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Mainstream, Vol XLVII, No 42, October 3, 2009

Chinese Intellectuals: State versus New Left

Monday 5 October 2009, by Ravindra Sharma

The following is based on interviews with Chinese intellectuals These interviews are part of a project entitled “Chinese Politics and Ideology since Tiananmen”, sponsored by the Indian Council of Social Science Research. The author visited China in April 2007, and interviewed 25 leading intellectuals of Beijing, Shanghai, Nanjing and the Hong Kong University of China. As per the agreement, the names of Chinese intellectuals have not been mentioned. However, those of the proponents of the New Left, who very often criticise the ongoing policies of the CPC, have been mentioned. This contribution is being published on the occasion of the sixtieth anniversary of the Chinese revolution that took place on October 1, 1949. —Editor


The interviews were conducted in March-April 2007 in co-operation with the intellectuals of Hong Kong, Beijing, Shanghai and Nanjing University. A total of twentyfive intellectuals were interviewed. The questionnaire was taken by the author to the randomly chosen intellectuals with prior appointments to be filled out and were brought back to Delhi. The interviewees included male and female both. As the author is familiar with the Chinese language, the interview was conducted in both Chinese and English languages. The majority of intellectuals followed the official line. However, intellectuals associated with the Hong Kong University were quite critical. The author carried a questionnaire containing fifteen questions to be answered by the intellectuals. Additionally, the author also conversed with the general masses of the Chinese society, such as vendors, receptionists, shopkeepers, local passengers and taxi drivers etc.

An Assessment of Mao and his Policies

While praising Mao as a leader, a few intellectuals modestly criticised Mao’s policies—such as, that Mao thought there was only one way to lead China; that Mao desired to surpass the Western world without acquiring modern science and technologies; that the idea of the Great Leap Forward affected the production of grain, cotton and steel etc.; that Mao became idealistic and subjective after 1956; that Mao did not have a proper understanding of the Western world; that in Mao’s era, the ethos of the civil society was seriously eroded; that Mao was too ambitious and too anxious. While Chinese intellectuals largely acclaimed Deng’s assessment of Mao’s Cultural Revolution, some of them supported Mao’s policy of “barefoot doctors” and also partially endorsed Mao’s idea of the communes. Chinese intellectuals were convinced that Mao’s understanding of the economy was “weak and fragile”.

However, not even one intellectual showed any disrespect for Mao. To them, Mao was the greatest hero of modern China. Mao had left a splendid legacy behind him—he built a new China; Mao turned China into a world power for the Chinese people; Mao developed the industrial base of China; Mao built a socialist society; Mao strove to establish the values of self-reliance. Significantly, Mao is still the hero of the Chinese masses. At the bus stops, railway stations, bookshops, restaurants are hanging Mao’s huge portraits. Chinese newspapers/magazines still print Mao’s photograph on cover pages. Above all, at the Tiananmen Square people from the remote areas pour every day making a queue for his darshan. It seems that Mao as a person is still rooted in the minds and hearts of the Chinese society.

Were Economic Reforms Inevitable?

It is generally believed that Mao’s too-much emphasis on “Class Struggle” had ruined the Chinese economy. Even Hua had not paid much attention to the growth of the Chinese economy. However, Deng Xiaoping showed serious concern over the state of the economy and paid great attention to it; he initiated economic reforms, which produced positive as well as negative results. Deng’s reforms became controversial within and outside China. Most of the surveys conducted in the recent past came out with a positive note. However, our conclusion does not tally with the previous surveys. Chinese intellectuals are not united on the question of reforms. True, nearly 90 per cent intellectuals were in favour of reforms but the rest of them were mildly opposed to these. A leading Professor of Beijing University gave an entirely different kind of answer—“opposing reforms”. To quote him,

We cannot say that economic reforms were inevitable in China. Mao had a strong will; he was a very powerful person in Chinese politics, nobody could compete with Mao. However, Hua was not so powerful. If Mao would have chosen a powerful successor, then China would not have gone over to liberalisation.

Another leading Professor of Nanjing University justified the reforms in a different sense, saying:

Economic reforms are part of Mao Zedong thought. Deng’s reform emerged from Mao Zedong Thought. Deng Xiaoping’s theory is a part of Mao’s thought; responsibility of the system is also a part of Mao’s thought.

However, a leading intellectual of Shanghai was convinced that “reforms were initiated in China by Deng after achieving a national consensus”. Another intellectual of Shanghai was a bit confused on the issue of reforms. He shared his confusion with the author saying that “it is difficult for me to answer the question”. In sum, 90 per cent Chinese intellectuals endorsed the reforms.

Did Deng Change the Nature of Chinese Economy?

In the communist world, Deng Xiaoping probably was the first visionary to have visualised the negative impacts of the command economy. While taking risk Deng started changing the nature of the Chinese economy. The surveys and interviews conducted in the past confirmed the fact that Deng changed China’s command economy to the market economy gradually, keeping the role of the public sector dominant. In this regard our interview tallies with the previous surveys as the Chinese intellectuals were convinced that by changing the nature of the Chinese economy from “command to market”, Deng took the wise decision at the proper time. However, a few intellectuals openly expressed their anger and anguish as the public sector is shrinking rapidly and inequality is increasing every year in China.

Assessment of MNCs in Making Chinese People Rich

While Mao preferred equality, Deng was fond of prosperity. Deng invited foreign capital, science and technology and MNCs into China; as a result, the living standard of a section of the Chinese people, such as bank managers, accountants, executive directors, lawyers etc., improved. Chinese academia within and outside China debated this question passionately: whether the “richness” was the outcome of the Chinese people’s hard work or was the creation of the MNCs. Among Chinese intellectuals the opinion varies: while some argued that foreign capital and MNCs made the Chinese people rich, others suggested that improvement in the living standard of the Chinese people was hard earned by themselves. A leading intellectual of Shanghai reacted to the question saying: “Yes, with the advent of MNCs, several thousands of people of the countryside have got jobs making their life more comfortable.” However, the “older generation” is not comfortable with the presence of MNCs”. Another Professor of Nanjing University was quite offensive on the role of the MNCs in Communist China. To quote him,

... 90 per cent profit goes to the MNCs and we get only five per cent. Hence, the MNCs should be heavily taxed. Otherwise, they should be asked to leave China.

A leading intellectual of Shanghai accepted a fact: “Yes, Chinese people are becoming rich, partially because of the MNCs, but, basically through their own hardship.” Conversely, a Professor associated with Social Studies and Comparative Cultural Study in Beijing University categorically denied the role of MNCs and foreign capital in making the Chinese people rich: in his view, rather it has left an “adverse impact” on the life and mind of the Chinese people.

Will Economic Liberalisation lead to Political Relaxation and Demand for Democracy?

There is widespread belief in academia that economic liberalisation will open the space for political modernisation eventually leading to full-fledged democracy in China. Significantly, ‘Democracy’ is one issue on which the Chinese intellectuals are confidently united. Almost every intellectual vociferously argued that China cannot copy Western democracy and that every country has its own perception of democracy. China has its own form of democracy; a Professor of Nanjing University angrily reacted to the issue of democracy, saying:

We don’t want bourgeois democracy in our country; people’s democracy is already flourishing in our society.

As regards civil society, most of the intellectuals were convinced that with the opening up to the outside world, civil society is developing in China and social milieus are rapidly changing. The Chinese middle class will be numerically increasing in China in the near future; however, it will not demand bourgeois democracy. The Chinese middle class will help the Communist Party of China in attaining the goal of building a “harmonious society”, they argued.

Corruption in China

Significantly, corruption is the issue on which Chinese intellectuals seem to be on the defensive; not even one said that there is no “corruption in China”. However, a leading intellectual of Shanghai University said:

We are punishing several thousand corrupt officials every year: Chinese people hate corruption and a majority of the Chinese people are financially honest and dedicated to their cause; only a handful cadres, officials and businessmen is maligning the name of the entire country.

A leading Professor of Nanjing University was of the view that the Chinese leadership was still clean. Only a bunch of party functionaries are “corrupt”. When asked why in Mao’s era, party cadres and officials were neat and clean, most of the intellectuals were mum and helpless. Interestingly, a leading intellectual of Shanghai, gave a very funny answer, saying: “Your country (India) is more corrupt than China.”

Discrimination against Women

Over the years, Chinese academia witnessed a serious debate whether Chinese women in the era of economic liberalisation suffered humiliation facing a sort of discrimination? Chinese intellectuals outrightly rejected the allegation. On the contrary, they argued that with the opening up to the outside word, Chinese women are getting more job opportunities and they are more “materially well off” and socially secure. However, a leading intellectual of Shanghai confessed saying that

the onslaught of money and consumerism is quite visible on the life pattern of urban women; some of them even joining the profession of prostitutes.

Yet, he claimed that China’s urban governance is quite cautious and careful about women’s livelihood and social security.

Growing Social Unrest

It is confirmed by all counts that with the advent of economic reforms, China’s social structure has changed phenomenally. Surveys and interviews conducted in the recent past have shown “growing inequality” in China. On the issue of growing social unrest in China, Chinese intellectuals were indeed on the defensive. However, some of them argued that the “situation is still controllable”. A leading Professor of Nanjing University told us that 300 million peasants have come to the cities in search of jobs, which has become a serious problem for us.

Last year the government had cancelled farmer tax, we are really worried about the growing social unrest; the Chinese Government is paying more attention to the peasants and workers.

According to him,

laid-off workers and migrated peasants are not happy with the current situation. However, they are not against the rule of the CPC.

Another Professor of Hong Kong University was of the view that

in the era of economic reforms farmers and workers are not very well protected. The situation is worsening day by day, the CPC is aware of the problems, but can’t help:”

A leading researcher of Shanghai answered the question in a different manner. He was of the opinion that

farmers and workers are becoming rich. However, some get more, and some get less, urban growth is higher than the countryside; the per capita income of an average Chinese is improving.

However, a leading social scientist of Beijing University was quite frank with us. He confessed that

China’s market economy has brought about sea-changes in Chinese society, adversely affecting the life of 300 million peasants and workers; the government must tackle the problem seriously and immediately.

Is China still a Socialist Country?

The economic reforms initiated by Deng Xiaoping unleashed a serious debate on whether China is still a socialist country. While Chinese rulers argue that China still is a socialist country, social scientists largely question the credentials of Chinese socialism. Chinese intellectuals are united on the issue of “socialism”. According to them, “China still is a socialist country”. However, one of the leading intellectuals of Beijing University gave an ambivalent answer, saying:

According to the Chinese Government, China is a socialist country, with special characteristics. However, in classical sense, China is no longer a socialist country.

A senior research officer of Hong Kong University was more critical. According to her, “China is in transition from authoritarianism to state capitalism”. Another leading intellectual of Shanghai was convinced about China being a socialist country. A Professor of Hong Kong University revealed his opinion by saying that “according to me”, China is a socialist country. However, there is a debate within the party on “Right versus Left”. A senior intellectual of Shanghai was more frank with the researcher by saying that

Chinese intellectuals no longer argue over what belongs to socialism and what belongs to capitalism; many things are unpredictable in China, China is a relatively advanced nation.

A Professor of Nanjing University more or less followed the official line, saying:

China is in the primary stage of socialism and will take at least more than five decades in attaining the higher stage of socialism.

He was of the view that “we are combining socialism with market economy. We are not a capitalist country.”

In the Era of Reform Political Consciousness Improved or Declined?

Under the influence of Deng’s famous dictum “to be rich is glorious”, money attained supreme value in the Chinese society. As a result, the more the people earned money, the more the political consciousness declined. Chinese intellectuals are divided on this issue. A leading intellectual of Shanghai reacted to the question by saying “because of marketisation and commercialisation, political consciousness of the Chinese people declined”. A Professor of Hong Kong University answered the question in a different manner. To quote him, “people are not interested in serving the ideology of only one party”. Another Professor of Hong Kong University blamed the role of the “growing consumerism” for the decline in the political consciousness. A Professor of Beijing University frankly admitted the fact that

Political consciouness declined in Chinese society, because people are more interested in serving their own interest.

Conversely, some of the intellectuals were of the view that political consciousness has not declined, rather improved. One of the leading Professor of Nanjing University provided an entirely different version of improving political consciousness. He said:

In spite of foreign influence, efficiency is increasing in Chinese society; people are being educated, party cadres are also being asked to serve society; and Chinese nationalism is prospering year by year.

Business Class should be Admitted to the Communist Party or Not?

The decision of the 16th Party Congress (November 2002)—to allow the business class of China to become party member—had unleashed a serious ideological debate within and outside China. While the Chinese academia by and large criticised the decision by arguing that the social base of the Communist Party must be broadened not by the business community, but by the “peasants and workers”, the official Chinese intellectuals endorsed the decision. Our discussion with the Chinese intellectuals show that they were divided on this particular issue. A Professor of Hong Kong University gave an interesting answer:

If the business class believes in Marxism, then it should be allowed to become member of the Communist Party.

Another leading intellectual of Shanghai was of the view that

The noveau riche should be admitted to the party. However, within the party, some people are opposed to their entry and certain intellectuals are also not in favour of them.

A Professor of Nanjing University more or less followed the official line by saying:

Whoever fulfils the criteria of membership, must be admitted to the party, If people are becoming rich in China, then the credit goes only to the policies of the party.

A leading intellectual of Shanghai was of the view that

they are already within the party, and some of them would be joining very soon.

However, a leading Professor of Beijing University categorically denied the entry of business class in the Communist Party saying: “Business class must not be admitted to the Communist Party.”

The Highest Ambition of Life

Deng’s modernisation hoopla has changed the goal and ambition of the Chinese people. The surveys conducted in the recent past reveal that the highest goal or ambition of the Chinese people is to “earn money”. As our interview was basically based on the discussion with the intellectuals, around 90 per cent intellectuals reacted to the question by saying that “they would prefer to remain in or contribute to the profession which they belonged to”; only one Professor of Hong Kong University was of the view that “she would like to start side business”. However, the Chinese masses, such as hotel receptionists, taxi drivers, bus conductors, vegetable vendors, clerks etc. clearly said that “they want to start their own business”. When asked whether they will prefer to become a cadre or an official or to start their own business or to settle in a Western country, or to become a religious preacher, nearly 90 per cent people favoured “business”; during the discussion with the general masses, it was clearly reflected that the “Chinese society is completely in the grip of material hysteria”.

Who is Ideal: Mao, Deng, both, or None?

Throughout the 1950s and 1960s Mao was very popular in China. However, the quagmire of the Cultural Revolution decreased Mao’s popularity. Deng, by highlighting Mao’s misdeeds, came to power and set the agenda of economic reforms; the initial success of the reforms made Deng equally popular in China. Objectively, in the post-revolution history of China, Mao and Deng became ideals for the Chinese society.

However, nowadays Chinese intellectuals don’t consider Mao and Deng as their ideal. Nearly 75 per cent intellectuals said that “neither Mao nor Deng is their ideal”. A Professor of Nanjing University gave a vague and ambivalent answer by saying that “whoever has contributed to the growth of Chinese patriotism will be our ideal”. A Director of Chinese Academy of Social Science, Shanghai frankly said that “he does not need any ideal.” A leading Professor of Cultural Studies, Beijing University gave a different kind of answer: “Instead of Mao and Deng, Christ and Buddha are my ideals.” Out of twentyfive respondents, only one senior intellectual of Shanghai said that “Deng Xiaoping is his ideal”. As regards Mao, not even one was willing to “accept Mao as an ideal”. Interestingly, Chinese masses by and large have no ideals; when a shopkeeper was asked whom he likes, Mao or Deng or both, his answer was—he “likes himself”.


To update: retrospectively, Mao died chasing a utopia (September 1976) arguing that primary contradictions in socialist China lay between the “bourgeoisie and proletariat”. However, Mao’s arch rival Deng was convinced that contradictions in socialist China lay not between the “bourgeoisie and proletariat” but between the “advanced industrial system and the backward productive forces: Deng forcefully implemental the programme of “Four Modernisations”. To Mao, the programme of “Four Modernisations” was a “bourgeoisie package”. Initially, Deng’s curricula of modernisations created a “production boom” in China. Chinese intellectuals wholeheartedly endorsed Deng’s effort at invigorating the Chinese economy. However, the ‘euphoria’ was soon over. Deng’s hoopla of reforms began to produce lopsided development. Above all, Deng’s thesis of “Primary Stage of Socialism” which allowed privatisation (market forces) to go along with socialism astonished the Chinese intellectuals. Paradoxically, while Deng and his successors politically continued the “Leninist Model”, they economically followed the liberalised model. The contradictions of Chinese politics and economy caught the attention of the Chinese intellectuals resulting in the “Democracy Movement”. As the democracy movement failed to include the productive forces of the society, the pre-democracy intellectuals were dubbed as the “tools of the West” by the Chinese rulers.


In the post-“Democracy Movement”, Deng’s dictum such as “to be rich is glorious” and the idealisation of poverty is not socialism produced prosperity on the one hand and disparity on the other. By implementing the thesis of “Primary Stage of Socialism”, Deng had hoped and visualised material comfort for the productive forces of the Chinese society as a whole; however, with each passing year emerged the “noveau riche” and “middle class” generating deep social unrest along with disappointment among the Chinese intellectuals. The Far Eastern Economic Review (January/February 2009) reports: “Close to 33 million urban residents lost their job in the second half of 2009 alone.” The proclaimation of the “Theory of San ge daibiao” (Three Represents: November 2002) and the protection of “Private Property Law” (July 2008) had aggrieved the Chinese intellectuals further but in vain. Currently, the Chinese intellectuals may be divided into three camps—first, pro-state; second, apathetic; and third, the “New Left”. The anger and anguish of the New Left may not be able to influence the Chinese society but it must be recorded. A leading Law Professor at Beijing University, Cong Xiantiam, criticising the Private Property Law said: “A rich man’s car and a beggar’s stick cannot be equated.” Another Leftist intellectual of Humanities at Qinghua University, Wang Hui, assailed the neo-liberalism of the Chinese rulers, saying: “Our primary aim is to deconstruct the illusion of neo-liberalism in China.” Professor Fung Liu of the Chinese Centre for Economic Research criticised the privatisation of education and health, supporting the agenda of the New Left. Wen Tiejun, a leading agriculturist, angrily reacted to the “Private Property Law” saying: “Its main aim is to give more rights to China’s new millionaires and urban middle class. It would be a disaster for the 700 million. Chinese who continue to live in rural areas.”

Objectively, the encroachment of privatisation has adversely affected Chinese women. As per the official figures, in 2007 while the “average salary for white collar men was 44,0000 Yuan, women drew 28,700 Yuan.” Prof Jiang Jin, a specialist in women’s history, says: “It is harder for women graduates to find jobs than male graduates because of the ‘Child Birth Issue’, the situation is particularly bad at the millions of small private businesses.” Similarly, the Newsweek (August 17, 2007) reports:

There has been a resurgence to the old attitudes and types of exploitation that the Communist Party sought to stamp out. Today, mass parlours, hair saloons, and othe venues offering sex for money have become ubiquitous and some estimates put the number of prostitutes in China around four million.

In sum, the New Left intellectuals/activists are seriously campaigning against certain issues, such as privatisation, corruption, abuse of power, disparity, gender discrimination and environmental degradation:

The New Left group along with around 500 liberal intellectuals in December 2008 had floated an organisation called the 0.8 Movement, demanding 19 Steps toward liberalization, freedom of speech, and democratic elections for all levels of governments.

Bao Tong, a former advisor to Zhao Ziyang, who helped in drafting the Charter of the 0.8 Movement, clearly said: “His goal was still to save the party and for that reason, he was a fierce protector of party power and status.” Importantly, while the pro-democracy intellectuals (1980) had included only students, the 0.8 Movement’s intellectuals are trying to address the issue and problems of “laid-off workers” and “rural poor”. The attitude of the Chinese state towards the 0.8 intellectuals is quite hostile and inimical and they have been dubbed as elements seeking to bring about “collusion between anti-China elements at home and abroad”. A writer associated with the 0.8 groups, named Liu Xiaobao, was detained by the police in early December 2008, and the state controlled media has been strictly ordered not to mention the activities of the 0.8 intellectuals.

However, the European Parliament has awarded Hu Jia—the famous dissident of China—with the Sakharov Prize. Historically, Chinese intellectuals have been reformers, rebels and revolutionaries throughout history. Academically, Mao’s initial understanding about the role of intellectuals in shaping society was quite scientific. Mao identified two kind of intellectuals: first, revolutionary intellectuals, and second, intellectuals. True, intellectuals must serve the masses and “feudal servers” must be punished. However, Communist rulers including Mao failed to reformulate the relationship between the state and intellectuals, particularly in the period of socialist construction: Mao purged the intellectuals in the 1960s and 1970s, Deng bulldozed the intellectuals in the 1980s and 1990s. Now, the Hu-Wen leadership is “arresting and victimising” pro-people intellectuals. The Far Eastern Economic Review (May 2009) reports:

For more than a decade, Chinese authorities have been imprisoning individuals on the grounds of “inciting subversion”, for expressing criticism in print or on line. Hu Jia, Gao Zhisheng and Liu Xiabao are just some of the dozens of people who are currently imprisoned or have disappeared. (p. 15)

As the Chinese intellectuals have been torch-bearers throughout history, the Hu-Wen leadership, instead of “victimising and arresting” the pro-people intellectuals, must create space to accommodate their anger and anguish so that a socialist country and a harmonious society is built at the earliest. n


1. The Hindu, April 25, 2006.

2. The Hindu, March 14, 2007.

3. Far Eastern Economic Review, January-February, 2009.

4. Newsweek, August 17, 2009.

5. See. Hu Jintao’s speech of December 18, 2008, “Simification of Marxism”.

6. See, Wen Jiabao’s speech, January 2007, “Universal Values”.

7. See, Beijing based NGO, ‘The World and China Institute’s. Report, “On Grass Roots Democracy”, 2006.

8. Far Eastern Economic Review, May 2009.

9. William Hurst, The Chinese Worker after Socialism, Cambridge University Press, 2008.

10. Time, February 9, 2009.

Dr Ravindra Sharma is a noted China scholar. His latest book on China, Paradoxes of Chinese Socialism (2007), was widely acclaimed. He also closely follows the developments in South Asia.

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