Public Intellectuals in China

There is no strict definition for the concept of a public intellectual. Judge Richard Posner, author of the book Public Intellectuals: A Study of Decline, defines it as ‘someone who uses general ideas drawn from history, philosophy, political science, economics, law, literature, ideas that are part of the cultural intellectual tradition of the world, to address contemporary events, usually of a political or ideological flavor, and does so in the popular media, whether in the form of Op Ed pieces, television appearances, signing full-page advertisements, or writing magazine articles or books addressed to a general audience.’

As Posner admits, however, the definition excludes a number of important intellectual figures who should be regarded as public, even though they do not communicate directly to the public. Generally, public intellectuals as critics of social issues are supposed to step back, take a detached view and give an impartial analysis. But Michael Walzer has questioned this view ((Michael Walzer, The Company of Critics: Social Criticism and Political Commitment in the Twentieth Century, New York: Basic Books, 2002, xii)): ‘How much distance is ‘critical distance’? What kind of criticism is possible from far away and from up close?’ Then, there is the issue of academic standing. In Posner’s words, ‘not all intellectuals are professors, but most are.’ Many public intellectuals are journalists and novelists.

These debates are also applicable to China. Han Han, a high-school dropout and the most popular blogger in China, is often called a public intellectual by many in China. His writings are known for his spirit of criticism and concern for the poor. But many claim that his writings lack depth. Most importantly, he himself does not admit that he is a public intellectual. In an interview in January this year, he said that public intellectuals are like public toilets, intended for people to ‘vent their anger.’

Every year, the Southern People Weekly compiles a list of top public intellectuals in China. The magazine defines public intellectual as those: 1) with academic background and professional standing; 2) with active participation in the discussions of public affairs; 3) with a sense of criticism and morality. In an article this month, Liu Gang, editor of the WSJ Chinese Web, discusses in turn how public intellectuals in China lack these qualities. The following are translation of extracts from his article.

Category 1: Public Toilets

Some are like public toilets on the street. They simply collect angers from ordinary people. Their greatest contribution is to let these angers be heard in a wider area. Some internet bloggers and grass root commentators fall into this category. These people publish vigorous commentaries on public affairs, serving as a channel for people to vent their angers. Unfortunately, the quality of their comments is not much higher than that of ordinary people. They lack academic vigor and professional knowledge. Their analysis on public problems is very often too simplified and emotional. For example, their writings on the rich-poor gap in China often concentrate on the lack of ethics and ill-gotten gains on the part of the rich, but rarely discuss the irrational factors and negative effects of this emotional hatred of the rich. This category of intellectual has a spirit of criticisms, but their limited knowledge and insights impair the credibility of their analysis.

Category 2: Washrooms in Fast Food Restaurants

Some are like washrooms in KFC and McDonald’s. Their academic and professional standards are like the washrooms in these western fast food shops – well-structured and elegant. Reading their articles will leave you with a good impression. But like the KFC and McDonald’s, these intellectuals do not provide their ‘public services’ for free. You can find shadows of commercial interests behind them. It has been one month since China vowed to cool down the property markets. But thanks to the ‘public comments’ of these intellectuals, property developers are still insisting that demands will rise in future. These intellectuals are eager to voice their opinions on public affairs, and they have the required academic standings to do so. However, they lack the spirit of criticism and sense of morality of grass root commentators. Co-opted by interest groups, they lose the qualification to be a public intellectual.

Category 3: Public Washrooms in High-grade Offices and Hotels

Others still wander near the border of institutional constraints. They are like the public washrooms in high-grade office buildings or hotels. These washrooms are intended to serve particular groups of people. However, ordinary people can still use them if they are willing to embarrass themselves and rush into these buildings. These semi-public, semi-official intellectuals often voice their ‘personal viewpoints’ on public affairs, but it is easy for ordinary citizens to misunderstand these intellectuals as standing on their side. In the widely reported Foxconn’s suicide cluster, we rarely hear criticisms from these intellectuals. Perhaps their ‘fundamental washroom character’ could explain their selective silence in this important affair. Couldn’t you see that expensive hotels often deny service to anyone who is untidy?

0 thoughts on “Public Intellectuals in China”

  1. The idea of “public intellectuals” has developed since 2004, when the Southern People Weekly feature was published, and it seems to me that Liu Gang is arguing more against the capricious use of the label for anyone who speaks out on any social issue than against the idea itself. (the names populating the SPW list are hardly generic celebrity academics, talking heads, or star pundits, and many of them are still around doing their PI thing to this day). It’s interesting to see how similar Liu’s criticisms of public intellectuals are, six years on, to the controversial Jiefang Daily editorial (summarized here) that was written in response to the SPW feature. But while Liu concludes with a call for public intellectuals to remain objective by engaging in constant self-reflection, the author of the Jiefang Daily piece argues that an impartial public intellectual is a paradox by appealing to Marxist theory — one cannot avoid the influence of interest groups, and attempting to set oneself off from the masses is impossible.


  2. Has China ever enjoyed the kind of society in which public intellectuals could comfortably exist? Perhaps only for brief moments during the first half of the twentieth century and then again during the “culture fever” (文化热) of the 1980s. Post 1989, it is often said, Chinese intellectuals have a) either failed to behave as intellectuals (much less public intellectuals), or b) they have been co-opted by the state. Impressive contemporary “thinkers” such as Wang Hui 汪晖 can hardly be called public intellectuals as their writing is often impenetrable to all but the most educated, thus failing to meet Posner’s criterion of being addressed to a general audience. Then again, in China, from earliest times to the present, the state has agressively defended is monopoly over public discourse on the subject of contemporary events “of a political or ideological flavor.” Countless would-be public intellectuals from outside the civil bureaucracy have paid dearly for daring to encroach upon the state’s perogative.

    It seems to me that Charter 08 is perhaps the best example in recent years of an attempt by Chinese intellectuals to behave as genuine public intellectuals. And we all know how that’s worked out. Alas, I wonder if it’s even possible to speak of public intellectuals in China when the phrase “Chinese public intellectual” comes so near to being an oxymoron.

    Finally, it seems to me that we often set the bar far too low for China. So many, for example, view Han Han as a dissident writer for what amounts to very minor criticism of the state and/or Chinese society.

    For those interested in this subject, the books “Chinese Intellectuals and the State: In Search of a New Relationship” (Harvard, 1987) and “China’s Intellectual’s: Advise and Dissent” (Harvard, 1988) are both good. Timothy Cheek’s “Culture in Mao’s China: Deng Tuo and the Intelligentsia” (Oxford, 1998) is also fantastic.


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