Chinese Intellectuals – With and Against the Tide

Timothy Cheek Photo: Timothy Cheek

Interview with Prof. Timothy Cheek – Part 2 of 2

by Sabine Hinrichs and David Lenz

What role do intellectuals play in Chinese society? How can they make themselves heard and how does the political leadership react to them? In an interview with Timothy Cheek, we talked about intellectual voices in Chinese society and discussed historical comparisons.

Timothy Cheek is a renowned historian focusing on the Chinese Communist Party and intellectual debate in China. He is Director of the Institute of Asian Research and Louis Cha Chair Professor of Chinese Research at the School of Public Policy and Global Affairs and the Department of History at the University of British Columbia.

dasReispapier: In your research, you show that there is a great diversity of intellectual opinions in modern China. Where do you see that diversity?

Timothy Cheek: One of the key attributes of the ideological governance  is conformative expression. And so, the part of the insubordinate society that are the intellectuals have used various ways not to oppose the government necessarily, but to have their own independent thinking. So, how do you find autonomy, agency, and voice in what looks to us like a totalitarian regime? The Chinese intellectuals have been brilliant at doing this. And two things give the Chinese intellectuals the ability to have agency and voice under increasing totalitarian conditions: One is the ability to work with exegesis. Under Mao, we find historians such as Jian Bozan or Wu Han using this technique. All the articles began like they do today – with singing a praise for the leader’s thought, and then they write an article on, for example, archaeology, and in the end they go ‘we really love the leader’. And this is not limited to Chinese intellectuals. For the insubordinate society, one of the major techniques is to conform externally and internally not to resist, but to do what I was going to do in the first place.

On the other hand, it’s important to know that even under restrictive periods like now, there are some Chinese intellectuals – just like under Mao in 1957 during the Hundred Flowers [political campaign that encouraged intellectuals to criticise the CCP; 1956-57, editor’s note] – who know that they are going to get in trouble, and they just say it anyway. The writer Liu Xiaobo (who was awarded the Nobel Prize) and the avant garde artist Ai Weiwei are two notable examples of intellectuals who chose to confront the Party.

„You don’t have elections, so you’ve got to hear from people.“

– Timothy Cheek

You have mentioned criticising party elites by taking the party at its own words. Where would you locate the roots of this?

Pretty much in the founding of the Chinese Communist Party in 1921. But in terms of an established party that was reasonably coherent, we normally trace that to Yan’an and the rectification campaign in the 1940s. And so, Mao really set out the model still valid up to today, the model of Party Rectification (整风). Right away, he got huge criticism from inside the Party. This intra-party criticism has always existed because these are exegesis exercises of how you really express policy debate and policy difference in a Stalinist system, where, if you are too upfront, you’ll be in an incorrect line, and that means you are toast. The ideological governance requires specialists in ideology and that is: intellectuals.

I keep telling my students: You know, it’s not great being an intellectual in China because you can get purged for what you said, but the reason is because the party actually thinks that what intellectuals say has significance. We have freedom as professors and intellectuals in the West because basically our governments ignore us.

In other words, it’s part of a deal in China. It’s a political social system that gives high standing to intellectuals, but it comes with a lot of restrictions. And a lot of what we see is negotiations; the system must get fresh ideas; it has to have feedback. You don’t have elections, so you’ve got to hear from people. And then at the far end people who are against the regime, who do exist, also use the language of the system to criticise it.

In your research, you speak a lot about various broad intellectual groups that make up the intellectual landscape in China. Could you maybe tell us more about their role in Chinese society?

I have been working on that for the past decade with colleagues at East China Normal University in Shanghai and we tried to bring some of these forces together in a book called Voices from the Chinese Century (2020). But more importantly, there is ongoing work by David Ownby on the website Reading the China Dream. Both offer a range of voices beautifully and accurately translated and well introduced in a way that helps people get into what’s the point here. Furthermore, I am very proud of the other product from the joint project which was five articles under the title of Mapping the Chinese Intellectual Public Sphere in China today, published in 2018 by several young scholars. If you want a simple picture, start with New Confucian, New Left, and liberal. These three represent traditional Confucian values, the Maoist values, and the reform values that developed under Deng Xiaoping [Chinese leader in the 1980s and 1990s].

Of course, the range of Chinese intellectual debate and positions is much broader, including neo-authoritarianism, social democrats… but New Confucian, New Left, and liberal – these three at least make it clear to people outside China that there is a range of substantively different opinions that are legally expressed in China, at least until 2015, 2016. I am less sure recently.

There are high-level intellectuals at Beijing’s universities, but the key difference from the Mao and the post-Mao period is that during the Mao period, these intellectuals who could publish in major newspapers were establishment intellectuals. They were employed by state organs. Now they are professors. Universities are ultimately  owned by the state, too, but it’s different if you are a professor at Fudan University or if you are in the Academy of Social Sciences, which is in the system of the Central Committee of the Party.

So much for the establishment intellectuals. But what about empowerment of society through technological progress? What impact does it have on people outside the establishment?

Western observers are all in an uproar: ‘We let China into the WTO, they were supposed to democratise, and they didn’t, they cheated us.’ Of course, Chinese leaders never promised that; Western leaders didn’t really expect that. China joining the WTO and opening up for the trade has not democratised China, but it certainly has globalised China. And those globalisations had a great impact, and it is this globalisation that Xi is partly reacting to. The two key-examples are smartphones and social media. China spends most of its security money controlling its own people, not blocking outsiders like us.

So, there is a social and technological basis for these so-called grassroots intellectuals [here Cheek refers broadly to those intellectuals who claim to represent voices from the local society]. What these grassroots intellectuals are saying, often in local society, frequently challenges the government’s care of the people. So, this new orthodoxy under Xi is not some resurgence of some overconfident totalitarianism that was briefly side-lined, this is an anxious and frightened response by a regime that has realised it’s losing control of its own society.

„There are a lot of voices beneath Xi Jinping Thought.“

– Timothy Cheek

You hinted at the shrinking space for Chinese intellectuals. Do you see any new trends in the second term of Xi when it comes to the management of intellectuals by the Communist Party?

Just look at what happened with Cai Xia. I cannot overcome my class background (laughs), I like the Chinese liberals, and they are pretty quiet right now. Take the legal scholar Xu Zhangrun who has moved to the far end. He has decided to go over the top and call the Party out for its failings; he is going the Liu Xiaobo route, and it is very honourable, but it is a very expensive thing to do. Your life is just destroyed.

But most others outwardly conform and inwardly try to advise. And we have to remember: When I say outwardly conform, it doesn’t mean that they think the Chinese Communist Party is illegitimate. They just don’t like that Xi is staying on for the third term, and they just don’t like this extra crackdown; they think it could be done in a different way. And I think most of the intellectual agency is finetuning the system as it is. Those who want to move towards electoral democracy of some sort do exist, but many more now doubt electoral democracy can produce stable governance.

Yu Keping [professor at Peking University], for example, wrote a book in English named Democracy is a Good Thing. He felt that by democratizing the party from within, the Communist Party with its 80 million [2019: 91,9 mio.] members could be the core of true democracy. Well, that was one way to proceed.

The other one was counter reformation, and I call that Xi’s counter reformation. You know, back to orthodoxy like after the Council of Trent for the early modern Catholic church. To be a good Communist Party, you have to be this kind of Communist Party, you have to be in the apostolic succession. The bottom line with intellectuals is, there are a lot of different voices beneath the superficial Xi Jinping Thought.

China has a long history of embracing foreign ideas, but at the same time, this could be in tension with the way China’s elites regularly try to emphasise China’s particularity. In your assessment, is there a tendency for stressing China’s particularity in recent years, and if so, why?

Well, that‘s the New Tianxia [renewed theory of “All under heaven”, referring to the worldview of premodern China according to which the emperor represented the centre of the world] and the emphasis on particularity. I think looking at China’s role internationally, you have to be aware of America for two reasons. One, the United States is the competitor. It’s the dominant power blocking China from what it feels is its rightful place in the world. And second, it is the model of how to be a superpower, and frankly, America often does not play by the international rules.

Moreover, Chinese exceptionalism has been a response to the challenge of imperialism and westernisation. When Chinese governments are strong, they are cosmopolitan like in the Tang dynasty. When they’re weak, they are exceptionalist. In other words, I see the stress on exceptionalism as a defensive sign of weakness. People emphasising exceptionalism know that they are weak, and those who emphasise cosmopolitanism know that they are strong, and by weak and strong I mean in the sense of identity.

But Americans believe that they are exceptional, universal rules do not apply, and I mean this in the terms of 19th century social history. So, the Chinese exceptionalism is more a product of historical circumstances than of the Chinese character.

„You cannot break off from China, our fates are intertwined.“

– Timothy Cheek

Somewhat related to the flow of information is the ability to communicate beyond ideological beliefs and geographical boundaries. How do you view the dialogue between the Chinese and the international scientific community?

I think it is terribly important. A significant percentage of laboratory scientists in Canada at the University of British Columbia are Chinese – graduate students, researchers, professors – and they are excellent. And they are not secret spies for the Communist Party, they are professionals, and they’ve been doing this for years and decades. Whatever we think of the Communist Party, Chinese civilisation is one of the great civilisations on the planet.

Their regimes for all their faults have focused on education and Chinese science has incredible promise. It is so terribly important that the scientific collaboration with Chinese, with Indians, people from everywhere, continues because we are all on a sinking ship with global warming. And it is kind of nice to have a major power believe that climate change is real and that there have to be scientific responses. I mean, China is way ahead of the United States on this one.

You are touching on a very important and tense problem today, which is the difficult diplomatic relations between China and other countries. You cannot break off from China, this is not a Soviet Union in the 1980s – they did not make our cell phones, they did not fill Walmart but China does. We thought that we were gonna lasso and tie China to the Western system, while we also got tied to China, so our fates are intertwined. The scientists are the good side of what we have to do; that is to continue to work together, and they appreciate working with international scholars. There is a win-win there.

Based on your own assessment, whither China?

Well, I am a historian, of course you cannot predict, but you can certainly get an idea of what’s possible and some of the likely alternatives. Structure matters, but agency matters, too. And one thing we’ve learnt, and we’ve learnt it painfully in the United States and in the UK, leadership matters. In China, I expect to see the continuing dialectic of ideological state and the insubordinate society – and I’ll be cheering for the insubordinate society.