The Fate of Intellectuals
By Jin Zhong
The recent case exposing informing against the renowned intellectual Nie Gannu has caused controversy among China’s intelligentsia. No doubt, intellectuals are society’s axis; they represent conscience, and their quality and development has a key influence on society. Nie’s case resurrects unhappy memories of the Mao era. If one characterizes those three decades of CCP rule with the phrase “class struggle and lawlessness,” the particular element that caused lasting damage to millions of people was the CCP’s hostility to intellectuals. The Nie case illustrates the fate of the intellectual under despotism, described by the late sociologist Pan Guangdan as the “four S’s” – Surrender, Submit, Survive and Succumb – a life of humiliation and misery. From the anti-rightist purges to the Cultural Revolution, wasn’t it the blood and tears of intellectuals along the way? When millions of peasants died in the great famine, it was typically the more educated officials who were blamed for the deaths.
Thirty years have passed since the Cultural Revolution, and with the government striking out on a new path, intellectuals have been transformed from despised riffraff to bourgeoisie. Many have even achieved both fame and wealth. This is the path to social transformation and the survival of the Communist Party; a capitalistic economy cannot do without intellectuals. Intellectuals have not placed their reliance on the new government as Mao Zedong required them to do (even though Mao never trusted them). But faced with the government’s carrot and stick, many of today’s intellectuals have chosen to submit. In their reliance on the overarching system that links with international capital and forms the autocratic government, the nouveau riche class and the Chinese-style “crony capitalists,” they have contributing to the birth of an unprecedented “super special interest group.”
Chinese intellectuals shine, whether as leaders of the Party or government or in media and entertainment circles, whether in Beijing, Shanghai, Hong Kong or overseas Chinese communities. Moreover, a large coterie of experts contribute their advice and effort to maintaining the autocratic system. The culture of informing, united front tactics and intelligence agents is larger and more sophisticated and advanced than in Mao’s time. Intellectuals with independent characters and aspirations are marginalized and subjected to great hardship.
Such an outcome was never imagined in the past. What should not be overlooked, however, is that the growth of civil society and China’s opening to the world has also resulted in an increase in liberal intellectuals in China. Whether they are inside or outside of the system, their potential and influence should never be underestimated, although the signing of Charter 08 is only a limited demonstration of it. In an environment immersed in despotism, greed and cynicism, however, liberals still have a long way to go.
Particular attention has been focused on the intellectual elites currently on China’s center stage. These elites, now in their fifties or sixties, are now in the prime of their lives. In their youth they were forced to take part in the unprecedented intensity of the Cultural Revolution, and because of their student backgrounds, they were subsequently drawn into the new wave of education and commerce. Coupled with the glossing over of the past by the authorities, many of them were able to avoid any settlement of or reflection on the controversies of that era. So it is that in recent years we regularly see some of their number who have become leaders in their various professions, whether in official or lay capacities, reveal the mark of the Cultural Revolution or other aspects of the Mao Era. This is not only regrettable, but sometimes ridiculous and even horrifying. The scars left over from youth are hard to forget. For this reason, the self-awareness and maturing values of this generation will be an important factor in their ability to take on China's future political transformation, which may well be near at hand.
30 March 2009 in Hong Kong
(Translated by Isabella Lam)