President Xi Jinping´s call for a “new type of thinktank with Chinese characteristics” has triggered off a old debate on the position of intellectuals towards their government. Author Zhang Lijia argues her weblog the government should no longer silence the voice of its scholars.
Back in 1967, Noam Chomsky published his famous essay, “The Responsibility of Intellectuals“, in the middle of a national crisis in America after the debacle of the Vietnam war. The essay was very critical of the intellectual culture in the US, especially public policy, which Chomsky believes is subservient to power. He argued that intelligentsia have an obligation to speak truth to power.
For Chinese intellectuals, that’s not a luxury they had in 1967, and probably won’t have in the near future.
In centuries past, Confucian scholars were frequently torn between their loyalty to the emperor and their duty to point out wrongs. Those who were true to their conscience often faced persecution. Historian Sima Qian was given the choice of suicide or castration. He endured the latter and completed his famed Shiji ( Historical Records).
Intellectuals in contemporary China haven’t fared much better, being tightly controlled by the Communist Party from 1949. In 1956, having consolidated power, Mao Zedong launched the Hundred Flowers Movement, inviting intellectuals to speak out. Taken aback by the overwhelming criticism, Mao struck back a year later with an “anti-rightist movement” which sent many who had voiced their honest views to jail or hard labour in the countryside. The Cultural Revolution witnessed more suffering of the intelligentsia.
The reform era has made the cage bigger. In the past two decades, a growing number of intellectuals have ventured to express their views, taking advantage of market-driven media outlets, and more importantly, the internet, which is much harder to police.
Xi’s idea about a new type of think tank is seen by some as the regime’s latest attempt to rein in public intellectuals who may try to challenge the party’s monopoly on truth.
If the authorities could rein in their authoritarian impulse to control everything, they would see that free debate can aid governance, as it would allow scholars to critically assess policies. Otherwise, creativity and pluralism will be stifled just as China needs them in its shift to an innovation-led economy.
There may not be an intellectual spring where “a hundred flowers blossom and a hundred schools of thoughts contend” around the corner. But the era when “10,000 horses were all muted” is gone forever, too.
In this internet age, no government can silence the voice of all intellectuals.
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