China's critics don't represent the voice of the Chinese people
China's politically-stifled intelligentsia has painted the recent train accident as a symbol of the Communist Party's failings, warning against the perils of rapid economic growth. But these Internet-wielding elite are venting personal frustration, not voicing the will of the Chinese people.
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Much of China’s political and literary history had been written to reflect the triumphs and sufferings of generations after generations of aspiring and practicing literati. Ever since the fall of imperial China, the Chinese intelligentsia has never ceased to identify itself as the inheritors of the Shidafu mantle with a rightful claim to political power. During the Mao era they were kept completely on the sidelines and sometimes brutally repressed. Since Deng’s reform 32 years ago, they have seen their livelihoods improve and liberties expanded significantly.Skip to next paragraph
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But modern China was established by the Chinese masses, led by the Communist Party, and today is run by political and commercial technocrats who are pointedly not literati and whose competency, though not perfect, is rather obvious. This has left this self-identifying and self-selecting group of people in a most awkward place: They are members of the intelligentsia living comfortably but without political power to which they feel a special entitlement based on long historical tradition. They have become pseudo-literati.
Not being able to go into politics, many pseudo-literati have over the years gone to work in China’s highly fragmented media industry. In that, they found themselves even more frustrated. Their desire to influence politics is restrained and sometimes repressed by the political authority of the central government. Such is China’s political system.
In their frustration they have bought into the Western ideological notion that the media must be independent of political authority and has the moral responsibility to check the power of the state. Combining this ideological conversion with their feeling of lost entitlement to power, they have appointed themselves as the rightful opposition to Communist Party rule. And they have found the partiality and extremism of the digital public square their most fertile soil. They have sought to interpret the venting of dissatisfaction on the digital public square as representative of the will of the people.
The narrative of dissatisfaction isn't real
We have indeed seen this movie many times before. The dissatisfaction expressed around the dislocations caused by the building of the Three Gorges Dam was interpreted as a strong general opposition to the dam project itself. The Shanghai World Expo was attacked as a wasteful project unwelcome by the residents of Shanghai. One of their pieces of evidence was the loud expression of dissatisfaction many netizens expressed online about the construction chaos caused by the building of the large-scale Shanghai subway as a part of the Expo. They widely publicized the empty trains during the initial months of the new subway lines’ operation as proof.
But of course, any rider today will tell you that now one would have to squeeze into these trains every day – an interesting replay of what is being said about the high-speed railways.
What is central to all this is that the pseudo-literati, in their effort to carve out a moral space for themselves in the Chinese political landscape, have taken the expressions in the digital public square and created an Orwellian 1984 of Chinese public opinion. They are writing in their newspapers and spreading through their microblogs a virtual and parallel reality of Chinese society.