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The Intellectual and the State: Social Dynamics of Intellectual Autonomy During the Post-Mao Era

  • Michel Bonnin and Yves Chevrier


The relationship between the Chinese intellectual and the communist state experienced some significant changes during the 1980s, although some of the basic patterns established since the 1930s and 1940s were not altered. This contrast is in line with the overall impact of Deng Xiaoping's limited reforms, which gave more room, and more weight, to society vis-à-vis the state, while the basic structures of the latter were left untouched. Social change was the new element which allowed the intellectuals to enjoy more autonomy in organizing their associations and in articulating new ideas. The intellectual with an autonomous base in a more autonomous society emerged from the prevalent pattern of technocratic intellectuals operating within the state framework, a state whose totalitarian scope had deprived them of any social base.



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1. Our information was mainly gathered from personal interviews with participants contacted mostly outside China after Tiananmen. In some cases, interviewees are deliberately not identified. We do not claim, of course, that the contents of the interviews and the actual social position of the interviewees are representative of the Chinese intelligentsia in general in the 1980s. As is made clear in the article, the decade saw a continuum of change, and we are dealing only with the more marked developments at one end of the spectrum. These developments became clearer at the end of the decade. We believe the sample is representative within these limits.

2. Goldman, Merle, Literary Dissent in Communist China (Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1967).

3. Schwarcz, Vera, The Chinese Enlightenment: Intellectuals and the Legacy of the May Fourth Movement of 1919 (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1986). See also Andrieu, Jacques, “Le mouvement des idées” in Bergère, M. C., Bianco, L. and Domes, J. (eds.), La Chine au XX° siècle, Vol. 2, (Paris: Fayard, 1990); Chevrier, Y., “Chine: fin de règne du lettré? Politique et culture à l'époque de l'occidentalisation,” Extrêe-Orient, Extrêeme-Occident, Vol. IV (1984).

4. This is one reason why many historians read Mao's China as a resurrection of the Qin system under Fajia.

5. Parish, William L. and Whyte, Martin K., Village and Family in Contemporary China, (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1978), and Urban Life in Contemporary China, 1984), have argued the case among many others. See also Aubert, Claude et al. , La Société chinoise après Mao: entre autoriteét modernité, (Paris: Fayard, 1986).

6. Interview with WR, 19 November 1990, and Bonnin, Michel, “Le Mouvement d'envoi des jeunes instruits à la campagne: Chine, 1968–1980,” unpublished Ph.D. dissertation, Paris, Ecole des Hautes Etudes en Sciences Sociales, 1988, pp. 378394.

7. Several interviews with Bei Dao and Mang Ke (Beijing, 1981; Paris, 1985), and Bonnin, ibid. pp. 383–84.

8. On Li Yizhe, see Chan, Anita, Rosen, Stanley and Unger, Jonathan, On Socialist Democracy and the Chinese Legal System, The Li Yizhe Debates, (Armonk, New York: M. E. Sharpe, 1985).

9. Burns, John P., “China's governance: Political reform in a turbulent environment,” The China Quarterly, No. 119 (1989), pp. 504505.

10. See, among other sources, Zhengming, June 1988, pp. 6–8, and September 1988, pp. 22–25, and Yan, Xuan, Jingdu xuehuo (Beijing: Nongcun duwu chubanshe, 1989), pp. 3742.

11. What we call the ideological-political standstill of the 1980s is the basic decision, taken against Hua Guofeng, not to force a political transformation on Chinese society (except in the realm of family planning). The decision was counterbalanced, in Deng's mind, by the assumption that society would not intervene in the realm of the Party, that is in politics. For instance, the anti “bourgeois liberalism” campaign in 1987 was restricted to the Party rank-and-flle after some attempts at spreading it to society at large had been made during the first months of 1987. For a general assessment of Deng's policies regarding society and policies, see Chevrier, Y., “Une société infirme: la société chinoise dans la transition modernisatrice” in Aubert, C. (ed.), La société chinoise après Mao: entre autorité et modernité (Paris: Fayard, 1986). Stuart Schram gives a detailed analysis of the “ideological standstill” arrived at in the wake of the campaign against “spiritual pollution” in 1984. See Schram, , “‘Economics in command?’ Ideology and policy since the Third Plenum,” The China Quarterly, No. 99 (1984), pp. 417461. The cycles in the implementation of the “standstill” policy are analysed in Richard Baum, “The road to Tiananmen: Chinese politics in the 1980s,” prepared for the Cambridge History of China. We thank the author for kindly communicating his manuscript.

12. Under western influence, of course, but with the difference that the politization of the very late imperial public sphere did not curtail its managerial functions, which are not to be found in the post-Mao public sphere. On the pre-modern public sphere and its transformations, see Rankin, Mary B., Elite Activism and Political Transformation in China, Zhejiang Province, 1865–1911 (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 1986), and “The origins of a Chinese public sphere,” Etudes chinoises, IX–2 (Autumn 1990).

13. Liang Qichao refused to join Zhang Zhidong's bureaucratic entourage in 1897–98.

14. The status of “establishment intellectuals” has been studied for China in Cheek, Timothy and Hamrin, Carol Lee (eds.), China's Establishment Intellectuals (Armonk, New York: M. E. Sharpe, 1986). See also Goldman, Merle, Cheek, Timothy and Hamrin, Carol Lee, China's Intellectuals and the State: In Search of a New Relationship, (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1987).

15. Burns, , “China's governance,” p. 503, describes a “continuum of autonomy” for the “state's intellectual advisers,” while we use the concept for social organizations.

16. It should be noted, however, that no declared organization was totally free of any institutional link, since each one needed a “tutelage unit” (guakao danwei) to be registered. In some cases, however, this tutelage was purely formal, because, firstly, the minjian organization was completely independent financially, and, secondly, the leaders of the protecting unit accepted from the beginning to serve only as a “shop sign” (paizi). This was the case for our main example of a category I organization, the Beijing Research Institute for Sociology and Economics, whose guakao danwei was the Centre for Expertise communication (Rencai jiaoliu zhongxin) under the State Commission for Science and Technology; interview of ZL, 28 April 1991, Paris.

17. Each of the first meetings was the occasion for Hu Ping to present a part of the long article he was writing on “Freedom of speech,” which was to become one of the most influential expressions of dissident thinking in the 1980s; interviews with ZY, 19 November and 11 December 1990.

18. Interviews with YS, 16 June 1990 and with ZG, 14 January 1991.

19. Interviews in Shanghai, March 1989, and in Paris, December 1990, February 1991.

20. Burns, , “China's governance,” p. 506.

21. Interview with CC, 11 December 1990.

22. Two issues published post-Tiananmen, in August and September. The latter was claimed as making up for no. 2 that had not been published; interview with HS, 23 April 1991.

23. We leave aside the interesting problem of the cultural connotation of this transfer in the Chinese tradition, from Legalism (government is meant to increase the power of the state) to Confucianism (government is meant to increase the moral quality of the people).

24. Burns, , “China's governance,” p. 505.

25. Interviews in Beijing, November 1985; and Chevrier, Yves, “Managers and micropolitics: the factory director responsibility system, 1984–1987,” in Vogel, Ezra and Davis, Deborah (eds.), Chinese Society on the Eve of Tiananmen: The Impact of Reform (Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1990), pp. 127–28.

26. Interview with ZY, 19 November 1990, Paris.

27. Interviews with ZY, 19 November and 26 November 1990, Paris.

28. Interviews with ZY and WR, 19 November 1990 and 11 December 1990, Paris.

29. Ibid.

30. Interview with ZY, 19 November 1990, Paris.

31. Interviews in Beijing, February 1988.

32. See Wan Runnan's interview in Béja, J. P., Bonnin, M. and Peyraube, A., Le tremblement de terre de Pékin (Paris: Gallimard, 1991), pp. 527550.

33. Interviews with WR and ZY, 19 and 26 November 1991, with ZL, 22 April 1991, Paris; see also Da, Li, “Shei shi Tiananmen guangchang zhengzheng de ‘hei shou’?Zhongguo zhi chun, No.80 (01 1990), pp. 79 and Jun, Jian, “Cong tizhiwaijueqi de di san shili,” Zhongguo zhi chun, No. 85 (06 1990), pp. 5861.

34. Interviews with ZG, 14 January 1991 and with ZL, 22 April 1991, Paris.

35. Burns, includes the weekly in his list of quasi-governmental media owned by provincial academies, “China's governance,” pp. 505506.

36. The managers in state enterprise under the factory director responsibility system implemented since 1984 have been the targets of similar charges levelled against them by local bureaucrats who were trying to defend their vested interests; see Chevrier, “Managers and micropolitics”.

37. China Daily, 1 November 1989.

38. Interviews with WR and ZY, 26 November 1990, and with ZL, 22 April 1991, Paris.

39. Interviews in Shanghai, March 1989.

40. Seen. 18.

41. Chevrier, , “Managers and micropolitics,” p. 127.

42. Sidane, Victor, Le Printemps de Pékin, (Paris: Gallimard, coll. Archives, 1980).

43. Interview with Wang Runsheng, November 1990, Paris.

44. See the interview with Chen Yizi in Béja, , Bonnin, and Peyraube, , Le tremblement de terre, pp. 505526.

45. Interviews with WR and ZY, 19 and 26 November 1990, and with ZL, 22 April 1991, Paris.

46. Interview with WR, 19 November 1990.

47. Bergère, Marie-Claire, The Golden Age of the Chinese Bourgeoisie, 1911–1937 (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1989).

48. Darnton, Robert, The Literary Underground of the Old Regime, (Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1982).

49. See Bergère, Marie-Claire, “Tian'anmen 1989,” Vingtieme siecle-Revue d'Histoire (0607 1990), p. 5.

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The Intellectual and the State: Social Dynamics of Intellectual Autonomy During the Post-Mao Era

  • Michel Bonnin and Yves Chevrier


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