Shrinking role of China’s public intellectuals will hold back country’s rise
- After a rise to prominence in the early 2000s, the country’s public intellectuals have lost credibility as tolerance for criticism of China has shrunk
- Suppressing these people leaves fewer voices to suggest new ways forward, with top leaders stuck in an echo chamber with little ability to correct mistakes
The Weekly said China was at a point “when it most needs public intellectuals to be on the scene and to speak out”. The list was circulated widely and popularised the term gongzhi, or public intellectual. The reputation of gongzhi quickly rose, but its glow soon faded.
Two months later, the hardline Liberation Daily attacked public intellectuals because their independence drove a wedge between the intellectuals and the party. It also claimed the concept was a foreign import. The article was then reprinted in the People’s Daily.
Of course, ancient China had its share of public intellectuals, or the equivalent thereof. Confucius was perhaps the first and most renowned one as he not only taught his philosophy but also offered advice to various statesmen. In ancient times, such scholars had the responsibility to advise top officials and even emperors.
This public space shrank after Tiananmen, though discussions among intellectuals on issues of public interest continued. Meanwhile, commercialisation deepened and provided new economic opportunities for some of them.
Meanwhile, the emergence of internet platforms such as Weibo gave gongzhi an important platform to express their views, but this was not a purely intellectual space as the profit motive began to creep in.
With some public intellectuals focusing on making money, pushing their own interests or attacking opponents, public intellectuals on the whole lost their credibility. Today, gongzhi has become a derogatory term. The public is also joining in the chorus of those condemning public intellectuals who speak out.
“There are several reasons why the reputation of intellectuals has declined, but it should be clarified that the specific targeting of public intellectuals was initiated by the state, namely through the op-ed in the People’s Daily,” said Sebastian Veg, a professor at the School for Advanced Studies in the Social Sciences in Paris and author of Minjian: The Rise of China’s Grassroots Intellectuals.
This is dangerous. Any society needs intellectuals whose mission in life is to “advance freedom and knowledge”, according to Edward Said.
With Xi’s repression of gongzhi, there will be fewer voices to suggest new ways forward for the country and the top leaders are likely to live in an echo chamber with limited ability to correct their policy mistakes. The diminishing role of China’s public intellectuals risks holding back the country’s rise.
Lijia Zhang is a rocket-factory worker turned social commentator, and the author of a novel, Lotus