from Asia Unbound

The Rising Anti-Intellectualism in China: Part II

July 21, 2015

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In my last blog post, I examined the rise of anti-intellectualism in China from a historical perspective. As if to corroborate my argument, last week police in China’s Jiangxi province detained Wang Lin, a semi-illiterate qigong (a Chinese spiritual martial art) mystic, for his role in the alleged kidnapping and murder of one of his former “disciples.” What dragged Wang into the limelight was not the incident itself, but the laundry list of his followers and clients exposed after Wang’s fall. They included Jack Ma, Jet Li, and a number of other celebrities and high-profile businessmen. Chinese websites also circulated photos showing Wang with high-ranking government officials, including several former Politburo Standing Committee members and at least four former central government ministers. Among them was the now disgraced railway minister Liu Zhijun, to whom Wang promised to set up a magic stone in his office so that he would never fall from power.

Wang was not the only phony master whose tricks have been revealed or debunked. Over the past three decades, China has seen the emergence of a popular soothsayer/mystic/qigong expert every few years. Mostly poorly educated, they were nevertheless successful in fooling a huge number of Chinese, from ordinary people to powerful leaders. Cao Yongzheng, a mysterious “sage” from Xinjiang, was introduced by China’s former security czar Zhou Yongkang to be his “most trusted person.” This led Wang Shuo, a Chinese cultural icon, to lambaste Chinese business and political elites as “having low I.Q.” and “lacking the most basic scientific knowledge.” This might not be true, but the obsession with spiritual phonies  by Chinese elites does suggest that anti-intellectualism has reached the top echelons of China’s hierarchy.

The rising anti-intellectualism does not bode well for China’s political development. According to Professor Yu Ying-Shih of Princeton University, only through thorough debates and discussions could democracy as a Western concept take root and grow in China. Until very recently, Chinese intellectuals—despite government controls—had managed to carve out some limited space through which they could influence public discourse. This is changing. Beginning in the second half of 2013, the Party’s mouthpieces have published numerous articles criticizing “historical nihilism,” “constitutional democracy,” and “universal values.” In October 2013, college professors were asked not to touch upon seven topics: universal values, press freedom, civil society, citizens’ rights, the party’s historical aberrations, the “privileged capitalistic class,” and judicial independence. The efforts to promote ideological unity also led to accusations against the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences (CASS) of having been “infiltrated by foreign forces.” Yu Jianrong, a prominent scholar at CASS, recently revealed that the party secretary of his institute asked him to submit a written explanation on his “unapproved” participation in a newly established NGO.

Rising anti-intellectualism in China also has important implications for China’s foreign policy. It encourages the Chinese public and even some intellectuals to uncritically embrace any nationalist writings and ideas as truth and to dub any dissenting voices as “anti-China” or treat those dissenters as standing for “hostile forces.” Against this backdrop, conspiracy theories that defy the conventional wisdom can easily go viral. A recent piece that was circulated widely on WeChat, for example, “exposed” a 15-year long U.S. “Cultural Cold War” strategy against China, in which the United States was blamed for distorting Chinese history, even creating China’s food safety problems. Similarly, leading U.S. financial institutions were initially blamed for the free fall of China’s stock market last month, despite the government’s restriction on foreigners investing in Chinese stock exchanges. However odd and erroneous these accusations are, the nationalist claims and comments have a large number of followers. Many of Zhou Xiaoping’s writings are rants against the United States, but his Weibo (Chinese version of Twitter) has attracted more than 11 million visits. With robust social bases and government acquiescence, these nationalist voices not only undermine the plausibility of official rhetoric on China’s peaceful rise, but also further constrain the leeway of foreign policy making in China.

True, anti-intellectualism is not unique to China: few political leaders, especially those in their bid to consolidate power, would find intellectuals as desirable as blockheads. The former by definition are good at questioning, criticizing, and challenging politicians’ authorities and policies. This logic explains Dwight Eisenhower’s scoffing at intellectuals, Joseph Stalin’s support of Trofim Lysenko’s pseudoscience, and Pol Pot’s killing off people who wore eyeglasses (because they were educated). Unlike liberal democracies, where anti-intellectualism is counterbalanced and constrained by pluralism and free speech, anti-intellectualism in non-democracies can be practiced and popularized by unchecked political power. That explains why even though the essay by Zhou Xiaoping “Broken Dreams in America” was full of factual errors, a point-by-point rebuttal with detailed references by anti-fraud campaigner Fang Shimin (aka Fang Zhouzi) quickly vanished from online. When Fang protested, he found himself being denied access to his own social media accounts.

The good news is that despite the repressions and regressions, anti-intellectualism does not represent the mainstream of the public discourse in China. Unlike the Mao era, when power and charisma of political leaders made anti-intellectualism a national ideology, today’s anti-intellectualism has not led to the attack on the intellect itself. President Xi himself is a ferocious reader familiar with the works of Montesquieu, Voltaire, and Rousseau. What is alarming is its increasingly systematic expression in some major aspects of social-political lives. Given its long history and strong social bases in China, anti-intellectualism, when mixed with nationalism and populism, has the potential to delay (if not derail) China’s political development and drive China into a collision course with its neighbors and the United States.

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