Sunday, April 18, 2010

China’s intellectuals and the quest for an independent identity

When we think of an intellectual, the first thought that normally comes to our heads is someone who is an anti-establishment, some one who is independent with his own vision and thoughts. Whether it is a writer, social scientist, poet or physicist, an intellectual is someone who thinks on his own, has his own integrity and independent vision. Most of the time, his vision comes in conflict with that of the establishment, of emperors and governments. Therefore, often establishment and intellectuals clash against each other, and the latter has to suffer the brunt of government machinery. History is full of anecdotes about writers, poets and novelists losing their lives or being exiled for their uncompromising stands on varied issues.

In short, an intellectual is an irritant, who doesn’t fit in anywhere, who questions all aspects of society, for he is full of doubts and skepticism. Whatever views he has, it is his own and not influenced by anyone. Every civilized and developed society has an independent space for the intellectuals; they have an independent identity whose work is to question and challenge the authorities with their alternative viewpoints. As governments tend to lie to hold onto power, it is the intellectuals who keep it under the scanner by scrutinizing its works and policies, making sure that they are constitutional and serve the larger interest of the society. For instance, in the United States we have people like Noam Chomsky who tirelessly scrutinize the policies of the American government, exposing the excesses committed by it, both domestically and internationally. Most of the time, views of intellectuals like Chomsky are at odds with those of the government, so much so that he is often referred to as ‘anti-American’ or ‘pro-communist.’

Such an independent space and identity is not available to the Chinese intellectuals. Since the Chinese civilization began, many philosophers, poets, writers, scholars have emerged, and they all have associated themselves with the state. They saw their roles as serving the state in making sure that it carries out its policies to serve the welfare of the Chinese people. They have never considered themselves as anti-state. They have always looked upon themselves as useful and honest servants of the state. Their duty is to make sure that the state or the emperor doesn’t violate the mandate of heaven. If they did so, the intellectuals had not shied away from reproaching them. At times many intellectuals lost their lives for criticizing the government. But, as mentioned earlier, the Chinese intellectuals didn’t have an independent identity of their own. They always searched their identity within the state apparatus, serving as official-bureaucrats or advisors to the emperors.

This situation continued and became worse when Mao’s communist revolution triumphed and the People’s Republic of China was established in 1949. As early as in the late 1930s, Mao outlined clearly CCP’s polices towards the intellectuals, of what kind of roles should they play in the newly established communist society. He said that the role of poets, writers, novelists and scholars was to serve the Chinese communist revolution, which basically meant that intellectuals could not have an independent existence of their own. All forms of art that expressed a modicum of independent thoughts were suppressed as bourgeois counter-revolutionary tendencies. Intellectuals especially had a terrible time during the so-called Great Leap Forward Movement and the Cultural Revolution. Many of them were brutally tortured and killed for expressing their conscience. As a result, Chinese intellectuals were completely alienated from their state and government. They began to have doubts about communism (which they wholeheartedly supported in the initial period of liberation), as can be gauged by the fact that some intellectuals believed alienation to have been existed in communism as well. The state of intellectuals during the Cultural Revolution can best be described by the “three belief crises” that circulated among them: crisis of belief in Marxism; crisis in faith in socialism; and crisis in trust of the Communist party.

After the Cultural Revolution, Deng Xiaoping came to power and tried to restore the bond between the state and intellectuals broken during Mao’s rule. Deng Xiaoping rehabilitated many of the intellectuals who were either imprisoned or sent to forced labor during the Cultural Revolution. A relative freedom ushered in for the intellectuals, and they tried to experiment themselves with varied western thoughts. Western artistic movements and philosophies became fashionable among the Chinese intellectuals. They read a wide range of western philosophers such as Nietzsche, Satre and Sigmund Freud etc. Search for roots also began among the intellectuals, as they felt China’s backwardness perhaps might lie in its own history and culture. Deng Xiaoping’s Four Modernization theory signaled that reform and opening up would continue. During this period, intellectuals still associated themselves with the state, searching their roles and identity within it. They were, in other words, establishment intellectuals or state builders. It was only Wei Jiesheng who was an out and out dismantler of the state with his calls for Fifth modernization: western style democracy. But he was the lone campaigner and didn’t have support from other intellectuals. As a result he had to suffer in prison for decades. But all the literary engagements carried out during this period were suppressed by the Deng regime as an impending threat to the CCP rule. As a result, intellectuals started to have doubts about the feasibility of repairing the state.

The complete break of bond between intellectuals and the State began during the late 1980s. The immediate cause was the sudden purge of Hu Yaobong who was the liberal face of the CCP and some of the intellectuals associated with the state, and whose goals were to repair and reform it. Their dismissals came at a time when China was facing severe crisis of corruption and maladministration, which made the situation worse. The intellectuals finally started questioning about whether progress can be made by serving within the state. For the first time they felt the root of the problem lies with the state/party itself, and that real progress and freedom for China is possible only by dismantling the current regime and replacing it with a new one. The two prominent intellectuals who represented this view are the astro-physicist Fang Lizhi and the radical intellectual Liu Xiaobo. They advocated that only a western style free democracy would usher in real freedom and democracy in China.

Then came the Tiananmen student protests of 1989 against government corruption and demand for greater freedom and democracy. Slogans during Tiannamen Demonstration in 1989 were ‘we love our country, but we hate our government,’ a clear demarcation between the country and government/party. As Merle Goldman, Perry Link, and Su Wei said, it ‘reveals the radical change in outlook of China’s student and intellectual community since the end of Cultural Revolution... and that patriotism had come to be defined as loyalty’s to one’s society and country, as distinguished from loyalty to party-state and its leadership.” For the first time in Chinese history, intellectuals from various backgrounds participated in that protest, which was brutally massacred by the Chinese Communist Party.

The massacre of peaceful protests proved beyond doubt for Chinese intellectuals that real reforms and democracy for China is not possible as long as the Chinese Communist Party is in power. It became clear to them that only by dismantling the current state ruled by the CCP, could China achieve its dream of freedom and liberty. Since the protests, many scholars, poets, and intellectuals who were repairers of the state have changed their position and moved to the sides of dismantlers of state like Fang Lizhi and Liu Xiaobo. For the first time in Chinese history, intellectuals are speaking from their own independent viewpoints, and are thus creating an independent space for themselves, challenging the dominant ideology of the state and party apparatus.

Although Jiang Zemin strengthened the market reforms and embraced the capitalists as new members of the Communist Party, signaling that opening up and reform would stay forever, China is mired in official corruption and arbitrary rules, which can be resolved only by establishing an independent judiciary. As of now, intellectuals who are openly challenging the Communist Party by calling it to step down from power and initiate multi-party elections are slowly but surely increasing. For instance, in 2008 a group of more than 300 intellectuals, journalists, rural activists and artists publicly signed Charter 2008, calling for a free and democratic China where human rights, democracy and the rule of law shall be paramount. Most of these intellectuals, including the leading figure, Liu Xiaobo, have been imprisoned by the Chinese government.

Another important change that occurred is that intellectuals are also openly speaking against Chinese government’s misguided policies in the so-called minority regions, especially in Tibet. Some of them, Liu Xiaobo including, are even calling for the Chinese government to hold peaceful dialogs with the exiled Tibetan leader Dalai Lama to resolve the long-simmering issue of Tibet. For the first time in Chinese history, the intellectuals are calling for the rights of ‘minorities’ and questioning the Chinese government’s treatment in these ‘areas.’ It remains, however, to see when these intellectuals will realize and speak out the true colonial nature of China’s rule in ‘minority regions.’

Chinese intellectuals’ journey from being pro to anti-establishment has been long and troublesome. Their efforts to create an independent existence/identity for themselves seem to have yielded result finally. Although they are being harassed and denied free movement and expression, the intellectuals are strongly asserting themselves as free spokespersons of the society, as indicated by the signing of the Charter 08. It remains to be seen how far their influence will reach within the mainstream Chinese society, so that a real mass-based challenge could be mounted against the ruling Communist party, eventually leading to the establishment of multi-party democracy in China.

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