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In a review of the Book “Minjian: The Rise of China’s Grassroots Intellectuals” by Sebastian Veg, Els van Dongen wrote: “Traditional Chinese scholar-officials are today known as intellectuals. This is however not merely a change in name — it is a change in essence. In fact, this change is the shift of intellectuals from the center to the margin.” Thus stated the intellectual historian Yü Ying-shih in an article published in the Hong Kong-based journal Twenty-first Century in August 1991. According to Yü, along with the transformation of traditional scholars into modern intellectuals following the abolition of the examination system in 1905 came a gradual political, social, and cultural “marginalization” . Modern intellectuals became, echoing Karl Mannheim, “free-floating.” [Source: Els van Dongen, Nanyang Technological University, MCLC Resource Center Publication, December, 2019]

“This marginalization continued unabated — even intensified — through the Mao era and beyond. With Deng Xiaoping’s Southern Tour, 1992’s Fourteenth Party Congress, the commercialization of Chinese society, and the emergence of a new media landscape, traditional notions of Chinese scholars as moral saviors and members of a select club of luminaries have been even further transformed and/or subverted. As the philosopher Chen Lai observed, in reform-era China, the public appeared to be more captivated by pop idol TV shows such as Super Girl than by the musings of intellectuals. Concurrently, the repression of the Tiananmen demonstrations effectively ended the already shaky alliance between intellectuals and the state, leaving the “Enlightenment” ideals of the 1980s in tatters.

“While research on Confucian literati or “scholar officials” has accentuated their moral conscience, studies of modern “intellectuals” have instead stressed their identification with the state, be it as “establishment intellectuals” during the Mao era or as “public intellectuals” under reform. Some continued to work for the state as experts during the 1990s, whereas others turned to the market and media or championed disengaged “scholarship.”

On how scholar and intellectuals make themselves heard in China, Yang Fenggang, a professor of sociology at Purdue University and director of its Center on Religion and Chinese Society, told the New York Times: “They get invitations to give talks, sometimes appear on television, or write articles to newspapers and magazines. And especially they participate in conferences. Interestingly, in China, the media pay attention to conferences. If a conference like this one here were in the West, journalists wouldn’t care about these sorts of things. But in China the media report on them. Conferences become platforms for people to express their concerns, and their voices can be heard. [Source: Ian Johnson, Sinosphere Blog, New York Times, October 18, 2013]

Websites and Sources: Chinese Culture: China ; China Culture Online ;Chinatown Connection ; Transnational China Culture Project Books: “The Culture and Civilization”, a massive multi-volume series on Chinese culture (Yale University Press). “Minjian: The Rise of China’s Grassroots Intellectuals” by Sebastian Veg (Columbia University Press, 2019); Book: “An Intellectual History of China, Volume One Knowledge, Thought, and Belief before the Seventh Century” By Ge Zhaoguan, Fudan University; Translated by Michael S. Duke, University of British Columbia and Josephine Chiu-Duke, University of British Columbia. (Brill, 2014, $194)

Policy Toward Intellectuals in China Before Mao

The current status of Chinese intellectuals reflects traditions established in the imperial period. For most of this period, government officials were selected from among the literati on the basis of the Confucian civil service examination system. Intellectuals were both participants in and critics of the government. As Confucian scholars, they were torn between their loyalty to the emperor and their obligation to "correct wrong thinking" when they perceived it. Then, as now, most intellectual and government leaders subscribed to the premise that ideological change was a prerequisite for political change. Historically, Chinese intellectuals rarely formed groups to oppose the established government. Rather, individual intellectuals or groups of intellectuals allied themselves with cliques within the government to lend support to the policies of that clique. [Source: Library of Congress]

“With the abolition of the civil service examination system in 1905 and the end of the last imperial dynasty in 1911, intellectuals no longer had a vehicle for direct participation in the government. Although the absence of a strong national government would have been expected to provide a favorable situation for maximum intellectual independence, other inhibiting factors — such as the concentration of intellectuals in foreigncontrolled treaty ports, isolated from the mainstream of Chinese society, or in universities dependent on government or missionary financing — remained. Probably the greatest obstacle to the development of an intellectual community free of outside control was the rising tide of nationalism coupled with the fear of being accused of selling out to foreign interests.

“In 1927 the newly established Guomindang government in Nanjing attempted to establish an intellectual orthodoxy based on the ideas of Sun Yat-sen, but intellectuals continued to operate with a certain degree of freedom in universities and treaty ports. Following the Japanese invasion and occupation of large parts of China in 1937, the Guomindang government tightened control over every aspect of life, causing a large number of dissident intellectuals to seek refuge in Communist-administered areas or in Hong Kong.

Intellectuals in the Mao Era

In the Mao era intellectuals were called zhishifenzi. In a review of the book “Creating the Intellectual: Chinese Communism and the Rise of a Classification” by Eddy U, Sebastian Veg wrote: The book begins by retracing the origins of the term zhishifenzi, which, for a time, was in competition with the earlier denomination zhishi jieji or “knowledge class,” a “reverse loan word” borrowed “back” from the Japanese neologism (chishiki kaikyû) of the Meiji era, widely used in China circa 1919. U argues that May Fourth and communist intellectuals successfully stigmatized the “knowledge class” as lacking courage and integrity, in a process he compares to the emergence of the French word intellectuals during the Dreyfus affair: In a 1923 article, Chen Duxiu presented Lenin’s perspective, in which intellectuals have no independent existence as a class, but should be considered part of the petty bourgeoisie. For this reason, the term zhishi jieji was rejected by Chinese communists and replaced with zhishifenzi. [Source: Sebastian Veg, professor of the intellectual history of twentieth-century China at the School of Advanced Studies in Social Sciences (EHESS), Paris, MCLC Resource Center, Copyright April, 2020]

“The next stage in the mutual constitution of intellectuals and the Chinese communist movement took place in Yan’an during the wartime years. Again, the party was confronted with the need and wish to attract young, educated urban elites, and Mao established institutes (the Lu Xun Academy of Arts being the most famous) to train them as “revolutionary intellectuals.” The training culminated in a full-fledged rectification campaign in 1941-42, which ostensibly targeted “so-called Russian Returned Students,” but more broadly sought to reform the trainees and establish their status as “usable but unreliable subjects”. This provoked a variety of counter-strategies of self-fashioning among the targets, either by self-consecration as proletarian revolutionaries (Yang Shangkun , Kang Sheng , Zhu De ), by deflection of the intellectual marker (drawing attention to one’s humble background) or by a self-image makeover (like the literary critic Cheng Fangwu who took to wearing worn-out clothes and maintaining unkempt hair).

“The two core chapters of the book (4 and 5) deal with the registration and classification campaigns that took place after the establishment of the PRC. Drawing on rich archival sources from Shanghai, U describes the registration of “unemployed intellectuals” that began in late 1951 and the reorganization and rectification of the Shanghai Education Bureau in the Thought Reform campaigns of 1952 and 1953. After a State Council instruction (January 1951) provided a definition of unemployed intellectuals (graduates from at least senior high school; those with academic knowledge and prestige), Shanghai adapted the criteria (lowering the first to junior high school), in the hope of absorbing the unemployed population resulting from the shutdown of the entertainment industries. Two registration drives saw a combined 40,000 unemployed intellectuals sign up, which was less than the authorities had hoped for; in addition, it revealed problematic political backgrounds among many registrants, so that only one third of them eventually found work. In this sense the registration is described as a self-fulfilling prophecy: the state obtained a group of qualified, but politically unreliable people — exactly its definition of zhishifenzi. U concludes that the registration drive “objectified otherwise perfectly ordinary people into intellectuals” and intensified “mass surveillance, ideological reeducation and workplace management”. A similar dynamic drove the subsequent rectification campaign in the Education Bureau. U describes two main techniques of rectification: “textual corroboration,” in which discursive (political) categories serve as a basis for reorganizing society (e.g., a loyal party member is labelled an “absentee landlord” and exiled, then executed), and “everyday signification,” which included forms of ostracism of ordinary faculty by cadres and the mitigation strategies (confessions, counter-attacks) used by teachers against stigmatization. As U concludes, the classification campaigns and the techniques associated with them were responsible for “producing” urban intellectuals, just as land reform produced landlords.

“The two following chapters (6 and 7) deal with the appropriation of the zhishifenzi category by the groups designated and stigmatized by the state, and their attempt to reassert agency over the definition of the category. Eddy U makes the illuminating suggestion that the Anti-Rightist campaign of 1957 can be revisited as an “open struggle” (an allusion to Mao’s description of it as an open conspiracy or yangmou ) to redefine the intellectual as well as Chinese communism. Scientists, writers, and professionals tried to reconstruct their social identity to improve their status and influence. U distinguishes between three models, put forward respectively by older scholars, students, and the state. Older scholars referred to the literati (shidafu ) tradition to call for more competence and involvement of intellectuals to save communism from ruin. They saw themselves as experts and professional workers who could work as partners with the CCP. Chapter 7 further describes how the portrayal of intellectuals continued to be at the center of struggles around the correct political line during the Great Leap Forward (when it proved useful for the party to turn disparagement of intellectuals into popular entertainment), and afterwards (when the film Early Spring in February presented a more positive image, only to be labelled a poisonous weed by culture tsar Zhou Yang )

Book: “Creating the Intellectual: Chinese Communism and the Rise of a Classification” by Eddy U (MCLC Resource Center Publication, 2020]

Policy Toward Intellectuals in China Under the Communists

When the People's Republic of China was established in 1949, intellectuals came under strict government control. Educated overseas Chinese were invited to return home, and those intellectuals who remained in China were urged to contribute their technical expertise to rebuilding the country. Intellectuals were expected to serve the party and the state. Independent thinking was stifled, and political dissent was not tolerated. [Source: Library of Congress]

In mid-1956 the Chinese Communist Party felt secure enough to launch the Hundred Flowers Campaign soliciting criticism under the classical "double hundred" slogan "Let a hundred flowers bloom, let the hundred schools of thought contend." "Let a hundred flowers bloom" applied to the development of the arts, and "let the hundred schools of thought contend" encouraged the development of science. The initiation of this campaign was followed by the publication in early 1957 of Mao Zedong's essay "On the Correct Handling of Contradictions among the People," in which he drew a distinction between "constructive criticisms among the people" and "hateful and destructive criticism between the enemy and ourselves.”

“In August 1957, when it was clear to the leadership that widespread criticism of the party and party cadres had gotten out of hand, the Anti-Rightist Campaign was launched to suppress all divergent thought and firmly reestablish orthodox ideology. Writers who had answered the party's invitation to offer criticisms and alternative solutions to China's problems were abruptly silenced, and many were sent to reform camps or internal exile. By the early 1960s, however, a few intellectuals within the party were bold enough to again propose policy alternatives, within stringent limits.

Writers were singled out in the anti-rightist campaign in the 1950s and banished to remote labor camps and harassed and humiliated in the Cultural Revolution when intellectuals were branded the “The Stinking Ninth”---the last and worst category of class enemies. About 2900 writers were killed or driven to suicide, including the great novelist Lao She who drowned himself in Taiping Lake after being attacked by Red Guards at Beijing’s Confucius Temple.

When the Cultural Revolution began in 1966, party functionaries assumed positions of leadership at most research institutes and universities, and many schools were closed or converted to "soldiers', workers', and peasants' universities." Intellectuals, denounced as the "stinking ninth category," either were purged or had their work heavily edited for political "purity", which severely hampered most serious research and scholarship.

Following the fall of Lin Biao, Minister of National Defense and Mao's heir apparent, in 1971, the atmosphere for intellectuals began to improve. Under the aegis of Zhou Enlai and later Deng Xiaoping, many intellectuals were restored to their former positions and warily resumed their pre-Cultural Revolution duties. In January 1975 Zhou Enlai set out his ambitious Four Modernizations program and solicited the support of China's intellectuals in turning China into a modern industrialized nation by the end of the century.

Crackdown on Intellectuals during the Cultural Revolution

In the Cultural Revolution, learning was a crime. The crackdown on teachers, professors and intellectuals was particularly nasty. In middle schools students ordered their teachers to cultivate cabbage. In high schools, teachers wore dunce caps and spent the whole day reciting "I am a cow demon" in front of classroom filled with mocking students.

At Fudan University in Shanghai, a woman professor was crippled for life after she was beaten and kicked for "advocating the reading of the bourgeois feudalist William Shakespeare." The dissident Wang Xizhe said he had to perform a "grotesque loyalty dance" and offer "morning prayers and evening penitence" for his perceived crimes.

Describing the treatment he endured in the Cultural Revolution, one linguist told The New Yorker, “They shaved off half our hair---that was called the Yin-Yang Head. Then they took off their leather belts and started beating us. First they used the leather, then the buckle. One was wearing a white shirt, it turned entirely red with blood. Once they let me go, I telephoned my work unit, and they sent people to take me back home.”

"In China," Theroux wrote, "an intellectual is usually just someone who does not do manual labor...It was an awful fate but it was easy to imagine how the policy had come about. Everyone in his life has wished at one time or another for someone he disliked to be trundled off to shovel shit---especially an uppity person who had never gotten his hands dirty. Mao carried this satisfying fantasy to its nasty limit."

Bai Hua and Bitter Love

The first serious challenge to the more tolerant policy toward intellectuals came in 1980, as conservative ideologues in the military and the party stepped up their calls to combat "bourgeois liberalization," a loosely defined appellation for any writing or activity believed to stretch the limits of the four cardinal principles. By early 1981 opposition to "bourgeois liberalization" was focused on Bai Hua, a writer with the Political Department of what was then the Wuhan Military Region. Bai had long been a strong advocate for relaxation of cultural and social policy, but what especially alarmed the guardians of cultural orthodoxy was his screenplay "Bitter Love," which depicted the frustrated patriotism of an old painter who faces misunderstanding and ill-treatment when he returns to China from the United States. [Source: Library of Congress]

“When the screenplay first appeared in a nationally circulated literary magazine in the fall of 1979, it caused little stir. The motion picture version however, which was shown to selected officials, drew strong censure. A commentary in the April 18, 1981, issue of Jiefangjun Bao (Liberation Army Daily) accused Bai Hua of violating the four cardinal principles and described the screenplay as an example of "bourgeois liberalism." The commentary was reprinted in the next month's issue of Jiefangjun Wenyi (Liberation Army Literature and Art), along with other articles critical of "Bitter Love." Over the next few months the criticism was taken up by most civilian newspapers, and acting minister of culture, Zhou Weizhi, singled out "Bitter Love" for attack in a speech delivered to the Twentieth Session of the Fifth National People's Congress Standing Committee in September. Finally, Bai Hua yielded to the ostracism and wrote a letter of self-criticism addressed to Jiefangjun Bao and Wenyibao (Literary Gazette), in which he apologized for a "lack of balance" in "Bitter Love" and for failing to recognize the power of the party and the people to overcome obstacles in Chinese society.

“Bai Hua was out of public view for the next year but remained active, writing four short stories in the period. In January 1983 he was invited by the Ministry of Culture to participate in a Shanghai conference on film scripts, and in May of that year the Beijing People's Art Theater presented his new historical play, "The King of Wu's Golden Spear and the King of Yue's Sword," thought by many to be a veiled criticism of Mao Zedong and perhaps even of Deng Xiaoping. Although the "Bitter Love" controversy caused considerable anxiety in the intellectual community, it is as noteworthy for what it did not do as for what it did do. Unlike previous campaigns in which writers and all of their works were condemned, criticism in this case focused on one work, "Bitter Love." Neither Bai Hua's other works nor his political difficulties in the 1950s and 1960s were part of the discussion. In fact, as if to emphasize the limited nature of the campaign, at its height in May 1981 Bai was given a national prize for poetry by the Chinese Writers' Association.

Deng Xiaoping’s Campaign against "Spiritual Pollution"

The Third Plenum of the Eleventh National Party Congress Central Committee in December 1978 officially made the Four Modernizations basic national policy and reemphasized the importance of intellectuals in achieving them. The policy of "seeking truth from facts" was stressed, and scholars and researchers were given freer rein to pursue scientific research. Most mainstream intellectuals were content to avoid political involvement and to take on the role of scholar- specialists within their spheres of competence, with the understanding that as long as they observed the four cardinal principles — upholding socialism, the dictatorship of the proletariat, the leadership of the party, and Marxism-Leninism-Mao Zedong Thought — they would be permitted to conduct their research with minimal bureaucratic interference. This was accomplished more easily in the natural sciences, which are generally recognized as apolitical, than in the social sciences, humanities, and the arts. [Source: Library of Congress]

After a mild respite in 1982 and most of 1983, "antibourgeois liberalism" returned in full force in the short-lived campaign against "spiritual pollution" launched by a speech given by Deng Xiaoping at the Second Plenum of the Twelfth National Party Congress Central Committee in October 1983. In the speech, Deng inveighed against advocates of abstract theories of human nature, "bourgeois humanitarianism," "bourgeois liberalism," and socialist alienation, as well as the growing fascination in China with "decadent elements" from Western culture. Conservatives, led by Political Bureau member Hu Qiaomu and party Propaganda Department head Deng Liqun, used the campaign in an effort to oppose those aspects of society that they disliked. The campaign soon was out of control and extended to areas beyond the scope that Deng Xiaoping had intended, raising fears at home and abroad of another Cultural Revolution.

“Because of the campaign against spiritual pollution, intellectuals (including scientists and managerial and technical personnel) and party and government cadres were hesitant to take any action that could expose them to criticism. Peasants, whose production had greatly increased under the responsibility system adopted in 1981, felt uncertain about the future course of central policy. Because of this, many of them returned their specialized certificates and contracts to local authorities, sold their equipment, and lowered production targets. Many ordinary citizens, especially the young, resented the sudden interference in their private lives. Foreign businessmen and government leaders expressed serious reservations about the investment climate and China's policy of opening to the world.

“Because of these adverse results, the central leadership reevaluated the campaign and limited it to theoretical, literary, and artistic circles and did not permit it to extend to science and technology, the economy, or rural areas. All ideological, theoretical, literary, and artistic issues were to be settled through discussion, criticism, and self-criticism, without resorting to labeling or attacks. By January 1984 the campaign against spiritual pollution had died out, and attention was once more turned to reducing leftist influence in government and society.

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More Openness After the Failure of the "Spiritual Pollution" Campaign

Following the campaign's failure, and perhaps because of it, the position and security of intellectuals improved significantly. In 1984 the party and government turned their attention to promoting urban economic reforms. A more positive approach to academic and cultural pursuits was reflected in periodic exhortations in the official press calling on the people to support and encourage the building of "socialist spiritual civilization," a term used to denote general intellectual activity, including ethics and morality, science, and culture.

“Writers and other intellectuals were heartened by a speech delivered by Hu Qili, secretary of the party Secretariat, to the Fourth National Writers' Congress (December 29, 1984, to January 5, 1985). In the speech, Hu decried the political excesses that produced derogatory labels and decrees about what writers should and should not write and called literary freedom "a vital part of socialist literature." But as writers began to test the limits of the free expression called for by Hu Qili, they were reminded of their "social responsibilities," a thinly veiled warning for them to use self-censorship and to remain within the limits of free expression.

“These limits, still poorly defined, were tested once again when Song Longxian, a young researcher at Nanjing University, using the pseudonym Ma Ding, published an article entitled "Ten Changes in Contemporary Chinese Economic Research" in the November 2, 1985, issue of the trade union paper Gongren Ribao (Workers' Daily). The article urged a pragmatic approach to economic theory and sharply attacked much previous economic research. A somewhat toned-downed version was republished in a subsequent issue of Beijing Review, a weekly magazine for foreign readers, and immediately became the center of a controversy continuing well into 1986. Ma Ding's supporters, however, far outnumbered his critics and included some important government officials. In May 1986 the editor of Gongren Ribao, writing in another economic journal, summed up the controversy. He termed the criticism of the article of far greater significance than the article itself and commended the "related departments" for handling the "Ma Ding incident very prudently" and "relatively satisfactorily," but he expressed the hope that "more people in our country, particularly leaders," would join in "providing powerful protection to the theoretical workers who are brave enough to explore.”

“In 1986 there were numerous calls for a new Hundred Flowers Campaign, and there were indications that these calls were being orchestrated from the top. At a May 1986 conference to commemorate the thirtieth anniversary of the original Hundred Flowers Campaign, Zhu Houze, new head of the party's Propaganda Department, sounded the keynote when he said, "Only through the comparison and contention of different viewpoints and ideas can people gradually arrive at a truthful understanding. . . ." Qin Jianxian, editor of Shijie Jingji Daobao (World Economic Journal), carried this theme further when he called for "unprecedented shocks to political, economic, and social life as well as to people's ideas, spiritual state, lifestyle, and thinking methods." In a July 1986 interview with Beijing Review, Wang Meng, the newly appointed minister of culture, held out great expectations for a new Hundred Flowers Campaign that he said "could arouse the enthusiasm of writers and artists and give them the leeway to display their individual artistic character." During the summer of 1986, expectations were raised for a resolution to come out of the Sixth Plenum of the Twelfth National Party Congress Central Committee in September, a resolution that General Secretary Hu Yaobang promised would have a "profound influence on the development of spiritual civilization." The actual document, however, was a watered-down compromise that fell far short of expectations. It became clear that intellectual policy is not a matter to be easily resolved in the short-term but requires lengthy debate.

Impact of Tiananmen Square on Chinese Intellectuals and Writers

During the Tiananmen Square demonstrations in 1989 a hundred or so of China’s most successful writers marched out of the Chinese Writers Association building and called for political reform and an end to corruption. After the protests were crushed essayist Liu Xiabo and novelist Zheng Yi and other named as ring leaders were imprisoned or forced into exile. Gao Xingjian, who later won the Nobel Prize for Literature, resigned from the party, left for France and never has been allowed back to China.

The London-based Chinese writer Ma Jian wrote in Times of London: “No sooner had the Government washed the blood from the streets that it began to wipe the tragedy from history. Numbed by horror and fear, most writers fell silent. Some even parroted the party line that the demonstrations amounted to a “counter-revolutionary riot” and that violent suppression had been essential to return the nation to order. They turned away from the real world and retreated into the cozy confines of their silk-padded prison, They chose to write melodrama about the imperial or republican past.”

Ma Jian criticized one Chinese writer who referred to himself as a dissident writer and boasted he was asleep during the Tiananmen massacre and didn’t join in the march because he were too exhausted.

Chinese Writers and Intellectuals in Modern China

“The idealistic writers who marched in 1989 are now luminaries of the literary establishment,” Ma Jian wrote in the Times. “The Chinese Writers Association has provided them with rural villas equipped with saunas and gyms, and almost limitless expense accounts. When they go to give lectures, police cars with blaring sirens clear the roads for their chauffeur-driven limousines.” When they travel abroad they are told by their party handlers to ‘speak about what you should speak about and not speak about what you shouldn’t speak about.”

Many of the writers that receive no state support are referred to as “hooligan writers” who often “focus on the alienation of urban youth” and “beautiful women writers” who produce reams of narcissistic chick-lit.”

Writers born in the 1970s are known as “70-hou” in Chinese. Although they get published many feel neglected and don’t have big numbers of readers. A typical “70-hou” writer keeps a day job. Many are public servants, or minor officials, and others are newspaper and magazine editors. The 36-year-old Xie Zongyu is a policeman in Changsha. The job gives him an endless supply of unusual crime stories, which he can adapt into fiction.

He started by contributing to Zhiyin, a popular magazine that pays a good price for this kind of story. One day, he witnessed the bloated corpse of a young woman floating down the river. She was one of a pair of lovers who committed suicide because they could not see any future for their love. The man's body surfaced soon after drowning, but it took 10 days for the woman to be found. When people used a forklift that pierced into her body to drag it ashore, he could not help pondering the meaning of life.

Why should I spend my life churning out words that do not express the profundity of the human existence, he asked himself. He turned to serious writing, which often pays 100 yuan ($15) or less for every 1,000 Chinese characters. But he has no regrets. Unless you're a best-selling writer, he says, the money from creating literature does not make a difference to the quality of your material life.

However, people like Xie do care about fame and feel their writing can bring about change and gain them more respect. “What we want most is the recognition and applause from peers,” said Zhe Gui, the 35-year-old from Wenzhou, Zhejiang province, a place with a pervasive business culture.

Liu Xiaobo — Nobel Prize Winner and China’s Most Prominent Intellectual

Liu Xiaobo — an impassioned literary critic, political essayist and democracy advocate repeatedly jailed by the Chinese government for his writings — is one of China’s most important intellectuals and political activists. Perhaps China’s best known dissident, he helped to draft Charter 08, a manifesto signed by more than 8,000 people calling for modernization and reform, and was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in 2010. Liu died in July 2017 of cancer, after being denied of the best medical care available, while y serving an 11-year term on subversion charges in a Chinese jail.

In December 2008, Liu Xiaobo was given an 11-year prison sentence on subversion charges in what was seen as a warning to anyone who dares to challenge the ruling regime. Liu posted essays critical of the Chinese government on the Internet and helped draft the Charter 08 petition calling for a new constitution that guarantees human rights, open elections of public officials, and an end to one-party rule. More than 10,000 people, including some f China’s top intellectuals, signed it but news blackouts and Internet censorship have kept most Chinese from becoming aware of it. One of things that Charter 08 called for was getting rid of the subversion laws that were used to arrest Liu.

“Blacklisted from academia and barred from publishing in China,” the New York Times reported, “Liu has been harassed and detained repeatedly since 1989, when he stepped into the drama playing out on Tiananmen Square by staging a hunger strike and then negotiating the peaceful retreat of student demonstrators as thousands of soldiers stood by with rifles at the ready.” For all these years, Liu Xiaobo has persevered in telling the truth about China and because of this, for the fourth time, he has lost his personal freedom,” his wife, Liu Xia, said.

Independent, Free-Lance Intellectuals in China

In a review of the Book “Minjian: The Rise of China’s Grassroots Intellectuals” by Sebastian Veg, Els van Dongen wrote: “The book describes this new type of “specific intellectuals” in China as minjian or “grassroots intellectuals.” Minjian (among the people) is notoriously hard to translate, but is often rendered as “unofficial” or “folk”. Elsewhere, the author alludes to discussions on minjian as a form of self-positioning opposed to “official” and “elite” stances. Tthe author discerns three main traits of minjian intellectuals: they are “freelancers” who do not rely on the state for income; they have an “unofficial” status; and they align themselves with “nonelite or grassroots” groups in society. Veg deems these traits more useful than the unclear margin between being situated “inside” or “outside of” the system [Source: Els van Dongen, Nanyang Technological University, MCLC Resource Center Publication, December, 2019]

“Chapter 2 sketches the contours of minjian positioning through the lens of the writings of Wang Xiaobo (1952-1997), the first “freelance writer” in reform-era China, and his novella The Golden Age (52). Published in Hong Kong in 1992 and reprinted in Taiwan in the same year, the novella describes Wang’s experiences during the Cultural Revolution, thereby “desacralizing and trivializing” the adversities of the rusticated youths (64). The chapter then concentrates on some essays in which Wang finds fault with Chinese intellectuals’ relation with the state and their sense of moral mission.

“Chapter 4 covers the upsurge of minjian intellectuals in relation to the growth of “independent cinema,” a term that denotes films outside of state studio production. The starting point is the First Independent Film Festival, held at the Beijing Film Academy in 2001. Zooming in on the self-perception of minjian intellectuals, the chapter examines, among others, filmmakers Jia Zhangke and Wu Wenguang .

“The appearance of minjian journalists and bloggers amidst the new commercial media and the Internet is the theme of the final chapter, which opens with the Tibet uprising and the Olympic torch relay in 2008. For Veg, the advent of commercial media should not be reductively characterized as leading to minjian intellectuals selling out to the market; such a view overlooks “the journalistic ethos” involved. Southern Weekly , a spin off from the official Southern Daily , serves as an example of a new kind of investigative journalism and is considered to be “the first minjian newspaper”. The bounds of this transformation are nevertheless noted in the coverage of continued government control of these and other new media, such as the Internet, microblogs, and the platforms Netease, Sohu, and Tencent. The two most prominent minjian bloggers discussed are artist-activist Ai Weiwei and race car driver and enfant terrible Han Han . Ai considers the plight of migrant workers and earthquake victims, whereas Han is fiercely anti-elitist and anti-government but paradoxically belittles the public as well.

Book “Minjian: The Rise of China’s Grassroots Intellectuals” by Sebastian Veg (Columbia University Press, 2019)

Image Sources: 1, 2 and 4) University of Washington; 3) Ohio State University ; 5) Poster, Landsberger Posters ; Wiki Commons, Liu Bolin, China’s Invisible Man artist, Global Times Chinese: ; Asia Weekly (Han Han)

Text Sources: New York Times, Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, Times of London, National Geographic, The New Yorker, Time, Newsweek, Reuters, AP, Lonely Planet Guides, Compton’s Encyclopedia and various books and other publications.

Last updated October 2021

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