A Deep Divide Emerges in China: How Do Intellectuals Relate to the State?


Last week, a debate erupted on Chinese social media with regard to an opinion piece written by Professor Zheng Yongnian, director of the East Asian Institute in Singapore. In his article, Zheng argues that China has already entered a “shortage of knowledge” era and seems to blame the whole intellectual stratum for the failure to come up with practical and creative knowledge. Unsurprisingly, Zheng’s essay has generated a storm on China’s most popular social media outlet, Wechat. Many are criticizing Zheng for being unfair to Chinese intellectuals within mainland China.

Their main criticism is that Zheng seems to enjoy freedom in Singapore while blaming Chinese intellectuals inside of China for uncritical and unimaginative analysis. As a traditional Chinese saying goes, Zheng is committing the classic mistake of “easier said than done.” Due to many constraining factors within China, it is not easy for professors and scholars to voice their own ideas. Even if they promote their own thinking and concepts, it does not mean that decision-makers will accept their ideas.

For example, at the moment, the most popular concept in Chinese foreign policy is the “one belt, one road” program, though the meaning of it and methods of promoting it have been quite controversial among Chinese scholars. Some believe that it is a brilliant concept that can help China offset some strategic pressures coming from the United States where others see it as mostly a top-down process and thus lacking in scientific foundations. In the meantime, many research institutions seem to have bandwagoned with this concept, with the hope of gaining a piece of the pie from this huge strategic undertaking. None of the above should be surprising though, as almost all foreign policy concepts are inherently controversial. The Obama administration’s “pivot to Asia” concept is equally controversial in the United States, if not more so.

Within this context, it does seem that Zheng is a bit unfair to many scholars within China. It is not that they are uncritical and unimaginative; it is rather that their voices do not enter the policy-making processes. It is not their fault, in the end.

But Zheng is also right in pointing out that today, in China, there are too many government-bashing scholars and government-kissing scholars. Indeed, a lot of scholars and analysts like to focus exclusively on the shortcomings of government work whereas many others never criticize the government and only sing praises. There is little middle ground for scholars who can be critical of the government and yet offer some constructive alternative suggestions. In other words, Chinese intellectuals seem to be polarized, with extreme views from both sides increasingly growing. This is a troubling sign for China’s future.

The key question should be the relationship between intellectuals and the state, which is never an easy relationship. While Zheng’s essay did not discuss why the current situation is polarized, we should pay attention to societal factors that contribute to most intellectuals’ frustrations. Also important is the lack of mechanisms for intellectuals to voice their constructive opinions in China.

How intellectuals are incorporated into government reforms will likely shape the success of those reforms. There must exist some effective mechanisms for good-quality scholars to contribute to all dimensions of Chinese reforms, including economic, social, and foreign policy reform. Once given the opportunity, we have every reason to believe that Chinese intellectuals can be effective, imaginative, critical, and constructive to the government. If this happens, then Zheng’s critical essay will have done a service to China’s reforms.

Sign up for our weekly newsletter
The Diplomat Brief