The Grassroots Intellectuals

The Grassroots Intellectuals

China’s social and intellectual spheres remain less monolithic than the tightly controlled public transcripts would suggest, and their possibilities deserve our continued attention.

Demonstrators display banners and posters to support journalists from the Southern Weekend newspaper near the company’s offices in Guangzhou in 2013. (AFP/AFP via Getty Images)

Is there any point in still paying attention to intellectuals in China? Today, educated young people like to dismiss intellectuals as nothing more than mouthpieces for various private interests. An abbreviated form of the expression gong zhi (public intellectual) has become a derogatory term, often hinting at foreign influence. While, since the beginning of post-Mao reforms, academics have been able to contribute to public discussions on certain carefully vetted topics, they are generally more likely to speak for the state than against it, a trend only compounded in recent years.

Since Xi Jinping came to power in 2012, a renewed emphasis on ideology and nationalism has empowered groups in society that are eager to relay the views of the party-state, and several key institutions in the areas of culture, information, and media are now under the direct supervision of the party’s Central Propaganda Department. An ongoing anti-corruption campaign, which also targets “problems in thinking,” makes it risky to express opinions that conflict with party orthodoxy. For example, in 2020, the prominent legal scholar Xu Zhangrun was detained after publishing a series of pamphlets accusing Xi and the party of stifling freedom of thought and mishandling the COVID-19 pandemic. He was released after six days but was stripped of his teaching position, and his social media accounts were deleted.

Online political discussions in China often focus on the decline of liberal democracies, citing mass mortality in wealthier countries during the pandemic. A group of legal scholars at Peking University Law School, inspired by the statist views of the Nazi jurist Carl Schmitt, have found a following among young nationalists active on social media who advocate ruguan (entering the pass). Like the Manchus entering the Confucian tianxia (all under heaven), they believe China should now take control of the world system and reorganize it to its own advantage.

Though their comments are frequently deleted, critics of ruguanxue (pass-ology) do sometimes appear on social media. Some embrace the philosophy of jiasu zhuyi (accelerationism), according to which the overreach of the party will lead to its collapse. Others support tangping (lying flat)—a rejection of careerism that minimizes contact with both the official sphere of the state and the rat race of the market. This wish to manifest independence from both state and market is congruent with the unofficial and subaltern position of intellectuals working “among the people”—or minjian intellectuals.

After the democracy movement of 1989 was crushed, many scholars retreated to their ivory towers, accepting limits on their academic freedom in exchange for support from the government. Beyond academia, however, more subversive sources of intellectual inquiry began to emerge. Using new technology to articulate and disseminate their ideas, intellectuals working at the grassroots or on the margins of society began in the late 1990s to produce knowledge that challenged official narratives. Their goal was not to invite yet another wave of repression by engaging in organized dissent, nor to develop overarching political theories, but rather to focus on concrete problems relevant to ordinary people’s lives. The minjian sphere, subordinated neither to the state nor to the market, became a new center of intellectual activity. Amateur historians, documentary filmmakers, rights defense lawyers, NGO workers, bloggers, journalists, and publishers contributed to a new form of public culture, grounding their authority in their connection with disenfranchised groups like petitioners, migrant workers, sex workers, or victims of persecution during the Mao era.

The minjian sphere remained precarious and vulnerable, and recent crackdowns have threatened this group’s activities. One of Xi’s first priorities after taking office in 2012 was to reaffirm the power of the party-state over all areas of society. Journalism was one of the first targets: the newspaper Southern Weekend, in many ways the symbol of the minjian era, was forced to publish pro-party propaganda in its Lunar New Year editorial of 2013, and its staff subsequently underwent several rounds of political purges. Shortly thereafter, the party issued its Central Document Number Nine of 2013, the “Communiqué on the Current State of the Ideological Sphere,” which outlined a series of intellectual activities that would no longer be tolerated, including critical historical inquiry, independent journalism, and advocating constitutionalism and the strengthening of civil society. Most of the knowledge produced by minjian intellectuals fell directly under one or several of the categories in Document Number Nine.

Concrete implementation measures followed. “Historical nihilism” became a crime in the new civil code and under a new law to protect the reputation of heroes and martyrs. (The law was recently used to silence a journalist who publicly criticized The Battle at Lake Changjin, a propaganda film on the Korean War.) In 2016, the fiftieth anniversary of the launching of the Cultural Revolution was marked with a crackdown on critical historiography, symbolized by the editorial and administrative reorganization of the semi-official journal Yanhuang Chunqiu. A new film law banned all forms of independent production and distribution, and independent film festivals were shut down in rapid succession. NGOs were placed under even tighter control, and foreign funding became all but forbidden. Civil rights lawyers were arrested and disbarred. Feminist and Marxist student groups were disbanded and their members arrested. Uyghur intellectuals were among those reportedly interned in reeducation camps. More recently, LGBT groups were removed from social media, bloggers were punished after the crime of “picking quarrels and provoking troubles” was extended to cyberspace, and Hong Kong, previously an offshore center for uncensored publications and intellectual exchanges between China and the rest of the world, was subjected to a National Security Law that has significantly restricted freedom of expression and publication.

Despite these hostile conditions, it must be stressed that the minjian moment did not simply end. Some of the activities that began in the 1990s and 2000s continue to take place behind closed doors or within tightly knit groups. For example, unofficial publications that used to be posted to a webpage or widely disseminated are now distributed only within closed networks, academic conferences that used to be open to all students and faculty are now held by invitation only, and public gatherings and discussions are subject to careful vetting. This shift was facilitated by the drift from a more public internet centered on microblogs like Weibo, which is comparable to Twitter, to an increasingly segmented and fragmented social media sphere centered on WeChat, which works more like WhatsApp and tightly regulates large groups, mass postings, and public accounts.

As the outbreak of the pandemic demonstrated, forms of minjian knowledge are still being produced outside official institutions and occasionally have wide influence. Whistleblowers like doctors Ai Fen and the late Li Wenliang played a crucial role in alerting the public to the spread of COVID-19, other scientists took great personal risks to share sensitive information on a public server where international scientists could access it, and citizen journalists Chen Qiushi and Zhang Zhan reported on the situation in Wuhan, at the cost of their personal freedom. Minjian intellectuals like Ai Xiaoming as well as more established writers like Fang Fang, along with many ordinary citizens, published and exchanged their thoughts in online diaries during the lockdown, despite unpredictable censorship. Li Wenliang’s Weibo account has become an informal tombstone and message board, commemorating Li’s famous call that “a healthy society should have more than one voice.” 

A decade ago, the sociologist Wu Jieh-min proposed a “third way of imagining China” that goes beyond the dichotomy of opportunity and threat and engages directly with China’s civil society. In the ensuing years, China became intellectually more inward-looking and, as a result of the pandemic, it is now physically closed to the outside world, and will possibly remain so for a long time to come. Nonetheless, its social and intellectual spheres remain less monolithic than the tightly controlled public transcripts suggest, and the possibilities they contain deserve our continued attention.

Sebastian Veg is a professor of intellectual history of modern and contemporary China at the School for Advanced Studies in the Social Sciences (EHESS) in Paris, France.

The paperback edition of Minjian: The Rise of China’s Grassroots Intellectuals was published in October 2021 by Columbia University Press. The present essay is adapted from the preface to the Chinese-language edition published by Linking Books (Taipei) in September 2021.

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