The British highbrow magazine Prospect has come out with its 2005 list of the 100 most influential “public intellectuals” in the world, which ranges across nations, disciplines and professions. The list includes five (ethnic) Chinese, all of mainland extraction, but not all of whom are living or working in mainland China.
“Public intellectuals” is a loaded and often dangerous term in China. In 2004, two months after Prospect magazine first came out with a list of 100 influential public intellectuals, China’s Southern Personalities Weekly (南方人物周刊) followed suit and came out with a similar issue, listing 50 top Chinese intellectuals (including ethnic Chinese outside the mainland) influencing China today.
The government was not pleased with all this talk of intellectuals and subsequently began a counterattack in official government media, scorning the idea of the public intellectual, in part because it smacked of elitism (as opposed to following the wisdom of the masses) and in part because “public intellectual” is used widely in English and the West to refer to an intellectual that “speaks truth to power” — ie, is a critic of the government or the powers that be. You can read David Kelly’s analysis of the issue or this article from the Christian Science Monitor.
This certainly poured cold water on the hopes of some China watchers that the Hu Jintao and Wen Jiabao government would be more liberal than that of their predecessor, Jiang Zemin on issues of free speech and media censorship. Nonetheless, the detention and harrassment of Chinese writers such as Yu Jie and Liu Xiaobo in December 2004 does not bode well for free speech in China — outspoken writers and critics that make comments about sensitive issues (in the case of Yu and Liu, this was their calling for a reappraisal of the official verdict on the Tiananmen “incident”) should not expect to do so and get away with it — if not completely blacklisted, they can at least expect to be graylisted.
Take the 2004 case of the former Beijing University journalism professor who railed against the Central Propaganda Department, which he accused of covering up many of the tragedies and atrocities of recent Chinese history. This little experiment in being a public intellectual was fairly short-lived — he’s been relieved of most of his teaching duties, and suffice it to say that his right to publish has been severely circumscribed.
So who made Prospect‘s cut this year, to join the ranks of people like Noam Chomsky, Chinua Achebe, and Ali al-Sistani? Wang Jisi is a foreign policy analyst who has recently published an article in Foreign Affairs about China’s relationship with the US (full article may not be completely accessible to non-subscribers), Zheng Bijian, interestingly enough, has also written an essay in the same issue (Sept/Oct 2005) of Foreign Affairs, so you can check out what they have to say there.
Also making the cut were economist Fan Gang (you can find an article relating to his thoughts on capital markets in China here) and two writers, Gao Xingjian and Ha Jin. Gao Xingjian was the 2000 Nobel Laureate in Literature, but he lives and writes in France (and is now a French citizen), and his books are unavailable in mainland China because he is officially considered a dissident. You can read the comments of a Texan who listened to the audio book of one of Gao’s novels while driving his car here. Ha Jin is a US-based writer of Waiting, which in 1999 won him the National Book Award. Many a Chinese person that Shanghaiist has talked to about Ha Jin, who only writes in English, his second language, find it perplexing that someone who writes a somewhat staid English prose could win a national award in literature. Hemingway made simple prose viable, and Conrad, Beckett and Kundera made writing in second languages similarly viable. But Shanghaiist knew Samuel Beckett, and Ha ain’t no Sam Beckett.
Public intellectuals on the road to debauchery? (Danwei)
Photo of Ha Jin taken from the B.U. Bridge.