ROBIN MCNEAL: Today I'm happy to introduce you to Professor Sebastian Veg, who, in spite of having been born in New York, spent most of his life, from age 2 until about a decade ago, in France, where he completed his PhD in comparative literature, after which he went to Hong Kong, and has spent nine years in Hong Kong-- two stings, heading up a French institute, the French Center for Research on Contemporary China. And he has just completed the second sting of doing that, and now gets to go back to Paris, where he's a professor at the School of Advanced studies in the Social Sciences. He's here to share new research with us that he's been doing on intellectuals in China. So please join me in welcoming him.
SEBASTIAN VEG: Good afternoon, everyone. Well, thanks so much to Professor McNeal and the Contemporary China Initiative. I'm really very honored to be here in Cornell. It was only when I started preparing for this talk that I realized how many of the books I was quoting, and the colleagues whose research I've drawn on that's actually been published here or have taken place here. You'll be seeing that later in the PowerPoint.
Well, today is a very auspicious date. It's not only the day after the mid-autumn festival, but what I didn't realize at the time was that it's also the first-year anniversary of the Umbrella Movement. So a very timely day to speak about this topic, which is not directly related to Hong Kong, but nonetheless, has some connections, I think, with what went on in Hong Kong last year.
Well, let me just say a few words about what I'm going to talk about today, and ask for your indulgence, because this is an ongoing project. This is really the first time that I'm presenting this research here. So thanks, also, for giving me this opportunity to share some thoughts with you. And please feel free to comment and criticize.
So well, as Robin mentioned, I've been in Hong Kong for a little while now. When I first came to Hong Kong, I had just finished a PhD on [INAUDIBLE] and May 4th literature, and I hadn't really done much work on contemporary China at all. But after getting to Hong Kong, I sort of became immersed into this general field of intellectual and cultural debates in China. Of course, I was going very regularly to various places in China. And well, this is somehow an attempt to come to terms with all of this material that I've accumulated over these years.
So this project, which is-- I mean, it's a, kind of, book project, and I've tried to present a hopefully not too theory-heavy version of what I wanted to discuss here. But I do try to frame it a little bit, because the empirical material is very, very rich and hard to classify. So bear with me as I try to organize my thoughts a little.
So well, let me start with a couple of ideas about where I want to take you on this talk. Basically, my hypothesis is that since the crackdown on the democracy movement of 1989 and the economic reforms in the '90s, a palpable change can be observed in the status and role of intellectuals in China. Whereas, throughout the 20th century, intellectuals defined themselves through a posture of responsibility for the affairs of the nation and the state, in the last 20 years, positions have become more diverse and more complex.
Throughout the 20th century, starting from the figure of the May 4th intellectual, committed to improving the nation through science and democracy, in fact, the continuity with the Confucian models has always repeatedly come to the surface again and again. And this figure found its final incarnation in the Enlightenment revival of the '80s and its culmination in the 1989 democracy movement.
So I would argue that beginning in the 1990s, intellectual positions changed in several important ways. First of all, with the retreat of the controlling state and the advance of the private economy, intellectuals were no longer exclusively affiliated with state work units like universities, writers associations, et cetera. Their sources of income became more diverse. New professional categories also appeared and specializations deepened. So we have all sorts of professions appearing like independent lawyers, journalists, filmmakers, editors, amateur or citizen historians, which were not previously possible.
Secondly, in the aftermath of the repression of the democracy movement, many writers, journalists, academics, filmmakers, questioned the grand narratives of modernization and democracy, which had cemented the elite consensus over reform in the 1980s. Although the pro-democracy movement reached broad segments of society, many intellectuals, both critically self-reflecting on what had gone wrong in 1989 and anticipating how to continue their work in the context of increased state control, took issue with the elitist buy as of the democracy movement, both in the themes that it had promoted and in its own organization on the square.
So many now shifted their interest to concrete problems, often associated with people situated not at the center, but at the margins of society, famously described by [INAUDIBLE] as the silent majority. So this is where I take my title from. Petitioners, migrant workers, people infected with HIV/AIDS, unrehabilitated victims of Maoist persecutions-- all these people were theorized as under-privileged or weak groups, [CHINESE], and the interest in their problems was underpinned by a new set of theoretical references-- no longer enlightenment and democracy, but Foucaultian critiques of modernization and disciplinary biopolitics. While this trend is obviously closely connected to the specificities of PRC society in the '90s and 2000s, it also shows some similarities with what Foucault termed the rise of the specific intellectual in Western societies, whose interventions are grounded in precise study of specific social problems as opposed to the traditional universalist intellectual, but also distinct from the experts who advise the political elite.
Thirdly, this led to a diversification of modes of action and intervention. Writing and publishing became easier to disseminate through a broadening public sphere. The internet, obviously blogs, the appearance of the metropolitan press, independent documentary films and the festivals in which they were screened and discussed. Alternative spaces appeared where artists settled in close proximity to migrant worker dormitories. Like in [INAUDIBLE] or [INAUDIBLE], a growing number of non-governmental organizations appeared where academics often worked closely together with lawyers, members of weak groups, and documentary filmmakers. These NGOs also nurtured a group of rights defense lawyers known as [CHINESE] that began to grow from the early 2000s.
So that's the general kind of outline of what I'm trying to show here. Let me go back a little bit and clarify a little bit how the category of intellectuals has been conceptualized by historians and social scientists. Well, as is well-known, the concept of intellectual became popular in France in the late 19th century, first as a pejorative term, subsequently reclaimed by proponents of Enlightenment rationality in the public sphere.
I'm going to use a definition from a book published by Cornell University Press actually, Lloyd Kramer's very insightful dichotomy between independent critical thinkers and experts specialized in surveillance and control. So basically, Kramer users Habermas and Foucault as two kinds of paradigms of how to look at intellectuals, non-exclusively, I think. Definitions of intellectuals as critics who exercise a moral responsibility to serve universal values, and intellectuals as experts, or people who work more broadly with knowledge.
So basically, Kramer contrasts Foucault's expert and Habermas' critic as the two faces of the Enlightenment. He exemplifies in the two figures of Heine and Bentham. So Kramer notes that intellectuals came into being during the Enlightenment as a community of critical debaters whose work shaped a new sphere for politics as well as a new literary culture, and as independent critical thinkers who evaluated art, literature, theater, and political theory with rational judgment that defied the authorities of kings and church men alike.
By contrast, in Kramer's reading of Foucault, Enlightenment intellectuals play the role of producers of knowledge used to institute new forms of social control and surveillance in asylums, prisons, clinics, schools, and armies, all of which relied on new forms of knowledge in the emerging sciences of man. So here, I think, you have encapsulated very nicely this kind of two-sided, these two aspects of what intellectuals are and how they are defined.
Going to run through this quickly, but I still want to quote some of these important definitions. Gamsci distinguishes between traditional intellectuals who define themselves as disinterested defenders of universal rationality, whereas what he calls organic intellectuals speak for the interest of a class, and usually of the dominant class. So Gramsci understands that under the veneer of universalist discourse, all intellectuals are somehow intrinsically organic.
The intellectuals are the dominant groups' deputies, exercising the subaltern functions of social hegemony and political government. These functions are organized on two levels, manufacturing spontaneous consent in civil society and sustaining the state apparatus of coercive power. So here, again, we have this kind of dichotomy between the universalist pretension and what is actually a position in the social structure, which is based on, in Gramsci's view, class interests.
Bourdieu, I think-- although, of course, I'm sure this is going to provoke some criticism. But Bourdieu, in a way, I think, can be connected with this Gramscian vein of demystifying the universalist pretensions of intellectuals. Bourdieu basically defines intellectuals as the dominated part of the dominant class-- very similar to this quote by Gramsci I just mentioned. This outsourcing of certain parts of the work of the dominant class to a small subgroup.
So Bourdieu sees intellectuals as situated on a kind of continuum of autonomy, from the absolutely non-autonomous, heteronomous intellectuals he sees basically as paid experts of power, to possibility of autonomy gained by the writer or the critical sociologist in his or her own field. So he quotes Chomsky as a linguist, Zola as a writer, himself as a sociologist, which provides these people with the means of contesting what he calls the monopoly of the legitimate representation of the social world. So his theory defines a kind of spectrum of positions according to a varying degree of autonomy.
Nonetheless, despite this kind of ideal of autonomy at one end of the spectrum, Bourdieu does adopt the view that what he calls alliances founded on the homology of position are always more uncertain than solidarities based on identity of position. So what this means is that the fact that the dominated part of the dominant class may sometimes side with the dominated class is a more fragile alliance than the identity of interests between the dominant class and its dominated part, which is the intellectual. So in this sense, I think Bourdieu remains within this Gramscian framework, unmasking the organic ties of the intellectual to his or her position in social hierarchy.
In this sense, I think Foucault's earlier critique, which Bourdieu partially incorporates, but not entirely, runs deeper than Gramsci's in that he sees the working class and its organic intellectuals as what he calls simply the last incarnation of an illusory claim to universality. Quick quote from Foucault-- coal "For a long time, the so-called left-wing intellectual has spoken out and has seen recognized his right to speak out as the master of truth and justice. One listen to him, or he wanted to be listened to, as the representative of universality, just as the proletariat by virtue of its historical position is the carrier of universality, albeit an immediate carrier, hardly reflexive or conscious of itself. The intellectual through his moral, theoretical, and political choices claims to be the carrier of this universality, but in its conscious and elaborated form."
In a text written only a few years after Discipline and Punish, Foucault defines a new figure of the intellectual whose break with this type of universality is in some ways more radical than Bourdieu's. Autonomy in a specific field is not simply a stepping stone to prop up a universal discourse. Rather, specific knowledge with the constraints it implies becomes the intellectual's contribution to social critique.
In a significant break with previous characterizations of the prophetic, universal, or total intellectual, Foucault takes stock of the modern figure of the specific expert, but crucially endows it with a critical function. Since World War II, Foucault argues, intellectuals have taken to working in specific points-- housing, hospitals, asylums, laboratories, universities, family or gender relations. Here, as he writes, they are confronted with specific, non-universal problems, different from those of the proletariat or the masses, but deriving from real material quotidian struggles that bring them closer to the masses. While previously, the epitome of the intellectual was the writer, now transversal links appear between fields of knowledge from one point of politicization to another. Judges and psychiatrists, doctors, and social workers, laboratory workers, and sociologists work together, and the university becomes a point of interchange or intersection.
So here, in this view of Foucault's-- sorry, I'm going to stop turning around. In this view of Foucault's, it's the intellectual critical understanding of the production of truth within his or her own particular field of expertise that allows them to contribute to the fight for truth at the level of society. So this paradigm shift, the decline of the writer as epitome of the universal intellectual, the rise of the specific critical intellectual, and the nodal position of academia as a clearing house, as well as the end of the working class' claim to universality, proves to be quite significant, I think, for Chinese society after 1989.
Though, of course, there are theories of intellectuals working specifically under totalitarian or authoritarian regimes, these theories don't particularly pose any difficulties to the paradigms I've just outlined. I'd just like to mention Edward Said's unique contribution to intellectual studies who, while drawing on all of these traditions on both the Enlightenment intellectual, on the need for the intellectual to speak out under totalitarian or authoritarian regimes, but he also adds something, which I think is perhaps inspired by Foucault's critique. Said highlights eccentricity in his description of the intellectual as exile and marginal, as amateur, and as the author of a language that tries to speak truth to power, whose method is scouring alternative sources, exhuming buried documents, reviving forgotten or abandoned history. So here, this eccentric method, I think, has some similarities with Foucault's critique.
Let me move on to the next point. Just as a conclusion to this, maybe-- two notions, I think, that it's important to connect with the idea of intellectual. One should be clear from this theoretical overview. One is the notion of the public sphere.
So in Habermas' definition, the appearance of the intellectual is closely connected to the public sphere. And the other is the question of the subaltern and the dominant in the social structure. And intellectuals can't be really conceptualized without that dichotomy. I would argue that the fading of the universal writer intellectual, still ubiquitous in China in the '80s, also corresponds with the deeper equalization or democratization in the Tocquevillian sense of Chinese society, which conversely questions many strongly held assumptions about the egalitarian nature of Maoist society.
Let me bring in a little bit of historical background on the notion of intellectuals in China. Of course, we have the traditional notion of the literati, the shidaifu, scholar-official, selected through the imperial examination system. In this view, educated members of society defined in the broadest sense as graduates of the first of the three levels of imperial examinations were expected to provide support, and ideally, moral guidance to the state, acting as a political and social conscience for a harmonious moral community.
So there are many classical formulations of this role. I've just added a few here on this PowerPoint. To be the first in the world to assume its worries, the last to enjoy its pleasures-- [CHINESE]. So this is a, kind of, very classical formulation from [INAUDIBLE]. Or to take responsibility for all under heaven-- [CHINESE]. This one is also widely quoted.
Third one-- writing serves to transmit the way-- [CHINESE]. These formulations are highlight the moral role of the literati and the essentially moral nature of their writing. So Perry Link famously used the first two to capture the strong feeling of attachment to the state even among critical intellectuals on the eve of the Tiananmen democracy movement.
Another famous formulation is by [? Xian Tianxia Zhi ?] who refers to an obsession with China among Chinese writers during the 20th century. And the expression he uses in the subsequent Chinese versions of his text can be more precisely translated as feeling concern for the times and the country-- [CHINESE].
Well, it's now quite well-established that strong continuities united May 4th intellectuals and their late Ching literati predecessors. Despite the wish to break with Confucianism and to reject traditional social organization, May 4th intellectuals shared a moral commitment to the higher good of the state, although the state was redefined as a nation state in May 4th times, with their predecessors. Famous quote by Benjamin Schwartz-- "The 20th century intelligentsia is, to a considerable extent, the spiritual as well as the biological heir of the scholar-official class."
How to explain this kind of cultural continuity? The idea of populist democracy as it was advanced by some people as early as May 4th times always encountered strong resistance based on the Confucian notion of moral representation. [? Ho Bao Gong ?] has written the following-- "Under the influence of the Confucian notion of representation, populism finally led to elitism. The populist democracy became a workers and peasants dictatorship in theory, and a dictatorship by a few intellectual cadres in practice." So this kind of rapid historical summary pinpoints the resilience of elite distrust in mass democracy, and traces a historical continuity between Confucian literati, May 4th elite-led modernization, and its metamorphosis into cadre-led, top-down political transformations under the communist regime.
In the early PRC, technocrats were actively co-opted by the state. Timothy Cheek in his study of [CHINESE] refers to the new class of establishment intellectuals as Leninist scholar-officials in the tradition of the shidaifu. This also pinpoints the fact that Mao's People's Republic was an intensely stratified social structure based on access to certain types of privilege, which were used to co-opt intellectuals into the new polity.
Moving swiftly on to the 1980s, after 1978, the term began to reform more narrowly. So I haven't really introduced the term zhishifenzi. So zhishifenzi referred from 1949 on to the, kind of, very wide group of people who came into contact with knowledge, and basically defined as anyone who had gone to high school. Starting from 1978, this term began to refer more narrowly, sociologically to college graduates, and normatively to people engaged in intellectual or cultural pursuits.
New public spaces appeared in the '80s with the reconstruction of social sciences in academia, the appearance of government-sponsored think tanks, liberal publishers and salons, and thus appeared this concept that was unthinkable under Mao, the non-establishment intellectuals. The idea is that increased professionalization of intellectuals in the context of economic reforms and privatization created new institutional spaces for civil society, like these centers I've just described. But at the same time, these non-establishment intellectuals-- their appearance relied on the continued strength of patronage networks that had existed since the 1970s in which intellectuals could reactivate their traditional role of advise and dissent. So we have, again, this kind of return, I mean, opening to a certain degree of autonomy, but coupled with this return to this advise and dissent scheme that is basically the Confucian scheme inherited from pre-modern times.
The 1989 democracy movement also shared many of these traditional characteristics. It embodied the Confucian ideal of intellectuals remonstrating with their leaders for moral reasons to make their society more humane and their leaders more accountable. It also overlooked to an extent the plurality of democratic society where intellectuals are only one of the political voices and forces. So in the 1990s, basically, intellectuals were confronted with large-scale commercialization, which provided new spaces of expression. And at the same time, marginalized by this evolution.
Many elites sympathizers of the democracy movement dived into the sea, [CHINESE]. Left state service for the private sector, in some cases with the explicit goal of providing private funding and backing for more pluralism. So this was known as you [CHINESE]. Nonetheless, intellectuals lost rather than gained influence as the new consumer culture captured an increasing share of urban citizens' interests.
In the 1990s, basically, the debate revolved around the question of academic norms, whereby a part of intellectuals retreated to academia, highlighted the importance of academic norms, [CHINESE], rather than moral heroism. Whereas, at the same time, this notion of the public intellectual became more and more transformed into a media intellectual, who remained public but whose intellectual position was increasingly influenced by market demand. So this is how you end up with this kind of duality of what I've put down in the bottom of the PowerPoint here, the PI in English is like the [CHINESE], which is an abbreviation for [CHINESE]. So public intellectuals abbreviated to PI-- this is my proposal of translation-- which has become a kind of pejorative term in present-day China. [CHINESE] refers to someone who basically just plays the media market for personal profit.
So how do we approach the intellectual's position today in contemporary China? I'm going to try to go through this fairly quickly. These are the main, kind of, paradigms that have prevailed. So I'm sorry, this is a rather overburdened field, so I do feel the need to pay a little bit of homage to all the people who have already belabored it. But I am trying to get to what I really want to say.
Basically, for a long time, studies of intellectuals were structured along this state versus civil society paradigm, a, kind of, political science paradigm, coupled with this kind of culturalist approach of the remnants of Confucian roles advise and dissent. Just want to reference the famous article by Li Zehou and Liu Zaifu written in the early '80s about the duality of enlightenment and saving the nation.
So the idea is that throughout the 20th century, Chinese intellectuals tried to conquer autonomy or enlightenment, but their endeavors were repeatedly subordinated to the necessities of saving the nation, [CHINESE]. So this is the, kind of, binary that many of these studies revolve around. The second approach is the velvet prison from Miklos Haraszti, a Hungarian historian, referring to the role of intellectuals under late socialism, commodified socialism.
So Jeremy [? Barmay ?] very famously applied this notion in his study of Chinese writers and intellectuals in the red, using the idea that in addition to the categories of supported and forbidden art, a third category of tolerated art or tolerated writing appears in late socialism. So the, kind of, prime example of that is Wang Shuo.
For [? Barmay, ?] this tolerated art and the co-optation of tolerated art of a form of commodified [? descent ?] into the state framework of tolerated art is, in fact, the kind of most important description of intellectual interventions in the 1990s. [? Barmay ?] talks about how the state decides to breed or tolerate a small number of maverick artists for propaganda purposes. So Wong Shuo represents both the new alternative culture, but at the same time, the epitome of emotive intellectual intervention that co-existed peacefully with party censors, and proved highly lucrative for its authors.
So the famous debate in the early '90s between Wang [? Mung ?] and Wang Shuo on one side, and the, kind of, tenets of intellectual purity and academia on the other side, in which Wang [? Mung ?] basically endorsed the market as the best force to counteract the remnants of ideology is, for [? Barmay, ?] the symbol of how this debate has strangely evolved in the sense that some of the art forms that seem the most subversive and the most critical to people standing outside the system are, in fact, part and parcel of this system.
Oops. Sorry. I'm going a bit too fast there. Sociological approaches have multiplied in the last few years in terms of cultural capital, symbolic capital, looking at intellectuals basically as a social group that tries to maximize its influence and its power within the general social structure. And as I mentioned, the importance of patron-client networks as they appeared in the '80s and continued throughout the '90s. The way they mutually benefit and reinforce the political and cultural authorities of the members of these networks has contributed, I think, to giving us a better understanding of how the intellectual scene works.
In this sense, the growth of civil society based on ties with officials is kind of the paradox of the evolution of the '80s and '90s. And in most of these scholars' views, it was not particularly interrupted by the repression of the democracy movement in 1989.
The growth of the consumer culture in China in the 1990s has given rise to this kind of new low-brow or [CHINESE] culture, popular culture that seeped into Chinese intellectual life, and has given rise to this discourse of postmodernism of valorizing the low, the low-brow, the non-elite. I just want to quote here Gloria Davies' important study, "Worrying About China," 2007, in which she basically analyzes how this postmodern turn in Chinese intellectual discourse has, to a large extent, in fact, corresponded with a reaffirmation of Chinese intellectuals' traditional role.
She highlights that the critique of enlightenment in the name of postmodernism often becomes a selective tool for Chinese intellectuals to deconstruct capitalism and Western rationality, and to reaffirm the authenticity of Chineseness. Similarly, she shows how the affirmation of [CHINESE], of academic norms, against the figure of the Enlightenment intellectual and the 1980's preference for [CHINESE], or thought, over academic inquiry relies on a normative evaluation of intellectuals' usefulness to society, again gauged on traditional representations of their role. So basically, her idea is that these attempts to challenge orthodoxy have failed to challenge its underlying assumptions of Chinese exceptionalism and what she calls positivistic Hegelianism and the postulated transparency of language, moral patriotism, and an instrumentalist attitude to theory.
So let's move on to the more interesting part. I think what Gloria Davies doesn't entirely capture is that while elite academics may like to adopt the pose of postmodernism, we can also document a quite different attitude among intellectuals who are not necessarily part of this elite. Not all of them use this kind of postmodern discourse to reaffirm Chinese exceptionalism, and the, kind of, what she calls positivistic Hegelianism-- the idea that there are given answers to any given problem. There's one correct answer to any given problem. You find very different affirmations starting in the '90s.
So as I said, the hypothesis here is that a new figure of the intellectual appeared in the '90s, breaking with the universalist Enlightenment paradigm of the '80s, as well as with the older traditional figure of the advising and dissenting literati. So just to make this clearer, I'd like to use Wang Xiaobo's essay, "The Silent Majority," [CHINESE], first published in Orient magazine in 1996.
Wang Xiaobo, whom some of you are certainly familiar with, was a writer who had recently shot to fame after publishing The Golden Age in 1992, a novella about educated youth in the countryside during the Cultural Revolution. He had himself experienced life as [CHINESE] in Yunan province. Later married the sociologist [INAUDIBLE] and followed her to the University of Pittsburgh, where he enrolled in a master's degree in East Asian studies from '84 to '88. And this is where he first came in contact with Foucault's work.
After his return to Beijing, he taught sociology in Peking University, and then moved to People's University. And well, as you know, died an untimely death of a heart attack in 1997.
So I think taking the lead of Jeremy [? Barmay's ?] study and Wang Shuo's central role and his kind of approach, I think Wang Xiaobo is the, kind of, seminal thinker for the millennial generation, whose importance ironically became clear after his death, which [? Barmay ?] himself briefly points out. The silent majority is first and foremost an indictment of Chinese intellectuals' habit of speaking out. So silence is valorized here as a form of defense against the encroachment of politics.
Pinpointing Chinese intellectuals' connection to the state, Wang Xiaobo denounces their habit of speaking out. So a speech, [CHINESE], is compared to a form of tax, or [CHINESE], that the intellectuals pay to the state. So this tax is described by Wang Xiaobo as [CHINESE]. So taking responsibility for all under heaven, the Confucian formula I quoted earlier.
Wang uses a term with Foucaultian overtones-- the disadvantaged groups, [CHINESE]. So he's one of the first people to use this formula. He may even have coined it-- I haven't entirely figured that out. And describes himself as a member of one of these under-privileged or weak groups, and he sees the entire Chinese society is made up of these groups that are in some way disenfranchised.
So rather than educating others and lecturing others on what is morally right, Wang Xiaobo purports only to describe his own experience, not to speak out for others. He believes there is no need to emancipate others through speech, preferring to write to educate himself in seeing the world from the point of view of the disadvantaged groups.
So how does this, kind of, impact the evolutions of the '90s? Intellectuals who came of age in the 1990s no longer indulged as frequently in sweeping discourses about culture or the nation or democracy. Their legitimacy derives mainly from their work with these disadvantaged groups, and their shared experience with the neglected groups of society. The many NGOs and civil society organizations that sprang up through the '90s and attracted the best and brightest of China's graduates are an illustration of this turn. By relinquishing this strategic position between state and society intellectuals had long sought to occupy, this displacement moved them farther away from the symbolic center of society among the unofficial, the [CHINESE] groups, that situate themselves outside the borders of the official, or [CHINESE]. So in this sense, intellectuals can be understood to have joined and to be speaking with the silent majority.
Elite debates, as they've long been presented in studies of Chinese intellectuals, are therefore, I think, not crucial to understanding what took place in the 1990s. Many of the core questions of such debates have been displaced.
Just a couple of aspects of this displacement. So as I said, one of the important turns is the appearance of specific intellectuals and the decline of the writer as the ultimate generalist and figure of the universal intellectual. Fiction writers lost much of their moral aura in the 1990s. Rather, we witnessed the appearance of academics, specialized sociologists, historians, journalists, lawyers, et cetera, who spoke out on the basis of their expertise.
Just to give an example, when [INAUDIBLE] spoke out in the 1980s from his position within academia, it reflected his universalist commitment to human rights and freedoms rather than his knowledge as an astrophysicist. By contrast, when Wang Xiaobo speaks out, using, very often, his academic research, especially on sexuality, to write fiction and to intervene in the public sphere, he uses precisely this specialized form of knowledge to make points about the nature of power and oppression.
To give another example, [INAUDIBLE], a prominent contemporary intellectual, speaks out primarily as an academic specialized in rural issues and inequality rather than on general problems of governance, by virtue of his status. So I would argue that the progress of academic norms has not only served a neo-Hegelian discourse of authority, as highlighted by Gloria Davies, but also fostered a group of academics with a more modest understanding of their role.
So this leads me to the second point, redefining the elite in the subaltern. The notion of [CHINESE], or a more politically correct term, [CHINESE], can be seen to have created a new community of discourse with the new public. While the intellectuals of the '80s enjoyed a form of semi-autonomy, this space was really only made possible through their organic ties with patrons within the establishment and a generally elitist understanding of their role. By contrast, in the present century, Chinese society has witnessed the rise of a group of journalists, academics, lawyers, documentary filmmakers who define their action in connection with these disadvantaged groups, the most prominent of which are petitioners, victims of Maoist persecutions, disenfranchised migrant workers, or other parts of [CHINESE] society. So this link has, in the past, been particularly threatening for the Chinese state, and it's always done everything possible to avoid it. In fact, the possibility of this link is one of the things that might have led to the crackdown in 1989.
Of course, this link remains subject to debate. Charter 08 is one of the important aspects of this debate. Merle Goldman, in particular, has argued that Charter 08 is emblematic of a social diversification of public advocacy. I would question the relevance of Charter 08 to disenfranchise groups. I think it's still a kind of remnant of the universalist mode of intellectual intervention of the 1980s, which has survived through, up to today.
More importantly, I think this kind of question of the elite and the subaltern requires a rethinking of Chinese class structure throughout the 20th century. As I mentioned, the importance of sociological studies of intellectuals in a Bourdieusian perspective-- I think the realization that intellectuals in the 1980s were mainly acting to regain their place of privilege, and again forming a symbiosis with the state, which is a narrative that [INAUDIBLE] has described as the victimization of the elite, [CHINESE]. This fostered the idea that the intellectuals of the 1980s describe themselves as having been persecuted by the people. I mean, the Cultural Revolution narrative was that intellectuals had been the victims of the popular masses. So this fostered further hostility towards the people and towards democracy.
So it's necessary to re-assess this question of the subaltern and the Mao and the post-Mao era. I would argue that many of the independent sociologists like [INAUDIBLE] and historians or citizen journalists like [INAUDIBLE] doing independent research on the Mao era today highlight that under Mao's rule, the subaltern group of ordinary people suffered more severely than intellectuals.
Third point-- the pluralization of the public sphere. This, I think, should be quite well-known. In particular the diversification of media outlets, the rise of the internet, and the rise of popular culture has provided opportunities for expressions of ideas, including political ideas, that would not have been acceptable in the elite context of the '80s. So the obvious example of this, I think, is a writer like [INAUDIBLE], writer and racing car driver. So the opportunities for political intervention provided to him by his specific status within this commodified public sphere, I think, is a very specific new aspect that has to be explained and taken into account.
Finally, the rise of the third sector. In the 1980s, even a prominent critic and dissident like [INAUDIBLE] eventually stood for election within the Chinese Writers Association, and was, in fact, elected vice president because he received the second number of votes after [INAUDIBLE]. Today, institutions like the Writers Association still control important networks of patron-client relations, but have become somehow less and less relevant to society at large.
Symmetrically, the private economy was largely seen as a positive influence and forced to promote reform and liberalization in the 1980s, but has been subject to increasing critique in the 1990s and 2000s. So I mean, this is the situation in which we witness the rise of nonprofit activities, group of intellectuals that seek to keep an equal distance from both the state and the market, both within the field of arts, nonprofit activities like NGO work or citizen journalism, and the third sector of social practices. So these are neither government-connected experts nor dissidents nor postmodern skeptics or media intellectuals.
So let me just give you a couple of examples of what I mean by that. Wang Xiaobo, as I said, is, I think, the seminal thinker of the turn towards a Foucaultian critique of Enlightenment and the elite role of intellectuals. His essays have continued to play a foundational role throughout the last two decades. In particular, his outpour of essays for the new media outlets of the '90s, [CHINESE], Orient magazine, or [CHINESE], as well as [CHINESE] enjoyed lasting popularity, were republished as collections, and found an avid readership the way up to today.
Wang Xiaobo essentially presents the Maoist period as a continuation of both Confucian moralism and Enlightenment rationality. He notes the continuity in these moral preoccupations. In The Golden Age, he mocks the revolutionary leader's obsession with getting educated youth to write lurid confessions of sexual misconduct as part of their re-education during the Cultural Revolution. This is one of the reasons why he advocates refraining from emancipating other people in the name of rationality.
Taking issue with an article by [INAUDIBLE] about the decline of intellectuals after 1989, Wang Xiaobo redefines the role of intellectuals in society. Let me give you a quote-- "Some say that they should worry before all others and rejoice after all others under heaven. Are they pessimists? Some say they should take responsibility for the world under heaven. Are they internationalists? I think this is not the most classic formulation. That would be that they believe in their own superior morality-- a scholar is versed in all traits; their dominating position-- the most important of the four estates; and their qualification to educate others-- educate the people. When we talk about social problems, we should use hard reasoning. Either we know what is being discussed and others don't, or we can clarify a complex problem that others can't."
So mocking these two hallowed mottoes handed down by Confucian wisdom, Wang asserts that intellectuals need to demonstrate their understanding of the problem, or, if they have nothing to contribute, they should remain silent.
He also highlights the importance of axiological neutrality. So mocking one of these t-shirts that appeared in Beijing in the 1990s with the inscription, "OK, let's pee," which he recalls was distributed at an academic conference, he says, "'OK, let's pee' is not an appropriate slogan for a gathering of adults. It's widely accepted that after a certain age, everyone can decide for him or herself when it's time to pee."
So he uses this to justify why he has agreed to write the social ethics column in Oriental magazine, but at the same time, he wants to ban this idea of social ethics to saying that he's not interested in encouraging people to do things that they do not want to do. So this is what he describes as this kind of Confucian remnants of morality. Intellectuals' duty should be, in his view, towards knowledge itself, rather than its utilitarian use or the power that can be derived from it. So this idea is inherent in what he terms the pleasure of thinking, [CHINESE].
Therefore, Wang defines the beauty of intellectuals as seeing the world from the point of view of the excluded and the marginal. So rather than educating them, intellectuals should write to educate themselves. Wang's vision of society is one in which everyone is a member of a disenfranchised or marginalized social group. It's also characteristic of this post-1990 Chinese society in which market-driven processes have increasingly fragmented Chinese society.
I think maybe we don't really have time to go into the details of these other two examples I wanted to give. Just a word, and maybe we can return to them in the Q&A. I wanted to mention the example of [INAUDIBLE] rethinking of the Mao era. I think the important thing here is thinking about intellectuals' role as one of the strong supports on which Mao's politics relied. [INAUDIBLE] has decided against these victimary narratives that pervaded scar literature and the general rethinking of the Mao period in the 1980s. [INAUDIBLE] underlines that intellectuals, in fact, were prime, willing, or even enthusiastic collaborators rather than the victims of an irrational episode in history.
So he does this by writing this very polyphonic novel called Four Books, which I think has just been translated into English, also, to show how-- so one of the four books are structured into four books, as its title suggests, which are actually four narratives which intersperse each other. One of these books is an account written by a character called The Writer, who, in fact, snitches on all his co-inmates in the prison camp where all these people are trying to first raise crops and then make steel.
So here, at the end, this intellectual called The Writer ends up repenting and cutting off chunks of flesh from his own legs to seek forgiveness from the other characters. But I think what this points to in this use of the trope of cannibalism, which is so central to 20th-century Chinese literature, points to, again, this reversal of the appreciation of the intellectual.
The third set of examples I wanted to give was taken from independent cinema. Here, again, I think we have this wish to provide a more democratic approach, which I think can be connected to the aftermath of the repression of the Tiananmen movement. Strong focus on filming the margins or lower strata in society, turning cameras away from big cities and towards ordinary lives-- all this enabled by democratic equipment, access to cheap DV cameras and spaces to show films and discuss them. Also a kind of space for reflecting on the disenfranchisement of people who had been bypassed by the democracy movement, and to reflect on how to incorporate them into the political evolution of China in the 1990s.
These characteristics I've listed here are really breaks with the canon of Socialist realism. Wish to represent a more polysemic texture of reality to break with the grand historical narratives, and to show the individual dimensions of the people who were filmed and who become the subject of these works.
Let me conclude here simply by saying again that this is not a complete redefinition of the intellectual scene that I'm trying to establish, but rather the appearance of a new trend, which I think co-exists with other trends that continue to exist in parallel. But I think it's worth highlighting the significance of this new strand of specific rather than universalist intellectuals who see themselves as in solidarity with the subaltern rather than the elite strata of society. Who exist in a pluralized public sphere, in particular in a public sphere in which forms of cultural productions are less hierarchical than before, and also in the context of aspiring to symmetrical distance with the state and with the market.
So I think this calls into question some of the basic traits of the intellectual throughout Chinese history, and particularly the 20th century, and particularly their elitism, their moralism, and their link with the state. And this more bottom-up form of democratic conscience, of course, may have larger implications for Chinese society. I will stop there. Thank you.
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Sebastian Veg, professor at the School of Advanced Studies in Social Science (EHESS) in Paris, describes the major changes in the status and role of intellectuals in China since the crackdown on the democracy movement of 1989 and as the public sphere has broadened to include the Internet and social media. Recorded Sept. 28, 2015 as part of the East Asia Program's Cornell Contemporary China Initiative (CCCI) Lecture Series.