The silence of Chinese intellectuals under Xi Jinping

Historically, there have always been great Chinese thinkers who have been bold enough to challenge the prevailing political order - but in modern China, intellectuals remain enigmatically silent.
Student stands in front of group of sitting soldiers.
A dissident student asks soldiers to go back home as crowds flooded into central Beijing 03 June 1989. Credit: CATHERINE HENRIETTE/AFP via Getty Images.
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While historically, as the great historian of Imperial China F W Mote once noted, there has never, at least in the last millennium, been a tradition of loyal opposition in Chinese dynasties, there have certainly been intellectuals and others who were willing to speak truth to power. The costs they bore for this sometimes were terrifying. In 1402, Fang Xiaoru, a Confucian scholar and official in the Ming era, contested the legitimacy of the new Yong Le Emperor who had usurped the previous emperor in a palace coup. His reward for this was to have over 850 of his relatives executed, including being forced to watch his own brother killed before his eyes, and then sliced in half. It is not surprising that, over half a millennium later, one of the phrases used in the Maoist era once the People’s Republic was set up was `He who is not afraid of death by a thousand cuts dares to unhorse the emperor.’

The remarkable thing is that despite this, there always were those who were willing to continue to put principle above preservation of personal position. Fang’s punishment was extreme. He was dealing with a particularly paranoid and insecure ruler. But in the centuries that followed, honourable intellectual figures were willing to suffer internal exile and personal suffering. Some of them even committed suicide. Even the formidable Qianlong Emperor, reigning for six decades over the Qing until 1796, had to contest with writers and officials who argued that the Manchu elite should be usurped. One of these, the poet and scholar Hu Zhongzao, called the regime `murky’ in 1755 and was beheaded. Over a century later, for their passionate promotion of political reform towards the end of the Qing era, figures like writer Liang Qichao and the neo-Confucian philosopher Kang Youwei were forced to flee the country.

Mao Zedong after 1949 and the establishment of the People’s Republic likened himself to the First Emperor from 220 BC, who, according to one history, ordered 400 dissident scholars be buried alive. He bragged he had brought down more. Even so, Ma Yinchu an economist and demographer, offered spirited support for population control measures in the 1950s. He was dismissed from office, but managed to live on to 1982, dying at the age of 99. There were plenty of other figures who, at different times and in different ways, spoke up against Mao. One of the most impactful was the trio of activists using the joint pen name Li Yizhe who issued a call for socialist democracy and rule of law in the latter part of the Cultural Revolution in 1974. Once more, they may have been harassed and victimised, but all of them survived and took part in campaigns after Mao’s death in 1976.

Mao’s successors all had to contend at least with some visible, and spirited, opposition. Figures include Wei Jingsheng, the electrician from Beijing Zoo who put up a wall poster in 1979 demanding democratic reform for China, Jiang Zemin and the group involved in the China Democracy Party and its bid for formal registration in 1998, and the Nobel Laureate, the late Liu Xiaobo. As China has modernised, and platforms on which to put ideas and arguments have in theory increased, the expectation should have been that dissenting voices would increase, not decline.

This is why the Xi era is such an enigma. With its 2,500 universities, and with more people than ever before graduating from university, China today certainly doesn’t lack in figures one would classify as intellectuals. Many of these have studied abroad, another new development. On top of this, society has become more complex than ever, so there is no lack of issues on which to engage in debate.

And yet despite this, an almost deafening silence reigns. After Xi’s ascent in 2012, there have been sporadic, very faint sounds of internal argument. None of these, it has to be said, have been in the elite of the Party where an almost total conformity reigns. But even beyond this, there has been an eerie placidity. An anonymous letter demanding Xi resign was put out in 2016, prompting a witch hunt and much speculation. From that time, there have been sporadic criticisms. Ren Zheqiang, a businessman who issued a number of pungent attacks on Xi, was sentenced to eighteen years in jail in 2020. The only other voice speaking contrary to the official narrative that has gained any traction is that of Xu Zhangrun, formerly a Tsinghua University law professor who was dismissed from his position and briefly imprisoned in 2020. Still based in Beijing, he has issued a number of writings criticising the government. He remains at liberty, for the moment at least, but it is clear he is facing immense isolation and ostracization. He is, very much, a lone voice.

Why have intellectuals in particular not produced at least more diverse, and more contrary, voices in China today – even when in theory they have the means to do so? It is a complex issue. One can only speculate. Part of it might be to do with the fact that under Xi the Communist Party has aligned its own governing mission with one promoting national greatness. To be anti-Party is therefore to be anti-China and therefore against the country being a success. Associated with this is the issue that whereas once intellectuals in China could look at the models offered in the West and say these offered a more powerful and successful future, things today are far more complex. For one thing, the West has taken against China – so to speak up too much in favour of westernisation is easily labelled as being unpatriotic and trying to weaken the country.

This point of living in a transparently much more complex, less clear-cut context now is important. Social media is a two-way street. Chinese can speak more, but they can also see much more about what the outside world is like. It is hard to maintain any simple ideals in view of this. At best, they can see that some things are positive, some negative. Gone are the days when a paper mâché figure of the Statue of Liberty relabelled the Goddess of Democracy could be hoisted up in Beijing’s Tiananmen Square, as happened briefly during the protests of 1989.  Now anyone with any intellectual honesty has to admit this whole story around what political models might work best and whether Western Democracy really has universal applicability has become very messy, inside and outside China.

It’s perhaps that complexity that has removed the confidence of Chinese intellectuals. They now face an unenviable choice – to speak out, very aware the rest of the world doesn’t offer any easy solutions for what they could do as an alternative – or to remain silent. Their silence is as much a testament to the lugubrious reality described above as it is to the effectiveness of Xi Jinping and his state-led clampdowns. The brute fact is that the current government approach in China, fuelled by public nationalism as much as anything else, is not going to change any time soon – and that the isolation and marginalization of people like Xu Zhengrun is therefore not going to stop. Being an intellectual in China has rarely offered such bleak prospects for those that choose to dissent.

Kerry Brown

Kerry Brown is Professor of Chinese Studies and Director of the Lau China Institute at King​'s College London, and Associate Fellow of the Asia Pacific Programme at Chatham House. He is the author of over 20 books on modern China, the most recent of which is China: A History​ (Polity Press, Cambridge).

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