The Democratic Potential of China's Grassroots IntellectualsRoundup
tags: China, Chinese history, intellectual history
Sebastian Veg is a professor of intellectual history of modern and contemporary China at the School for Advanced Studies in the Social Sciences (EHESS) in Paris, France.
Is there any point in still paying attention to intellectuals in China? Today, educated young people like to dismiss intellectuals as nothing more than mouthpieces for various private interests. An abbreviated form of the expression gong zhi (public intellectual) has become a derogatory term, often hinting at foreign influence. While, since the beginning of post-Mao reforms, academics have been able to contribute to public discussions on certain carefully vetted topics, they are generally more likely to speak for the state than against it, a trend only compounded in recent years.
Since Xi Jinping came to power in 2012, a renewed emphasis on ideology and nationalism has empowered groups in society that are eager to relay the views of the party-state, and several key institutions in the areas of culture, information, and media are now under the direct supervision of the party’s Central Propaganda Department. An ongoing anti-corruption campaign, which also targets “problems in thinking,” makes it risky to express opinions that conflict with party orthodoxy. For example, in 2020, the prominent legal scholar Xu Zhangrun was detained after publishing a series of pamphlets accusing Xi and the party of stifling freedom of thought and mishandling the COVID-19 pandemic. He was released after six days but was stripped of his teaching position, and his social media accounts were deleted.
Online political discussions in China often focus on the decline of liberal democracies, citing mass mortality in wealthier countries during the pandemic. A group of legal scholars at Peking University Law School, inspired by the statist views of the Nazi jurist Carl Schmitt, have found a following among young nationalists active on social media who advocate ruguan (entering the pass). Like the Manchus entering the Confucian tianxia (all under heaven), they believe China should now take control of the world system and reorganize it to its own advantage.
Though their comments are frequently deleted, critics of ruguanxue (pass-ology) do sometimes appear on social media. Some embrace the philosophy of jiasu zhuyi (accelerationism), according to which the overreach of the party will lead to its collapse. Others support tangping (lying flat)—a rejection of careerism that minimizes contact with both the official sphere of the state and the rat race of the market. This wish to manifest independence from both state and market is congruent with the unofficial and subaltern position of intellectuals working “among the people”—or minjian intellectuals.
After the democracy movement of 1989 was crushed, many scholars retreated to their ivory towers, accepting limits on their academic freedom in exchange for support from the government. Beyond academia, however, more subversive sources of intellectual inquiry began to emerge. Using new technology to articulate and disseminate their ideas, intellectuals working at the grassroots or on the margins of society began in the late 1990s to produce knowledge that challenged official narratives. Their goal was not to invite yet another wave of repression by engaging in organized dissent, nor to develop overarching political theories, but rather to focus on concrete problems relevant to ordinary people’s lives. The minjian sphere, subordinated neither to the state nor to the market, became a new center of intellectual activity. Amateur historians, documentary filmmakers, rights defense lawyers, NGO workers, bloggers, journalists, and publishers contributed to a new form of public culture, grounding their authority in their connection with disenfranchised groups like petitioners, migrant workers, sex workers, or victims of persecution during the Mao era.
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