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Theses Doctoral

The Making of Liberal Intellectuals in Post-Tiananmen China

Li, Junpeng

Intellectual elites have been the collective agents responsible for many democratic transitions worldwide since the early twentieth century. Intellectuals, however, have also been blamed for the evils in modern times. Instead of engaging in abstract debates about who the intellectuals are and what they do, this project studies intellectuals and their ideas within historical contexts. More specifically, it examines the social forces behind the evolving political attitudes of Chinese intellectuals from the late 1970s to the present. Chinese politics has received an enormous amount of attention from social scientists, but intellectuals have been much less explored systematically in social sciences, despite their significant role in China’s political life. Chinese intellectuals have been more fully investigated in the humanities, but existing research either treats different “school of thought” as given, or gives insufficient attention to the division among the intellectuals. It should also be noted that many studies explicitly take sides by engaging in polemics. To date, little work has thoroughly addressed the diversity and evolution, let alone origins, of political ideas in post-Mao China. As a result, scholars unfamiliar with Chinese politics are often confused about the labels in the Chinese intelligentsia, such as the association of nationalism with the Left and human rights with the Right. More important, without considering how the ideas took shape, we would not adequately understand the political trajectory of communist China, where elite politics and local policies have been profoundly shaped by intellectual debates.
This dissertation takes a relational approach to the intellectual debates in contemporary China by analyzing the formation of political ideas and crystallization of intellectual positions. It asks two questions: who are the Chinese liberals, and how were their distinctive bundles of political views formed? Drawing on 67 semi-structured interviews with Chinese intellectual elites across the ideological spectrum, as well as detailed historical and textual analyses, this dissertation examines the social forces that have shaped the political attitudes of liberal intellectuals in contemporary China. It argues against the prevailing attempts to define Chinese liberalism as a social category with a coherent ideology comparable to its Western counterpart; rather, as a community of discourse that contains a number of competing and contradictory discourses, it is embedded in China’s social reality as an authoritarian regime governed by a communist party, and contingent on China’s history straddling the Maoist and post-Mao eras. Rather than a monolithic or tight-knit group, Chinese liberals are comprised of an array of social actors, including scholars, journalists, lawyers, activists, and house church leaders. They are liberal not because of what they are for, but because of what they are against; more specifically, Chinese liberals are united by an anti-authoritarian mentality, which is a historical product of the Cultural Revolution from 1966 to 1976 and the Tiananmen Square protests of 1989.
In addition to biographical factors, the views of Chinese liberals have been shaped by structural factors represented by the neoliberal reforms and the rise and growth of the intellectual field since the 1990s, as well as interactive factors manifested by the polar opposition between the liberals and the New Leftists. On the one hand, as state-driven capitalism unleashed China’s economic potential, China was well on its way to becoming a major player in the international community toward the end of the 1990s; on the other hand, the fusion of the free market and political power led to rampant corruption and social injustice. How to make sense of China’s crony capitalism became an important dividing line between the New Left and liberalism. As the intellectual debates were increasingly cast as part of global cultural production, how to appropriate Western thinkers and concepts became a site of contestation. While the dramatic expansion of higher education led to the growth of the intellectual field with its own logic and rules, in which both liberals and New Left intellectuals were struggling for symbolic power, the penetration of the political field remained, not only in terms of visible incentives and punishments, but also in terms of its subtle influence on the manner of problem construction and debate. Through combative interactions, the liberals and the New Leftists have defined themselves by reference to each other. In the process of binary opposition, the views of both sides have moved further and further apart with little overlap.
This dissertation contributes to political sociology and the sociology of knowledge in three ways. First, departing from the conventional approach that takes political orientations for granted, it takes a relational approach by analyzing the dynamic processes of ideological formation and polarization. Second, it traces the process of ideological alignment and differentiation on three levels: structural, interactive, and biographical. Third, while it has been observed that intellectual elites have been the collective agents responsible for many democratic transitions worldwide since the early twentieth century, the internal division of the intellectuals has received much less attention. My work addresses this issue by analyzing how the Chinese intelligentsia has structuralized into binary opposition since the Tiananmen Square protests. In particular, I treat political ideas as historical contingencies, rather than fixed properties, that are internally shaped by “fractal distinctions.”

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More About This Work

Academic Units
Thesis Advisors
Eyal, Gil
Ph.D., Columbia University
Published Here
January 9, 2017