2008:Populism of the Lower Strata and the Intellectuals

Populism of the Lower Strata and the Intellectuals


by Tang Xiaobing 唐小兵

Nanfengchuang 南风窗 February 7, 2008

[Note: Chinese today are allergic to the word class 阶级 apparently because of bad memories of Mao’s rule so they they use strata or layer 阶层 instead.]

Chinese populism’s current resurgence can be traced back to both utopian socialism and a radically anti-traditional tradition in Chinese culture. Tang Xiaobing 唐小兵 a scholar at Shanghai’s East China Normal University in a recent issue of Nanfengchuang outlined the development of populism in China during the Twentieth Century. The Chinese text is available at http://www.nfcmag.com/view-582.html

Summary translation:

Chinese populism flows from two sources. The first came to China from Russia in the early 20th century from the writings of [Note: the 19th century utopian socialist and inspiration to Lenin] Nikolai Chernyshevsky and others who called on intellectuals to go out amongst the people for it is among them that all that is pure, noble and worthwhile is to be found. The other root of Chinese populism comes for the radically anti-traditional current in Chinese tradition “discard the sages and cast aside all wisdom” 绝圣去智慧

Populism has been extremely influential on Chinese society at all levels during the 20th century. Especially interesting is how populism got such a strong hold on Chinese intellectuals. We can divide this story into three parts. First, there was the radically anti-traditional May 4, 1919 movement which called for the wholesale importation of western ways. Slogans calling for Democracy and Science were common.

Although it totally rejected the elite Chinese culture of the day, the May 4 movement looked for inspiration among the folk culture found among the lower strata of Chinese society. In Shanghai, the Left Wing Writers’ Group, then strongly under the political and social influence of the Chinese Communist Party, put a surge of articles in publication such as Shenbao that called on people to go down to live among the people.  They urged their readers to become one with the common people. They criticized the cultural elites for their corruption and being mere servants of the authoritarian rulers of traditional society. True goodness and truth were to be found among the oppressed and exploited people at the bottom of society.

Later, during the anti-rightist period [Note: Great Leap Forward of 1957 and later] , the movement to sent young educated people to the countryside, and the Cultural Revolution, this kind of populism reached a peak.  Many intellectuals were “brainwashed“ so that a revolution would break out in the depths of their souls and they would completely renounce their previous system of thought and cultural values. At the time, China’s workers and peasants were regarded as the most moral and most able members of society. Intellectuals were likened to devils and snakes — they were the worst kind of political criminals. From this we can see that after populism appeared amongst Chinese intellectuals, it has been used mostly as a means of political and cultural control.

Today, after after these two episodes, we see populism appearing once again among Chinese intellectuals in China today.  In its extreme form, it accuses China’s intellectual elites of having been seduced by the market economy and having simply become interest groups. Intellectuals who urge liberal economic reforms are particularly distrusted or even hated. People see things this way are convinced that only they themselves stand with the lower strata in society and represent their needs and interests.

For the past several years in periodicals such as Tianwa and Shanghai Wenxue (Shanghai Literature) intellectuals have been discussing the “lower strata” 底层and “lower strata literature” . In the controversies that break out, one side says that there is a pure, natural and diverse “voiceless lower strata” , whom the intellectuals cannot speak for, since any intellectual trying to speaking for them could only distort their message and make selfish use of them.  The other side seems to be deliberating just how to give the lower strata their own voice.  Some even seen themselves as the spokespersons for the lower strata. The problem of the lower strata is not simply an “academic problem” of how to describe them in literature or how the intellectuals can represent the lower strata in addressing issues of “virtue”. It is a matter of how intellectuals handle problems in the space between morality and politics.

Populism is well represented on the internet. The “people” has become a sensitive word that cannot be criticized, because the people are the one repository of moral goodness that has been harmed by the interests pushing reforms. Whenever there is a conflict between the rich and the poor, no matter who is in the right, the students and other people on the web in their vast majority stand on the side of the weaker one. They are very critical of intellectuals who want to look at an issue dispassionately.

Writings by economist Mao Yushi “Speaking for the Wealthy, Handling Affairs for the Poor” “ 为富人说话,为穷人办事” and scholar Xu Jilin’s reflection on graduate student education “Why are graduate school entrance examinations just like university entrance examinations?” and the overreaction to the foolish Elegant Club Woman Affair 雅阁女事件 [Note: In mid 2006 a self styled “Elegant club woman” declared that anyone who makes less than RMB 3000 per month in the lower strata set off a firestorm of millions of angry responses. End note] are vigorously attacked online. Elite intellectuals are dismissed as mere servants to interest groups and are challenged at all turns about their morals and actions, while the oppressed and insulted are considered the seed bearers for a moral renaissance.

There are social reasons behind the attractiveness of populism to intellectuals today. Perhaps considering the social sources of populism and can gives us methods for dealing with this populism rationally. The most fundamental social reason for the rise of populism is the growing gap between rich and poor in Chinese society today. There an increasing feeling of a divide and of enmity between people on the two sides of the divide. People of the properties strata are seen as using illegal means such as relying on power to harvest economic rents or special deals between officials and businesspeople to capture resources that originally belonged to all the people. Hating the rich has become a common attitude in society. The people at the grassroots or the lower strata are characterized as “living cleanly in this world.” Intellectuals with this social background are affected by it in subtle ways.

Moreover, ever since the 1990s, universities and scientific institutions rapidly transformed themselves to keep up with the rapid expansion of the market economy and society. Academics too face commercial pressures for evaluations, organization of projects as society has became more and more elitist. At the same time the gap between society and the intellectuals has grown.  Migrant workers, laid off workers and villagers are locked outside the ivory tower of academia.  Some intellectuals feel uneasy at this distancing because believe that intellectuals does not allow true intellectuals to be  “a group set apart” with no duty of human concern for other members of society. Meanwhile from within academe itself come report after report of academic corruption and of academic work becoming more routinized by administration and bureaucracy.  This creates an identity crisis in some alienated intellectuals. Some intellectuals feel the need to leave their own circles.  They become very passionate about the masses of the workers and the peasants.

A large proportion of the intellectuals who have these populist tendencies come themselves from grassroots backgrounds. They too faced themselves frustrations as members of the lower strata and so have great sympathy for them. Once they enter academia, they find that intellectual elites are completely different from what they had expected. They see all around them scheming interest groups. Their punctured illusions are transformed to hate. These memories of past wounds and sadness can breed raging, idealist passions and imbue their speech with a sanctimonious quality.

Now if poltical ills still run rampant, if the rights of citizens are not “realized in practice”, and if civil society is weak, then what Hannah Arendt called “the banality of evil” spreads far and wide,Many intellectuals put their trust in the small, isolated communities like rural villages. They idealize the beauty and excellent characters of the lower strata without any reserve. They despise the rational thinking of the intellectual strata of society. They can only fantasize about intellectuals who are searching for a new national path.

But in actual fact, those with real ties to the masses such as Yu Jianrong 于建嵘 [Note: Chinese Academy of Social Sciences scholar] with this field studies of the peasant rights protection movement in Hunan Province, the environmental protection movement that stopped the PX project in Xiamen, and demonstrations in Shanghai against the high speed maglev train, demonstrate the non-oppositional nature of relations between intellectuals and the masses (including the lower strata).  They demonstrate both the possibility and practice of cooperation between the masses and the intellectuals. Zou Dang 邹谠, the late distinguished scholar of Chinese 20th century political culture at the University of Chicago, who is himself of Chinese descent, said something that everyone concerned about the trend towards populism should consider: “Extreme idealism and extreme cynicism are the same: they take no responsibility for anything or anyone other than themselves. Extreme idealists take responsibility only for their own ideals, extreme cynics only take responsibility for their own narrow interests.



作者:唐小兵 来源:《南风窗》杂志 日期:2008-02-07



作者:唐小兵 来源:《南风窗》杂志





















About 高大伟 David Cowhig

Worked 25 years as a US State Department Foreign Service Officer including ten years at US Embassy Beijing and US Consulate General Chengdu and four years as a China Analyst in the Bureau of Intelligence and Research. Before State I translated Japanese and Chinese scientific and technical books and articles into English freelance for six years. Before that I taught English at Tunghai University in Taiwan for three years. And before that I worked two summers on Norwegian farms, milking cows and feeding chickens.
This entry was posted in Ideology 思想, Politics 政治, Society 社会 and tagged , , , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

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