Public intellectuals in China

Public intellectuals in China are the subject of a fascinating article by Mark Leonard in this month’s Prospect. He namechecks several of them, but has no room to do any more than briefly sketch their ideas and outlooks. So in the interests of hearing from the horses’ mouths, here are links to what I’ve been able to find of their work in English…

Wang Hui

is easily the most interesting figure mentioned. Wang has a few good articles in

Le Monde Diplomatique

[European views of China]( and on [political dissatisfaction in the 80s]( But he is a literary critic by training, and what really caught my eye was ‘[Borderless Writing](’. Framed as a celebration of the essayist [Yu]( [Hua](, this piece is mainly concerned with the role of the author: must she be a tortured soul, or is technical virtuosity enough? And how can literature be political without turning into punditry or social science. On the way he pulls in Bulgakov, Dostoyevsky, Borges and Isiah Berlin, and weaves in his own romantic rhapsody on writing:

>Writing is merely the power with which the writer is shaping himself. What is more important, however, is that writing is a way in which the writers open themselves up and entrust themselves to time and to fate. Writing is a struggle in which a writer is fighting against himself and where happiness and gloominess coexist together. Writing unites a writer with the world of fiction, brings oneness with reality.

This main source of Wang Hui’s reputation, though, is his 11-year stint (he was removed last summer) as co-editor of Dushu, one of China’s main literary journals. Dushu was founded in 1979, and initially focused on biographies of Chinese intellectualls. Over the 80s it developed more interest in European philosophy and critical theory, printing works by and about Heidegger, Foucault, Buber and Camus. When Wang and his co-editor Huang Ping took over in 1996, they gave it another push: towards the theoretical, the international and the political. It became a pillar of the so-called “New Left”, a movement which Wang (although he dislikes the term), [describes](


Political democracy will not come from a legally impartial market, secured by constitutional amendments, but from the strength of social movements against the existing order. This point is central to the genealogy of the critical intellectual work that is now identified as a New Left

If you can’t get enough of Wang (I can’t), there’s a [long profile of him]( in the IHT, and he has at least one [book]( in English (reviews: [one](, [two](, and there are [one]( or [two]( interesting and (apparently) well-informed blog posts on him.

Many of the other intellectuals mentioned are economists, so I find it a little harder to figure out where they’re coming from. There’s

Zhang Weiying

, a member of the ‘new right’ who ‘

thinks China will not be free until the public sector is dismantled and the state has shrivelled into a residual body designed mainly to protect property rights.

‘ His own [page]( lists many of his English-language publications.

Another economist is

Hu Angang

, author of [several English-language books]( (google has an [extensive extract]( from one). Has [several]( [economics]( [papers](; his interests apparently center on economic history, measuring the extent and distribution of growth, and tax and development policy.

Foreign policy I find more comprehensible that economics, but I didn’t come across anything mind-blowing here.

Zheng Bijian

is a ‘

liberal internationalist

‘, he introduced the concept of [China’s Peaceful Rise]( – that is, emphasizing economic and cultural power over military power, and taking a relaxed attitude to border disputes.

All of that sounds eminently sensible – and US-friendly enough for Zheng to develop ties to [RAND]( and [Brookings]( But [what I’ve found]( of his [writing]( seems worthy rather than exciting. Possibly he’s just too powerful to be interesting (He advises Hu Jintao, supervises the training of new officials, and runs the [China Reform Forum]( Being inside the Chinese establishment must make it hard for him to express views far beyond the mainstream.

Yan Xuetong

is more conservative (Leonard calls him a ‘neo-comm’). He writes on [China’s foreign policy towards major powers](, [The rise of China and its power status](, [Missile defense]( and [soft power](

As for [civil society]( and [democracy](, Leonard brings us

Yu Keping

. His views would be (or rather, [are]( unsurprising coming from a European or American think-tank. He believes ‘democracy is a good thing’, but that it can only be introduced slowly. [This]( looks (from skimming) to be one of his more interesting pieces: a survey of Chinese views of globalization.

I couldn’t track down work by everybody Leonard mentions. Either

Fang Ning


Pan Wei


Chi Zhiyuan

don’t write much in English, or their names are too common for easy googling. Not that I mind much; the rest of the names amount to days of reading.

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