Kuldar Leement, ‘Cyrstal’
In 1989, a curious series of science fiction novels began to appear in print. The series—titled Chung Kuo—seemed out of step with the time. It portrayed a world in which China had taken over the planet, destroying the memory of European dominance and imposing a fantastical revival of imperial Chinese culture across the Earth. To contemporary observers, whatever its quality as literature, the setting imagined by David Wingrove seemed self-evidently ridiculous. China was the country of Tiananmen, a communist dictatorship akin to the Soviet with less reformist energy. It was hardly the image of the future: that honour had been reserved, by journalists, policymakers, and the mainstream of science fiction authors alike, to Japan. Gerald Jonas, reviewing the peculiar series in the New York Times at the very opening of the decade that was to prove so disastrous for China’s eastern neighbour, was withering in his assessment. The ‘vision of a Chinese-dominated future’, he pronounced, ‘seems arbitrary, ungrounded in historical process, intended not as a vehicle for speculating on the shape of things to come or commenting on things as they are but solely to sustain a fast-moving entertainment.’
A few years after Wingrove’s imaginative intervention, a similar sci-fi-doped break with the times took place at the bleeding edge of philosophy in a very different direction. Detaching themselves from the Japanese thralldom of their cyberpunk literary progenitors, Nick Land and the CCRU collective at Warwick summoned China as the focal point of the anti-order they saw struggling to be born. In their prophesies of the mid-90s on China appears again and again, both as the harbour of a deterritorialising Cantonese molecularism ‘engineering’ the country ‘from the periphery’, and as a conjuring from the darkness of a demonic synthesis of Maoist dialectic and hypercapitalist automation—‘blacked-out in visions of China’—‘Neo-China arrives from the future’—’The Superiority of Far Eastern Marxism’—’The Chairman’s voice speeds up into an insect buzz as he speaks’. Whether the technoindustrial immensities of the ‘Tao-drenched Special Economic Zones’ or the negativising fury of the Cultural Revolution, they drew out into trance-like infinity the drumbeat of endless, even exterminationist productivism, ‘more, more, more’, that characterised, for them, modern China at each stage of its postwar development.
As Japan sank into the depths of its now familiar and long-drawn-out crisis, the less conventional countercurrents of orientalism, whether romantically inflected as for Wingrove or cybernetically as for Ccru, seemed to have had the last laugh. The early accelerationist engagement with the liberative, frenziedly overproductionist core of Maoism, indeed, remains both more legitimate and less tedious than the hoary communist-conservatism of a Badiou, a representative of an earlier and all-too-orthodox theoretical engagement with Chinese thought and praxis.
In the 2000s, Sinophilia seeped—then flooded—from the avant-garde into the mainstream. The anointing of the ‘BRICs’ in 2001, the production of popular science fiction like Firefly depicting a Chinese way of the future, all combined to produce a general cultural sentiment that the world was ‘re-Orienting’ to China—heating feverishly up as the Western economies fell (back) into general crisis in the aftermath of 2007–8 while China seemed to power on regardless. Western liberals and postcolonial nationalists alike now looked to China as a new model, free from the troubles of liberal democracy, self-assured, ready, unlike Japan, to seize control of the historical process. The inauthentic orientalist engagement of all-too-many Sinologists and ‘China analysts’ substituted itself for the imaginative sophistication of the early Sinoprophets, creating and elevating the inevitable and inevitably monotonous liberal inflection of China’s image in the West. In different ages, different spaces have served as canvases for the projection of political imaginaries: Ireland in the ascendant British Empire, the Middle East for Europeans in the early 20th century. Now it is China for the West.
By 2017, however, something (as with so much else) seems to have gone wrong. Under Xi Jinping, Liberal China is failing to materialise and SchizoChina is under sustained assault. It goes without saying that China is not Japan: in point of fact, there are many reasons to accord China a benefit of the doubt never due to Japan as to the legitimacy of its pretension to hegemonise futurity. But just as in the Japanese case—and mirroring, conceptually, the psychodrama now sweeping the world of an uncontrollable cyberpolitics unmoored from material progress—the imagination of Sinofuturism has run up against the limits both of material production and of political organisation. China’s economic status is uncertain—though hardly the spectacular crash predicted by the dissenting ‘China bears’—and its politics under Xi reaggregating towards a new form of retro-Maoist populism grounded on past forms of communist mobilisation as much as on the new forms of cyberpolitics, crushing from either side liberal-libertarian fantasies of the opening-up and subsequent withering of the Chinese state.
Far from allowing itself to be reengineered by its peripheries or releasing the schizophrenic fragmentation of the Sinospheric diaspora, the People’s Republic Leviathan has tended more and more towards the reterritorialising reaction that preeminently characterises imperial metastasis, reimposing the leadership of the central command state, state suppression of the desires and hot culture of Hong Kong, attempting to consolidate the world-strewn ‘Han race’ into an extension of the war machine. Conceptually, this phenomenon has produced a kind of cognitive dissonance pushing into Wingrovian romanticism. In the darkness beneath its lengthening shadow, a strange identity has emerged between the sections of the accelerationist right and left praising this Old New China. From the right, in a flagrant abandonment of patchwork theory, we are told that China’s rise is abetted by its homogeneity, its racial unity and sense of purpose. From the left, China is praised for its ascendancy as counter-hegemon; in a curious repetition of postcolonialist defences of the Japanese Empire, and implicitly repeating their right-wing comrades, the despotic tendencies of the People’s Republic are justified for the robustness of their impending war-assault against a white colonial world order.
We should not be in any doubt as to the character of these reactions: they are fascist, just as fascist as they were a century ago.
Drill deeper: This process of identification has gone hand in hand with an abandonment of interest by Westerners, partly at the behest of a Chinese state anxious as it ever is over the subversive potential of cults, in the plural heterodoxies that once so powerfully struck Ccru. The welling tides of ‘anti-authoritarian counter-culture’ have been replaced by a sterile vision of Neo-Neo-Confucian order, Singapore displacing Hong Kong. 天下, tianxia: in its history the word means both ‘all under heaven’ and ‘empire’. The heart of this mundane-imperial Confucian cosmos is the universal state, and therefore to fetishise Confucianism against all other currents is no less than to fetishise the state. Though Confucian politics and ritual have provided the stable institutional setting of Chinese cosmopolis, it has always been surging heterodoxies, whether ‘Daoist’, Buddhist, liberal, even communist, that have pushed China forward on the path of techonomic acceleration. Non-interventionist imperative is mirrored not in Confucian honesty but in the legalist canon that constitutes the arcana imperii of the Chinese empire, in Hanfeizi’s image of the shadow emperor who says nothing and does nothing. Beyond providing the institutional setting of cosmopolis, orthodoxy, just as it is anywhere else, becomes a roadblock on the way.
Pretending to heterogeneity, the right supports imperium. Pretending to cosmopolitanism, the left supports despotism. Enough. A legitimate engagement with China demands greater intellectual weight; it demands the abandonment of all romantic orientalism. Lawrence Lek’s video essay ‘Sinofuturism’ offers a more promising route out (perhaps unsurprisingly, given that he is not simply depicting an alien Other). Lek’s analysis is typologically, if unintentionally, unconditional-accelerationist. He focuses not on China’s political actuality but on its virtuality as a ‘science fiction that already exists’, a Sinofuturism that ‘has arisen without conscious intention or authorship’. China is gripped by immense and unimaginable flows not just of capital but of massed humanity. For Lek, it is an ‘emergent artificial intelligence’ not because of its control by communist brain-core or any fascist homogeneity but because of its constitution as a cosmic neural network. Lek subverts, relentlessly, the dreams both of the Chinese state and of the Western imaginary. He upholds those parts of the Chinese futurological condition that in their reterritorialising mindset both, in turns, find so deficient, ‘gaming’, ‘addiction’, ‘computational OCD’, taking them to their delirious end consequences. In theoretical form, this, precisely, is acceleration without conditions.
Real conceptual cosmopolitanism, as Kodwo Eshun, McKenzie Wark, and others have seen, means going beyond the limits of the West. It is not just an ‘internal critique’ that stands on the detritus of European philosophy—though as with all other things it will cannibalise this as it sees fit. It is a radical identity with the Other: Xenofuturism in all its forms. It would be pointless to formulate this in manifesto form. Xenofuturism does not need Western adherents. To remain relevant, Westerners need it.