Short analysis
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Intellectual debates in Xi’s China

Current developments seem like a throwback to the authoritarianism that characterized imperial times and the early People’s Republic, says Shi Ming. There is still room for debate, but it is small. 

A bleak picture of contemporary China has gained contour in recent years. The leadership of the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) around Xi Jinping is increasingly intolerant of public dissent of any kind, regardless of its origin. Cai Xia, a professor and CCP cadre, had to go into exile in the USA and had her pension revoked after criticizing the party leader in a podcast addressed to senior cadres at the beginning of 2020. Ren Zhiqiang, a "red prince," as the children of senior CCP cadres are known, was jailed for 18 years for similar reasons, even if the official charge was tax evasion. Chinese citizens who use VPN technology to get information from foreign websites face three to seven years in prison.

In today’s China, critical intellectual debate hardly seems possible anymore. Current developments seem like a throwback to the authoritarian tradition that characterized the country in imperial times and in particular after the CCP took power in 1949. For long periods of Chinese history, those who publicly disagreed with authorities – especially members of the intellectual elite – were persecuted. As the practice is again alive and well, we have to ask whether we are dealing with a backward-looking China again today and returning to the authoritarianism of Mao or even that of the empire.

Intellectuals in China found themselves in tough positions time and again

History shows us that intellectuals in China found themselves in tough positions time and again. As scholars, they had to give useful advice to a string of emperors who tolerated no dissent. After Mao Zedong founded the People's Republic of China, this balancing act became even more fraught. Highly technical expertise had to be characterized by the old loyalty to the emperor, this time in the form of loyalty to the party and, during the Cultural Revolution, to Mao himself. Silence was not an option. 

Too often, expert knowledge proved dangerous. Millions of engineers, doctors and professors from all disciplines were sent to rural areas for ideological re-education, with no regard for the con-sequences. Patients died during surgery as semi-skilled nurses, imbued with Mao’s Little Red Book, operated – and experienced surgeons had to clean toilets. Scenes like this were the order of the day.

After the Cultural Revolution, the CCP leadership under Deng Xiaoping for a while rolled back Mao’s anti-intellectualism. It launched a campaign to "liberate ideas" to overcome dogmatic Maoism and allow a new intellectual exchange. Where ideology had previously dominated everyday life, service to the nation was now prized above all else. To encourage intimidated intellectuals to contribute to this new project, Beijing publicly placed the utmost value on expert knowledge of all kinds. 

"Experts should manage our country," one slogan said. Professors were asked to visit the compounds of Politburo top brass to "teach” them about science. From the late 1990s, more and more party bosses sought to adorn themselves with academic titles. Today, candidates in the running for senior cadre positions must have a university education on their CVs – Xi holds a doctorate in jurisprudence.

But despite this new esteem for intellectuals, the CCP leadership's claim to absolute power meant that a fundamental tension remained. That is because even "in true science, only one truth is valid," as another slogan put it – and this one truth came from the top of the party. This straitjacket was slightly looser than in previous times – engineers were not immediately sent to prison if their assessments of projects that were politically desired deviated from the official line, lawyers were not immediately condemned to forced labor if they defended suspects out of favor with the government.

Anyone who did not toe the party line was still put at a disadvantage in the 1980s and 1990s. Engineers who disapproved of the huge and environmentally damaging Three Gorges Dam were no longer awarded public contracts. Lawyers who ignored the party’s political edicts had their licenses temporarily revoked – and even lost them forever in "serious" cases after 2009. In the age of Xi, things have gone so far that defense lawyers have been sent to jail for many years for allegedly resisting the will of the party. The list of lawyers affected is constantly growing longer.

Diversity of opinion flourished to a certain degree in the early 2000s

Nevertheless, in the 1990s and at the beginning of the new millennium, many intellectuals took advantage of the freedoms that had been created, and diversity of opinion flourished to a certain degree. Engineers had the courage to criticize dams, urban planning or railroad projects. Topics like education were also discussed more openly – European-style Waldorf schools were founded in China after 2006, some with their own curricula. Until the end of 2009, Christianity was also taught at some of the country’s most famous universities. Sociology, historical studies and philosophy were added to the mix – and lively discussions ensued, not about class struggle, but about social milieus.

An increasing number of online-forum participants even expressed the – politically highly sensitive –view that the Second Sino-Japanese War was not won by the CCP alone, but above all by the soldiers and officers of the Kuomintang, the CCP’s nationalist rivals. In 2002 and 2003, a scholarly debate unfolded about Austrian-born economist F.A. Hayek and his work "The Road to Serfdom." A key issue was the role of the state in the lives of ordinary citizens, a delicate question in CCP-ruled China.

These intellectual debates were conducted partly in public and partly via online networks in which participants did not have to identify themselves in the interests of their safety. Some of these contributions found their way into the party's official pronouncements. For more than a decade, two online magazines – the Marxist magazine "Utopia" and the liberal "Yanhuang Chunqiu” – competed for opinion leadership in this area. Their authors even succeeded in repeatedly placing their often radical positions in official party organs. Depending on the balance of power in the leadership, they would from time to time be censored and even banned, only to become active again after a while.

The Marxist camp caused a stir in early 2018 when it managed to place its ultimate demand, the abolition private property, in the party organ "Qiushi". Under pressure from liberals, Xi had to row back ten months later and grant privately owned companies honorary status: "You belong to our family." This example shows how intellectual debates could also put pressure on the leadership.

Ideological restrictions again became routine after 2012

But the tide turned at the very latest at the end of 2012, when Xi came to power. The CCP leadership from then on saw the diversity of opinion that had become socially acceptable as an acute danger to one-party rule, as the threat of division and downfall. Ideological restrictions again became routine and today strict censorship and draconian punishment again await anyone too critical in public.

The Chinese government’s "Comprehensive Concept of State Security" of 2014 defined eleven areas, including ideology, finance, resources, defense and culture, in which critical opinions could be punished. As in Mao’s time, social scientists that deviate from the party line are suspected of being "controlled point by point" by the hostile West. At worst, this can lead to accusations of treason.

In 2016, the portal "Consensus Web" (gongshiwang, www.21ccom.net) was closed. A Beijing-based online magazine with some of its servers in Australia, it had published contrarian positions to stir intellectual debate. In 2020, the liberal online magazine "Yanhuang Chunqiu" met the same fate.

Dealing with dissent remains a challenge for the CCP

Dealing with dissent remains an enormous challenge for the CCP. As the 2018 debate about the role of private companies showed, the party leadership cannot completely suppress diverse opinions, even when trying to consolidate its power. Without the ideologically incorrect private sector, mass unemployment would grow every day. China's private sector creates 90 percent of all new jobs.

Current tensions over sanctions against Western players also highlight this dilemma. In mid-March, Beijing’s Foreign Ministry in Beijing was defending nationalistically inclined Chinese citizens for boycotting foreign companies like the retailer H&M. A week later, Hu Xijin, editor-in-chief of the nationalist tabloid Global Times, warned such ill-considered actions would only harm the country.

There is undoubtedly some diversity of opinion on Chinese social media. Mao is celebrated as the greatest leader ever, but so is Marshal Lin Biao, who is said to have tried to kill him. The ubiquitous praise of Xi exasperates many in China surfing the web. "We long for our leader Hu Jintao," is a not an uncommon remark. Hu was Xi's predecessor and is blamed by the current leader of having done too little to counter threats to the CCP’s monopoly on power. On "Jinri Toutiao" (Today's Headlines), China's largest social media portal with over 200 million subscribers, contentious posts can go undeleted for weeks. So there is still some room for debate in China, even if it seems very small.

About the author:

Shi Ming is a freelance journalist. His work was published by German broadcasters ARD, ZDF and Deutschlandfunk as well as in print media, including Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung, Süddeutsche Zeitung, Le Monde diplomatique and Cicero.

The views expressed in this article are those of the author and not necessarily reflect those of the Mercator Institute for China Studies.