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Contesting Memory for Intellectual Self-Positioning:
The 1990's New Cultural Conservatism in China

by Ben Xu

Modern Chinese Literature and Culture, vol. 11, no. 1, pp.157-192


In China, much of the 1990's recollection and reevaluation of the 1980s cultural criticism is done in terms of a new pairing of radicalism and conservatism. Such recollection and reevaluation are often characterized by a condemnation of the 1980's cultural criticism and its pro-democracy and pro-enlightenment concerns as too "radical." In this fin-de-siecle thinking, the memory of the 1980s has been turned into a pivotal moment of asserting new cultural conservatism. New cultural conservatism of the 1990s manifests the twofold concerns with cultural traditionalism and political realism. Anti-radicalism makes it possible for new conservatives to use protective moderation and practice reality control to stress the limits of change imposed by the post-Deng political-economic order, which is characterized by a combination of political authoritarianism and economic liberalization. the radical-conservative pairing may not help us to chart accurately the 1990's intellectual field, but it does provide an incentive to do so. It points up a curiosity that needs explaining: at the same time that rhetorical assaults on "radicalism" are on the rise, there is an embarassing absence of radical thinking and a forced silence of radical voices in the intellectual arena. This goes some way toward explaining both the rise of new-conservativism and the reasons why at another level radicalism is still compelling.