Academic journal article International Journal of China Studies

The Reemergence of Public Intellectuals in Late Twentieth-Century China: Reflections on the Twenty-Fifth Anniversary of Tiananmen

Academic journal article International Journal of China Studies

The Reemergence of Public Intellectuals in Late Twentieth-Century China: Reflections on the Twenty-Fifth Anniversary of Tiananmen

Article excerpt

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With the establishment of the People's Republic of China, headed by the leader of the Communist Party, Mao Zedong, China was ruled by a totalitarian political system. What then made possible the students' demonstrations in Tiananmen Square that spread to the rest of urban China in the spring of 1 989? Mao and the party had not only dominated the country's political life, but also the economic, intellectual, artistic and personal lives of its subjects. With Mao's death in 1 976, his successor and former Long March comrade, Deng Xiaoping, became China's paramount leader until his death in 1 997. During this period, China moved from a totalitarian to an authoritarian regime. The party still dominated the political system and except for elections at the village level, determined the political hierarchy. Yet, at the same time that China moved to a market economy and participated in the international community, controls over the economic, social, cultural, and personal lives of its populace were loosened. Along with China's opening to the outside world, these changes gradually made possible a degree of freedom in people's personal, cultural and intellectual lives. Though an authoritarian one-party state, the party's loosening of controls over people's every-day lives unleashed a proliferation of ideas, activities and artistic endeavours outside the party's control.

These changes in the post-Mao era also made possible the emergence of public intellectuals in the People's Republic, a phenomenon not unique to Western civilization. Public intellectuals have played a major role throughout Chinese history. China's pre-modern intellectuals, the Confucian literati, not only advised the emperor and ran the governmental bureaucracies, they were also viewed as the conscience of society. Their ideological commitment to improving the human condition led them to assume responsibilities comparable to those of public intellectuals in the West. They were generalists, who publicly discussed and dealt with political, economic and social issues, organized philanthropic efforts, and supervised education. In addition, a number of Confucian literati regarded it as their responsibility to criticize officials and even the Emperor when they believed their actions diverged from the Confucian ideals ofmorality and fairness.

Public intellectuals also helped to bring about the end of China's dynastic system during the Hundred Days of Reform in 1 898 in the late Qing dynasty and they prepared the way for the 1 911 revolution, whose leader Sun Yat-sen personified a public intellectual. Even though the Kuomintang government, led by Chiang Kai-shek (1 928-1 949) attempted to stifle criticism, it was too weak to silence dissident intellectuals, who publicly criticized repressive officials and Kuomintang policies and called for democratic reforms, such as freedom of speech and association. With the exception of brief periods, such as the Hundred Flowers period, 1 956-June 1 957, it was only during the totalitarian rule of Communist Party leader Mao Zedong (1 949-1 976) that China's public intellectuals were silenced and were unable to play their traditional role. A major difference, however, between the West and China during the dynastic, Kuomintang, Mao Zedong, and post-Mao eras, has been that there were and still are no laws to protect public intellectuals when what they say displeases the leadership, who could silence them with relative impunity.

Even before the Chinese Communist Party established the People's Republic of China in 1 949, there was already evidence that its leader, Mao Zedong would not tolerate public criticism or dissent from his policies. In the early 1 940s, in the party's Yanan revolutionary base area, Mao launched a campaign against a group of writers who were committed to the humanitarian aspirations ofMarxism and believed they were true to its basic ideals when they publicly called for equality, democracy and intellectual freedom. …

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