from Asia Unbound

The Rising Anti-Intellectualism in China: Part I

June 29, 2015

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On June 10, a blogger named Zhou Xiaoping was elected to head the newly established China Online Writers Association in Sichuan Province. He thus followed the career path of another popular blogger, Hua Qianfang, who was elected the Vice Chairman of the Writers Association of Fushun City in Liaoning Province in November 2014, an honor that is usually reserved for professional writers whose achievements in literature are well recognized. While both of them received only secondary school education, Zhou and Hua were invited to join the seventy most famous writers and artists in attending a symposium on art and literature in Beijing last year. 

Their sudden rise to fame epitomizes the rise of anti-intellectualism in China. Defined as hostility towards intellectuals and intellectual pursuits, anti-intellectualism represents an attitude, not a theory or school of thought, in social-political lives. A look at Hua’s career path and his writings reveal his fundamental antipathy toward intellect and intellectuals. After graduating from secondary school, he worked as a migrant worker before returning to his hometown to be a farmer. In one interview, he confessed that he has not read any books on history, politics, or science and technology; nearly all his knowledge has come from the Internet and blogs posted by others. Yet that has not deterred him from vehemently attacking leading scholars for “making nonsense” and “confusing right and wrong.” Amid criticism questioning Hua’s credentials, the state-run Global Times defended Hua, saying that he deserved respect from “orthodox elites” because “[h]is grass-roots life gives him a special perspective from which to interpret his nation and his era.” Put it differently, both bloggers becomes the official toast of Beijing because they are near the real daily life (jie di qi).

The distrust of scholars and scholarly works is not new to China. The burning of books and burying of scholars by Qin Shi Huangdi, the first emperor of China, was probably the first naked use of state power against knowledge and its carriers. Mao did something similar in the Cultural Revolution (1966-76). Labeling all intellectuals “stinking Number Nine,” he mobilized high school and university students known as Red Guards to humiliate and torture teachers and scholars. Claiming that “the more knowledge a man had, the more reactionary he would become,” Mao also had millions of “educated youth” (Xi was among them) sent down to the countryside to receive “reeducation” from the peasants.

When Deng Xiaoping was rehabilitated in the late 1970s, he sought to reverse Mao’s anti-intellectualism in order to fulfill his modernization agenda. Under Deng, the college entrance exam was resumed and intellectuals were reclassified into the politically correct “working class.” Yet the transition from a planned economy in the early 1980s, with its emphasis on “let some people get rich first,” generated a situation in which “Those who produce missiles earn less than those who sell tea eggs.” Frustration over this payment gap between physical work and mental work, coupled with the prevailing view that knowledge and education were useless, fueled the 1989 pro-democracy movement.

In the post-1989 era, an anti-intellectualist agenda was pursued in a more subtle and sophisticated way. By encouraging intellectuals to benefit personally and professionally from China’s robust economic development, the state successfully co-opted a large number of intellectuals, including those who were at the forefront of criticizing and challenging the regime in the 1980s. Indeed, the temptation to advance in political rank as well as to receive large state-sponsored grants even led some returned overseas Chinese scholars to internalize the official rhetoric and became staunch defenders of the status quo. The explosive growth of market forces has further undermined intellectual influence. Money worship, in conjunction with the unemployment problem caused by the great leap forward toward mass education since 1999, led to the emphasis on those “practical” subjects (e.g., business and finance) at the expense of subjects that value thinking and intellectual pursuit. In 2011, among the five thousand graduates of a top university in southeast China, only three were from philosophy department, which led to the calls to abolish the major. The anti-intellectual penchant is made worse by technological revolution and widespread use of social media. Inundated by information, people erroneously equate information flows to knowledge flows, and further belittle formal education while emphasizing utilitarianism.

In the face of the omnipresent consumerism and utilitarianism, some intellectuals themselves began to indulge in hedonism, fraud and other academic misconduct. As a result, Chinese intellectuals as a group increasingly lose their independent personality and moral and intellectual leadership in the Chinese society. Laoshi (teacher), a title refers exclusively to those who impart knowledge to the students, is now generalized to include anyone who has more knowledge or skills than the interlocutor, so much so that even commercial sex workers now call their customers “teachers.” Professors (jiao shou) are now nicknamed “p-roar-fessors,” meaning roaring beasts to refer to perverted teachers who would take advantage of their students. Similarly, public intellectuals, or gongzhi, are so mocked in today’s China that many serious scholars try to avoid being labeled as such.

What are the implications of this rising anti-intellectualism for China’s political development and its foreign policy?  This will be the subject of my next blog post.

 

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