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What Role Will Intellectuals Play in China’s Future?

As we commemorate the thirtieth anniversary of China’s 1989 democracy movement, it is hard to imagine students and intellectuals playing a similar role today. In China’s highly marketized and politically controlled society, the space for intellectual inquiry and public intervention seems to have dwindled almost to the point of disappearing. It has often been argued that, over the course of the last century, Chinese intellectuals went from serving the state to serving the market, without ever securing a position of autonomy. However, in the last 10 years, the notion of “public intellectual” (now abbreviated as gongzhi) has become a derogatory term in China, referring to media personalities who deliver messages for interest groups and are rewarded in return. Recently, the Tsinghua University Law Professor Xu Zhangrun published a series of articles criticizing the current leadership. Yet mainstream society seems to have paid almost no heed. Do intellectuals still have anything meaningful to contribute? In China, as elsewhere, intellectuals have been forced to rethink their role and the legitimacy of their public speech.

Intellectuals can be broadly defined as producers of knowledge, whether they work in academia, publishing, journalism, or literature and arts. It is generally accepted that, in China, the role of traditional literati (shidafu) consisted in taking responsibility for the affairs of the world and making a contribution to the harmonious governance of society. After the 1911 Revolution, the former literati turned to journalism, fiction writing, teaching, or publishing, adopting the role of social critics in the May Fourth movement. Many later went on to become Leninist Party-scholars, as was famously argued by scholars like Joseph Levenson and Benjamin Schwartz, although some fought to maintain an autonomous space outside of the mass parties until 1949. Having undergone political reeducation in the People’s Republic of China (P.R.C.) in the early 1950s and during the Anti-Rightist movement of 1957, many intellectuals were eager to regain their traditional role as loyal advisors to the state after Mao’s death. They warmly welcomed Deng Xiaoping’s speech to the National Science Congress on March 18, 1978, in which Deng reinstated them as part of the working class. Deng reinvested academics, writers, and other “knowledge workers” with revolutionary legitimacy, allowing many of them to regain their position among the ranks of the social elite and to contribute through their expertise to Deng’s reforms. Throughout the 1980s, they worked with the reformers in the Party. The 1989 democracy movement in some ways marked the culmination of their role as responsible critics of the government aiming to provide a blueprint for a different type of society. The bloody crackdown, by contrast, led to their retreat into the Academy, a marginalization of critical voices within society, as well as a vast marketization of the field of culture, to the point that some observers have concluded that the role of intellectuals in society had come to an end.

However, in hindsight, the 1980s were perhaps less idyllic than they are sometimes made out to be. Within the broad perimeter of modernization, new spaces undeniably opened up for reformers inside and outside the state: research centers or book series were set up under the purview of university departments, state administrations, or even state-owned enterprises. But intellectuals needed protectors within the system, and the officials who offered them support were able to derive added prestige from their association with influential thinkers. In this sense, the return of intellectuals into the social mainstream took place under the aegis of the state.

This connection also determined the approach taken by intellectuals to the political situation. The Mao era was criticized as “feudal,” and it was contrasted with a renewed need for enlightenment and modernization. This qualification was consistent with the 1981 Chinese Communist Party “Resolution” on P.R.C. history, which determined that the Cultural Revolution should be condemned as a “mistake.” The term clearly illustrates the normative approach towards history taken by official institutions, and in which knowledge about the past played no role. Mao’s brutal exercise of power was simply attributed to the legacy of Chinese culture and imperial history. Despite recognizing the severe “theoretical and practical mistakes” committed under Mao’s leadership, the Party reasserted its legitimacy as representative of the working class and the entire nation. Critique of the state by intellectuals was expressed mainly through the notion of enlightenment. For example, Li Zehou, an influential philosopher, proposed the distinction between “enlightenment” (qimeng) and “national salvation” (jiuwang), arguing that it would suffice to free enlightenment from the imperative of “national salvation” and politics in order to emancipate the mind and put an end to feudalism. At the time, the young Liu Xiaobo was a lone voice that expressed disagreement with this narrative, connecting the Party’s errors with Leninism, Marxism, and modern politics. In this sense, although the 1980s for intellectuals were a decade of great confidence in their central role and their knowledge, grounded in a methodology provided by science, their role was still guaranteed by their direct links with state structures and their active collaboration in the theorization and implementation of reforms. The knowledge they produced therefore also remained largely within the monistic mold that Marxist orthodoxy inherited from Confucianism.

After the June Fourth massacre, intellectuals were criticized from all sides. The state designated them as “black hands” of the student movement, while observers described them as blinkered elitists who had prevented the student movement from operating an effective connection with workers (who were kept away from the student headquarters on the square) and ordinary citizens.

These critiques ushered in a period of reflection, during which some intellectuals argued for a return to academic work (or xueshu), rather than the abstract theorizing of the 1980s (designated as sixiang). Others “dived into the sea” of the market economy, hoping that economic reforms would facilitate a long-term liberalization of Chinese society. The debate on the “spirit of humanism” in 1992-1993 pitted advocates of the market economy who believed that democracy could be achieved through consumer culture against traditional humanists and anti-reform conservatives. In 1997, the literary scholar Wang Hui published his essay “Contemporary Chinese Thought and the Question of Modernity,” in which he famously argued that modernity had always remained a blind spot in the dichotomy of enlightenment and feudalism. Many of China’s current problems were derived, in his view, not from the “feudalism” of traditional China but from what he termed the “crisis of modernity”: capitalism, bureaucracy, and the overwhelming power of the modern state.

However, the questioning of the tenets of modernity and enlightenment did not lead to a decisive pluralization of the intellectual field. Postmodernism and the critique of enlightenment became a selective tool to deconstruct “capitalism” and “Western rationality” and to reassert the authenticity of Chinese tradition (which was sometimes described as proto-socialist, preparing the way for Marxism). Chinese intellectuals’ attempts to question orthodoxy after 1989 often led to reformulations of Chinese exceptionalism.

In the 1990s, intellectuals split into two camps over reforms: the new left opposed market reforms, arguing that capitalism was in the throes of authoritarian politics and expressing their suspicion of representative democracy; the liberals, though recognizing criticisms of crony capitalism, advocated furthering private property and the institutions of representative democracy. But as the economic historian Qin Hui has pointed out many times, China offers the example of a state that provides neither enough freedom nor enough social protection, and both too much control and too much laissez-faire. In this sense, the theoretical debates between new left and liberals often failed to deal with the actual issues. The intellectual field became intensely polarized, provoking intense factionalism, at the same time as publishing and journalism were subject to market reforms, creating economic opportunities for certain writers or editorialists. Each faction continued to cultivate its protectors, and public interventions continued to be legitimized through recognition by the state. As a result, public intellectuals lost their credibility, and came to be seen as mouthpieces for various interest groups.

At this time, a number of intellectuals took a different path, out of the academy and the market and toward what can be described as “minjian” society, a term which refers to people, groups, publications, or associations who are non-official (as opposed to the state), grassroots (as opposed to the academic elite), and self-funded or DIY.

Wang Xiaobo (1952-1997), a cult novelist and essayist among the post-Tiananmen generation, used new commercial publications like Orient or Southern Weekly as a platform for his wide-ranging critiques of Chinese intellectuals. He took them to task for embracing utopias and always presuming to know what was best for ordinary people, leading to catastrophes like the Great Famine of 1959-1961. He mocked their Confucian self-righteousness and moral pontificating, instead advocating value neutrality. Finally, he supported viewing society from the margins, from the position of the “vulnerable” or “subaltern” groups (ruoshi qunti), who make up the “silent majority” of Chinese society. This view of a mosaic of disenfranchised groups was of course a direct challenge to the representations of society offered by Marxism.

Wang’s essays were only the crystallization of a far broader movement within society. Minjian intellectuals—relying on specific knowledge, embracing subaltern positions, investing new public forums, beholden neither to the state nor to the market—began to make their voices heard from the early 2000s. Amateur historians reconstructed family histories of the Mao era based on interviews and personal documents, and disseminated their findings through semi-official publications. Documentary filmmakers investigated Chinese society in ways that bypassed the theoretical apparatus of class and structure dominant in sociology departments. Grassroots lawyers worked with petitioners and other marginal communities to establish a shared understanding of citizenship and citizens’ rights. Bloggers challenged the monopoly of political discussion by elite academics. Although their impact remained limited, these phenomena deeply transformed China’s intellectual field, the way knowledge is produced and legitimized. For about a decade, China’s public culture, though still under the watchful eye of the state, took a turn toward a qualified pluralism.

Unfortunately, this evolution did not go unnoticed by the Chinese state, which took targeted measures to repress each of the areas in which minjian intellectuals had been active. “Historical nihilism”—explicit challenges to certain aspects of Party history—was criminalized under several headings in China’s draft civil code in 2017, in particular the defamation of heroes and martyrs. A 2016 film law outlawed the production and dissemination of any self-made film. The crackdown on NGOs like the Open Constitution Initiative and the arrests of rights lawyers on July 9, 2015 curbed the development of citizens’ rights. A new set of Internet regulations ensured that “Big Vs” (verified users) were reduced to silence. However, despite banning textbooks “promoting Western values,” the pluralization of knowledge is difficult to quell.

In this sense, the turn away from intellectual elitism and toward citizen knowledge may have more long-term effects than are apparent at the moment. It is true that the 1980s may seem relatively free in comparison with the current crackdown. However, they were also a time when intellectuals relied strongly on elite connections with the state, and when their interventions were still largely couched in the Marxist categories of Chinese academia. In the 1990s, intellectual production became intensely marketized, which entailed a return of factionalism, but not necessarily a culture of greater public exchange. It was only in the 2000s that minjian intellectuals questioned the monopoly of academia on knowledge production and sought ways to understand history, society, or citizenship, that were outside the boundaries of official academic inquiry. The impact of the current repression on China’s intellectual world is undeniable. However, we should not forget that under the surface of repression, deeper trends may be at work that continue to pluralize Chinese society.