Intellectuals at a Crossroads: The Changing Politics of China's Knowledge Workers

By Kelly, David | The China Journal, January 2005 | Go to article overview

Intellectuals at a Crossroads: The Changing Politics of China's Knowledge Workers


Kelly, David, The China Journal


Intellectuals at a Crossroads: The Changing Politics of China's Knowledge Workers, by Zhidong Hao. Albany: State University of New York Press, 2003. viii + 406 pp. US$86.50 (hardcover), US$29.95 (paperback).

Western intellectuals resemble William James' crab, who, enraged at being categorized as a crustacean, cried, "I am no such thing ... I am MYSELF, MYSELF alone." When labels are admitted to, they are likely to be quite specific: economist, journalist, consultant. "Intellectual" is likely to be used, if at all, in self-mockery only.

Contemporary Chinese, on the other hand, continue to accord a high place to intellectuals. History is decisive here. Despite the perils of politics and the inroads of commerce, a certain esprit de corps (not to say elitism) carries down from earlier times to the present and the foreseeable future. Emerging as a stratum around the symbolic date of 1905 when the imperial examination system was dissolved, intellectuals helped dig the grave of traditional China. They accepted much of post-Enlightenment Western social teleology, summed up in the May Fourth icons of Mr Science and Mr Democracy. Offered up as sacrificial victims of the power structures that this vision led them to create, first under Chiang Kai-shek and then still more lethally under Mao, they rebounded in the reform era, encouraged by the technocratic goals of the Party elite, but subject also to recurrent repression in a "velvet prison". Through all this they retained and periodically reinvented age-old (but in the modern context often mutually antagonistic) classical Chinese values, described here as an "ethic of responsibility" and an "ethic of ultimate ends".

Drawing on the work of Lewis Coser, Zhidong Hao, a sociologist, compares modern China's critical intellectuals to the American abolitionists and the French Dreyfusards (pp. 23 ff.), usefully pinpointing their potentially transformative role, but at the same time throwing into relief the anachronism of such projects under modern conditions. As a number of Chinese scholars have suspected, the sense of calling which was the traditional hallmark of the intellectual stratum may lead to its own decline, hence the "crossroads" of the book's title. If any consensus exists among the dominant groupings in today's China-neo-liberal, conservative, New Left and so on-it appears receptive to the notion that new classes-private entrepreneurs, workers, the middle class, peasants-will sooner or later develop their own "organic" intellectuals. These classes remain in the process of formation, their autonomy short-circuited by the strenuous efforts of the ruling party (p. 355). If this restraint were to be relaxed in the near political future, intellectual politics may cease to be the relative backwater it tended to become after the market reforms of the 1990s, and return to being a powerful but indirect shaper of China's future development path.

The argument that intellectuals may eventually form a class of their own coalescing around their common cultural capital, sense of calling and humanist spirit (Chapter 6 and pp. 349ff.) therefore seems open to question. Elsewhere, a well-nuanced case is mounted to show that "to transform the culture and change the society, intellectuals have to transform themselves as well". …

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