Chinese Intellectual Ecology

Gauthier Delecroix/Bookstore, Qingdao
The following essay originally appeared in print in Palladium 03. To receive original content in future print editions, subscribe here.

For the past few years, I have been reading, translating, and curating intellectual life in contemporary China for a project I call Reading the China Dream. “What intellectual life?” will be the immediate response of many readers, since virtually the only Chinese intellectuals who appear in Western media accounts are dissidents who wind up imprisoned, exiled, or otherwise marginalized. China’s authoritarian government does indeed punish dissent, and we should condemn such behavior in no uncertain terms. At the same time, the idea that Chinese intellectual life consists only of dissent and repression is woefully incomplete and inaccurate.

Instead, China’s rise over the past few decades has fueled the emergence of a functioning intellectual ecology, consisting of hundreds, perhaps thousands, of public intellectuals—mostly university professors, but also some writers and journalists—who debate Chinese and world issues in print and online, and from a variety of distinct intellectual positions.

This ecology is separate from the state propaganda machine. The party-state uses its propaganda organs to “tell China’s story” and to regulate and police intellectual debate, signaling what topics are off-limits. Open dissent is not tolerated and China’s intellectual ecology is not free. However, the fact that China’s public intellectuals cannot say everything they would like to does not mean that they cannot say anything at all. As long as public intellectuals stay away from prohibited topics such as Xinjiang and Tibet, and avoid frontal confrontations with authorities, they enjoy a surprising latitude. They debate important issues such as democracy, state power, Sino-American relations, and any number of social and cultural issues important to China.

Another way to say this is that while Chinese authorities make clear what topics public intellectuals should steer clear of, they do not tell these intellectuals what to say about topics that are fair game. Thus the ecology is both managed and real at the same time.

China’s intellectual ecology has a similarly complex relationship with outside media. On the one hand, China’s public intellectuals are very plugged into the West. Many of them speak or at least read English. China also has a well-funded and efficient translation industry that publishes hundreds of volumes of scholarship, journalism, and fiction each year. Chinese intellectuals can readily keep abreast of the latest trends in the Western, mostly Anglophone, world. 

At the same time, China has built its own Internet; Western social media giants like Facebook and Twitter are available only to Chinese users with access to a VPN. This, plus the fact that most Chinese people rely on Chinese-language media, keeps the Chinese intellectual ecology from drowning in the surfeit of “information” produced by American social media. For example, Donald Trump and Black Lives Matter have been hot topics on the Chinese Internet over the past few years but are generally refracted through Chinese lenses. The resulting debates are not duplicates of American arguments, but instead mapped onto China’s particular context and reflective of internal factional disputes. A debate about identity politics in America, for example, may serve as a proxy for domestic disputes on the nature of individual rights and civic identity in China itself.

The rise of this intellectual ecology has produced a vital de facto intellectual pluralism in China, a lively network of journals, blogs, public intellectuals, and schools of thought engaged in discussion and debate. They share different visions of China’s past, present, and future; they write to convince one another, to sway public opinion, and perhaps to influence the party-state itself. 

This pluralism evolved in spite of the party-state, which certainly did not encourage it. Indeed, Xi Jinping sees pluralism as problematic and even dangerous. Without dissenting from or directly confronting China’s authorities, pluralism suggests that different ideas are possible. Xi has signaled, through his own writing and the party’s promotion of Xi Jinping Thought, a desire to impose ideological discipline on the diverse Chinese intellectual world. 

But the party’s own political trade-offs limit his potential success. Now that this ecology exists, the party would not want to simply shut it down. First, it would be a long, difficult process and Xi has already a crowded agenda. Second, Xi and the party remain insecure about their ideological legitimacy. Ultimately, they would like China’s intellectuals to lend a hand in shaping the official point of view.

Return of the Intellectuals

China’s intellectual pluralism was the unexpected outcome of its engagement with the world. This engagement was central to the reform and opening-up policy that has made China wealthy and powerful. Deng Xiaoping’s “Four Modernizations” launched China on a fundamentally new course, beginning in the late 1970s. Foreign tourists came to China, Chinese students began to study in the West and in Japan, foreign news clips played on Chinese television, and Deng visited the United States. “Scar literature” probed the tragedy of the Cultural Revolution and reporters published blockbuster volumes on official corruption. The journal Dushu (“Reading”), launched in 1979, announced that there would be “no forbidden zone in reading” and published the works of the leading lights of China’s intellectual world. Massive translation projects like Gan Yang’s “Culture: China and the World,” and Jin Guantao’s “Toward the Future” made hundreds of works of Western philosophy and science available to Chinese readers. The general feeling among intellectuals was that China’s authoritarian fever had finally broken. China’s future, they believed, would be democratic in some as yet undefined way that would acknowledge the importance of the rule of law and human rights. 

The 1990s were markedly different and much more pessimistic. In response to the Tiananmen demonstrations and the collapse of the Soviet Union, Chinese authorities reinforced political authoritarianism and accelerated market transformation, hoping to avoid the fate of their erstwhile socialist big brother. For intellectuals, the 1990s were a critical decade. The major divisions that still loosely define Chinese intellectual life took shape then. These divisions were the driving force behind the emergence of China’s intellectual pluralism.

First, the hopeful liberal consensus that had largely characterized Chinese intellectual life in the 1980s ultimately dissolved. Liberals themselves fragmented into competing groups largely based on their different views of market reforms, which led to rapid growth but created new and massive inequalities. Human rights and rule of law liberals debated with libertarian liberals, Edmund Burke liberals, and Hayek-spouting markets-will-make-us-free liberals. Some abandoned liberalism altogether for authoritarianism on the premise that China was not ready and that the possibility of failure through democratic experimentation was too high. 

At the same time, major competing groups emerged—the New Left and the New Confucians, among others. New Left thinkers like Wang Hui and Cui Zhiyuan pushed back against what they saw as the neoliberal wave engulfing China by attempting to revive a more aggressive commitment to socialism. Theirs were often highly creative efforts that combined past and present, as well as both Chinese and foreign approaches to socialism. The New Left enjoyed a penchant for packaging their work in discursive forms borrowed from Western postmodernism—a familiar vocabulary, since everybody who was anybody did their PhD in the West in reform-era China. The New Confucians, such as Kang Xiaoguang and Jiang Qing, took up the banner as China’s cultural conservatives or cultural nationalists. They denounced crony capitalism and crass consumerism, preaching a return to benevolent authoritarianism. Kang argued that Confucianism should become China’s state religion, while Jiang proposed that China’s current government be replaced by a tri-cameral assembly: one house would be made up of Confucian scholars, another of eminent persons—including blood descendants of Confucius and other sages, as well as leaders of China’s major religions—and a third would be elected by the people. 

In hindsight, the 1990s were a vital, creative period. But at the time, China’s intellectuals experienced “pluralism” as a long, bitter, acrimonious debate. The battle which played out in journals like Strategy and Management, launched in 1993. Today, some refer to the tumult of this period as the “spittle wars.”

By contrast, over the course of the 2000s, “China’s rise” became a major theme, driven home by the global financial crisis in 2008 and the fact that China weathered that crisis better than much of the rest of the world. The idea of China’s rise eventually transformed the intellectual world by presenting China as a success story, not a failure or a victim—although this latter depiction remains politically useful and often gets trotted out.

Mapping China’s Future

China’s rise and the West’s decline opened new vistas for many of China’s intellectuals. If China was thriving while the Soviet Union disappeared and the West foundered, this meant that the time was ripe for rethinking the basic templates that had defined China’s intellectual life since the early 20th century: liberal democracy and Russian socialism. In these discussions, the assumption was that China was a failure or a problem to be solved. But if these templates were “wrong” and China was “right,” then everything that Chinese thinkers had said about themselves over the course of the twentieth century was probably “wrong” too. Now, China might truly be the wave of the future. The result of such reflections was an explosion of intellectual creativity that continues to the present day, although things have become more difficult under Xi Jinping.

One prominent trend, launched in a 2005 talk by Gan Yang on “Unifying the Three Traditions,” sought to reestablish a historical continuity between China’s present success and its long history as a dominant civilization. Gan’s argument was that contemporary China was thriving because it had succeeded in merging three distinct traditions: Confucian personalism (i.e., commitment to family and place), a Maoist sense of justice, and Deng’s market efficiency. The goal here is to reconcile a sense of China’s greatness as a civilization—a sentiment deeply felt in China—with the realities of China’s “century of humiliation” from the Opium Wars through to the success of the Communist revolution. The notion that China is reclaiming its rightful place in the world is powerful both among Chinese intellectuals and on a more popular cultural level.

On closer reading, it is not clear whether Gan is saying that China had already accomplished this or if China should aspire to this. Regardless, his talk inspired dozens if not hundreds of imitations. Most aimed to re-establish China’s historical continuity; most—for the same reason—also avoided talking about the Communist Party and China’s 20th-century revolutions, both examples of manifest discontinuity. The theme of “bidding farewell to revolution” came to be quite popular in some liberal circles that identified revolution with violence and suffering.

One example of where this could lead was the effort to redefine China’s early 20th-century Republican Revolution. In traditional Marxist interpretations, this was depicted as a bourgeois revolution, the failure of which led to the founding of the Chinese Communist Party in 1921 and the ultimate success of the revolution in 1949. After China’s rise, cultural conservatives like Chen Ming (many of whom were New Confucians) argued that the Republican Revolution had been a mistake. They argued that, under the leadership of the Confucian visionary Kang Youwei (1858-1927), China had been well on its way to establishing a constitutional monarchy, a political form that would have better matched China’s “national conditions” at the time by preserving the emperor and the continuity represented by the imperial court. The failure of the Republic, these conservatives insisted, was because Republicanism is not Chinese; the May Fourth Movement—conventionally praised for its courageous iconoclasm—only made things worse by condemning Confucianism and opening the door to liberalism and socialism, both Western imports. 

Such audacious arguments invited vigorous push-back from liberals. In 2016, Qin Hui published a book titled Leaving the Imperial System Behind (banned in China, although many chapters are still available online) in which he argued that the Republican Revolution was crucial because it marked the moment when China finally turned its back on millennia of authoritarian misrule and opened the door to something better. That the Republic failed means only that its promise remains to be realized, even today. For good measure, Qin condemned the hypocrites who had supported imperial autocracy over the centuries as “fake Confucians” and suggested that today’s “New Confucians” are no better.

Neither argument about the Republican Revolution had anything positive to say about socialism or the Chinese Communist Party, which denounces both these views as “historical nihilism” today. But such denunciations do not mean the arguments have disappeared.

Thinking for the Party-State

Despite Qin Hui’s ringing defense of the Republican Revolution, China’s liberals have been generally on the defensive since the theme of China’s rise came to dominate the intellectual scene. China’s success has instead strengthened the hand of both the New Left and the New Confucians. Those in the latter group have recently taken to calling themselves “Mainland New Confucians” to distinguish themselves from other New Confucians in the Chinese diaspora who lack political ambition. In contrast, the Mainland New Confucians promote their culturalist arguments to a party still in search of ideological legitimacy. The New Left, represented by figures like Wang Hui, Jiang Shigong, and Zhang Yongle, has largely abandoned its critical posture and has embraced the state, both because the state has cleaned up certain neoliberal excesses and reduced poverty, and because the China model may well offer an example to the world of how to tame markets for the good of society while still encouraging economic productivity.

Liberals like Xu Jilin and Liu Qing are content to see China’s modernity as a part of world modernity and to see Chinese values become part of universal values (and vice-versa). But this seems like a low bar next to efforts to depict China as the wave of the future. Thus, liberals spend their time critiquing the New Left or the New Confucians, or defending democracy by proxy—for example, by criticizing Black Lives Matter as a form of identity politics that threatens the consensus necessary for democracy to function. Some Chinese liberals, like Gao Quanxi, have even become Trump supporters, seeing him as a bulwark against dangerous political correctness.

One can perhaps understand Xi Jinping’s distaste for an intellectual pluralism that ignores him rather than engaging with his agenda. Whether heightened propaganda will change the situation is unclear. Jiang Shigong, a prominent New Left figure and defender of the party-state, penned a massive essay in 2018 that attempted to attack and correct the pluralist errors of the past few years and to rally his fellow intellectuals around the flag of Xi Jinping Thought and socialism with Chinese characteristics. 

Without naming names, Jiang makes it quite clear who, in his opinion, have strayed from the straight and narrow—particular groups of liberals and New Confucians—and offers a synthesis according to which Marxism is no longer about class struggle but rather about self-cultivation and the pursuit of perfection, tying the entire package to Xi Jinping Thought. Jiang’s kind of Marxism—and Xi’s—seeks to absorb Confucianism and to make liberalism irrelevant. Whether you agree with Jiang or not, his essay is a tour de force. Most of my Chinese liberal friends admire it for its scope and ambition. At the same time, it is unclear how many minds he changed.

The Chinese Communist Party celebrated the hundred-year anniversary of its founding on July 1, 2021. The weeks and months preceding the event witnessed a vigorous campaign highlighting the glories of the party’s past, present, and future. Editorials, journal articles, and blog posts trumpeted the wisdom of the party and denounced historical nihilism. Headlines in Western media repeated themes like “Xi Jinping Seeks to Consolidate Power as Party Celebrates Centenary Anniversary,” which is surely true, as the opening of additional “research centers on Xi Jinping Thought” accompanied the birthday preparations.

On July 2, 2021, the day after the birthday celebration, Yao Yang, an economics professor at Peking University, published an online article entitled “Yao Yang’s Latest 10,000-Character Plan: The Challenges Facing the Chinese Communist Party and the Reconstruction of Political Philosophy,” in Beijing Cultural Review, a well-regarded, middle-of-the-road Chinese journal where many public intellectuals publish their work. 

Yao is a well-known, highly respected scholar and public intellectual, generally identified with the New Left. Over the past few years, however, he has begun to express his admiration for Confucianism. I first noticed this in an interview he gave in the spring of 2020, in which he said something along the lines of “the West hates us because we call ourselves Communists—maybe they’d take a second look if we called ourselves Confucians.” It’s a pragmatic approach already reflected in institutional decisions like the name “Confucius Institutes”. In fact, Yao had started writing about Confucianism beginning around 2016, and more recently has published quite substantive texts on the topic.

Yao’s July 2 text addresses the theme of the CCP’s 100-year birthday, as well as the next centenary celebration on the horizon: 2049, the 100-year anniversary of the founding of the People’s Republic. The text is written in such a way as to make clear that Yao and his editors know he is being read the day after the CCP’s birthday bash. While many Chinese public intellectuals ignore the party and the revolution in their writings. Yao conspicuously does not do this. Instead, he praises the party and the revolution repeatedly and directly for their contributions to China’s modernization.

Yao’s message, however, is that there is still work to be done. China has yet to absorb the West in the way that it finally absorbed Buddhism; both Marxism and the party require a final “sinicization” if China is to complete this second absorption—what Yao calls a “philosophical restructuring.” Yang’s solution? A return to Confucianism: “To reconstruct the party’s theoretical system, with Marxist philosophy as its guide and Confucian politics as its essence, is the only way for the party to complete its return to China, and a key step in Chinese civilization’s absorption of the West.” Yao cites Deng Xiaoping repeatedly, but does not mention Xi Jinping.

Yao Yang is just one voice, but that’s how China’s intellectual ecology works. In the early days of the Internet in China, there were intellectuals among the celebrity bloggers that attracted tens, even hundreds of thousands of followers. But the party herded people away from the open blogosphere and toward smaller WeChat circles, which are less influential and easier to monitor. There is little or no institutional support for intellectual pluralism beyond online journals and WeChat feeds. Yet Yao and thousands of others keep trying by supplementing and implicitly challenging official propaganda with quietly independent views. 

They can do this because, over the past half-century, China has changed so radically as to remake the world. No matter what Xi and the party say, no one knows where China will be fifty years from now. Nothing is truly fixed. Recognizing this, China’s intellectuals are determined to have their say.

David Ownby is a Professor of History at the Université de Montréal. He runs Reading the China Dream, an online project devoted to translating contemporary texts relevant to Chinese intellectual life.