The Irony of Humanism: How China’s Authoritarianism Works Through the Humanly Mundane
Abstract: “We are all human, no?” This is what I heard most often among those who had been detained, harassed, or interrogated by the secret police in China. In the accounts of people who we usually consider to be victims, a reversal of roles is commonplace: the police, instead of being described as perpetrators, instead play the role of victims. This article therefore asks: In what way might this imaginary reversal actually make sense? What are the concrete social conditions that have produced this strange inversion? This article begins by laying out two influential theories of the state, both of which are contrasted with more mainstream liberal-constitutional approaches: Foucault’s critique of state phobia and Schmitt’s conceptualization of the “total state.” This article argues that neither of these theories is adequate in addressing the questions at hand. The article then moves to a structuralist discussion of the “exchange” that happens between the police and the policed. By examining the exchange of words and manners and gifts and favors, this article shows how exchange as a structural relation has rendered “good” police who practice generosity instead of bullying “truly and concretely human,” and how the recipient of this generosity would be a “social outcast” (not a political dissident) if he or she refuses to “help.” This leads to the key questions of this essay: how can we conceptualize the relationship between the social and the political in contemporary China? And how can we re-situate the authoritarian rule of Chinese Communist Party in light of this relationship?
Keywords: humanism, ideology, police, authoritarianism, politics, China
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