intellectuals and academics


intellectuals and academics
Since the late 1970s China’s intellectuals have presented themselves in public as university-based academics, first fighting to establish some social autonomy from the Maoist state, then trying to reform it, and currently trying to find a social place between the Party-state and institutions of a globalized economy. Their identity has increasingly moved from state cadres to academic professionals, while their social role has shifted from administrators and propagandists to experts and public critics. These changes have been marked by a series of dominant debates from ‘liberation of thought’ to New Authoritarianism, to bitter fights between New Left advocates and ‘liberals’ (see liberalism). At the same time, these changes anddebates have been connected by the broad acceptance of some fundamental assumptions: that democracy is good, that nationalism is natural, that commercialization is unavoidable, and that professionalization is the sensible solution for intellectuals. In all of these debates foreign theory (largely from Europe and the USA) has been accepted by nearly all intellectuals as authoritative in illuminating Chinese conditions and for suggesting the shape of Chinese solutions.
The post-Mao period: recovery
China’s intellectuals began the reform period by trying to reclaim their status as intellectual cadres and custodians of public morals that had been promised to them under the Mao period and stolen from them in the Cultural Revolution. China’s universities, which had been subservient to the State Plan under Mao and closed in the late 1960s, opened again. Purged professors and leading Party intellectuals returned to their former positions. Theorists like Wang Ruoshui and Li Zehou, journalists like Liu Binyan, and writers such as Wang Meng, who had all been active before the Cultural Revolution returned to pursue a ‘liberation of thought’ that rejected the ultra-leftism of late Maoism. This soon moved to a reconsideration of Marxism and Maoism and the 1980s opened with public debates on Marxist Humanism and efforts by the CCP to revise Party orthodoxy. Li Zehou, the philosopher at CASS, and Su Shaozhi, director of the Institute of Marxism-Leninism at CASS, were leaders in this effort at internal reform.
The 1980s: reform
The 1980s was the decade of the generalist public intellectual in Chinese politics. Leading speakers drew their authority from their Party position, general studies, and ability to manipulate Party ideology to address the issues of economic and political reform under Deng Xiaoping. There was still a single public sphere dominated by the media outlets of the Party-state, but it was becoming more open to dissident voices.
Intellectuals increasingly sought the formal protection of university appointment, strengthened by the example of Western universities from which increasing numbers of foreign scholars came to visit China and to which thousands of Chinese students went to undertake advanced studies. With this came a broad acceptance that the Cultural Revolution had demonstrated the failings of socialist and Chinese theory and that the economic development and democratic societies of the West confirmed the superiority of Western theory as a tool of social analysis that could be applied to China’s case. From Li Zehou using Kant to undermine the Hegelian assumptions of CCP ideology and Fang Lizhi using Einstein to discredit the scientism of Engels in the 1980s, this instrumental use of foreign theory to address Chinese issues has dominated Chinese academic and public debates into the new century.
Arguments over democracy and neo-authoritarianism dominated intellectual debates in the 1980s, beginning with Wei Jingsheng’s famous call in 1979 on Beijing’s Democracy Wall. By mid-decade Wang Huning and Xiao Gongqin articulated the neo-authoritarian response that asserted that a strong authoritarian state was needed to monitor economic reform while over-early democratization would lead to instability. Reform and democracy won intellectual hearts in the late 1980s, but the popular protests and military repression of 1989 dashed these hopes. Into the gap crept nationalist rhetoric—to buttress the insecure Party and as something that intellectuals could safely talk about. He Xin, widely despised as a government toady, enjoyed a brief fame in the early 1990s, but his strident nationalism has since become a major popular trend in China.
The 1990s: globalization
The 1990s was the decade of the academic in public debates in China. This reflected not only the increasing independence of intellectuals from the grasp of Party power, but at the same time the fragmentation of the public sphere under the deluge of globalized media outlets (most notably satellite television and the Internet) along with the concomitant marginalization of intellectuals from the halls of power. In the 1980s, intellectuals read the Party media and tried to publish in them; in the 1990s they turned elsewhere. Key outlets for academic and public debate in China since the mid 1990s have been the popular intellectual journals, ranging from Dushu [Reading] to Zhanlue yu guanli [Strategy and Management], to book series, and the Internet, where such journals cum websites as Ershiyi shiji [Twenty-first Century] draw Chinese intellectuals from around China and across the world.
The underlying assumptions about democracy and nationalism continued through the 1990s. China’s intellectuals also came to believe that commercialization was inevitable as China’s economic reforms and opening to world markets continued, and they came to see professionalization as the most sensible way to protect their public role as experts. Liu Dong’s efforts, as a professor of comparative literature at Beijing University, to edit China’s first contemporary peer-review academic journal, Zhongguo xueshu [China Scholarship], is a notable example of this.
These four assumptions (democracy, nationalism, commercialization and professionalization) are shared by the three major intellectual stands among China’s academics today: the ‘New Left’, the ‘liberals’ and the ‘New Confucians’ (see New Confucianism). Among New Left theorists and writers, the best-known internationally is Wang Hui, at CASS, but also prominent are Gan Yang in Hong Kong, Zhang Yiwu at Beijing University, and Cui Zhiyuan, first at MIT and later in Singapore. This stand takes a dim view of the social costs of neo-liberal economic policies to working people in China. Some, such as Cui, look back with frank admiration to some of the social policies of Mao Zedong. The ‘liberals’ in contrast excoriate the excesses of the Mao period and seek to adapt institutions and values of the liberal West to Chinese conditions. More radial liberals, such as Liu Junning (now an expatriate in the West) promote the neo-liberal, laissez-faire doctrines congenial to American conservatives. More moderate liberals, such as Qin Hui at Qinghua University, Beijing, and Xu Jilin at East China Normal University in Shanghai, promote something closer to social democracy that seeks to limit both the power of the state and of the market. Finally, New Confucianism, also known as Guoxue (National Studies), has found a niche at Beijing University and other institutions and in the hearts of some intellectuals as a supplement to the Western-oriented theory of both New Left and liberal intellectuals. At its worst, such National Studies are a sop to an unreformed authoritarian state, while more sensitive interpreters (often Chinese scholars outside China), such as Du Weiming, make a case for integrating norms and concepts from China’s varied traditions into contemporary discourse.
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TIMOTHY CHEEK

Encyclopedia of contemporary Chinese culture. . 2011.

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