The Revolution of Resistance

Xi Jinping’s Empire of Tedium

Chapter XXXIV, Part II


Chapter Thirty-four of Xi Jinping’s Empire of Tedium, the penultimate chapter in the collection, features a series of essays related to China’s intellectual life and its stillborn public sphere. Four of the five sections in this chapter were published over the years leading up to the Xi Jinping era. Given that most of this material was not previously available in digital form, I decided to digitise and publish them as background to the final chapter in Tedium, the title of which is ‘An Irrealis Mood’. A version of that concluding chapter was drafted for ‘Knowledge, Ideology and Public Discourse in Contemporary China’, a conference organised by Sebastian Veg and held at L’École des hautes études en sciences sociales (EHEES) in Paris on 13-14 June 2024.

This chapter consists of the following sections:

The first three of these works, written between 1998 and 2001, were a continuation of a series of commentaries, academic analyses, translations and books that I published from 1983 that include: my contributions to Trees on the Mountain (1983), an overview of the 1983 Anti-Spiritual Pollution Campaign (1984), Seeds of Fire: Chinese Voices of Conscience (1986, rev. ed. 1988), the Chinese-language essays on culture and politics published in The Nineties Monthly (1986-1991), extended studies of Liu Xiaobo (1990) and Dai Qing (1991), New Ghosts, Old Dreams: Chinese Rebel Voices (1992), my contribution as lead academic adviser and writer to the documentary film The Gate of Heavenly Peace (1995), as well as the books Shades of Mao: the Posthumous Cult of the Great Leader (1996) and In the Red: on contemporary Chinese culture (1999). Another two — A Provocation (2007) and Ethical Dilemmas (2016, 2023) — relate to China’s relative openness at the time of the 2008 Beijing Olympics and the lengthening shadow of the Gate of Darkness 黑暗的閘門, yet again, from 2012. ‘On China’s Editor-Censors’ is one of Xu Zhangrun’s Ten Letters from a Year of Plague. Today, its message is more resonant than ever.


‘The Revolution of Resistance’ was written in 1999 and included as a chapter in the first edition of  Elizabeth J. Perry and Mark Selden, eds, Chinese Society: Change, Conflict and Resistance (Asia’s Transformations), the first edition of which was published in 2000. It was revised and updated both for the second edition of that volume, which appeared in 2003, and again for a third edition, published in 2010. Chinese characters, hyperlinks and a number of new notes have been added to the text and minor errors have been corrected.


I am grateful to Gloria Davies 黃樂嫣, friend, colleague and collaborator, whose insights and intellectual guidance have been essential to the life of my mind for over a quarter of a century.

My thanks also to Callum Smith for linking the footnote references in the text to the notes.

— Geremie R. Barmé
Editor, China Heritage
9 June 2024


Related Material


The Revolution of Resistance

Geremie R. Barmé*

China’s economic reforms have not only been about the growth of an entrepreneurial business sector. The privatization of public debate, intellectual life and cultural activity has been a process that has also unfolded over the past three decades. Availing themselves of state resources, which were the product of plunder in the name of nationalization in the 1950s and 60s, groups and individuals arrogated to themselves both the matériel and prerogatives to develop alternative intellectual and cultural activity in China. From the late 1990s, these ‘parallel cultures’ were increasingly funded by homegrown private and public beneficiaries of the country’s economic boom. Such cultures, that is film, art, music and TV production in particular, projected through the Kong-Tai (that is Hong Kong and Taiwan Chinese-language) media gradually achieved a global profile, construed as being representative of the latest version of ‘New China’. In the years before, during the year after the 2008 Beijing Olympics, this non-state parallel culture attained even greater international cachet, just as new forms of repression were being essayed and refined by the Beijing authorities.

The following essay reviews the incipient growth of these activities in the 1980s and their significance during the second radical phase of party-initiated reforms through the 1990s and into the first decade of the new millennium. It also indicates ways in which resistance and compliance with cultural protocols have manifested themselves in the medium of the Chinese Internet in the recent era of commercial nationalism.

This essay raises questions about the nature of resistance within the intellectual-cultural urban elites, and offers an overview of who is resisting what and why, and just who profits in the process.

Revolution. To revolutionize revolution; to revolutionize the revolution of revolution; to rev…[i]

In late December 1991, Zhou Lunyou 周倫佑, a poet of the ‘Not-not’ 非非 school  in Sichuan, produced a manifesto entitled ‘A Stance of Rejection’. Written in response to what he saw as the cultural capitulation that had followed in the wake of the 4 June 1989 Beijing massacre, Zhou called on his fellows to resist the blandishments of the state. ‘In the name of history and reality,’ he wrote,

in the name of human decency, in the name of the absolute dignity and conscience of the poet, and in the name of pure art, we declare:

We will not cooperate with a phony value system—

  • Reject their magazines and payments.
  • Reject their critiques and acceptance.
  • Reject their publishers and their censors.
  • Reject their lecterns and ‘academic’ meetings.
  • Reject their ‘writers’ associations’, ‘artists’ associations’, ‘poets’ associations’, for they are all sham artistic yamen that corrupt art and repress creativity.[ii]

The stifling of cultural experimentation and intellectual debate that occurred in the wake of 4 June 1989 was neither as extreme nor as widespread as anti-liberals in Beijing had hoped (or, indeed, as overseas dissidents and exiles claimed). That purge came after a decade of radical economic policies that had undermined the ideological certainties of high socialism and fostered, among other things, an environment of intellectual and cultural debate outside the stifling confines of political agitprop. The scope and effect of the 1989 purge was circumscribed by many factors: a revulsion against Cultural Revolution-style denunciations, internal dissension within the party, the impact of administrative reforms and weakening on the mechanisms of social and political surveillance, widespread public disinterest, political fatigue and opposition, as well as the stark economic imperatives of the party’s own program.

Zhou Lunyou’s romantic call for resistance itself came at an intriguing and crucial moment for Chinese culture. It was on the cusp of Deng Xiaoping’s vaunted ‘tour of the south’ 南巡 of early 1992. During his inspection of economic reformist centres in Guangdong province, Deng made a series of speeches and comments that not only had a radical impact on the economic life of the nation, but also further transformed the nature of cultural dissent and intellectual opposition to the party.

[New Note: Since the late 1990s, Zhou Lunyou’s ‘gesture of resistance’ has appeared in my work a number of times, most recently in In a retro mood: The ethical dilemmas of cutting a deal with Xi Jinping’s China, The China Project, 15 September 2023.]

In the years prior to Zhou’s appeal to reject the state-sanctioned arts world, cultural practitioners and activists had evolved complex relationships with the official overculture that made any simple gestures of rebellion seem quixotic, if not nugatory. Egregious oppositionist acts, while sometimes meaningful, were generally also part of a larger, highly-nuanced skein of activity that could not be easily classified in terms of clumsy dichotomies. Furthermore, from 1989 mainland Chinese cultural and intellectual discord more than ever before developed an international dimension. The 1989 protest movement and its bloody denouement served to globalize further the debate and dissent, a process that worked in tandem with the internationalization of the economy.

For a time, Hong Kong, Taiwan, as well as international media attention was now fixated on the issues related to the 1989 protests and subsequent massacre, the fate of activists, any hints of a change in official government policy and the possibility of further mass unrest. Key participants in the movement escaped, or were subsequently sent, into exile, and while some continued agitating for political change in China, many more turned their energies to other, often business, pursuits from 1990-91. The Chinese government and its avowed opponents throughout the 1990s engaged in a ‘mimetic violence’ against each other—rhetorical attacks, purges and dissident resistance—that entrenched their mutual opposition. Meanwhile, in the larger realms of intellectual, cultural and commercial life debate flourished. New Chinese-language forums (newspapers, magazines, semi-academic and Internet journals) strengthened an environment for discussion and contention within the ‘Chinese commonwealth’. This involved mainland writers, as well as offshore and overseas commentators, in a direct dialogue about future scenarios for China and the region in a manner—as some pointed out—that was reminiscent of the ‘internationalization’ of political dissension in late-Qing China at the end of the nineteenth century when the frustration of the 1898 reforms of the Guangxu Emperor had forced his supporters into exiled activism overseas.

The economic boom of the 1990s challenged thinkers and critics of all schools to re-evaluate the modern history of the Chinese party-state; it also drew scholars and activists into a series of discussions about the impact of the party’s program on issues of official corruption, cronyism, the growth of a new underclass, commodification-consumerism and globalization, as well as media freedom and democratization. Some of these issues were central to the inchoate protests of 1989; however, a decade later they were being debated in the mainland media in unprecedented detail and with considerable candor. By 2009, with a resilient Chinese economy and an increasingly assertive kind of state-private nationalism such debates were developing a global relevance.

In the 1980s vague reformist visions had been at the centre of much intellectual and political debate. During the 1990s the integration of China’s economy into the global system (and the global system’s infiltration into China), as well as the cutthroat commerce of the decade, confronted intellectuals and lent an impetus to the revolution of resistance. In the new millennium some, like the historian Qin Hui 秦暉, would cogently argue that Chinese thinking people would also have to consider the ramifications of their country’s global economy and the moral, as well as the commercial, responsibilities that went with it.

Also after 1989, for a time the romantic posture of failed resistance achieved a certain social and commercial éclat. This was particularly true in the cultural sphere where transgressive activities—that is, actions that were ‘naughty but not dangerous’[iii] to the entrenched power holders and new elites—flourished. A number of successful careers in cinema, art, theatre and literature were launched on the basis of alternative cultural activity, sporadic state repression, and offshore investment in avant-garde cultural activities. The crushing of flagrant dissent gave these more anodyne activities a highly visible media profile. Non-official arts activists continued to plunder state resources in a fashion not dissimilar to the vampirization of state (that is ‘public’) sector assets by bureaucratic cronies and the super-rich. Film-makers and artists who joined the international exhibition and cultural carnival circuit during the 1990s, for example, were generally trained in state institutions, cultivated alliances with associates and used (or ‘privatized’) state and semi-official resources (equipment, locales, networks) to pursue their activities. The works of filmmakers like Zhang Yuan 張元 (director of MTVs and feature films like ‘Beijing Bastards’ and ‘East Palace, West Palace’) and a slew of painters were in the artistic avant-garde of those diverting state resources to their private (and increasingly profitable) ventures. Over time, more mature artists like Jia Zhangke 賈樟柯 would produce important work, even though they remained in thrall to the party-state when participating in international cultural events.

The arrest or harassment of activists who attempted to organize a concerted opposition to one-party rule, or who petitioned the government to undertake democratic reform, to reassess the events of 1989, or at least to honour the national constitution, made clear that political confrontation, rather than image marketing, continued to be regarded by the power-holders as illegitimate and dangerous. This was particularly evident in 2008 and during the ‘year of anniversaries’ 2009.[iv]

[New Note: See details of what I call the ‘dark and light anniversaries’ of 2009, see China Heritage Quarterly, Issue 17 & Issue 18, March and June 2009 respectively.]

For a time after 1989, consumerism was viewed popularly, and among many segments of the political and intellectual elite, as possessing a near revolutionary significance[v]—and for some years many of the most celebrated cultural fads drew upon revolutionary images.[vi] Over time, however, the revolutionary history of the party was further ‘domesticated’ by the market and the propaganda-PR industry to create an amalgam version of the country’s modern history that, while eschewing the radicalism of the past, incorporated the party’s central, and supposedly by and large, benign role throughout China’s twentieth century. For those on the frontline of shopping, however, the romance of resistance included now a belief that quotidian activities were the site of struggle and cloaked socio-political retail therapy (that is, shopping for new lifestyles and accessorizing the self in contradistinction to the official nation-state inculcated guise of identity). It was a development acceptable to economic reformers, the business elite, crony cadres, wannabe rebels, kids with ’tude, and the displaced literati many of whose members felt they had been sidelined by economic developments and political stability after 1989. The rise of this discourse of consumer-as-revolutionary also dovetailed neatly with a liberal teleology that now saw the ascendancy of the middle class and the democracy of Taiwan as part of the overall trajectory of Chinese modernity, and not just as a hotly-contested alternative. While ballot-box democracy might be deferred until a sizeable middle class existed, the free-range republic of shopping could be realized immediately. Not surprisingly, the party-state found no argument with behaviours that entrenched its legitimacy as an economic manager.

[New Note: See CCPTM & Adcult PRC, Chapter Nine in In the Red: contemporary Chinese culture, New York: Columbia University, 1999, pp.235-254.]

Along with cultural transgression, consumption was also a key zone for the affirmation of avant-garde scouts. Consumption directs desires and enlists resistance within itself as product promotion and placement usurp edgy non-mainstream, or state-sanctioned, phenomena. Cultural or social developments that once seemed antipathetic and threatening could, in the guise of marketing strategies or sound street commercial sense, be incorporated in the domain of product and purchase. Some might well claim that this does not necessarily ‘make commodified resistance “packaged”, tame or lame. It simply makes it tactical and potentially effective.’[vii] But, effective for what? Arguments about shopper-as-rebel and promoter-as-revolutionary are certainly suggestive if the seditious subaltern or canny consumer was chiefly construed as existing and acting in some closed system embraced by the market-party-state. If viewed within the larger, multipolar environment of the Kong-Tai world, as well as in the thrall of the international media and transcultural sphere, however, the ‘new ways and new things “to market”, consume, subvert, rebel against or steal’[viii] so noteworthy on the mainland during the 1990s and the 2000s, could also be appreciated in terms of promotion, positioning and redefinition of elitist norms in the guise of subaltern strategies. For the mavens of international academic theory, China was fallow territory, a ‘blank page’ as Chairman Mao would have it, on which new texts could be written or at least divined.

After 1992, it was initially the old ‘Maoist-style’ left[ix] which, through internal lobbying and public propagandizing, continued to articulate most coherently a position of opposition to the reformist status quo. From the middle of the decade, however, a number of ‘new-leftist’ thinkers joined pro-party conservatives to respond both to the predicament of mainstream social and political thinking, and to the glaring inequities resulting from the economic libertarian agenda. Many of these thinkers—who were based both in the US and China—emphasized the threats posed by the declining fiscal viability of the Beijing authorities and growing social inequities that had resulted from decentralization and marketization. They envisaged a range of dire scenarios that invoked the plangent fate of the former Yugoslavia or Soviet Union and grudgingly argued that a strong and economically competent Communist Party was perhaps, for the moment at least, a necessary bulwark against national collapse.

The post-1976 period of the officially-sponsored ‘movement to liberate thinking’ 思想解放運動 from Maoist strictures was a time during which official ideology underwent a transformation that freed the authorities from past dogma while also providing a rationale for economic reform and new directions for social growth. In a retrospective analysis of the intellectual developments on the mainland over the two decades from 1978 to 1998, Xu Jilin, a leading scholar of twentieth-century intellectual history based in Shanghai, observed that the party’s previous reliance on a utopian political program was gradually replaced by theoretical justifications for the ‘secular socialism’ 世俗化社會主義 of the economic reforms.

The process continued with a complex intellectual and cultural mutation that extended far beyond the earlier limited aims of pro-party revisionists. From the mid-1980s, the mainland experienced a cultural effervescence that was called by some ‘another “May Fourth” movement’, a ‘Chinese Enlightenment’.[x] Like that earlier period of cultural and political debate and furor during the 1910s and 20s, this post-Cultural Revolution ‘New Enlightenment’ was supposedly witness to an initial period of broad agreement among thinkers who rejected the old state ideology and propounded instead various alternative models for modernization. It was a period in which intellectual traditions were invoked, invented and reclaimed as part of intellectuals’ attempts to define themselves within the Chinese polity and claim a role in its evolution. This supposed consensus, however, also contained within it a critical response to the various international discourses that were being introduced piecemeal through translation projects, young scholars studying overseas, conferences, seminars and a wealth of publications; and it was a response that carried also the seeds of a major reassessment of China’s post-Cultural Revolution fascination with the West (or global commercial and political culture) itself.

Moreover, the debates of the 1980s were influenced by an intermittent series of cultural and political campaigns, or purges, in particular the nationwide attacks on ‘spiritual pollution’ and ‘bourgeois liberalization’ in 1980-81, 1983-84, 1987, and 1989-90.[xi] These administrative and ideological condemnations included attacks on Marxist-style humanism and the efforts by loyalists to construct a new rationale for the party beyond the confines of its economic program. The purges more often than not had the effect of silencing establishment intellectuals 體制內知識分子 and critics who stepped out of line, or resulted in their isolation within or banishment from its ranks. In conjunction with economic reform and more general social transformations, however, a semi-independent sphere of intellectual activity gradually blossomed, and it found outlets in the deregulated publishing market. At the same time, a revival of the educational sphere and academic standards saw a rapid increase in tertiary enrolments and a college-trained urban stratum that enjoyed unprecedented (in post-1949 terms, at least) access to information and a range of media. As a consequence, they provided a ready audience for the products of the Kulturkampf.

The period of the 1980s New Enlightenment was, to use Xu Jilin’s description, ‘A major historical turning point for Chinese intellectuals in that through cultural debate they gradually withdrew from and, in some cases, entirely broke free of the politico-ideological establishment and the state system of specialized knowledge production [that is, the strictures of official academia]. This enabled them to create intellectual spaces and attain a new cultural independence.’ It was a kind of autonomy more akin to the situation that had existed prior to the founding of the People’s Republic in 1949.[xii]

While avoiding direct confrontation with the official ideology, these intellectuals in effect began to challenge its dominance in every field of thought, and by so doing would over time provide canny status quo thinkers with a new vocabulary for their own project of party-state renovation. The public realm for intellectual debate was to flourish in the 1990s although the consensual environment shared by different schools of thinkers and cultural activists was ruptured first by the 1989 protest movement and the subsequent purge of elitist activists, and then again by the effects of the economic boom that followed in the wake of Deng Xiaoping’s 1992 ‘tour of the south’. During the Jiang Zemin era (effectively ending in 2002), this relative efflorescence would continue, although with the rise of Hu Jintao-Wen Jiaobao, a more interventionist form of ideological policing became evident, although it was far from always efficacious.

In the 1980s, intellectual contestation had generally centred on debates about abstract ideas and theoretical issues in the belief that it was through cultural and national transformation that China would be revitalized. Educated urbanites long excoriated under Maoist cultural policies presumed that this new ‘Enlightenment project’ was their responsibility, and members of the intelligentsia were anxious to play the role of patriot-savant supposedly central to the identity of the traditional educated caste. Following the successes, and excesses, of the economic reforms during the 1990s and ‘naughties’, however, engaged intellectuals related their disagreements more directly to economic and political programs, as well as to class or caste differences. In an age during which much of the ‘capital accumulation’, that is, superficial economic prosperity, that had been the goal of earlier reforms and revolutions seemed to have been realized, the nature of this affluence and the inequities it presented now came to the fore as issues of pressing importance. The intelligentsia had, throughout the twentieth century, argued bitterly over the merits of a dizzying array of developmental theories, political programs, economic systems and cultural paradigms. Now, in the new millennium, debates and intellectual programs began to revolve around not simply how to achieve power and prosperity, but the dilemmas of power and prosperity per se, as well as the issues related to China’s global role.

It was now relevant to consider how the wealth of Chinese experience—an experience as vital, continuous, nuanced and multifarious as the Chinese world itself—engages both with some of the big and the small questions related to the human condition. By 2007, some international interlocutors also thought it timely to explore jointly with Chinese thinkers how, while pursuing the needs of an intelligentsia in the specific socio-political and historical framework of the present, they were engaging more deeply with issues related to a shared humanity.[xiii]

[New Note: See Gloria Davies, Geremie R. Barmé and Timothy Cheek, Chinese Visions: A Provocation, in China Heritage Quarterly, Issue 16 (December 2008).]

Economic wealth and the vision of a strong and prosperous China—or even the reverse, the looming menace of an economically imperiled, crisis-ridden and socially divided nation—made the debates about the history of modernity in China and the future it faced both relevant and urgent. Although past controversies had been launched from a common ground, and a general wariness of monopolistic party rule had existed among diverse cultural and intellectual worlds from the late 1970s, now questions were disputed on the basis of vastly different, even mutually exclusive, academic and theoretical frameworks, as well as social experiences and personal agendas.

The growth of popular market spaces was not, as revolutionary vis-à-vis the ordained cultural order as many observers would claim. Nonetheless, the rise of a local rock and pop (dubbed by some ‘Mandopop’—that is, Mandarin rock-pop) scene, the mass publishing market with its plethora of entertainment and lifestyle journals, mainland commercial and party advertising, and so on, did constitute an active response by local culture producers to the incursion of off-shore cultural forms and capital. Many of these phenomena were covered in the new millennium by such websites as, founded by Jeremy Goldkorn. However, in the years following Deng Xiaoping’s 1992 tour, during which he openly criticized ‘leftist’ thinking (that is, political opposition to the accelerated market reforms, the privatization of state industries, and so on), the most vocal and concerted attacks on the Communist Party’s reformist agenda and its socio-political impact came not from the semi-independent intelligentsia, or fringe cultural figures, but from within the party itself.

The hostility of the official left, a group of establishment thinkers and writers who were derided by their public critics as ‘red fundamentalists’ 原紅旨主義者, also found expression in a number of public forums that had been created following 4 June. As they were routed by policy shifts and marginalized during the 1990s, many of the true believers decamped to institutions and publications on the fringes of power. Their journals covered both cultural and ideological issues and, throughout the decade, they produced a constant stream of criticism—and in many cases vitriol—aimed at the most divisive elements of the party’s program.[xiv] They also launched attacks on an array of ideological soft-targets, in particular individuals whom they regarded as being dangerous revisionists, the chief object of their spleen being Wang Meng 王蒙, the writer and former Minister of Culture (1986-89).

In the mid 1990s, the Australian-based Chinese journalist and oral historian Sang Ye 桑曄 questioned one retired high-level cadre about his views of the degeneration of the revolution and his opposition to the reform policies. He said that,

…starting with the Third Plenum of the Eleventh Party Congress in 1978, we have pursued a dangerous rightist policy. We’ve now gone so far to the right that we’ve abandoned the basic principles of Marxism and the objective rules of social development.

…[T]hings have reached a point that anyone with a conscience, anyone who cares about the fate of our nation, just has to weep at the dire predicament we are in.[xv]

Retirees like this former minister muttered glum condemnations in private while some of their colleagues memorialized the Central Committee through secret petitions, but from the mid 1990s a number of writers chose to speak out publicly against the market reforms that they argued were undermining what remained of both the ethos and the rationale of the revolution.

Their protests were aired in a media debate about what was called the ‘humanist spirit’ and ‘kowtowing to the vulgar’. The burgeoning of mass-market popular culture led to despair among people who had only recently regained their faith in (and affirmed their identification with) the tradition of the Chinese literati-scholars, the political and cultural mandarins of the past. It was a self-identification that reinforced an abiding belief in the socialist dogma of the artist as prophet. Having borne witness to the decay of the cultural welfare state over the past decade, they now saw their own influence waning. They felt that writers who profited from the tide of commercialisation were prostituting their talents and betraying the cause of a revived literati culture.

[New Note: See Kowtowing to the Vulgar, Chapter Eleven in In the Red: contemporary Chinese culture, pp.281-315.]

Among the most outspoken critics of the new marketplace and its advocates were two ex-Red Guard novelists, Liang Xiaosheng 梁曉聲 and Zhang Chengzhi 張承志. They issued dark warnings about the effect that mass commercial culture was having on the ‘soul of China’. As Zhang wrote in an alarmist hyperbole partially inspired by Samuel P. Huntington’s writings on ‘the clash of civilizations’,

After the war of the civilizations, they should at least find in the rubble of the defeated a few bodies of intellectuals who fought to the death. I despise surrender. In particular, in this war of civilizations, I loathe intellectuals who have made a vocation out of capitulation.[xvi]

Appeals for a moral rearmament that would find its ordnance in the Maoist past were part of a strategy used by writers like Zhang to critique contemporary social, political and artistic realities. To question the status quo, the incursion of capital and the consumer tendencies of the society was a shrewd tactic in an avowed ‘war of resistance’. In the new century, these forms of opposition would help fuel the mass nationalism that would find increasingly virulent expression in 2008 (in particular during the uprising in Tibetan China and the international leg of the Olympic Torch Relay[xvii]) and again in the media and blogosphere attacks on Australia in mid 2009. For their part, Hu-Wen proved relatively adroit in availing themselves of ideas from both the old and the new left to support their policy of forging an ‘harmonious society’ 和諧社會. That is, a heavily policed, acquiescent but cashed up and smug China.

Opponents to the high dudgeon of self-styled patriots, however, were deeply suspicious of the presumption of the reform-era intelligentsia to harangue their fellows. Of these clear-headed critics, the most noteworthy was the novelist and essayist Wang Xiaobo 王小波 (d. 1997), an important figure who perhaps, more than any other 1990s writer, represented the urbane scepticism of people both weary and wary of that abiding afflatus of China’s chattering classes. ‘I respect your high-sounding ideas,’ he wrote, ‘but I’m less than anxious to have them shoved down my throat.’ Or as he remarked on the habits of the educated caste: ‘Chinese intellectuals particularly enjoy using moralistic paradigms to lecture others.’[xviii]

Indeed how useful or reliable were the tainted resources of high-socialist ‘leftism’, ones that were by the very nature of their place in contemporary Chinese life compromised and disingenuous? Was the objectivization of the past simply distorted and clouded by the subjectivist caste of those who lived and remember it, or needed to use it to justify themselves in the reformist era of collaboration? Again, a number of writers were equivocal about intellectual grandstanding and instead turned their attention to the detail of the past and attempted, through the writing of local histories for a general readership, to fill in some of the gaps of public knowledge, a fraught process that continues today.[xix]

Not all critics of either the moral revivalists or the ‘new leftists’ (see below), however, were as phlegmatic as Wang Xiaobo. The ideological control of the party had been such that many had suffered, or continued to suffer, directly from its manipulations, or at the hands of the people’s democratic dictatorship (the main organs of which were the police, the penal system, the armed police, the army and the judiciary). There were those who had been arrested for their unorthodox activities or views, denied publishing opportunities, or chances to travel, or refused improved housing conditions and promotion, as well as those who had been jailed, harassed by the police, and placed under surveillance. The draconian treatment of dissent did, if anything, increase in the new millennium, reaching an apogee (perhaps) in the 2008 Olympic Year and during the ‘anniversary year’ of 2009. They were emotionally and intellectually determined to see the one-party state weakened and undermined no matter what the cost. For them the marketplace was a welcomed ally in their quest. They preferred an enfeebled party-state that permitted direct resistance even if it meant that the new dominant market might well make that resistance little more than cosmetic.

For some publishers and editors, trepidation about the continued ability of the CCP to maintain national integrity, as well as to shore up its ideological and cultural hegemony, was virtually on a par with fears about the inundation of overseas capital and the multinational corporations that were energetically expanding into the Chinese cultural market. As one publisher remarked to me in late 1998: If you are a responsible intellectual you have to consider whether you are willing to live with the consequences of your opposition to the relatively free-wheeling status quo.

Individuals like my interlocutor contemplated a future ruled by the kind of Great Leader that the American journalist P.J. O’Rourke encountered during his late 1990s ‘worst of both worlds’ sojourn in fin-de-siècle Shanghai,

… omnipresent amid all the frenzy of Shanghai is that famous portrait, that modern icon. The faintly smiling, bland, yet somehow threatening visage appears in brilliant red hues on placards and posters, and is painted huge on the sides of buildings. Some call him a genius. Others blame him for the deaths of millions. There are those who say his military reputation was inflated, yet he conquered the mainland in short order. Yes, it’s Colonel Sanders.[xx]

In the ‘naughties’, the Colonel would be joined by China’s own burgeoning brands, like Heng Yuan Xiang (a major Olympic sponsor), Lenovo, Hai’er, to mention but a few.

Modernization and prosperity had been central to the aspirations and public discourse not only of the Chinese intelligentsia but also to the concerns of the broader population throughout the twentieth century. When, from the 1990s, the economic reforms created a version of modernization as well as its attendant problems in the urban centres of the nation, the debates about it took a new turn.

If the 1980s saw intellectuals and broad segments of the population gradually breaking away from the thrall of the socialist nation-state to articulate visions of the society and its future at variance with the official world, in the 1990s, a gradual reformulation of controversies and issues that had first resurfaced in the intellectual and cultural worlds took place. The topics of political reform, Enlightenment values and modernity were now interrogated in more comprehensive terms and in relation to the history of modern Chinese history, conventionally dated from the Opium War of 1840.

A number of the key intellectual critics—as well as some of the most controversial participants in the debates—were themselves historians, or specialists in aspects of intellectual history. Their number included academics like Xiao Gongqin 蕭功秦, Lei Yi 雷頤, Wang Hui 汪暉, Xu Jilin 許紀霖, Qin Hui and Zhu Xueqin 朱學勤. They were thinkers who constantly shifted between their studies of socio-political issues of the past, the development of historical narratives during the century, and an engagement in contemporary polemics. Although these individuals were attracted to different academic schools of thought, from the early 1990s they were all active as media cultural commentators. Writers like Xu Jilin recognized that even though the intelligentsia no longer enjoyed its previous prominence, there was still a place for the socially engaged cultural commentator.

One can take on the role of observer, a person whose particular intellectual and cultural standpoint attempts an independent critique of various social phenomena. You try to participate actively in the cultural evolution of your world… and try to use the mass media to give voice to your conscience.[xxi]

Others were not so much concerned with conscience as with the age-old sense of intellectual entitlement to guide, incite and pander to public opinion. Writers like Wang Xiaodong 王小東, Song Qiang 宋強, Zhang Xiaobo 張曉波 and ilk followed in the footsteps of 1980s firebrands like He Xin 何新 and mined the rich vein of xenophobia that they expressed in the colourful Chinese idiom of high dudgeon. It meshed nicely with broader party-state prerogatives and allowed its advocates to cloak themselves as independent thinkers who were just patriots at heart. In the profitable media environment of the new millennium the rabid declamations of writers like Wang (he and his fellows produced a grumpy best-seller in 2009 titled China Is Unhappy) were something of a mass-media bellwether.[xxii]

After 1989, various divisions within the intellectual and cultural worlds laid the basis for the conflicts of the 1990s and beyond. One group of intellectuals, academics, writers and propagandists tended to devote its energies to developing theoretical approaches and formulating practical policy strategies to serve the party-state, to participate in what was called ‘systemic innovation’ 制度創新. Supporting the secular socialism of post-totalitarianism, these strategists and academic thinkers-cum-advisers concentrated their efforts on aiding the emerging market-socialist state to modernize, augmenting its efforts at legitimacy as well as helping it respond effectively to the problems that the reforms (as well as its disavowed utopian socialist project) had created. Their aim was to achieve some form of ‘ideological hegemony’ for themselves while also helping buttress the legitimacy of the Communist Party.[xxiii] Beyond the calculated good will and efforts of these image and policy consultants, non-aligned critics were more generally drawn to ponder the questions of whether the party leadership could renew itself effectively, or if it was simply fatally burdened with the political talents of what John Maynard Keynes would have recognized as ‘third-generation men’. With the continue economic efflorescence of the country in the new millennium, the party may have been riven by scandals involving corruption and nepotism, but its renovation as a cogent political entity continued apace, despite repeated predictions of its premature demise by international commentators.

Some thinkers who were not necessarily unconditional supporters of the status quo wrote policy papers both for the political and the new economic elites. Their motivations were complex, they combined a sense of duty to the nation-state with the hope of achieving a public profile while at the same time providing a rationale for the activities of (or a reasoned limitation on) the power holders. The issues that many of these thinkers tussled with concerned the balance between equity and liberalism, market power and political stability, social order and legal reform, national sovereignty and global capital. Concocting strategies that could help the party renovate itself and possibly move towards greater plurality was, for many of these activists, the best way China could avoid going through another revolution and suffering the social dislocation, mass deprivation and political confusion that they felt would inevitably result. National crisis was not some distant or inchoate fear, but an overshadowing spectre reinforced both by China’s history from the 1840s onwards and the more recent collapse of the former socialist countries to the West. This was further reinforced from 2000 by the threat of ‘colour revolutions’ in the old Soviet Bloc in which protesters (students, NGOs and public intellectuals) used nonviolent means to effect political change.

For many other writers, however, the fate of the party and its immediate future were no longer issues of particular relevance. Broad-based political, social and cultural criticism became one of the fundamental ways in which circumspect dissent was expressed. Authors of historical tracts, as well as publishers, took advantage of the commercial market to help fill in the ‘white spots’ of history and inform contemporary debates. As a range of analysts within China warned that the economic reform strategy in its 1990s’ form had all but run its course, many publicly-active intellectuals—that is academics and writers who engaged in the major intellectual and cultural disputes of the decade in the print media and at specialist forums—were tending to form into two camps. These were divergent, even opposing, groups in the debates surrounding the central issues of twentieth-century Chinese cultural and political polemics.

In the 1990s, the formerly dominant state-sponsored ideology experienced further transformation; the fustian party credo still maintained a notional media hegemony, even though the actual pursuit of political cohesion was increasingly limited to party organs and official discourse. In administrative terms, the aging and retirement of staunch traditional propagandists left the way open to a cadre of younger men and women who functioned more as party PR people than political watchdogs. The downsizing (or ‘rightsizing’) of the party apparat also meant that there were fewer reliable apparatchiki devoted to the persecution of clandestine or even egregious ideological errors. Added to this was the ravenous publishing market hungry for new books and periodicals, as well as the commercialization of transgressive thought. As a result writers and thinkers had to compete openly for the approval of like-minded activists, a share of public attention, media success and even official approbation. All of these developments had a significant impact on the commercialized controversies of the past twenty years, such as the clash over humanistic values of 1993 onwards, the strife regarding the ‘kowtowing to the vulgar’ a few years later (mentioned earlier), and the furore surrounding pop nationalistic screeds like China Through the Third Eye and China, Just Say No! and China Is Unhappy. In the late 1990s, a number of factors had given a focus to the last major intellectual clash of the century while setting the scene for continued contestation in the new millennium: a previously buoyant economy coupled with a looming fiscal crisis and social upheavals; concerns about the agendas of the entrenched party bureaucrats and its big business allies; US hegemony and the impact of global capital; and the effects these were having on the population at large.[xxiv]

The mainland characterization, or even assumed self-description, of the two major opposing groups of independent intellectuals that developed from the mid 1990s was that they consisted of neo-liberals and neo-leftists, or to follow Xu Jilin’s early 1999 appellation of the latter group, the new left-wing.[xxv] The initial public conflict between these schools of thought was sparked by Wang Hui, the then editor of Reading 讀書who was also a prominent intellectual historian.[xxvi] In a lengthy analysis of the post-Cultural Revolution Chinese intelligentsia and its relationship to the question of modernity published in late 1997, Wang interrogated the ability of contemporary mainland thinkers to respond to the complex issues related to China’s modernization and involvement in the global economy.[xxvii] A year later, he further challenged his fellows by issuing a theoretical discussion of scientism, the accepted socio-political and historical paradigms of modernity, and the nation-state in twentieth-century Chinese intellectual history.[xxviii] It was from the publication of Wang’s 1997 essay in particular that the two polemical groupings developed contending public positions and thereafter engaged in a high-profile ‘confrontation of caricatures’.

An extensive and widespread theoretical interest in liberalism had developed from the 1980s. This body of thought and theory was influenced by the introduction, or popularization, of the writings of a range of thinkers from John Locke and Jean JacquesRousseau, to Karl Popper and F.A. Hayek, as well as by the efforts of writers in Beijing, Shanghai and elsewhere to ‘unearth’ and write about Chinese proponents of liberal thought from earlier in the century.[xxix] By the mid 1990s, there was, as Xu Jilin observed, a de facto ‘thorough-going victory of liberalism in the realm of popular ideas. The word “liberalism” itself had achieved a cultural cachet previously enjoyed by such terms as democracy and science.’[xxx] Writers of all backgrounds and persuasions, philosophers, historians, as well as literary critics, were gradually drawn into considering the impact of these ideas and employing them, as well as other theoretical models, to come to terms with the vast changes China was experiencing.

Finding inspiration in particular in the neo-classical liberalism of Hayek, thinkers and writers advocated the pursuit of an Enlightenment agenda: their concern was to see the project of modernization in China fulfill its promise to allow for independent thinking and democratic reform, as well as providing a legal framework for the protection of property rights and economic freedoms. As ideological policing waned for a time in 1997-98, writers in this camp gave voice to their opposition to the Communist Party and called for further market reforms. They talked directly of the need for a program of political change, along with democratic and legal reforms, that would bring the nation into line with what they identified as accepted international practice.[xxxi] Such ideas continued to flourish in the new millennium, even as the Bush presidency did much to discredit the image of the US both as a democracy and as an international leader. With the 2008-2009 Global Financial Crisis, the neo-liberal triumph of the West was brought into question, paradoxically along with the post-Enlightenment values that neo-liberalism had done so much to undermine.

Many thinkers entered the fray, and their writings covered a range of positions that reflected a spectrum of opinion that actually belied the overall impression that there was agreement even within these avowedly opposing groups. A number of observers remarked that they thought the controversy between neo-liberals and neo-leftists rather bizarre, given the fact that, as they put it: ‘In you there is a little bit of me, and in me there is a little bit of you’ 你中有我,我中有你. Be that as it may, while the neo-liberals were more than willing to be identified as such, the neo-leftists generally shied away from the label of leftism; it was a reluctance influenced by the negative connotation that ‘the left’ had acquired in China due to its historical associations with the extremism of the Maoist past.[xxxii] And here we should be mindful of the fact that all participants in Chinese intellectual debates were functioning in an environment that was both less ideologically confrontational (the authorities were generally reluctant to interfere directly, although this would change to an extent under Hu Jintao from 2002 on) and more commercially driven than ever before. In other words, well-articulated intellectual positions could accrue dividends in a range of ways within academia, the media and in terms of public exposure and intellectual profile.

The symbiotic relationship of dissenting individuals and groups could also be evaluated in terms of both group dynamics and long-term ‘outcomes’ and credibility. A person’s status and position during the next period of liberalization could be influenced if one did not perform in a manner acceptable to their intellectual-cultural peers during the previous phase of activism and repression. While we should be alert to the need to avoid assertions that there was some crude collective mentality at the heart of this performative activism, it would nonetheless be naive to ignore the realities of group dynamics when considering the style as well as the content of cultural and political apostasy.

The thinkers identified as the left-wing had first found their voice among overseas scholars and writers based in particular in the US. Although they initially published their views in Hong Kong journals like Twenty-first Century, which was founded in 1990,[xxxiii] gradually they came to enjoy overt support among mainland-based writers. Their stance, one particularly informed by their position in US academia, provided ‘a vigorous critique of the liberal ideology of the West and a call to transcend socialism and capitalism by developing a strategy for “systemic innovation” based on China’s particular path of modernization.’[xxxiv] Their credentials and post-colonial superiority did not impress everyone, however, and in 1995 the voluble philosopher Liu Dong 劉東 dubbed their writings a product of a ‘pidgin academic style’.[xxxv] Others, like Gloria Davies, have cogently argued that a range of Western-originated theories were employed as ‘a theoretical template for freeing Chinese scholarship from Western intellectual hegemony.’[xxxvi]

As they gradually formulated a general position in the Hong Kong and mainland media, and in sympathetic international academic journals, the ‘left-wing’ writers were particularly attentive to what they saw as being the collaboration between the socialist state and international global capital (although they were not particularly self-reflexive about how they profited from this Faustian compact). Some of their number analysed how intellectuals had been disarmed by their acceptance of an economic (and ideological) program that would not necessarily lead to a real social and market liberalization, or a democratization that could be enjoyed by all equally. They stressed that the reforms were fostering extreme inequalities, inequities both of class within China and in relation to international geopolitics in which the mainland would be dominated by overseas capital. They pointed to a new form of mass dictatorship by a cartel of international capital, the super-rich oligarchy, or ‘monopoly elite’ 壟斷精英 of China and party cronies. And they warned that the liberal intellectuals would, by default, provide a cultural and historical justification for the power holders as this process unfolded.

If the neo-liberals championed the middle class and the ‘level playing field’ of the market, aiding (as their critics saw it) the interests of both domestic and international capital—and saw in the rise of the market the possibility for equitable modernization that would eventually benefit society as a whole—then the new left-wing was deeply sceptical about the democratizing benefits of market reforms. They increasingly took a position in defence of ‘mass participatory democracy’ 全民民主, a vague formulation that notionally favoured the exploited masses and the rapidly-growing underclass. As Cui Zhiyuan 崔之元, an outspoken thinker of the ‘new left’ then based at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, put it, ‘The real struggle today is between reformers out for the people as a whole, and reformers out for themselves.’[xxxvii] Some on the left stressed the need for a stronger state that could effectively limit inequities, prevent domination by foreign/private capital, and shore up national unity. According to the Tsinghua University historian Qin Hui, an active participant in the debates, the irony of the situation was that both sides in this rhetorical stand-off should have been able to find common cause in opposing extremist positions; that is to say, the liberals should have concentrated on opposing authoritarianism, while the left-wing ‘social democrats’ should have been on guard against populism. Instead, they identified a common enemy in each other. But the issues involved in this intellectual jostling were rooted in a complex heritage of thinker as moral exemplar. Again, as Gloria Davies has noted,

The polemicity of Chinese critical inquiry is indicative of the moral significance that Chinese intellectuals attach to the dissemination of beneficial ideas, and this moral significance is itself a centuries-old Confucian legacy that idealizes intellectual praxis as spiritual and political stewardship.[xxxviii]

Something that added an edge to these acrimonious debates was the crucial issue of perceived political impotence. Communist Party monopoly rule effectively deprived participants in the rancorous intellectual exchanges from utilizing any direct political or systemic mechanism through which they could implement their ideas beyond exercising a measure of influence on party leaders. For their part, the powerholders increasingly took up some of the ideas generated by left-leaning writers, in particular those related to the rural economy and social justice. Elements of these discussions were incorporated into the formal party platform in October 2007 and even feature the ‘concept of scientific development’ 科學發展觀 promoted during the Hu Jintao era.

The hegemony of the one-party state both frustrated the intelligentsia and at the same time it afforded them an unprecedented freedom to debate the abstract issues central to twentieth-century Chinese intellectual life. The left-wing, while energetic in its critiques of liberalism and the market, remained unenthusiastic about joining forces or openly advocating any concrete political program or strategy to deal with what they perceived as being a continuing parlous situation. Certainly, some of their number advocated a reinvigorated central government and putting a brake on the market and foreign capital, while expanding the state’s redistributive role. Similarly, the spectrum of liberal thinkers actively advocated change within the context of the existing political system—and their demands in this context were not that different from the protesters of 1989, or the small number of public dissidents during the 1990s[xxxix]—but they shied away from direct political action or the forming of public lobby groups, let alone finding fellowship with the labouring masses, as so many left-leaning thinkers in the 1920s had done. When liberal thinkers made even the most modest attempts to unite in common cause, and for the common good, the results were dire. This was particularly evident in 2008 when the outspoken critic Liu Xiaobo 劉曉波 and others organized a manifesto, Charter 08 零八憲章, a petition signed by over three hundred intellectuals and human rights activists to promote political reform and democratization. Some seventy signatories were questioned by the police, and Liu himself was detained and eventually arrested in June 2009 on ‘suspicion of inciting the subversion of state power’.

Han Yuhai 韓毓海, a professor of literature at Peking University, became one of the most extreme public opponents of liberalism. His critiques were so splenetic that one was reminded of the ‘sulphorous stench’ 火藥味 of Cultural Revolution-period denunciations. Han declared that the market liberals’ support for social and political stability for the sake of economic development (and, theoretically, long-term societal transformation) was little more than a justification for market rapaciousness; it served to protect and further the interests of entrenched elites, mitigated against majority political participation and indeed frustrated attempts at bona fide democratization. In one particular screed entitled ‘Behind the “liberal” pose’, Han stated, ‘liberalism has enjoyed ascendancy because it proffers a theoretical framework that allows right-wing politics to overcome its legitimacy crisis.’[xl] Han insisted that the liberals were giving succour to the party-state and the status quo; stability was essential for economic prosperity, and the threat of a collapse in China was being used by soi-disant liberals as an argument against democratic rebellion, concerted and organized opposition, or radical resistance. In the new millennium, Han was one of those who argued in favour of reassessing the Maoist cultural purges of the early 1950s, calling for a rewriting history not from a liberal angle (as advocated by non-official historians like Dai Qing 戴晴) but from the left.

Han Yuhai proclaimed the so-called liberal intelligentsia of China to be bankrupt; they had lost any claim to legitimacy themselves and a role in the (presumably more democratic and egalitarian) future of the nation. But even for extremists like Han, not all liberalism was bad—even if, as a label, it was useful for tagging one’s opponents and condemning them holus-bolus. In the same article Han referred positively to Isaiah Berlin, the political philosopher whose death in 1997 was widely commented on in China, and who was recalled as a ‘great herald of liberalism’. Indeed, in Berlin’s writings we find a clear articulation of the issues that hound Chinese intellectual debate,

Both liberty and equality are among the primary goals pursued by human beings throughout many centuries; but total liberty for wolves is death to the lambs, total liberty of the powerful, the gifted, is not compatible with the rights to a decent existence of the weak and the less gifted… . Equality may demand the restraint of the liberty of those who wish to dominate; liberty—without some modicum of which there is not choice and therefore no possibility of remaining human as we understand the word—may have to be curtailed in order to make room for social welfare, to feed the hungry, to clothe the naked, to shelter the homeless, to leave room for the liberty of others, to allow justice or fairness to be exercised.[xli]

Although both sides could quote Berlin at each other, the glaring disparity in the intellectual underpinnings of the groups made a dialogue between them problematic. The neo-liberals identified with the post-May Fourth tradition of cultural renewal in China and basically accepted celebratory views of the Western Enlightenment and late-twentieth century Euro-American market democracy. For their part, the neo-leftists generally drew on post-modernist, post-colonial and neo-Marxist theories, as well as on more conventional Marxism-Leninism and Mao Thought.

Critics like Xu Jilin were intent on maintaining independence from these two, notionally opposed, polemical camps. In 1989, Xu had written an essay on the ‘vicious cycle of the May Fourth movement’ in which he reviewed the history of the first decade of the reform era and expressed concern that the nation was entering another period similar to that of the May Fourth when the opposing forces of iconoclasm and conservatism had led to bitter intellectual and cultural infighting. The strife of the 1920s had become endemic to public debates thereafter, and politicized academic life in China for decades.[xlii] Writing again in 1998, this time in retrospect over the intellectual history of the past twenty years, Xu concluded,

A unified intellectual sphere in which people can engage in profitable dialogue no longer exists. The consensus of the New Enlightenment [of the 1980s] has collapsed, very much in the way that it did during the original May Fourth movement. Does this mean we are to experience some inescapable historical destiny?[xliii]

Although I would be tempted to question whether such a consensus ever really existed,[xliv] a nightmarish vision that predicted that the present would disappear in such a circular motion up itself made for an appealing cultural trope. Confrontations could aid and abet ideological opponents in a media environment still circumscribed by the Communist Party. Indeed, the public clash of competing views tended to enhance extreme positions and led to ‘a certain idiom of outrage and vituperation that belongs to the levels of escalation at which debate is no longer possible.’[xlv] During the late 1990s, each side became more extreme in its critique of the other; where a middle ground existed it was often undermined by rhetorical overkill. Both sides felt that their opponents were conspiring 合謀 with the authorities. Thus, ‘leftists’ were identified as being part of the party-state status quo; while ‘rightists’ were seen as serving the interests of international capital and new commercial elites within China.

In early 1999, a number of non-aligned Shanghai-based scholars including Xu Jilin gathered to discuss the contest between the new left and the new right. Xu in particular pointed out that there were traditional intellectual resources, a lineage of liberalism that dated back to the 1920s, that could perhaps help foster a new environment for rational disputation.[xlvi] What was required was, and here Xu referred to the political philosopher John Rawls, an ‘overlapping consensus’, that is to say, an ‘overlapping consensus of reasonable comprehensive doctrines’.[xlvii]

Just where that consensus could be found could not easily be articulated in public. As Joseph Brodsky observed in an open letter to the former Czech dissident Václav Havel shortly after the latter’s rise to political power in the early 1990s, ‘in the police state absolutes compromise each other since they engender each other.’ For one point of commonality among the disputants described above appeared to be a shared opposition to the one-party state as it was presently constituted. And although writers would meditate in their long analyses on the multifarious crises facing China, direct confrontation with the authorities was still limited to a relatively small, and at times highly public and vocal, coalition of dissidents, people of conscience and professionals (their number increased in the 2000s). Again, as Brodsky noted about dissidents in socialist Czechoslovakia, overt opponents to the powers-that-be were often a ‘convenient example of the wrong deportment and thus a source of considerable moral comfort, the way the sick are for the healthy majority.’[xlviii] Their existence cautioned others not to catch cold.

In the left-wing stance, however, there was also an explicit critique of the monism of globalization and liberalism current in China from the early 1990s. It was a critique that went back to the origins of the 1970s reform policy itself when the incipient economic policies were justified not only as a necessity, but as part of a continued effort to link the nation with the grand trends of market-oriented developmentalism. The 1990s left-wing questioned the new holism, the view that there was one program or rationale that promised through its realization the resolution of the myriad of problems of contemporary life—political, social, cultural and economic. Thus the loose collective of Chinese left-wing thinkers came to articulate an opposition to democratic capitalism and the ideology of a universal civilization that John Gray identified as the ‘last false Utopia of the twentieth-century’: globalization.[xlix]

But to accept at face value the wholesale (perhaps even ritualistic) condemnation of liberals by writers like Han Yuhai is easily misleading. Liu Junning 劉軍寧, for example, was a prominent Beijing-based advocate of liberalism and the editor of the main liberal journal, Res Publica (Liu subsequently lost his job and traveled to the US for an extended period of ‘research’ as an independent scholar). In his editorial introduction to a collection of essays on pre-1949 liberalism and the history of Peking University published at the time of the school’s centenary in 1998, Liu noted that, although the Chinese intelligentsia had been captivated by holistic projects from the 1920s, when it came to the economic realities of their own environment they were often at a complete loss. Throughout the century they shared a skepticism regarding the role of free markets and the need for the growth of a strong middle class. For them ‘the allure of totalitarian patterns of thought was paramount.’ Liu argued that although the intelligentsia had at times shown itself to be passionately interested in cultural liberalism and a measure of political freedom, in regard to socio-economic realities the disparate members of the nation’s liberal thinkers had always ‘been basically out of touch with their environment. They have never really been part of the normal Chinese community, rather they have been sequestered in an ivory tower.’[l]

Intellectuals debating these issues in the pages of learned journals, often employing the guarded language required by an environment of official censorship, was one thing. But change would not necessarily come from the refined ‘wonking’ of the chattering classes or trahison des clercs. Dissidents felt that only popular agitation would allow disparate social forces to have a say in the direction and protection of their own lives, as well as in national politics. Other nonaligned intellectuals, professionals (in particular lawyers) and social activists attempted in a myriad of ways—through private, small-scale charity projects, covert foundation activities, legal cases, and so on—to engage actively in civic actions that would benefit their fellows. In the Hu-Wen ‘harmonious society’ they were identified and sequestered or silenced by means of various state sanctions, or just by sheer brute intimidation. However, for those imbued with the ideologies of national salvation and participation, to be materially well-off but politically dispossessed, a member of the underclass or itinerant labour force, or being engaged but compromised within a system that would allow the acquisition of capital but maintained electoral disenfranchisement and political impotence, was deeply frustrating. The hope, follies and failure of 1989 and the quest for systemic change and political reform that was central to the concerns of thinkers, cultural activists, progressive politicians and people of conscience at the time remained issues central to the political agenda twenty years on. Enforced political impuissance and the internecine warfare obsessed the intelligentsia, and for moderate thinkers like Xu Jilin and his fellows, it was increasingly evident that when major changes did come the niceties of political discussion could once more be overridden by restive mass sentiment. This was something made evident during the powerful, and vitriolic, extrusions of ‘mainstream opinion’ 主流民意 in relation to the Tibetan rebellion, the Western media reporting on China and the Xinjiang upheaval in 2008-2009.

At the advent of the new millennium, as the Communist Party held its Sixteenth Congress in late 2002, here was the dilemma that the intelligentsia and cultural activists would continue to face:

  • Was the role of the independent critic or feisty artist enough to satisfy participants in the bitter debates about the state of the nation and its future?
  • Was the 20th-century tradition of political agitation to remain obscured by the Communist Party’s purges of the early 1950s, the repression of the Hundred Flowers, the ‘mass democracy’ of the Cultural Revolution, the crushing of the Democracy Wall dissidents, and the purges of the 1980s, as well as the bloodshed of 1989, and the quelling of dissidents in the late 1990s?
  • Would elite intellectuals who proffered analyses of the nation’s woes find fellowship with dissidents who were willing to confront the government, or workers and peasants whose outrage at exploitation led them to rebel?
  • Or was the reconstitution of the intellectuals’ mission something that encouraged circumspection and inactivity?
  • Did international cachet count more for local street-cred?

This ‘cult of transgression without risk’[li] found adherents at all points of the political spectrum, while a cult that did not really transgress, like that of the Buddho-Daoist Falun Gong meditation sect that was outlawed in mid 1999, ironically posed risks for its adherents, and was celebrated by many internationally as a misunderstood force for good. While Falun Dafa’s pastiche of religious practice appealed to some, others cleaved to an electronic deus ex machina.

The year 2009 was one of weighty remembrance in China. The major party-state anniversary of 1 October marked the sixtieth year since the founding of the People’s Republic of China. Earlier in the year 4 May marked the ninetieth anniversary of a student protest movement that is a symbol of national awakening, as well as of democratic aspiration. During 2009, such significant anniversaries were commemorated with due pomp and circumstance in the official media and dissected at length by learned gatherings. Others—those events best thought of as ‘dark anniversaries’—passed by in an atmosphere of heightened alertness, security crackdowns and official anxiety. These dark anniversaries are the silent markers of quelled protests, social unrest and state violence: events like those of 1959 in Lhasa, the closing down of the Xidan Democracy Wall in 1979, the tragedy of 1989 and the religious repression of 1999. They all offer other stories, and a contentious heritage, that continue to play a role in the unsteady growth of the strong unitary modern state.

These years and the days within them offer a penumbra of history; they stand in shaded contrast to the vaunted moments of commemoration, those anniversaries which bask in the merciless glare of publicity and enjoy official largesse. Although formally ignored, or recalled only in verso, dark anniversaries cast a gloomy shadow over the orchestrated son et lumière of state occasions. The Doppelgängers of these dead anniversaries haunt the living.[lii]

Xu Zhiyuan 許知遠, a prominent young Beijing-based journalist and blogger, commented in the lead up to 4 May 2009 on the abiding relevance of the May Fourth era of the early Republic (1917-27) to the politics and society of China today:

A year ago I happened to read an article by Chen Duxiu entitled ‘Patriotism and Self-awareness’. It was written in November 1914 on the eve of Yuan Shikai’s attempted restoration [of the monarchy]. It was a period of extreme intellectual confusion in China. The 1911 Xinhai Revolution and the hope ushered in by the promise of republican form of government had ended in a mood of profound despair… . Many people found themselves at a complete loss. Meanwhile, the foreign powers were pressing on China while Europe itself became embroiled in WWI giving an opening for Japan to advance its own agenda. All of this fostered a rising tide of patriotism.

It was at such a juncture that Chen Duxiu confronted the issue of the relationship between the individual and the nation-state. He was of the view that the individual should not be swept up blindly in the wave of patriotism, or allow themselves to be subsumed by the nation. He believed that everyone needed to make a rational determination as to whether the nation was working to safeguard the individual. Only a country that focused on the weal of its citizens was worthy of the individual’s love and support.

I read Chen Duxiu’s essay at a time when ‘patriotism’ 愛國 was fashionable once more [in the 2008 build-up to the Olympics], a time when young people were adding a red heart to their MSN messenger tags and were in a frenzy denouncing [the French department store chain] Carrefour…. Once more the individual was subsumed into the collective; but this patriotism was itself evacuated of content, it became little more than a form of sloganizing emotionalism.

Thereafter, I read Hu Shi, Lu Xun and Cai Yuanpei. I was amazed that essays written ninety years ago read as though they were about China today. The individual and society, the individual and the nation, the attitude to the outside world, the shortcomings of the national character, the issue of the tradition, individual liberation, the aims of education… . These are all topics that they discussed widely. The new vernacular form of Chinese was still not a particularly mature written language, and the people who lived between the old world of tradition and the new world used a language replete in classicisms. The resulting style was often repetitive, prolix, scatty and simplistic. Nonetheless, reading these authors today one is often astonished by their insight.[liii]

In particular, Xu was thinking of the baleful profile and influence of the àiguózéi 愛國賊 (‘nationalist scum’)—the vociferous patriots inhabiting the net.

[New Note: For Xu Zhiyuan in the Xi Jinping era, see Less Velvet, More Prison, 26 June 2017; and, Elephants & Anacondas, 28 June 2017.]

For some—both in China and internationally—it has been an article of faith that the growth of a Sinophone intellectual and information-oriented web-culture from the 1990s would herald the transformation of cultural protocols and even political possibility in the Chinese world. Certainly, it has allowed new outlets of younger thoughtful writers like Xu Zhiyuan. Moreover, webzine editors, writers, activists and default-censors include some of the most prominent established ‘independent’ and ‘critical intellectuals’ active since the 1980s. Many participate in the web-culture that they also critique and play a key role in mediating and shaping. Some have extended into cyberspace an intellectual stance and self-imposed role that has evolved in the complex arena of ‘reformist-era’ media (publishing, editing and writing, in particular, in the 1990s).[liv] Many of its producers are guided by the notion that using cyberspace to discuss problems and issues in Chinese intellectual praxis will nurture a virtual civil society into being, one that they assume will see enlightened public opinion winning out in the end over ill-informed ideas and misconceptions essayed both by the official media and populist discourse in China. That this parallels a cluster of views within international cyber-discussion which sees the net as creating an open community of netizens who will obviate socio-political and historical boundaries is, perhaps, no coincidence. It goes without saying that this notion is akin to a guiding principle to which most producers of cyber-texts subscribe, wherever they are physically located and whichever language they use.

An unprecedented openness and frankness seems to be apparent when one surveys the debates generated on the plethora of Chinese websites. In the years when web-debate has flourished (roughly from 1999), a glut of electronic text has appeared on diverse topics like the Cheung Kong Reading Awards of 2000, intellectual plagiarism, the awarding of the Nobel Literature Prize to the French-based writer Gao Xingjian, September 11, the China tours of Jacques Derrida and Jürgen Habermas, to name but a few of these topics. The discussions that have taken place around such current affairs issues and prominent intellectual tourists are textually uneven. Some authors publish under their own names while others assume pseudonyms, or both; some provide essay-length accounts, others script paragraph-length critiques, while some others contribute no more than a sentence or two, or lend support to or show disapproval of any one declared position through an appropriately worded subject heading. The unsolicited text-bite, as opposed to the media-massaged sound-bites generated by ordained experts, gives a currency to the kind of utterances previously sequestered in narrow specialist cultural journals while making public the private discussions of the culturally concerned.

In engaging with this new technologically-enabled and enhanced mode of discourse, it is arguable that the mode of production (that is, cyberspace publishing via Internet technology) can and does determine (although one must also be wary of technological determinism) the contents of the resulting discourse significantly more than print technology did for what we now regard as conventional print texts. The speed at which an electronic text can be composed and posted to draw almost immediate responses, composed and published in like manner in mere minutes, appears at first glance to alter in a radical way the nature and function of discourse as it has operated within a conventional print medium. The proliferation of critical themes and targets in supra-border Chinese intellectual cyberspace offers its readers, among other things, the novel experience of observing and participating in spectacles of disagreement that reflect existing rivalries between individuals and intellectual ‘factions’ and in the range of current opinions circulating in Chinese intellectual cultural circles. The speed of exchange and the opportunities for participation, or at least mud-raking and flaming, with sometimes only the limited filtering of messages make Internet acrimony more immediate and incendiary than print exchanges. [lv] There is a crucial difference between the economies that govern the production of conventional print and electronic publications, and the regulative controls to which these are subjected by publishers, the media authorities and the marketplace.

Newspaper and journal editorial boards deliberate on what is suitable for publication, mindful of the often vague but sometimes quite pointed and specific guidelines that issue through the party-state chain of command, and what ‘sells’ (or in the case of academic journals, what is ‘relevant’ to the field’s concerns, or indeed what can create a potentially rich new sub-area of inquiry) within the physical limits imposed by available page space, in accordance with publication deadlines and printing schedules that can be met only through reliance on a sizeable number of support staff. The webmaster, web editorial team or list owner, however, skims through postings, forced by the sheer quantities and types of responses received to reach quick decisions on what to post. In the context of cyberspace ‘freedom’ from the spatial constraints of the printed page, electronic textual arbiters would seem to be generally inclined towards favoring an inclusiveness as comprehensive as their websites are able to accommodate, while observing rudimentary protocols of discursive interaction derived from existing conventions that guide embodied exchanges in the seminar room or textual encounters in the pages of journals and newspapers.

But does the greatly accelerated rate of publication and access, increased space for plural commentaries and the transformed nature of what can be acknowledged as intellectual or critical discourse lead, as it were, naturally, to the emergence of an unprecedented degree of intellectual freedom and greater accountability? Increased access to textual production and consumption and a seemingly inexhaustible wealth of electronic publications on manifold themes and topics, might end up doing little more than shift existing modes of intellectual discourse and well-established structures of intellectual authority into a new virtual realm of expanded combative interaction of a kind that first found market validity in the humanism debate of the mid 1990s.

For the China academic (that is, the ethnic or non-ethnic scholar of Chinese Studies), on the net there is a virtual assemblage akin to all-that-can-be-said on a given topic of interest displayed as a long list of subject headings that tempt, along with those filed under the hot-buttons ‘next’ and ‘previous’, with the seductive promise of new important ‘findings’ only a cursor click away, supposedly providing immediate full-immersion into ‘Chinese’ opinion on a given topic or controversy. Prominent academic careers are being forged on the basis of interpretive mastery of issues debated on Chinese web forums. A new research industry unfolds (in China and abroad), one that harnesses techniques of empirical scholarship and textual analysis to the enterprise of charting an emergent virtual Chinese ‘public sphere’ whose perceived salient features could be variously represented, distilled as these are from the ongoing accrual of textual riches deposited at different sites, providing a republic of opinion in the guise of equal and equitable exchange with which to gauge the state of ‘Chineseness’, or at least to plumb the depths of concern and interest of the Chinese ‘internal audience’ of intellectual practitioners, at any given moment. For the Chinese cybertext reader and producer, this particular form of low-risk but circumvented public participation in debates that were hitherto largely the exclusive province of select groups of elite intellectuals is tempered by considerations of the consequences that attend such participation. And here we return to the circularity of notional resistance: if the market place of ideas is a bazaar for intellectual haggling where the rate of exchange depends on notoriety or recognition-value, is ‘resistance’ a performative act for the sake of other audience-participants? Long ago the proto-intellectual of twentieth-century China, Mao Zedong, had seen that determined acts of opposition required people to ‘get organized’. In the twenty-first century who is getting organized then, and for what end? From the Olympic era, resisting ‘the West’ has gained a new cachet, and in part it is the fruit of the carefully inculcated patriotism that the party-state began investing in following the tragedy of 1989.


In his 1991 manifesto, ‘A Stance of Rejection’, Zhou Lunyou had advocated cultural disengagement and disobedience. In the years since, market reforms as well as expanding areas of civil debate and social agitation have blurred the simple cultural antagonisms of the past. By 2009, the romance of resistance had taken on a new mien. As a result of foreign recognition, largesse and state tolerance the avowedly avant-garde culture of the 1980s and early 90s had been increasingly domesticated (and through state-supported ‘cultural creativity zones’ turned into a tourist attraction). In the terms of the revolution of resistance outspoken members of the intelligentsia found themselves variously on the defensive and on the offensive, participants in and opponents to the reforms that had given them a new lease on life, as well as a profile and income that none could have previously imagined. In the first decade of the new millennium an economically strong and politically stable People’s Republic of China stoked the resistance of those who would now rather speak out against the Old World Order rather than challenge the harmonious society that promised prosperity for the mere price of complicity.


Biographical Note (2000, updated for the 2010 edition of Chinese Society: Change, Conflict and Resistance):

Geremie R. Barmé is a Professor of Chinese History in the College of Asia and the Pacific, The Australian National University, and the editor of the e-journal China Heritage Quarterly ( His most recent books are The Forbidden City, London: Profile Books and Cambridge, Ma.: Harvard University Press, 2008, China Candid: the People on the People’s Republic, by Sang Ye, edited by Barmé, with Miriam Lang, Berkeley, University of California Press, 2006, and An Artistic Exile: a life of Feng Zikai (1898-1975), Berkeley, University of California Press, 2002. He also co-directed and wrote with Carma Hinton ‘Morning Sun’ (2003), a two-hour film about the Cultural Revolution (see, and was an associate director and co-writer with John Crowley of the three-hour documentary film dealing with the events of 1989 in Beijing, ‘The Gate of Heavenly Peace’ (1995), directed by Richard Gordon and Carma Hinton (see


* During the research I did for this essay, I profited from discussions with the following individuals in Shanghai and Beijing: Chris Buckley, He Ping, Li Shulei, Liang Xiaoyan, Liu Naiyuan, Liu Qing, Lu Yuegang, Tang Xiaodu, Wang Dingding, Wang Hui, Wang Xiaoming, Xu Jilin, Yan Bofei and Zang Di. My thanks also to the editors of this volume for their numerous useful suggestions on the earlier versions of this essay, as well as to Chris Buckley for his incisive and acerbic comments. The material that deals with Sino-cyberculture is based on material from a paper that I co-authored with Gloria Davies entitled ‘Have We Been Noticed Yet—Intellectual Contestation and the Chinese Web’, subsequently included in Edward X. Gu and Merle Goldman, eds, Chinese Intellectuals Between State and Market, London: RoutledgeCurzon, 2004, pp.75-108.

[i] Lu Xun, ‘Xiao zagan’, Eryiji, collected in Lu Xun quanji, Beijing, Renmin wenxue chubanshe, 1981, vol. 3, p. 532. From the translation by Simon Leys in his The Burning Forest: Essays on Chinese Culture and Politics, New York, Holt, Rinehart and Winston, 1985, p. 222. The first part of the quotation is:

Revolution, counterrevolution, nonrevolution.

Revolutionaries are massacred by counterrevolutionaries. Counterrevolutionaries are massacred by revolutionaries. Nonrevolutionaries are sometimes taken for revolutionaries, and then they are massacred by counterrevolutionaries, or again they are taken for counterrevolutionaries, and then they are massacred by revolutionaries. Sometimes, also, they are not taken for anything in particular, but they are still massacred by revolutionaries and by counterrevolutionaries.

[New Note: This quotation from Lu Xun was used as the Epilogue to Morning Sun 八九点钟的太阳, the history documentary on the Cultural Revolution that I co-directed with Carma Hinton and Richard Gordon, released in 2003.]

[ii] Quoted in Geremie R. Barmé, In the Red, on Contemporary Chinese Culture, New York, Columbia University Press, 1999, p. 37. For more on the ‘Not-not’ poets, see G. Barmé and John Minford, eds, Seeds of Fire: Chinese Voices of Conscience, New York, Hill & Wang, 1988, 2nd ed., pp. 405-406; and ‘Feifei zhuyi zhuanji’ in Jintian, 1998: 3, no. 42, pp. 55-96.

[iii] This is W.J.F. Jenner’s gloss on the term ‘transgressive’.

[iv] For details of what I call the ‘dark and light anniversaries’ of 2009, see China Heritage Quarterly (, Issues 17 & 18, March and June 2009 respectively.

[v] After 1989, a number of dispirited cultural activists turned to money making in the south. It was a trend obvious in intellectual discourse from around 1992, at first particularly in Shanghai where a number of intellectuals began playing the stock market and speculated on the real estate boom.

[vi] Evinced in the new Mao cult, revolutionary karaoke numbers, popular interest in pre-1966 feature films, and so on.

[vii] Michael Dutton, Streetlife China, New York, Cambridge University Press, 1998, p. 282.

[viii] Ibid.

[ix]  That is, ideocrats who supported elements of traditional Marxist-Leninist-Maoist theory, although few of the public, or internal, pronouncements by these figures was ‘Maoist’ in the pre-1976 or high-Cultural Revolution sense of the word.

[x] Xu Jilin, ‘Qimengde mingyun—ershi nianlaide Zhongguo sixiangjie’, Ershiyi shiji, 1998: 12, no. 50, pp. 4-13, at p. 5; translated by Barmé with Gloria Davies as ‘The Fate of an Enlightenment—Twenty Years in the Chinese Intellectual Sphere (1978-98)’, East Asian History, vol. 20 (December 2000). For a detailed study of the 1980s’ cultural foment, see Chen Fong-ching and Jin Guantao, From Youthful Manuscripts to River Elegy: The Chinese Popular Cultural Movement and Political Transformation 1979-1989, Hong Kong, Chinese University Press, 1997.

[xi] For an overview of responses to the intellectual and cultural ructions of the late 1980s, see On The Eve: China Symposium ‘89, Bolinas, California, 27-29 April, 1989, edited and annotated by Barmé, 1996 cyberpublication, at:

[xii] Xu Jilin, op. cit., p. 6.

[xiii] See Gloria Davies, Geremie R. Barmé and Timothy Cheek, ‘Chinese Visions: A Provocation’, in China Heritage Quarterly, Issue 16 (December 2008), at:

[xiv] Two leading oppositionist journals were The Pursuit of Truth (Zhenlide zhuiqiu) and Currents in Contemporary Thought (Dangdai sichao).

[xv]  From the interview ‘The Non-dissident’, in Sang Ye, China Candid: The People on the People’s Republic, Berkeley: University of California Press, 2006.

[xvi] Zhang Chengzhi, Wuyuande sixiang, edited by Xiao Xialin, Beijing, Huayi chubanshe, 1995, pp. 24-25, quoted in Barmé, In the Red, p. 308. Samuel P. Huntington’s The Clash of Civilizations and the Remaking of World Order, New York, Simon & Schuster, 1996, had and continues to have an inordinate impact in China.

[xvii] See my ‘Torching the Relay’ posted by China Beat on 4 May 2008, at:

[xviii] Wang Xiaobo, ‘Zhishifenzide buxing’, in his Wode jingshen jiayuan: Wang Xiaobo zawen zixuan ji, Beijing, Wenhua yishu chubanshe, 1997, p. 18; and ‘Zhongguo zhishifenzi yu zhonggu yifeng’, in his Siweide lequ, Taiyuan, Beiyue wenyi chubanshe, 1996, p. 21 respectively.

[xix]  An example of this kind of work was the journalist Lu Yuegang’s work on the state-induced famine in Fenghuo Village, Shaanxi Province. See Lu, Daguo guamin, Beijing, Zhongguo dianying chubanshe, 1998. More recent is the work of the journalist and historian Dai Qing on the fate of the public intellectual and philosopher Zhang Dongsun at the hands of Mao and his colleagues. See, for example, the 68th Morrison Lecture, ‘1948: How Peaceful was the Liberation of Beiping?’, China Heritage Quarterly, Issue 14 (June 2008), online at:

[xx] P.J. O’Rourke, ‘How to have the worst of both worlds: Shanghai’, in his Eat the Rich: a Treatise on Economics, New York, Atlantic Monthly Press, 1998, pp. 220-221. For a discussion of the impact of another US food giant, Ronald McDonald, in the north, see Yan Yunxiang, ‘McDonald’s in Beijing; The Localization of Americana’, in James L. Watson, ed., Golden Arches East: McDonald’s in East Asia, Stanford, California, Stanford University Press, 1997, pp. 39-76.

[xxi] Meng Meng, ed., 1999 dubai (juan yi), Shanghai, Shanghai yuandong chubanshe, 1998, pp. 57-58.

[xxii] See Joel Martinsen, ‘When China learned to say no’, in Danwei, 21 April 2008, at:

[xxiii] Xu Jilin, ‘Qimengde mingyun’, p. 11.

[xxiv] For an articulate presentation of these issues by well-informed mainland analysts, see Zhongguo zhanlüe yu guanli yanjiuhui shehui jiegou zhuanxing keti zu, ‘Zhongguo shehui jiegou zhuanxingde zhongjinqi qushi yu yinhuan’, Zhanlüe yu guanli, 1998: 5, pp. 1-17; Yang Fan, ‘Zhongguo jingji mianlinde weiji yu fanweiji duice’, Zhanlüe yu guanli, 1998: 5, pp. 18-27; and He Qinglian, Xiandaihuede xianjing—dangdai Zhongguode jingji shehui wenti, Beijing: Jinri Zhongguo chubanshe, 1998.

[xxv] The terms in Chinese are ziyouzhuyipai, xinzuopai and xinzuoyi respectively.

[xxvi] Dushu, produced by Sanlian Publishing in Beijing, was founded by Fan Yong in the late 1970s and, for twenty years, was a leading forum for public intellectual discussion. Wang Hui’s eventual removal from the editorship in July 2007 became in its own right a cause célèbre.

[xxvii] Wang Hui, ‘Dangdai Zhongguode sixiang zhuangkuang yu xiandaixing wenti’, Tianya, 1997: 5, pp. 133-50; translated by Rebecca E. Karl as ‘Contemporary Chinese Thought and the Question of Modernity’, in Social Text 55, Vol. 16, No. 2, Summer 1998, pp. 9-44.

[xxviii] Wang Hui, ‘Kexuezhuyi yu shehui lilunde jige wenti’, Tianya, 1998: 6, pp. 132-60.

[xxix]  During the 1980s, prominent works on this subject were translated from English, and writers like the journalist Dai Qing and Xu Jilin, among others, began introducing the reading public to the variety of liberal thought and leading pre-1949 liberal activists.

[xxx] Ibid. Xu identifies the idolization of the Cultural Revolution-period writings of Gu Zhun (both essays and diaries, for reactions to Gu Zhun’s posthumous literary debut, see Ding Dong and Chen Minzhi, eds, Gu Zhun xunsi lu, Beijing, Zuojia chubanshe, 1998) and the best-seller status of the 1997 translations of von Hayek’s The Road to Serfdom and The Constitution of Liberty, as well as the influence of Res Publica (Gonggong luncong), a journal edited by Liu Junning, as aiding the theoretical and public rise of liberalist thinking in China.

[xxxi] See, in particular, the introductory essays of Li Shenzhi and Liu Junning in Liu Junning, ed., Ziyouzhuyide xiansheng: Beida chuantong yu jindai Zhongguo, Beijing, Zhongguo renshi chubanshe, 1998, pp. 1-5; and the essays by a range of prominent thinkers in Dong Yuyu and Shi Binhai, eds, Zhengzhi Zhongguo: mianxiang xintizhi xuanzede shidai, Beijing, Jinri Zhongguo chubanshe, 1998.

[xxxii] Xu, op. cit., p. 13, note 14. See also Ren Jiantao, ‘Jiedu “xin zuopai”’, Tianya, 1999: 1, pp. 35-46.

[xxxiii] Based at The Institute of Chinese Studies, The Chinese University of Hong Kong, Twenty-first Century was edited by Liu Qingfeng and Jin Guantao. Throughout the decade this journal, which was increasingly available on the mainland, was one of the major forums for intellectual and cultural debate in the Chinese-reading world.

[xxxiv] Xu Jilin, op. cit., p. 11. These writers included, in particular, Gan Yang, Cui Zhiyuan, Sheng Hong, Wang Shaoguang and Hu Angang. For details of their early writings, see Xu, op. cit., p. 13, n. 15.  See also Xudong Zhang’s introduction to ‘Intellectual Politics in Post-Tiananmen China’, in Social Text 55, op.cit., pp. 1-8.

[xxxv] yangjingbang xuefeng. See Liu Dong, ‘Jingti renweide “yang jingbang xuefeng”,’ Ershiyi shiji, 1995: 12, pp. 4-13, and a response from Gan Yang, ‘Shei shi Zhongguo yanjiuzhongde “women”?’, Ershiyi shiji, 1995: 12, pp. 21-25.

[xxxvi] Gloria Davies, Worrying About China: The Language of Chinese Critical Inquiry, Cambridge, Ma.: Harvard University Press, 2007, p. 94.

[xxxvii] Quoted in Erik Eckholm, ‘Detour on Capitalist Road: Die-Hard Maoist Collective’, The New York Times, 7 January 1999.

[xxxviii] Davies, Worrying About China, p. 102.

[xxxix] For a range of the opinions regarding media freedom, as well as legal and democratic reform, see the 1998 volume of essays by leading liberal thinkers edited by Dong Yuyu and Shi Binhai, Zhongguo zhengzhi, op. cit.

[xl] Han Yuhai, ‘Zai “Ziyouzhuyi” zitaide beihou’, Tianya, 1998: 5, p. 17.

[xli] Isaiah Berlin, ‘The Pursuit of the Ideal’, in his The Crooked Timber of Humanity: Chapters in the History of Ideas, ed. Henry Hardy, London, Fontana Press, 1990, pp. 12-13. See also David Kelly, ‘The Chinese Search for Freedom as a Universal Value’ in Asian freedoms: the idea of freedom in East and Southeast Asia, edited by David Kelly and Anthony Reid, New York, Cambridge University Press, 1998, pp. 99-114.

[xlii] See Xu’s comments as translated in Geremie Barmé and Linda Jaivin, eds, New Ghosts, Old Dreams: China’s Rebel Voices, New York, Times Books, 1992, pp. 345-50.

[xliii] Xu Jilin, op. cit., p. 12.

[xliv] In regard to the 1980s, for example, one thinks of the overlapping but often antagonistic agendas of various intellectuals and cultural figures. There were also those dissidents, old and young, who rejected the elitist consensus entirely.

[xlv] J.M. Coetzee, Giving Offense, Essays on Censorship, Chicago, University of Chicago Press, 1996, p. 134.

[xlvi] See, for example, Xu Jilin, ‘Shehui minzhuzhuyide lishi yichan—xiandai Zhongguo ziyouzhuyide huigu’, Kaifang shidai, 1998: 4, pp. 13-20; and Jerome B. Grieder, Hu Shih and the Chinese renaissance: liberalism in the revolution, 1917-1937, Cambridge, Ma., Harvard University Press, 1970; and, Barmé, ‘Time’s Arrows: Imaginative Pasts and Nostalgic Futures’, in Gloria Davies, ed., Voicing Concerns: contemporary Chinese critical inquiry, Boulder: Rowman & Littlefield, 2001, pp. 226-257.

[xlvii] John Rawls, Political Liberalism, New York, Columbia University Press, 1993, p. 43. See also, pp. 140, 144ff. The Qinghua University historian Qin Hui was, in particular, an advocate of such an ‘overlapping consensus’. For a further discussion of this and related issues, see ‘In Search of a “Third Way”: A Conversation Regarding “Liberalism” and the “New Left Wing” by Xu Jilin, Liu Qing, Luo Gang, and Xue Yi’, translated by Barmé in Davies, Voicing Concerns, pp.199-226.

[xlviii] Joseph Brodsky, ‘Letter to a President’, written as a response to a speech by Václav Havel published in The New York Review of Books, 27 May 1993. For these quotes, see Brodsky, On Grief and Reason: Essays, London, Hamish Hamilton, 1996, pp. 215 & 214 respectively.

[xlix] John Gray, False Dawn: The Dilemmas of Global Capitalism, London, Granta Books, 1998, pp. 3 & 191 respectively.

[l] Liu Junning, ‘Beida chuantong yu jinxiandai Zhongguode ziyouzhuyi’, editor’s preface to Beida chuantong yu jindai Zhongguo, p. 9.

[li] This formulation comes from Pierre Bourdieu.  See his Acts of Resistance: Against the Tyranny of the Market, New York: The New Press, 1998, p. 12.

[lii] From my ‘Anniversaries in the light, and in the dark’, Editorial, China Heritage Quarterly, Issue 17 (March 2009), at:

[liii] Quoted in ‘Living the Heritage’, Editorial, China Heritage Quarterly, Issue 18 (June 2009), at:

[liv] For more on this environment, see Barmé, In the Red, pp.46-48, and Davies, Voicing Concerns, pp.18-21.

[lv] This kind of rapid-fire exchange was, as Gloria Davies and I argue in ‘Have We Been Noticed Yet?’, presaged in the big-character poster wars of the early Cultural Revolution period.


shùn, ‘accord with, submit, follow, comply’, in the hand of Zhao Yong (趙雍, 1289-1369). Source: 鄣南八詠詩卷