Mr. Shangkong

We need to hear more, not less, from our intellectuals

A balance is needed between real-life situations we deal with on a daily basis and the inspiring ideas within the domain of academic research

PUBLISHED : Monday, 24 February, 2014, 4:27am
UPDATED : Monday, 24 February, 2014, 8:26am

Many of my colleagues and friends know I have two real-life identities - by day I am an editor and journalist with the South China Morning Post, and at weekends I am a student at the University of Hong Kong who hopes to survive a four-year doctoral programme and someday be called Dr. Chen.

How do I feel about the dual identity? It's difficult. Not just because I need to do an excellent job of time management but also because my mind is often divided between two very different worlds - on the one hand, the real-life situations in society that we have to deal with on a daily basis and, on the other hand, inspiring and challenging ideas that must remain within the domain of academic research.

So when I read Nicholas Kristof's recent column in The New York Times - "Professors, We Need You!" - in which he urged university professors and academic researchers to be more actively involved in politics and economic policy, I couldn't have agreed more.

Intellectual has become a label that many knowledgeable people ... try to avoid

In his column, Kristof said one of the reasons academics shun public affairs was the pervasive anti-intellectualism in America. Does this sound familiar?

In today's China, gong zhi, or "public intellectual", has also become a label that many knowledgeable people, including professors, try to avoid being applied to them.

Whenever someone with a fair amount of work or research experience comes out to comment on something related to his or her profession and expertise, especially when it is related to a current event or a societal topic of public interest, the responses often end up being very rude or disrespectful.

I am not sure if this is related to Chinese history and culture, which has reversed from according intellectuals a high degree of respect to treating them with contempt.

Those - many are only in their 20s - who condemn whatever "public intellectuals" say often call them "hypocrites" and describe their comments and behaviour as a "pretence".

They say the intellectuals are not part of us; they are people who closet themselves in offices or classrooms, so how can they know anything about our pain or happiness?

I once asked a friend who, while studying for his doctoral degree at a US university, was active online in sharing his views on current events with the general public: "How do you deal with those rude responses?"

He said he had come to feel there was too much basic knowledge his interlocutors were lacking that would have been required as the foundation for a debate with them. Since he did not have time to educate them in these basics, he gave up and closed his Weibo account.

My friend's case reflects how difficult it can be for intellectuals to engage with the public, especially the younger generation, in a sensible and meaningful way.

The ultimate purpose of all types of study, I believe, is to make our life and society better. If we confine ourselves to our studies only on an academic level, the public will naturally feel we are "different", or "indifferent".

But if academics are to hear and say more, the public needs to show patience and respect.


George Chen is the Post's financial services editor. Mr. Shangkong appears every Monday in print and online. Follow @george_chen on Twitter or visit