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The Dilemma for Chinese Intellectuals

Social Consciousness or Personal Interest


Historically, Chinese intellectuals have been best known for their deep concern for the nation and its people. A scholar’s greatest dream was to succeed in the national academic exam, be nominated by the emperor’s court and eventually govern on behalf of the dynasty, putting his political ideas into practice. For those who failed to realize this ambition, intellectual criticism was a way to contribute and assist the emperor’s policymaking process.

Over 2000 years ago, the first great poet in Chinese history, Qu Yuan, was a high-ranking official in his home state of Chu during a time when it was under siege. The king of Chu did not recognize or appreciate Qu Yuan’s suggestions for saving their homeland. Rather, treacherous officials slandered him, and sent him into exile. Upon hearing the news that the capital of Chu had fallen into enemy hands, he threw himself into the Miluo River and drowned. Having his counsel recognized was, to him, more important than his life.

If the voices of these neglected intellectuals were rejected, they would retreat to the mountains and wilderness to live the life of a hermit, enjoying their wine, writing their poetry or burying themselves in academic works. In a word, the philosophy of Chinese intellectuals throughout history can be described as follows: if selected, benefit the society; if rejected, cultivate self-perfection.

For several thousand years, the ideal path for a Chinese intellectual to follow was considered study, civil service, and finally governance on behalf of the nation. For them, academic success meant civil position. The moral argument for intellectuals’ privilege was that only educated people are able to understand issues and morality, interpret the writings of the sages and represent the will of the ordinary people.

Those who were educated but not favored for an official position, or who had been stripped of their titles, were never content with being left out of the political arena. They made the emperor’s court the target of their criticism hoping, as an opposition group, that the next emperor would raise them up to the decision-making class.

Only an extremely small number of Chinese intellectuals have truly seen themselves as the voice of the ordinary people, chosen to remain outside the circle of power and been willing to be the moral conscience of the society. The path for most was to study for an official position, serve the nation, assist legislation in the emperor’s court, propagate the way of the sages. Actually, this system worked well to meet the needs of China’s feudal societies.

Another side of the Chinese intellectuals’ tradition stems from their education. Being educated with ancient sages’ works, intellectuals became arrogant and aloof, seeing no one but themselves. From the time of Confucius, they developed a habit of looking down on manual labor, despising mercantile activities and belittling the pursuit and practice of the natural sciences. With the 21st century approaching, we may question how much weight we can attribute to the influence of this long tradition. What is the real current status of Marxist belief among Chinese intellectuals after having been ordained as the “political correctness” of China for 50 years? These are probably the questions to which every China-concerned person would like to know the answer.

To understand these Chinese intellectuals, the first question is somewhat ironic: “Who really are the Chinese intellectuals?” In other words, what defines an intellectual? This issue continues today because historically Chinese intellectuals were the opposite of the totally unschooled, uneducated majority. Today, almost all people in China have had at least some degree of education. If defining an intellectual by his or her education or lack thereof, many people can be called intellectuals; but if the definition includes “the presence of social consciousness and independent thinking ability,” then, the majority of these people would not be considered intellectuals by Western standards.

Why is this true? The majority of Chinese who receive higher education are students of natural science and technology. They believe that science, technology and development are able to change the world and alter human destiny. Among them, there are highly honored scientists and inventors. Not calling them “intellectuals”, does not seem right; however, they do not offer themselves as the “consciousness of society,” let alone give up their scientific research to act as “the voice of the people.” Their focus is on how to live well and influence the scientific community, and thus, to call them intellectuals does not ring true.

In the past, their opportunities in science were provided exclusively by the government. This unavoidable reliance on the government effectively restricted their freedom of expression. Since the dawning of the Reform era, the work avenues for these scientists have become diversified and their opinions less stifled. But their main “battlefield” is still in the area of science and technology, not in the political or social arena.

It is because of their single-minded belief in science and technology that the Chinese Communist Party and its government favors these intellectuals as the ideal candidates for a new generation of leaders. Among the Politburo’s seven standing members, five have science and technology backgrounds (Jiang Zemin, Li Peng, Zhu Rongji, Hu Jintao, and Li Lanqing). Some refer to them as “technocrats.” This suggests that Chinese intellectuals with scientific backgrounds are comfortable holding both scientific and governmental titles and explains why Chinese intellectuals with similar backgrounds are not too worried about their future. While this group of people pursue change, they never desire social turmoil. Their sense of success and social responsibility is expressed mostly in their professional undertakings in scientific development and its application. From this activity, they are also able to generate the necessary finances to meet personal and family needs. More importantly, this kind of pursuit is readily accepted by the government and the people; no political risk is involved.

For another group of Chinese intellectuals, who have higher education, the case is rather different. These are called the “social science people.” Social science deals with human existence, its ideology, social systems, ethics and morality. In China, the party claims to already have all the answers in this area. Thus, the task of the social science people is not that of pursuing the truth, but one of proving why the ordained communist ideology is truth.

Apparently, the social science people not only have to persuade others to accept the communist truth, but also must continually convince themselves of what that truth is. Unfortunately, Marxism’s market in China is no better than in other parts of the world. With the passing of time, more and more people have given up Marxist belief. Their blind following of these doctrines has been replaced first, by a sense of lostness, then doubt, and finally attack upon these doctrines. This shift is not so much the result of individual decisions, but rather of the realities of life being inconsistent with the doctrine.

As Chinese intellectuals, the first choice that those in the social science category are facing is whether or not to be apologists for the official truth. If they choose not to be, then their knowledge can only be sold cheaply in the marketplace to provide them with the necessities for minimal survival. China’s traditional values exert a much heavier influence upon these individuals than they do upon intellectuals with a scientific background. While they uphold their “social consciousness,” and while they want their voices to be heard and desire to influence those who are in power, the struggle and pain they are caused in the face of violating their personal integrity forces them to pursue financial gain, even though this brings self-condemnation.

Due to this, some have suggested the possibility of “inside reformation” meaning cooperation with those in power—pushing for a gradual change. Most of those who support this stance have already secured a position within the ruling class or have great potential for doing so. Those who are marginalized by the power structure prefer a quick overthrow of the current government to provide new opportunities for making and influencing political decisions.

All of these mentioned above adhere to the slogan of “voicing the will of the people” and talk about “national” interests, but where are the real intellectuals? Where are those who are not attached to the government, but represent the “consciousness of society” and are capable of independent opinion? There are so few! A social environment and economic foundation that will allow this type of person to thrive are only now emerging.

If asked persistently what Chinese intellectuals believe, I fear that most of them believe only in practical reality. What is this reality? It is how to survive in the changing society or perhaps how to have a better life. Anything that can help Chinese scholars to realize these goals will be widely received.

Article translated by Ping Dong.

Image credit: Chinese Scholars by Stanley Zimny via Flickr.

Huo Shui

Huo Shui (pseudonym) is a former government political analyst who writes from outside China. View Full Bio