The ruins of Shanghai come as a surprise in a city so defiantly modern. Demolished low-rise houses lie in downtown streets next to luxury condominiums with names such as ‘Rich Gate’, the wreckage reflected in the glass façades of tall office buildings. In Dongjiadu, Shanghai’s oldest quarter, bulldozers were expected within the fortnight, the old women squatting silently in the cramped alleys helpless before them.

But you can’t get too sentimental about Shanghai, a place built, like Bombay, in the 19th century on the back of the opium trade. An axis of gangsters, politicians and foreign businessmen ruled the city until the Communist takeover in 1949. Those decades of semi-colonial occupation, when Shanghai came to be known as the ‘Whore of Asia’, glow with old-fashioned glamour in Chinese cinema, in Zhang Yimou’s Shanghai Triad, or Chen Kaige’s Temptress Moon. But the corpses of thousands of the poor were collected every year from the pavements of the International Settlement.

Today beggars approach you discreetly on the Bund, Shanghai’s embanked riverfront, whose grand buildings once housed the banks, trading houses and diplomatic missions of China’s foreign overlords. The destitute are more invisible now, but it’s easy enough to make out the visitors from the impoverished countryside, in their faded blue Mao jackets and dusty shoes, gazing at the super-malls on Nanjing Lu and the throbbing neon lights of Pudong. The novelist Wang Anyi, sitting in the lobby of my hotel in one of the kitsch towers of Pudong, said: ‘There is no culture here!’ I’m not sure culture is what’s wanted in this sleek new part of the city, built in less than a decade on the once desolate mudflats across the river from the Bund, and designed to symbolise the wealth and power of a globalising China. Postmodern skyscrapers dwarf the Bund’s domes and clock towers, which were once a reassuring sight to taipans and straw-hatted tourists arriving from Europe. Gleaming new industrial parks – with landscaped gardens – sprawl across the suburbs. Shanghai has regained its role as the engine of the Chinese economy and the premier city of Asian capitalism.

The fruits of China’s export-driven economy are only partly apparent to most Chinese. More than 150 million of them still survive on a dollar a day; some 200 million have left the countryside to look for work in the world’s most polluted cities, and the life they lead there is mean and desolate. Four million took part in the 87,000 protests recorded last year, mainly against illegal land seizures. In the vast showrooms of Armani and Ferrari, a new elite shops hard to prove that, as Deng declared, ‘to get rich is glorious.’ Once you’re there, the other China, where local Party officials impose arbitrary fees and taxes on taxes, and where public health and primary education systems deteriorate because of a lack of state investment, seems pretty remote.

Business books and biographies of American CEOs dominate the massive bookshops on Fujian Road, where in the 1920s and 1930s intellectuals read Marx and Lenin and dreamed of revolution. American and European businessmen crowd hotel lobbies and expatriate cafés and bars – slicker versions of the old taipans, they can still be heard complaining of high local wages and the shortage of skilled labour. Nightclubs once again heave with griffins – single young white men – often escorted by more than one Chinese woman. And the demand for amahs to look after children dominates the classified pages of local newspapers.

The old heart of the city has been razed to meet the needs and desires of this new elite. Luxury villas have sprung up to accommodate expatriate businessmen, senior Party officials and the nouveaux riches. With their bewilderingly mixed façades – American colonial-style decking, neoclassical columns, baroque plasterwork, Tudor beams – they symbolise a city under fresh occupation by the transnational elite of the rich and powerful.

Others make do with what they have. One afternoon, soon after arriving in Shanghai, I travelled on one of the elevated expressways that lead from downtown to the clusters of high-rise housing estates built for those expelled from their neighbourhoods of longtang alleys and lanes. Rust and grime have already tainted these buildings, the lifts don’t work, there is no water pressure, the residents walk up and down the gloomy stairs carrying plastic buckets, but the inhabitants of this premature decay still seemed privileged, compared to the residents of the remoter suburbs, crammed in subdivided houses with enclosed balconies and a view of oil-blackened dust lanes and exposed drains.

I was on my way to meet Zhu Xueqin, the best-known of the Chinese intellectuals who describe themselves as ‘liberal’. In 1998, Zhu, often openly critical of the Communist regime, wrote the introduction to a book called Pitfalls of Modernisation, a denunciation of Chinese official corruption, that was subsequently banned; and I expected to meet someone living in somewhat straitened circumstances.

Zhu’s home, however, turned out to be in a gated residential complex called California Gardens – the exuberant and oddly placeless architectural styles of the houses, with their private garages and small front gardens lived up to their name. I took off my shoes at the front door and encased my feet in what looked like two plastic shower caps. The open-plan living-room had a gleaming faux marble floor and a marble fireplace that Shanghai’s mild winters seemed to have left unused. A half-finished bottle of Chinese wine – wine is one of the many consumer goods in which China is trying to catch up with the West – stood on the dining table in one corner.

Zhu had just finished elementary school in Shanghai when the Cultural Revolution began. In line with Mao’s desire to expose intellectuals to the conditions of the working class and peasants, he voluntarily spent four years in one of the poorest regions in Henan province with a group of idealistic students who wanted to combine a life of manual labour with self-directed study. In 1972, he moved with them to a factory and spent ten years there, working through the day and reading at night, before eventually resuming his formal education in 1982, just as Deng Xiaoping began to marketise large sections of China’s state-controlled economy.

Zhu described his experience of the Cultural Revolution without self-regard or rancour: how his reverence for Mao gave way to a distrust not just of the Chairman but also of the idea of revolution, and of mass political movements as they had arisen since the late 18th century. He had spent his long exile reading whatever he could find, including books on the French Revolution and Rousseau, on whom he eventually wrote a PhD thesis.

Among his discoveries in a bookshop frequented by senior Party leaders had been an account of Gandhi in a book by Chester Bowles, a reluctant Cold Warrior and American ambassador to India in the 1950s and 1960s. Mao, Zhu told me, had denounced Gandhi as a counter-revolutionary, and that had settled the matter for many Chinese. But, reading Bowles’s book, Zhu began to think that Gandhi, who had inspired a democratic revolution without either violence or coercion, was a greater man than Mao. ‘Even Nehru was greater than Mao,’ he told me.

His own allegiance is not now to Gandhi or Nehru, to the former’s critique of modern industrial civilisation or the latter’s Fabian socialism. Rather, he is among the majority of Chinese intellectuals who, since the 1980s, have advocated a rapid modernisation along Western lines. Zhu is too independent-minded to look up to Milton Friedman and Friedrich Hayek, the godfathers of Reaganomics and Thatcherism, who became popular in China in the 1980s. He has no time either for the neo-Confucianist and neo-authoritarian intellectuals who periodically offer to fill the ideological vacuum of the post-Mao state. And he carefully qualifies his support for the influential attempt, launched by an expatriate academic, to implicate the writers and intellectuals of China’s May Fourth Movement, the upsurge of reform-minded nationalists in the 1910s and 1920s, in the disasters of Maoism.

He believes that what the country needs is a truly free market economy, which guarantees all other freedoms, and is inseparable, at least in its ideal form, from democracy, while at the same time fearing that its possibilities may be stifled by a commodified mass culture. This is the broad consensus among Chinese liberals, who support market reforms but accuse the regime of not modernising the country in the way that matters most: by granting the people legal and constitutional rights. Many of these ‘dissidents’, such as Liu Junning or Yu Jie, a Christian, feature prominently in the American media’s coverage of intellectuals in China: a coverage which is often underpinned by an assumption that free markets guarantee democracy, and oscillates between describing the excesses of the authoritarian Communist government and the ripening fruits of the free capitalist economy. In China itself, however, there is a growing intellectual suspicion of, and political resistance to the claims of globalisation, especially the dominant neo-liberal ideology that offers no deeper solution to poverty and inequality than the vague promise that the rising tide of private wealth will eventually benefit everyone.

Zhu is sceptical of the writers, academics and activists known collectively as the ‘New Left’ who have emerged during the last decade as the most prominent critics of China’s supposed ‘economic miracle’ and its increasingly visible social, cultural and environmental costs: the dismantling of the welfare state, extreme inequality and corruption, rising unemployment, and pollution so widespread that a thick grey pall permanently covers large parts of the country and the rivers run black. Even the New Left’s critics among the neo-liberals, postmodernists, nationalists and old-guard Maoists acknowledge its growing influence in official circles. But Zhu told me that China needed more market-oriented reforms, and blamed the growing inequality and injustices on excessive state interference in free market mechanisms – the ‘visible foot’ stamping on the ‘invisible hand’.

His son, a tall young man with a long ponytail, joined us. I asked him what he did, and he replied with a grin: ‘I am a muckraker.’ He went on to explain that he was a journalist on one of the bold new magazines, permitted, up to a point, to expose official corruption and incompetence, and the exploitation of workers and peasants. Based in Beijing, he had been travelling for the previous fortnight in Jiangsu province. Investigating a ‘model village’ held up by party officials as evidence of the success of market reforms, he had uncovered a familiar story of cronyism and inflated statistics.

China, Zhu said, needed to be more open to the West. He had little time for nationalism, which the New Left sees as a potentially positive resource, claiming that it is a form of anti-Japanese and anti-Western feeling, stoked by the Communist regime in order to give itself legitimacy. As the Cultural Revolution had proved, mass political movements were more likely to create chaos and strengthen totalitarian tendencies than to promote democracy. These were conservative rather than liberal views, of a recognisable Western cast, but Zhu had lived through the frenzies of Maoism, and knew at first hand what disorder was like.

Returning to downtown Shanghai that evening, through the sprawling evidence of plunder and dispossession, I wondered whether Zhu, recoiling from the disorder of the Cultural Revolution, was like those middle-class people in poor countries who, after battling to achieve private stability and security, can’t bear to see those things undermined: people who, often quite correctly, take the demand for social and economic justice as a personal threat and unconsciously hope to limit democracy to a legal and constitutional formalism, which inevitably empowers the well-educated and affluent minority more than the underprivileged majority.

Gandhi and Nehru were greater men than Mao, Zhu had said, and I briefly wondered if this was meant as a gesture to me, his first Indian visitor. But such comparisons were once part of everyday conversation for many Chinese and Indians. In recent years, the two countries have increasingly starred in a triumphalist narrative: essentially, of Western capitalist modernity showing non-Western peoples the path to progress and development. Yet for many Indians and Chinese, their national experience and identity were shaped by the struggle for freedom from Western military and economic domination.

Emerging as sovereign nations in the late 1940s, and committed to a vision of socialist modernisation, India and China kept a curious and wary eye on each other. They became particularly close in their first decade of independence, trying to resist American pressure to join the Cold War, and to define a neutralist foreign policy for other post-colonial nations. At the historic summit of new Asian and African nations in Bandung in 1955, Chinese leaders appeared to be Nehru’s natural comrades, engaged in the same momentous task of lifting hundreds of millions out of poverty.

Then, abruptly, in 1962 they went to war over a disputed border, one of the many arbitrarily drawn by the British. The Indian army initiated hostilities by constructing ‘forward posts’ inside Chinese territory; but the People’s Liberation Army counterattacked, expelling Indian soldiers before declaring a ceasefire and withdrawing to their previous positions. Mao and Zhou Enlai now appeared to the Indian imagination as treacherous; and many Indians, increasingly dependent on American sources for information about China, came to see it through the fears and prejudices of Western Cold Warriors. The war inaugurated a long period of mutual hostility and indifference, which was broken only in the late 1980s, as the ruling classes in both countries began to liberalise their economies, making the border dispute increasingly irrelevant.

Indian politicians and businessmen, and their supporters in the English-language media watched with envy the flow of capital into China – ten times the total foreign investment in India – and the rapid transformation of its coastal cities. These new Indian elites, impatient with Nehru’s vision of economic equality and social justice, pointed to Deng Xiaoping’s reforms as evidence that the creation of wealth must precede the eradication of poverty, disease and illiteracy. At the same time, many Chinese intellectuals had watched closely as India’s granting of universal suffrage at a stroke ensured a much greater degree of public accountability than exists in China. But many privileged Indians increasingly see representative politics as a nuisance – one of the reasons, they say, that India has not received as much foreign investment as China. For what China proves (though this is left unsaid) is that an authoritarian system helps rather than hinders economic growth on the neo-liberal model, by ensuring that labour laws, trade unions, the legislature, the judiciary and the fear of environmental destruction do not impede the privatisation of state assets, the appropriation of agricultural land, the provision of subsidies and tax cuts to businessmen, or the concentration of wealth in fewer hands.

There are still more poor people in India and China than in all of Africa. But the leaders of both countries, having promised to usher their huge populations into a Western-style consumer society, now make claims on the world’s resources as confidently as their American counterparts. Striking oil deals in Lagos, Tehran and Caracas, they scour the globe for iron ore, steel, copper and timber. China and India also increasingly rank among the world’s largest producers of carbon emissions.

In both countries, the newly enriched have similar aspirations. The wealthy farmer’s house I visited in a tea-growing village in Zhejiang province could easily have belonged to an Indian of comparable wealth, with its marble floor, 26-inch television, big poster of a white girl with an inexplicable tear in her eye, garishly upholstered sofa, bathroom with shower cubicle and open-hole toilet, and kitchen, with a brand new microwave and other underused mod cons.

To be an Indian in a Chinese city is to find familiar not only the vast crowds, the vivid street life, the open-fronted shops and food stalls, but also the malls with their luxury brand-names, the shiny new Mercedes and BMWs marooned in the intransigent traffic, the billboards for reality TV shows, the websites mixing sexual exhibitionism with jingoism.

It is hard not to wonder about the political outlook of the newly affluent Chinese. Their inability to articulate it through elections does not make any less urgent the question of what role they are likely to play within China as well as in the wider world. For, given the chance to vote, Indians have failed to prove the thesis that free markets and regular elections lead to an enlightened and harmonious society. India’s new middle class tends to be conservative, if not reactionary, consistently and overwhelmingly electing Hindu nationalists as their representatives, despite the latter’s repeated assaults on Muslims and their equally murderous indifference to the rural poor – the hundreds of millions who are trapped in a cycle of poverty and debt, and increasingly vulnerable to militant Communist movements that draw their inspiration from Mao.

In China, too, it could seem that the loss of the old sense of national purpose has resulted in a fragmented and divided society, many of whose most empowered members seek little more from politics than the protection of their own interests. As the producers of a recent PBS documentary found, most undergraduates at Beijing University, which trains much of the country’s elite, have never heard of or seen the picture of the man with the plastic bag confronting PLA tanks near Tiananmen Square in 1989: the image that, popularised by the American media, still speaks of Chinese aspirations for freedom and democracy to many outside China. This indifference to politics – conspicuous, too, among privileged young people in India – cannot be blamed entirely on censorship or fear. Many of those I spoke to who were born after Mao’s death in 1976 expressed a brisk nationalistic paranoia about Japan and America, but otherwise seemed too busy trying to make and spend money to be interested in discussing how China, once one of the most equal countries in the world, had become one of the most unequal.

The melting of Tibetan glaciers, the desertification of northern China and the related deforestation of Borneo came as news to the celebrity designer I met in Shanghai. Even the intrepid blogger in Beijing, much celebrated in the American press, saw democracy as meaning little more than free speech. It might seem that Deng Xiaoping’s gamble with the economy has worked: the prospect of personal enrichment and new forms of consumption has more than compensated for the lack of political freedom. The loss of moral and ideological moorings can also appear part of China’s normalisation, its integration into the prevailing global order. And it has always been easy to conclude that Chinese politics is a simple matter of a totalitarian state holding down a population longing for Western-style freedom and democracy.

Yet there are reminders throughout the country, often far from the glittering malls, of a complex relationship between the revolutionary past and aggressively capitalist present. This is evident not only in the commemoration of Mao on T-shirts and posters, or the reverence with which villagers hoping to meet with justice at central government headquarters in Beijing speak of their departed leader. The signs are also there in the still widely prevalent ‘culture of the masses’, reflected in the sight of the middle-aged and elderly dancing unselfconsciously in public parks and on pavements, or the groups of old people singing revolutionary songs at memorial museums everywhere.

The presence of this revolutionary past is not easy to grasp, even for someone who grew up, as I did, in a similar climate of post-colonial and socialistic idealism in India, and then witnessed its rejection by a hectic globalisation. But India experienced a largely bourgeois revolution. Since many of the feudal and bureaucratic elites retained, or even enhanced, their power in the postcolonial state, it knew greater stability and continuity, and regular elections, however inadequate, saved it from the autocratic arbitrariness that resulted in such disasters as the Great Leap Forward and the Cultural Revolution. This also meant, however, that land reforms were never fully carried out, and the old social and economic structures survived in large parts of the country, often overlaid by fresh inequalities.

In China, the Communist Party strengthened its primary base among peasants by destroying the old feudal elite. Much more than Nehru, Mao saw an egalitarian national culture and ideology as indispensable, and thought the creation of a new form of subjectivity even more valuable than economic development as a means to inculcate a revolutionary culture and self-awareness in the masses. This explains why the caste and class consciousness that still marks social and political relations deeply in India appears to be new in China. It also explains why, despite the appeal of a neo-liberal worldview in which economic inequality appears to be a natural, even desirable, stage in the transition to a widely accessible utopia of consumerism, many among the urban intelligentsia in China continue to see egalitarianism as a moral value, and to fear the dissolution of old bonds of class, community and region, as well as the general sense of anomie and alienation caused by raw forms of capitalism.

Such an apparently old-fashioned concern for the moral and spiritual health of society at large is evident in the work of the young Sixth Generation filmmaker Jia Zhangke, who was born in 1970, too late to know either the idealism or the disenchantment of the Cultural Revolution, or to share the euphoria over Deng’s economic reforms. Much of the post-Mao Chinese cinema that first reached the West – the work, in particular, of Zhang Yimou and Chen Kaige – had an inadvertently epic quality, partly because it tried to capture a historical experience of suffering and survival that had not been seen before on film. These movies made it possible for many Chinese to reckon, at least partly, with their recent past; they also satisfied Western critics with a taste for national allegories. But now, as Zhang and Chen pander to a bland global taste for exotica, the epic quality of their films verges on self-parody.

Jia’s films, on the other hand, mostly describe individuals in contemporary China unmoored from old collectivities, and exposed to unsettling new possibilities of personal fulfilment. Xiao Wu (1997) portrays the fate of a pickpocket left behind by new and sophisticated forms of criminality; Platform (2000) follows a troupe of performers in the late 1980s coming to terms with new commercialised forms of mass entertainment; The World (2004) depicts immigrant workers living in a kitsch fantasy of the West at a theme park in Beijing.

Jia, the son of a professor who was exiled to the countryside during the Cultural Revolution, grew up in a small town in Shanxi, one of the poorest Chinese provinces. His films are eloquent with the dismal poetry of left-behind lives – in a very long scene in Xiao Wu, a pickpocket, shunned by his semi-respectable friends, sits silently with a karaoke bar girl on a bed in a small room facing a highway. The peeling paint in dark rooms, the hollow television echoes from the next-door shack, the plaintive horns of passing trucks on the highway: in all his films there is a deepening sense that life is happening elsewhere, or not at all.

Using neo-realist narratives to describe the losers, drifters and slackers of the New China, Jia resembles many older post-Mao intellectuals and artists who have turned to exploring the most recent ordeals history has imposed on ordinary people. Exhausted by the propaganda demands of the Cultural Revolution, and wishing to move away from political representation, these writers and artists initially borrowed heavily from Western postmodern and avant-garde sources. But, in a China changing fast under the pressure of market reforms, they soon redefined their aesthetic.

One of the best-known literary novelists, Yu Hua, told me that he had started out as a formally experimental writer in the 1980s, looking up to Borges, García Márquez and Robbe-Grillet in conscious reaction to the official norms of socialist realism. But as the 1980s wore on, he felt less and less need to challenge state propaganda, and instead chose to portray the experiences of ordinary rural and small-town people in such straightforward narratives as To Live (1992) and Chronicle of a Blood Merchant (1995).

When I met Yu in Shanghai he appeared to be enjoying the success of his latest novel, Brothers (2006). It describes how two siblings, orphaned during the violence of the Cultural Revolution, fare in the aggressively materialistic China of the 1980s and 1990s. The younger brother sets up a beauty contest for virgins, while the elder has a breast implant in order to peddle a line of breast enlargement gels in the countryside. With its explicit, and often exaggerated, violence and sex, the novel must have tested the censors. But Yu insisted that he had only described a commonplace reality. ‘Things were bad during the Cultural Revolution,’ he said, ‘but what we are seeing now is total moral breakdown.’

I heard this line of argument often, from all sorts of people, who attested to a daily life that is relatively free from state control, but, deprived of the support networks of community and social security, and exposed to rampant venality, increasingly unstable and anxious. To someone watching the films of the Sixth Generation, reading contemporary Chinese fiction, or listening to stories of selfishness, corruption, police brutality and callousness, it can seem that China is in a deep crisis that is as much moral and intellectual as political. But this is seen as an opportunity by the New Left intellectuals. Cui Zhiyuan, a professor at Tsinghua University who collaborated with the Brazilian economist Roberto Unger in a series of cautionary articles on Russia’s post-Communist experiments with a market economy, told me: ‘We are still in a phase of development where we can innovate, build new institutions designed for Chinese conditions, whereas things are fixed in Europe and America, and all even left-wing politicians do is some minor tinkering.’

In 1993, Cui, then at MIT, published an article entitled ‘A Second Emancipation’ in the Hong Kong journal Twenty-First Century, arguing that after freeing themselves from orthodox Marxism, Chinese intellectuals should liberate themselves from blind faith in Western-style capitalism. ‘Those were the days of neo-liberal orthodoxy,’ Cui said, ‘everything from the West was wonderful, so I became notorious; people shunned me.’ Since then he and his colleagues have emerged as some of the most eloquent and influential critics of Chinese neo-liberalism. Arguing that China needs an ‘alternative modernity’, they do not seem conventionally left-wing and draw on a broad range of thinkers on political economy – John Stuart Mill, Braudel, Karl Polanyi, Immanuel Wallerstein, Joseph Stiglitz – in their critique of the neo-liberal model of growth.

In recent years, Cui’s articles in Dushu, a monthly journal of ideas co-edited by Wang Hui, the New Left author of a history of modern Chinese thought, have influenced a significant debate over property rights in the Communist-run legislature, the National People’s Congress (NPC). His protests against big tax cuts and subsidies for Chinese and foreign exporters also attracted official attention. In January this year, Wang published a long article about the illegal privatisation of, and subsequent labour unrest in, a highly profitable factory in his home town, Yangzhou. He is now helping the factory workers to pursue a lawsuit against the local government responsible for the sale of the factory to a real-estate speculator.

Wang told me that he could not agree with Zhu Xueqin’s view of the free market and the state as being mutually opposed. The nexus between local Party officials, bankers and real estate speculators is proof that apparently free markets depend more often than not on brute state power. Nevertheless, New Left intellectuals neither see the Chinese state as homogeneous nor wish to overthrow or diminish it; rather, they hope to make it more responsive to the plight of workers and peasants through what they call ‘institutional innovation’ and pressure from grassroots movements of workers and peasants. They praise, too, the state’s role in formulating and implementing policies in the earlier phase of economic reform, policies which they believe are to be credited more than the ‘invisible hand’ for China’s ability to withstand such crises of global capitalism as the ones that overwhelmed East Asian and Latin American societies in the previous decade. (The New Left’s faith in the central leadership often provokes its critics into accusing it of intellectual complicity with a repressive state.) Seeking to check the power of such institutions as the WTO and IMF, they advocate, much like Western critics of globalisation, greater openness and transparency in both domestic and international economic arrangements.

According to Wang, intellectuals on both the left and the right have been too obsessed with the state and the market, thus neglecting the growing number of movements for labour and immigrant rights and environmental protection that have the best chance of expanding democratic freedoms in China today. ‘After all,’ he said, ‘workers and African-Americans and feminists and other minorities in America, too, had to fight for these rights in a long struggle against entrenched elites; they weren’t all guaranteed by the framers of the American Constitution.’

Speaking of market reforms, Wang distinguished between two forms of ‘marketisation’. ‘The first kind is a market economy developed from local social relations, small goods and low-profit production and the other one in which state-owned property is illegally acquired.’ Wang blames corruption, large-scale unemployment and the disintegration of social security on this second kind of ‘marketisation’. ‘It is,’ he says, ‘a process of reform dominated by the state, but in the form of state withdrawal.’ He is also alert to, and fears, the other paradoxical possibility of neo-liberalism: that, as in Russia, the anarchy unleashed by an unfettered market could make the authoritarian state appear not only necessary but attractive.

I was initially surprised to find Wang’s article on the Yangzhou factory still freely circulating on the internet when I met him in Beijing four months after it first appeared. But Wang and his colleagues’ relative immunity from persecution not only hints at the increasingly arbitrary nature of political repression. It also points to ideological dilemmas within the post-Deng state – which the New Left sees not as a monolith but as a system of intricate relations of interests at both central and local levels.

To get rich may have proved glorious for millions of Chinese, but post-Mao regimes find themselves unable to shed the legacy of the Revolution. The cyber-nationalism of a newly enriched urban minority, stoked occasionally by official propaganda against Japan and America, has not, and perhaps cannot, replace the old promise of equality and justice, which still legitimises the regime in the eyes of millions, preserves the state’s traditionally high authority, and makes China less likely to suffer a Soviet-style disintegration.

In September, the central leadership sacked Shanghai’s Party chief on corruption charges – the first big purge within the CCP since 1995. It also introduced, at the risk of alienating American and European corporations, a new bill that would crack down on sweatshops and empower labour unions for the first time since Deng’s market reforms. In recent months, Wen Jiabao and Hu Jintao, the prime minister and president respectively, have used a vocabulary closer to that of the New Left than of their pro-reform predecessors to express alarm over the crisis in the countryside and the rising environmental costs of economic growth.

Hu and Wen’s public commitment to ‘building a socialist countryside’ may be no more than an attempt, neglected during the Deng era, to build national cohesion around quasi-socialist values and ideas, especially since social unrest, attested by the large number of protests registered last year, is growing across China. Nevertheless, the choice of words reveals how potent the word ‘socialist’ remains in China.

‘Alternative modernity’ and ‘institutional innovation’ may also sound like mere slogans. The New Left belongs, after all, to a very small and powerless minority of intellectuals. But its growing appeal suggests that the post-Mao reversals of ideology and politics – based on a simple moral opposition between socialism and capitalism, the free market and the state, private and public property – are beginning to lose their force as the storm of progress blowing through China continues to scatter debris everywhere.

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