Chinese Economic Liberalization Driven by Love

Xingting Deng

Since Deng Xiaoping issued the reform and opening-up policy in 1978, China's economy has gradually shifted to a neoliberal framework. Dreadful Desires: The Uses of Love in Neoliberal China explains how the Chinese government mobilized people for rapid economic growth through a "difference-making machinery". The book also points out the contradictory logic contained in this machinery, which in turn empowers Chinese people to resist the manipulation.

In his new book, Charlie Yi Zhang depicts how people in China are manipulated by the government to pursue what was needed for the development of neoliberalism in the name of love. Desires for love, noted as Dreadful Desires in the title, were shaped into an expensive but desirable luxury, including heterogeneous love, love for family, and love for the nation. The book has two parts, five chapters, with the first part mainly focusing on how public discourses shape people’s view towards love, and the second part analyzing the consequences. To support his argument, Zhang provides discursive analyses of the 60th-anniversary ceremony of the People’s Republic of China in 2009 (Chapter 1) and a popular entertainment Chinese TV program, If You Are the One (Chapter 2), interviews with workers from two cities located in Yangtze Delta, Hai’an and Wuxi (Chapters 3 and 4), as well as readings of danmei (boys’ love) novels and interviews with female danmei fans (Chapter 5). Through the well-designed structure and telling description, a "borderless Loveland" was mapped into the story of the Chinese economic miracle.

One notable contribution of this book is the identification and construction of the causal mechanism between public discourses and people’s desires. The mechanism, framed as “difference-making machinery” in the book, categorizes people into binary camps of gender, race, sexuality, and class to create oppositional relationships and competing forces for economic development (p. 14). By doing this, the government hence draws collective attention away from inequalities generated by neoliberalism. Specifically, in PRC’s 60th-anniversary ceremony, Zhang points out that the performances related female images to the expectation of being both tough to protect the state like males and tender to care for the family in contrast to males. Meanwhile, the issue of class disparities was replaced with a triumphant performance by rural males in Zhang’s analysis. Through the intentional arrangement, gender instead of class became the new focus of public discussion. The book also includes non-official spheres such as the TV program If You Are the One. It claims that the exaggeration of desires and anxieties for heterogeneous love in the show also helped consolidate gendered values attached to desirable males and females. Their pursuit of a higher position in the marriage market constituted upholding forces for Chinese economic growth. Focusing on public discourses, the difference-making machinery expanded our understanding of the power executed by the Chinese government. It is not limited to direct interference or enforcement but also includes limiting the choices people have and even shaping their way of thinking.

What is more valuable about the book is that it further traces the contradictory logic and the consequences of the use of love. In the second part, Zhang pointed out the pain of people when they were seduced to set their life goals according to the government's needs but found such goals difficult to achieve. However, love also became the counterforce for people to resist and deconstruct the disciplinary power. Through interviews with workers, Zhang found out that they were conscious of the exploitation and corruption of the government and capitalism, and that they expressed their pain by talking and singing. The popularity of a band formed by two workers, Xuriyanggang was an example, where masculinity no longer worked for the government but became a weapon against injustice. Similarly, Chinese women, who struggled with the double requirements from society and families, also started to refuse them. Zhang brought the group of female danmei fans to the spotlight. As revenge for the male gaze, these usually well-educated women immerse in boy's love instead of getting married, regardless government's urgent need for new babies. Such grievances generated during neo-liberalization are not confined to China, yet their specific forms and performances are local to the Chinese context, which is Zhang's contribution to the study of anti-neoliberalism movements around the world.

While pointing out the difference-making machinery and its consequences is the strength of the book, some issues also arise from it. Firstly, Zhang uses the word “polarizing” to describe the oppositional relationships among people, but the topic of polarization is usually applied to the context of Western democracies, such as Donald Trump’s coming to power in the United States, Brexit in the United Kingdom, and Viktor Orbán’s authoritarian turn in Hungary. For the clarity and accuracy of academic concepts, it is better to avoid using the same terminology or give a distinct definition justified by the discussion of similarities and differences. Secondly, the use of love to sustain and stabilize the regime can be traced back to Confucianism, which taught emperors and people to love each other. Thus the question of whether the desire for love in contemporary China is due to the government's manipulation or conventional social culture deserves more consideration.

In terms of writing style, the book provides both enjoyment and difficulties for readers. Zhang’s efforts to carry out interviews and present them through touching writing are admirable. He illustrates not only collective tendencies but also individual experiences. For example, while depicting the infection of Xuriyanggang’s song, he writes: “several workers started to swing their bodies and sing along, and slowly the others got lost in the melancholic nostalgia saturating the music and the room” (p. 143). In contrast, his argumentation can be quite confusing, filled with complex logic and sophisticated vocabulary. For example, “the difference-making machinery changes its interconnected vectors and its shapes and textures to produce a balance between border-crossing capital and border–re-creating state apparatuses to prevent contradictions from imploding” (p. 128). Adding to the writing style, applying a more systematic methodology in the interpretive analyses of different genres, such as the qualitative and quantitative methods of Critical Discourse Studies, would make the argument more persuasive.

Overall, despite the issues mentioned above, Zhang’s book offers a cultural and ethnographic perspective to understand Chinese economic liberalization. The central position of love is enlightening for reflecting on increasingly salient inequalities in terms of class and gender. Hopefully, love can be no longer dreadful for the people who gain consciousness of their situation from the book.