[Reader-list] Public Intellectuals in China

Rana Dasgupta eye at ranadasgupta.com
Sun Dec 19 11:30:48 IST 2004

Under fire, again
Dec 9th 2004 | BEIJING
 From The Economist print edition

Free expression worries the authorities

IN AN Orwellian obfuscation of its role, the Chinese Communist Party's 
Propaganda Department prefers to translate its name these days as the 
Publicity Department. But one of its main tasks remains that of issuing 
secret directives to the state-controlled media telling them what not to 
report. And among its latest prohibitions is any encouragement for 
“public intellectuals” in China.

In recent years, the party had become more relaxed about intellectuals. 
Outspoken academics helped fuel the campus fervour that eventually 
erupted into mass protests in Tiananmen Square in 1989. But the 
crackdown, followed a couple of years later by an economic boom, 
dampened demands for political change. The party began to worry more 
about unemployed workers and disgruntled peasants, and less about 
intellectuals—many of whom, anyway, were turning their attention to 
making money.

More recently, however, the rapid spread of the internet and the 
increasing commercialisation of the Chinese media have given 
intellectuals new avenues of expression. A few, including economists, 
social scientists and lawyers, have become well-known among the 
chattering classes for their critiques of social ills (though prudently, 
in most cases, not of the party itself). The term “public intellectuals” 
has crept into the media, encouraged not least by a Chinese translation 
last year of “Public Intellectuals: A Study of Decline”, a book by an 
American judge, Richard Posner, examining the role of such commentators 
in America.

The Propaganda Department lost its patience after a magazine in 
Guangdong Province, Southern People Weekly, published a list of 50 
Chinese public intellectuals in September. The market economy, said an 
accompanying commentary, had caused the rapid marginalisation of 
intellectuals. “But this is the time when China is facing the most 
problems in its unprecedented transformation, and when it most needs 
public intellectuals to be on the scene and to speak out.”

If the 50 had been loyal party stooges, all might have been forgiven. 
But among them were several who are decidedly not, including Zhang 
Sizhi, a defence lawyer who has argued in the trials of some of China's 
best known dissidents; Cui Jian, a rock singer whose irreverence has 
irritated the authorities since his heyday in the Tiananmen era; Bei 
Dao, a poet who has been forced to live in exile since the 1989 unrest; 
and Wang Ruoshui (who died in 2002), a senior journalist and member of 
the party's inner circle who turned dissident. A scathing commentary on 
the list, published last month by a Shanghai newspaper and republished 
by the party's main mouthpiece, People's Daily, said that promoting the 
idea of “public intellectuals” was really aimed at “driving a wedge 
between intellectuals and the party.” The window for free debate that 
opened a crack over the past couple of years, as China's leadership 
shifted to the “fourth generation” of leaders, is closing again.

Oddly, perhaps, given the supposed indifference of urbanites to 
politics, two of the bestselling books in China this year have been 
about the “anti-rightist” campaign of 1957, during which half a million 
of the party's intellectual critics were persecuted. One of the books, 
“Past Events Have Not Vanished Like Smoke”, was banned by the Propaganda 
Department. The other, “Inside Secrets of 1957: The Sacrificial Altar of 
Suffering”, is still for sale. Though probably not for long.

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