China’s Struggling Public Intellectuals

Is China’s political environment loosening up, or is the government cracking down? It’s hard to tell. President and Communist Party General Secretary Hu Jintao sometimes seems to be going both ways simultaneously.

For example, Hu has decided to honor the memory of his mentor, former General Secretary Hu Yaobang, in order to burnish his aura as a reformist. But, in many ways, Hu Jintao’s tenure as the head of the fourth generation of Communist leaders, which began when he became party secretary in 2002, differs sharply from that of his mentor.

Hu Yaobang was a founder of the China Youth League, regarded as a relatively liberal institution in the People’s Republic, who in the 1980’s promoted political reforms and rehabilitated virtually all the victims of the Mao Zedong’s purges. By contrast, the younger Hu has narrowed the public space for political discourse that had opened up during the latter years of his predecessor, Jiang Zemin, when market pressure was forcing media outlets to be more daring and wide-ranging.

Since taking over, Hu Jintao has arrested a number of outspoken journalists in an effort to rein in the media. His government has also detained an array of public intellectuals who have been critical of its policies, including cyber-dissidents Liu Di and Shi Tao (who was arrested thanks to Yahoo’s collaboration with the police in identifying him) and freelance writers Yu Jie and Liu Xiaobo. Military doctor Jiang Yanyong was detained in 2003 after he publicly rebutted the Party’s assertion that the SARS epidemic had been brought under control. In 2004, he was placed under surveillance when he called on the Party to revise its judgment of the 1989 Tiananmen demonstration.