were inevitable, even if that inevitability depended on a particular contingency, that is, the appearance of the kind of mission-driven, messianic ruler that we find in Xi Jinping.

After 1978, people tended to focus on how many policies of the High Mao era were re-evaluated or negated. I was always aware, however, that the Mao-Liu-Deng era policies of 1949 to 1966 were, apart from the Great Leap Forward, generally re-affirmed. The Maoist past saw the dual suppression of the working class (workers, peasants, etc) by the Party nomenklatura, and the suppression of the urban elites (managers, bureaucrats, business people, educators, the legal profession, media, etc), as the Communists expanded their power in Leninist-Stalinist style to invade every aspect of society.

For all of the cosmetic changes to China’s party-state, its essence, its modus operandi, though marginally challenged and even reformable, remained; as a result, what had happened in the autocratic past could happen again. “Dual suppression” has also been a feature of the Xi Jinping era. The laboring masses serve at the pleasure of the Party nomenklatura, which has been greatly strengthened, and once more the elites have been goose-stepped into complying with prerogatives of the party-state.

Now, this is all part of the ambience of tedium that I have been investigating; it is a handy term that I use to sum up a sense that many of my friends in the Chinese world, not just in China, but internationally, also have, a foreboding that had been welling up for years prior to the advent of Xi Jinping. Personally, I had little doubt about the glum future as soon as Xi got into power; it was also a shared sense among many people who, ten years ago at the advent of this tired old new era of Xi, were in their 50s or above. So many felt, “Damn it, here we go again!” Here’s the ugly desire to dominate, to control, to patronize, to manipulate, to repress and to silence.

Not to be too “China boomer” about this, but anyone who had lived through the last sixty years or so, will have seen the partial reforms from the late seventies, the potential and failures (as well as the lessons) of the 1980s, then the fitful repressions in the 1990s, followed by more circumscribed opening up and so on. It was easy to be dazzled by material changes and many found it boring to take all that Party palaver seriously. I did and, for the past decade, my sense of ennui has been paired with the sentiment that, “Ugh, here we are.”

This same old stuff, more extreme, more over the top; we will witness this for years to come and, as we all do, be it in China or outside, the old addiction to hope, hopium, part of the last four and a half decades of the “hopioid crisis” of China, will mean that huge amounts of time and effort will be devoted to ferreting out every sign of change, every possibility of transformation, reform and opening up, every scintilla of difference that can be detected in the obsidian surface of Party control. It’s boring; it’s understandable; it’s forgivable. And, for all of the ingenuity of scholars, analysts et al, it is also mind-numbingly tedious.

If the Chairman of Everything gets his third term in office, people will constantly be on the lookout for any hint that Xi might be aging, his hair whiter, his girth larger, his pallor paler; every burp and fart will be the subject of conjecture. It really takes me back, even as a teenager reading the papers in Sydney in the mid 1960s, there was constant speculation about Mao’s whereabouts and his health. There was a perpetual China crisis related to Mao and his inner circle. And it mattered because Mao had power over a huge and mysterious nation.

Now nearly 60 years later, speculation has been rife since 2018 regarding Xi Jinping’s plans, his status and his possible successor. Today, due to the economic heft and geopolitical ambitions of the Chinese party-state, the systemic instabilities that Xi Jinping and his courtiers have re-introduced to the country’s political life are of profound consequence.

All the while, the Communists present this façade of unbelievable unanimity and monolithic unity. A decade ago, some Party thinkers and leaders tried to edge their way towards substantive change that would allow China to develop a kind of social maturity that was more concomitant with its impressive economic achievements. Instead, Xi et al prefer a state of paternalistic infantilization. Now, the whole world is also held hostage to the tedious panoply of the past.

The Shanghai debacle is but another example of Xi Jinping’s modus operandi, something that the Beijing academic Xǔ Zhāngrùn 许章润 analyzed in his February 2020 essay on the COVID crisis. China’s authoritarian leader who cosplays as a highly competent genius is an egotist who believes that he is History incarnate. The whole world has a front seat to the next crisis, the next round of instability. But, Xi has lots of company; as Gideon Rachman of the Financial Times has pointed out, this is after all “the age of the strongman.”

I began thinking about Xi’s empire of tedium around 2017. By then it was pretty clear that he would hope to enjoy term-less tenure. The veteran Hong Kong writer and political analyst Lee Yee (李怡 Lǐ Yí), who was my boss in the late 1970s, saw what was coming, as did Xu Zhangrun in Beijing. I followed and translated their work as part of my own endeavors to come to grips with the unfolding scenario. They, along with many others, were painfully aware that succession politics has bedeviled the Communists since they were founded in 1921.

Beijing did seem to me to have, if not solved the question, at least found perhaps a more reasonable path forward from Jiāng Zémín 江泽民 and Hú Jǐntāo 胡锦涛. The way those two leaders came to power seemed to be both orderly.

During their rule, there seemed to be some responsiveness in the system, if not to the ordinary person on the street, at least to large parts of the Communist Party, rather than just a tiny group of people operating in a completely black box. Whereas now, we’re back in the old times. Is that the way you’re thinking about it?

There has only been one orderly transfer of power in over a century — that of Jiang Zemin’s hand over to Hu Jintao in 2003. Jiang Zemin himself got into power as the result of a coup against Zhào Zǐyáng 赵紫阳, just as Deng had been elevated to power as a result of an army led coup against the “Gang of Four.” Even Xi’s rise involved a power struggle with Bó Xīlái 薄熙来 and the purge of enemies. The politics of succession has been the bane of autocracies throughout history.

For people who are concerned about stability, whether it’s the stability of the markets, the economy, the real estate market, the stability of society, the succession issue is of outsize importance. Messianic self-belief has meant that Xi Jinping has re-opened the Pandora’s box of succession.

In 2017-18, the Communists collectively decided to throw China back into the cycle of uncertainty, one that has dogged the Party’s political history for a century.

That infuriated many but, for someone like me, I just feel ho hum, here we are again. In 1992, in the wake of June Fourth in 1989, Linda Jaivin and I co-edited a book titled New Ghosts, Old Dream: Chinese Rebel Voices which looked at 1989 in the context of the previous century. One chapter, “Wheels” focussed on what Chinese thinkers and political activists had to say about the prison of history and cyclical return.

How do you place China’s attitude toward the Russian invasion of Ukraine and its tacit and sometimes explicit support for Putin, in the context of the Chinese Communist Party’s early support from the Soviet Union, and the Soviet Union being China’s “big brother,” and then the Sino-Soviet split?

Here we are again, again, except this time, China’s the big brother, it would seem, but unable to articulate any kind of independent position on the war in Ukraine. It’s all about blaming America. Does this bring up for you any historical echoes?

Well, indeed. As you know recently, I published the first formal chapter in the series Xi Jinping’s Empire of Tedium, “We Need to Talk About Totalitarianism, Again.

It’s a long rambling discussion of many issues to do with the problem of the Big T, totalitarianism. I frame the whole discussion in terms of the 100-year-long relationship between Russia/Soviet Union and China/the Chinese Communist Party.

Of course, most commentators rightly focus on what China is doing and saying right now, and why it’s doing and saying so in relation to Ukraine and Moscow. But I’m not a current affairs analyst, a journalist, nor am I an international relations expert. These transitory things are of current interest and, like most people, I follow them. Equally, like most others, I’m not equipped to comment on the why and wherefore of Beijing decision making. I am, however, interested in the broad historical context of contemporary events and, in that context, Beijing’s prevarications and calculations make a sense of their own, an internal and historical logic.

In discussions both of Russia and of China, it is popular to revisit Samuel Huntington’s views on the “clash of civilizations,” which had enjoyed considerable popularity following 9/11. I’ve never particularly agreed with Huntington’s caricatures of culture, civilization or history, but they have been used in significant ways. In China, they were quite modish after the events of 1989 in the context of China’s renewed cold war rhetoric and Communist-engineered “spiritual civilization.”

In the context of the Russia-Ukraine situation and China’s position, one is drawn back to the geopolitical, nationalist and ideological clashes that date back to the 1910s and the collapse/ reformation of empire following the violent termination of the Romanov dynasty in Russia and the abdication of the Manchu-Qing rulers of China.

In simplistic terms, both the Russian and Chinese empires, as well as the “transitio imperium,” that is, the legitimate transfer of power over former imperial territories, has been a process that has been underway for over one hundred years now. Of course, this is not limited to Russia or China, it is a process that continues to unfold among other former empires as well. This is the long tail of the twentieth century. To see contemporary events only in terms of the post-WWII world is to miss out much of the story. Both Putin and Xi Jinping have, in their very different ways, made this fairly obvious.

The Russia, China, America clash at the moment is one that has its origins in particular in that period. It’s a clash that’s an odd melange of the ideological, economic, cultural and racial. All that stuff about the Spiritual East and Decadent West — regardless of whether it comes from Putin’s coterie of fascist philosophers or Xi Jinping’s retrograde viziers — goes back to debates highlighted at the time of WWI and thereafter.

Of course, people are easily bored by all of this; if not, then they readily give in to what is known as historical or cultural determinism, a kind of lazy intellectual fatalism that is inherently static. However, when you see the Tsar-like Putin in his glorious isolation at the end of his priapic white conference table, or Xi Jinping in the guise of the Supreme Leader, it’s hard to ignore the shades of the past. Anyway, to do so is foolish.

In my work, I have over the years tried to explain that some of the tensions and ideas that seem merely to be of the moment have, in many cases, long historical roots; that political leaders, advised by a clutch of servile thinkers, are canny in manipulating long term grievances, ideological differences, and economic and social approaches to organizing life, not only to justify what they’re doing, but as a way of finding meaning for themselves and their regimes in the contemporary world. Again, this is by no means unique to Xi’s China, Putin’s Russia or, for that matter, Trumpian America.

All of this can be somewhat confounding for people who spend their time glued to screens obsessively following the second-by-second ructions of the market. It’s disconcerting, even rather retro and old-fashioned for these authoritarian leaders to be fixated on deep history and to believe somehow that their time has come. It somehow seems tacky and dated. Tough luck.

For some years Putin has been talking about reintegrating Russia and reviving holy mother Russia. For years Xi Jinping has been rabbiting on about “witnessing major changes unfolding in our world, something unseen in a century” (当今世界正经历百年未有之大变局). He’s used this expression over 40 times now; it’s actually a reference to the 1917 October Revolution that led to the creation of the Soviet Union.

Which I think you pointed out in one of your essays. He first used that in 2017, right? The 100th anniversary of the Bolshevik Revolution!

He used it in 2017. I remember at the time and, oh my God, this is what he’s talking about.

He’s used it again and again and again.

It is part of an integrated worldview. Whether one agrees with it and says that, oh, he’s just using it for a convenience, or whether this is a bit of historical showmanship, is to misunderstand that these are the ways that the Chinese Communist Party has painstakingly created a narrative for itself. It’s important to understand it, even if you find it abhorrent.

In the case of Putin, you need to read his July 2021 essay on Greater Russia and Ukraine. When he talks about holy mother Russia, the integrity of its geopolitical territory, the spirituality of its Orthodox Christian tradition and so on and so forth, you are in the land of the totalitarian. These are not merely the flights of fancy of an isolated autocrat. Similarly, Xi Jinping’s China Story has been crafted over many decades and it is underpinned by a form of revolutionary romanticism that melds elements of dynastic tradition with Stalino-Maoism.

One last question, then. I’ve also been thinking about the filmmaker Michelangelo Antonioni, who went to China in 1970, 1971. He made a documentary film at the invitation of the Communist Party, and then was completely condemned for it after the film came out. Part of the reason I’ve been thinking about these things is that The China Project itself has been the subject of attacks by some young patriotic blogger nationalist thugs.

It seems to me there’s sort of an atmosphere in China, something that has been absent or at least has been toned down for the last 30 years or so, but it is coming back. It’s a certain particular type of hostility to the outside world, or perhaps it’s a hostility to anyone who tries to look at China and interpret it through a lens that is different from the way the Communist Party wants to see it. Does that make sense? How would you understand Antonioni and his treatment in China? Does that have any —not lessons — anything, any echoes today?

This is a question that really does take me back…Antonioni is never too far from my thoughts. The Italian director was invited to make a documentary in China in 1972, during the precursor of the country’s opening to the West. The film he produced — Zhongguo or Chung Kuo — was attacked by the enemies of the new Mao-Zhou policy and it was widely denounced, sight unseen.

In mid 1974, in my Chinese class in Canberra, we read the lead denunciation of the film that had been published in Red Flag magazine, the leading outlet for what passed as Communist Party theory back then. When the film was broadcast on Australian national TV shortly before I went to China as an exchange student in October 1974, the newly established Chinese embassy in Canberra went into rabid hyperdrive.

It was, to say the least, a “learning experience.”

Today’s wolf warrior diplomats still have quite a way to go before they can match the levels of high dudgeon and outrage perfected by the Maoists.

Anyway, the denunciation of Zhongguo stayed with me because many of the terms used at the time are trotted out, albeit without the past level of gusto, by the likes of Zhào Lìjiān 赵立 and Huà Chūnyíng 华春莹 today. Their tired lexicon is delivered with a kind of snide, curled-lipped hauteur that I find to be less than convincing. As for Antonioni’s film, it is still worth watching. It captures the rhythms and color of life in China that I experienced at the time. It is meditative, caustic and remains surprisingly moving. The people in it, sallow, malnourished, reticent and quiet, haunt the screen like ghosts.

Antonioni expressed a discordant view at a time when such a thing was absolutely verboten. In many ways, a similar situation exists in Xi Jinping’s China, although the masses haven’t been bludgeoned and starved into resentful submission; many revel in their subjugation to the Communists.

Nonetheless, the Xi Jinping New Era is a doleful time. Here is China, having achieved in the terms of its own modern history, unprecedented riches, hard-won (if draconian) social stability, extraordinary achievements in every major field of pursuit, yet it is as brittle, bitter, self-absorbed, and neurotic a nation as it has been at any other time since the end of the Qing dynasty.

The result is an incredible tragedy for humanity as a whole.

China cannot celebrate its achievements without at the same time denigrating anyone who might in any way question the means that have been used to realize these ends. A vast and majestic land is reduced to the sorry and pathetic scale of noxious self-regard. In many ways, the Cultural Revolution was a quintessential expression of the personality and worldview of Mao Zedong. Similarly, the pusillanimous, mean, reactive, bitter, aggrieved China of today reflects the personality of Xi Jinping and his fellow Politburo comrades, all of whom are creatures nurtured by High Maoism.

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Invited to Tea with Jeremy Goldkorn is a weekly interview series. Previously:

China’s COVID-19 spike and a clash of civilizations