In a move intended to muffle the voices of some of China's most prominent and independent scholars and activists, hard-line elements in the new Hu Jintao government are seeking to eradicate the concept of "public intellectuals" in China.
A new "gray list" has been created, sources say, of historians, economists, writers, environmentalists, and other Chinese who have offered a critical voice or been influential in recent years in Chinese society outside official circles, and who have started to be referred to as "public intellectuals." The term until now has connoted dignity and worth.
Public intellectuals in China are known for opposing brutal police practices; for promoting greater citizen participation, AIDS awareness, freer speech; and for advocating environmentally friendly policies.
Propaganda ministry officials are now seeking to eliminate the concept of public intellectuals, and to stop Chinese media from creating lists of such persons as a commercial enticement to buy their publications. In recent weeks, official warnings have gone out to state-run newspapers, magazines, and TV urging limits on the use of those who have been heard under the "public intellectual" moniker, and who often voice thought differing from China's party line.
"The attack is on the idea of independent thinking," says a Western scholar of China based in Beijing, who said the language of attack is "pretty hard."
The issue exploded in September after a list of China's "Top 50 Public Intellectuals" was published in Southern People's Week, a popular magazine in the province of Guandong.
The list of 50 included Hua Xingming, an opponent of careless demolishing of old architecture in Chinese cities; Gao Yaojie, who uncovered an AIDS epidemic in Henan brought by black market blood-selling; and Wen Tiejun, known here for exploring the mixture of problems in Chinese villages like bloated government agencies and peasant suffering.
There is also He Weifang, an eminent law professor at Beijing University, famous recently for a successful petition against a whole system of shaking down and banishing migrant workers. The system's eventual abolition followed the beating death by police of a young graphic designer in Shenzhen, who was mistaken for a migrant worker. Mr. He's petition was widely read as a galvanizing reform document that gave liberals hope; it appeared on the Internet, considered a new space for diverse concerned Chinese to meet and be heard.
Yet on Nov. 23, the boom came down. Shanghai's hard-line "Liberation Daily," a paper known as a cheerleader for the Cultural Revolution years ago, widely condemned the concept of public intellectuals. The paper called it an "imported term" whose nefarious design is to "estrange the relationship between the party and intellectuals," and "the masses and intellectuals."
Public intellectuals are often guilty of "arrogant elitism," the editorial continued, accusing them of trying to create a "hegemony and monopoly" of their own views and urging the Chinese people, most of whom are not familiar with the meaning of public intellectual, to "stay calm" in the face of such challenges.
This past weekend, the Liberation Daily editorial was reprinted word for word in the People's Daily - the newspaper of the Communist Party in China which is published nationally.
As a vernacular phrase, "public intellectual" is less than four years old in China. Normally the use of such a term, which smacks of free expression and autonomous judgment, would need official vetting. Yet until Southern Week published its list of 50, the term had smoothly crept into small-scale journals and specialized papers. Its use was lauded by an often bruised and long-suffering set of independent thinkers in China as a possible harbinger of greater freedom of expression, and as a grudging nod in official circles of good work and thought taking place outside China's party apparatus.
Some observers feel the attack on the concept of public intellectuals derives from Chinese tradition. Unlike the classic role of intellectuals in Europe and the West, who often represent a Greek chorus of conscience and opposition to the rulers, Chinese scholars in the imperial past were tasked strictly to be loyal to the emperor and to serve him, not the people.
In the communist incarnation of government after 1949, to serve the party was to serve the people. Yet intellectuals here have debated intensely over what role and position it is that most serves the greater good, and have often lobbied for greater public space and freedom for diverse opinions and influence.
Intellectuals in China saw the 1980s as a golden age after 30 years of repression during the Cultural Revolution. After the Tiananmen massacre of 1989, many went into hiding or retreated from any public life. There has been a further split in recent years, with infighting among some intellectuals over whether they should be critics or supporters of market capitalism.
"In the 1980s most Chinese intellectuals had a strong sense of obligation for the people and nation [and were] bigger stars than pop stars," editorialized Southern People's Week in its "Top 50" edition.
"In the '90s, the dazzling boom of the economy put them in a marginalized position. However, China is not without problems, and desperately needs the presence and voices of intellectuals," the paper stated.
The official censure accused intellectuals of posturing vainly, and promoting the idea that "heroes are back, and elites are back." It came the same week that former Czech president and playwright Vaclav Havel, perhaps one of the world's leading public intellectuals, was in Taipei to celebrate a series of his works newly translated into Mandarin Chinese.
One outspoken economist, Hu Xingdou of the Beijing Institute of Technology, says that only about 30 to 50 intellectuals today are willing to stand up and speak out. That's about one in every 1,000 academics, he calculates. Some public intellectuals are professors, a job that does not require membership in the communist party; the 50 individuals have very diverse funding.
The list of 50 included a broad range of figures. It was slightly controversial, since it included names not always affiliated with public affairs, like rock star Cui Jian, pop novelist Jin Yong, and Taiwanese singer Luo Dayou - or even living in China, like philosopher Du Weiming of Harvard University.