The Silence of China's Intellectuals

Public opinion, as the crisis over the US spy plane demonstrated, now matters in China. But where do China’s intellectuals stand and what role do they play?

In the 1980s traditional Chinese respect for education was revived after the scourge of the Mao years. So was the Confucian notion that an intellectual’s highest calling is to tell a ruler what is best for the realm, whether by persuasion or – if you dare – through criticism and taking the consequences. In 1979, Liu Binyan's “People or Monsters?” spelled out how communism breeds corruption; in 1988 Su Xiaokang's film “River Elegy” sketched ways in which aspects of the narrow-minded despotism in China's imperial tradition remained alive and well in the Party. Both works – and others of the 1980s – mesmerized the public.

The years since the Tienanmen Massacre seem politically and intellectually anemic by comparison. After 1989 China seemed to lose its moral compass. Yet, at a time when an intellectual's conscience might seem most useful – they were inaudible. Why?

To continue reading, please log in or enter your email address.

To read this article from our archive, please log in or register now. After entering your email, you'll have access to two free articles from our archive every month. For unlimited access to Project Syndicate, subscribe now.


By proceeding, you agree to our Terms of Service and Privacy Policy, which describes the personal data we collect and how we use it.

Log in;

Cookies and Privacy

We use cookies to improve your experience on our website. To find out more, read our updated cookie policy and privacy policy.