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?

Repression is one reason. Ironclad taboos prevented public discussion of such subjects as the Cultural Revolution, the Tienanmen Massacre, Falun Gong or other topics perceived as vita the regime’s legitimacy and hold on power. Moreover, most of China's leading public intellectuals of the 1980s fled the country after 1989. A new generation of intellectual leaders needed time to emerge.