BEIJING - Recently, the Chinese newspaper Global Timesseems to have become less sensational than it used to be. But the other day, one of their commentary pieces showed they hadn't lost their ability to shock -- It was titled: "A proposal for repealing the appellation of intellectuals." As expected, within a short time China's major Internet portals were abuzz with response and reaction.
Liu Zhiqin, the author of the article, is not unfamiliar. Earlier this year he published another strongly-worded article in the Global Times called "Urging America to reform and to open up." He seems to have mastered the art of startling the public with astonishing declarations. Liu has quite an impressive title, Chief Representative of the Beijing Office of the Bank of Zurich, Switzerland.
Liu's curriculum vitae is equally impressive. Since graduating from the Beijing Language and Culture University, he worked in various sectors before going abroad, where he majored in international finance and trade management at the University of Frankfurt, in Germany. Since then he has been responsible for the operations in China of several major banks from Switzerland, Germany and Austria. Not only is Liu capable of specific analysis and understanding of economic and financial affairs, he is also attentive to international affairs.
No matter from which perspective you look, Liu is by any standard an intellectual himself -- a zhishifenzi -- meaning "persons with knowledge" in Chinese. So why does he want to abolish the term? He gave three reasons:
First, the appellation zhishifenzi lacks a clear legal definition, and should not prevail. Second, it represents outdated ideas. Third, the concept of the intellectual has "kidnapped" the Chinese education system and created social injustices. Liu suggests that using titles such as teacher, doctor and engineer in referring to professionals who do intellectual work will "inevitably foster the progress of China's human rights."
Cultural Revolution fallout
I wouldn't dare to doubt Liu's foreign language skill and financial expertise. Nevertheless, I'm indeed worried about his logic and Chinese communication capability.
Liu might be anxious about the social divide between the intellectuals with a university education and people without. But thinking about it, Liu is probably indicating that the latter has a relatively lower status.
Is that the case? During the Cultural Revolution (1966-1976), people who were considered to be members of the "stinky ninth" category, a disparaging term for intellectuals, were persecuted. Since China has started opening up and implementing reforms, their situation has obviously improved. Today, however, Liu believes that the intellectual class is held in higher regards in society than the manual ones.
He writes that "the word intellectual is a remnant of an old culture, old concepts and old consciousness." This is confusing since the "intellectual" is a concept born with the modernization of Europe to describe people who had neither money nor nobility, but were secular "literate thinkers." In China where that modernization was delayed, this title appeared after the birth of the modern education system. At most, it's only about 100 years old.
As for Liu's proposal that "legislators should review the situation in accordance with the new conditions and see if it is necessary to carve out the group of people as intellectuals," the syntax and logic become obviously problematic since the division of social classes is not the legislators' responsibility, nor does "carving out intellectuals" make any sense.
Liu also believes that fostering intellectuals has degenerated into a system that creates educational as well as social injustice. This is simply not true.
Since the national college entrance exam was restored at the end of the Cultural Revolution, it remains the fairest way to cultivate talent in a country where society is in transition and the justice system is still lagging behind.
Even more baffling is Liu's rhetoric about the relation between intellectuals and the Internet. He claims that "a minority of intellectuals have lost their honesty, gentleness, as well as kindness and have started using micro-blogging to disseminate lies, rumors, calumnies and rubbish. They undermine social peace and stability. Their special aura, their ultra socio-legal privileges as well as their social superiority ought to be deleted."
That the misdemeanors of a minority of intellectuals should lead to a punishment of all intellectuals is absurd. Moreover, once the label of "undermining social stability" is put on the intelligentsia, China's human rights are certainly not going to progress, quite the opposite.
If we borrow the terminology of Wikipedia, "an intellectual is a person who uses thought and reason, intelligence and critical or analytical reasoning, in either a professional or a personal capacity."
Putting this definition into the contemporary China context, one can denote three types of Chinese intellectuals as such. First, the policy intellectuals whose role is to offer advice to those in power, they are often staff members, policy researchers or specialized college professors. Second, there are the technical intellectuals who earn their living by virtue of their scientific expertise and knowledge. Third, the humanistic literati or public intellectuals, among them Karl Marx was a typical representative, whose mission was "to mercilessly criticize all reality." Such persons tend to alienate themselves from the powerful and the rich and are thus usually dirt poor, but they are often referred to as the social conscience.
I believe Liu Zhiqin is not advocating for the abolishment of the first two groups of intellectuals. So is he advocating the removal of the identity of the third type, the down-and-out literati?
*Zhang Jiang is a professor at the Beijing Foreign Studies University.
Read the article in Chinese.