Under fire, again
Dec 9th 2004 |
>From The Economist print edition
Free _expression worries the
IN AN Orwellian obfuscation of its role, the Chinese Communist Party's
Propaganda Department prefers to translate its name these days as the
Publicity Department. But one of its main tasks remains that of issuing
secret directives to the state-controlled media telling them what not to
report. And among its latest prohibitions is any encouragement for public
intellectuals in China.
In recent years, the party had become more relaxed about intellectuals.
Outspoken academics helped fuel the campus fervour that eventually erupted
into mass protests in Tiananmen Square in 1989. But the crackdown, followed
a couple of years later by an economic boom, dampened demands for political
change. The party began to worry more about unemployed workers and
disgruntled peasants, and less about intellectuals璵any of whom, anyway, were
turning their attention to making money.
Click to buy from Amazon.com: "Public
Intellectuals: A Study of Decline", by Richard Posner (Amazon.co.uk).
See also the
and World Audit's
information on democracy and freedom in China.
More recently, however, the rapid
spread of the internet and the increasing commercialisation of the Chinese
media have given intellectuals new avenues of _expression. A few, including
economists, social scientists and lawyers, have become well-known among the
chattering classes for their critiques of social ills (though prudently, in
most cases, not of the party itself). The term public intellectuals has
crept into the media, encouraged not least by a Chinese translation last
year of Public Intellectuals: A Study of Decline , a book by an American
judge, Richard Posner, examining the role of such commentators in America.
The Propaganda Department lost its patience after a magazine in Guangdong
Province, Southern People Weekly, published a list of 50 Chinese
public intellectuals in September. The market economy, said an accompanying
commentary, had caused the rapid marginalisation of intellectuals. But this
is the time when China is facing the most problems in its unprecedented
transformation, and when it most needs public intellectuals to be on the
scene and to speak out.
If the 50 had been loyal party stooges, all might have been forgiven. But
among them were several who are decidedly not, including Zhang Sizhi, a
defence lawyer who has argued in the trials of some of China's best known
dissidents; Cui Jian, a rock singer whose irreverence has irritated the
authorities since his heyday in the Tiananmen era; Bei Dao, a poet who has
been forced to live in exile since the 1989 unrest; and Wang Ruoshui (who
died in 2002), a senior journalist and member of the party's inner circle
who turned dissident. A scathing commentary on the list, published last
month by a Shanghai newspaper and republished by the party's main
mouthpiece, People's Daily, said that promoting the idea of public
intellectuals was really aimed at driving a wedge between intellectuals and
the party. The window for free debate that opened a crack over the past
couple of years, as China's leadership shifted to the fourth generation of
leaders, is closing again.
Oddly, perhaps, given the supposed indifference of urbanites to politics,
two of the bestselling books in China this year have been about the
anti-rightist campaign of 1957, during which half a million of the party's
intellectual critics were persecuted. One of the books, Past Events Have Not
Vanished Like Smoke , was banned by the Propaganda Department. The other,
Inside Secrets of 1957: The Sacrificial Altar of Suffering , is still for
sale. Though probably not for long.