The Stinking Ninth Class

It’s a hard life for educated folk. Earlier this year, the Chinese state newsagency Xinhua reported that the life expectancy of the Chinese intellectual was, at 58, more than ten years lower than the national average. A survey also showed that 76% of the nation’s journalists died between 40 and 60.

Many were surprised by the findings. The insanities of Chairman Mao’s “anti-rightist” campaigns and, worse still, the Cultural Revolution, had by now given way to a kind of modus vivendi. Intellectuals were no longer the “stinking ninth class” of society, some way behind criminals, prostitutes and vagrants in a peasant-led pecking order. By now, in the interests of “stability and economic development”, there would be no more mass persecutions. While freedom of speech would not be tolerated, at least the freedom to earn money had now been firmly established. The network of informers began to disintegrate, the role of the Party in ordinary life began to recede, and something approaching a civil society had begun to develop.

Still, something was obviously not quite right. While intellectuals are no longer being buried alive, as they were during the brutal reign of the Emperor Qin Shihuang, they are marginalized by a Singapore-style authoritarian consumer society and hemmed in by the old-fashioned strictures of the Chinese Communist Party. The recent discussion in the state press about the role of “public intellectuals” is a case in point.

George Steiner once suggested that the persecution of intellectuals in the old Soviet bloc indicated at the very least a kind of respect for high culture. “Writers were persecuted and killed precisely because literature was recognized as an important and potentially dangerous force,” the old polymath wrote in his 1961 essay, The Writer and Communism. The role and influence of the intellectual was enhanced by the fact that he was being oppressed, and the ultimate compliment a government could pay to its grand penseurs was to lock them up. After all, in bourgeois democratic countries, intellectuals had been sidelined, and their attempts to enrich cultural life had been smothered by the mass media, where thoughtless gratification was the norm.

In his memoirs, Steiner described his sense of intoxication while listening to classical musical recitals and watching the staging of “serious plays” by Sophocles and Brecht in the former East Berlin. After the Wall fell, he said, “virtually overnight, freedom reclaimed its inalienable right to junk food.” The liberated masses rushed not to dissident poets, but to adult cinemas and MacDonalds.

It was no doubt reassuring for the likes of Blok, Mayakovsky and Akhmatova, and the great Chinese playwright Lao She, hounded to his death by the Red Guards, that at least the government was paying implicit homage to the power and influence of intellectuals.

Steiner did at least concede that the inculcation of love for Bach fugues and the more recondite poems of Goethe came at a high price, and was hardly worth the gulags. But he could not hide his regret. Modern capitalist democracies were obeisant at the twin idols of “Madonna and Maradona”, Steiner wrote, and swamped with porn and filth and fast food. Rare book shops in Prague were being ripped up and replaced by smut sellers and burger joints.

China, it seems, has the worst of both worlds. One veteran China watcher once described the post-Mao reforms as a Leninist velvet prison with consumer characteristics. Trash and kitsch remain easy to find, and while you might be able to attend the occasional recital of ancient pipa compositions, should you so wish, the sound of that delicate instrument is invariably drowned out by mobile phones.

“To get rich is glorious,” the late leader Deng Xiaoping urged. Render unto Caesar what should be rendered, and leave everything else to Mammon. We now have a nation where the fairy light is the most prominent cultural symbol, and where the quest for riches has become the simplest avenue of achievement.

The recent debate about the role of public intellectuals began when the relatively liberal weekly magazine, Southern People’s Weekly, published a list of the 50 most influential cultural figures in China, led by the exiled poet, Bei Dao, and including the veteran Beijing rocker Cui Jian, who was at the height of his subversive influence in the years immediately after the Tian’anmen Square crackdown in 1989. The magazine noted that the market economy had led to the marginalization of public intellectuals, but they had never been more necessary.

And so, facing marginalization by the market, they now had to face another salvo from the Propaganda Ministry. Two months later, the Shanghai-based government organ, Liberation Daily, published a characteristically reactionary editorial mocking the “imported” notion of “public intellectuals” and accusing the figures on the list of being estranged from the Party and the masses. “Public intellectuals” are arrogant and elitist, and trying to monopolize debate with their own views, it said.

Communist Party watchers might have been reminded of the case of the Hungarian writer, Tibor Dery, condemned for leading an “organization hostile to the state” in the wake of the Soviet crackdown in 1956. What might this hostile organization be, the joke ran. It was the Hungarian people.

In any case, in its bilious doctrinal carping, the editorial was quite exemplary, a sinister, jargon-ridden spasm of Stalinesque nastiness. Out of touch, certainly, but beneath its cod-Marxist babble, there were signs that a renewed assault on press freedom was on its way.

It quickly drew the attention of the foreign media – themselves anxious, in these confusing times, to find evidence that the core values of the CCP had not changed, and that the whole Party edifice tottered precariously on a huge wave of socioeconomic transformation and was now returning, reflexively, to its roots. The Economist was particularly scathing, and attributed the latest government assault to the freedom afforded to the modern Chinese thinker by the internet. According to the Christian Science Monitor, which broke the story, the Propaganda Ministry had now ordered newspapers to refrain from compiling such lists and from paying too much attention to the assortment of poets, writers, environmental activists and other critical voices now on its “gray list” of troublemakers.

Meanwhile, Chinese newspapers, driven for the first time by market pressures, are filling their pages with the blathering of TV celebs, with salacious tales involving ménages a trois or cocaine busts, failed bank heists and kidnappings, tawdry trysts in saunas and karaoke houses, and the sort of titillating tabloid fodder that attracts readers of every stripe in every country. The papers have been anxious to boost their circulation, and the readers themselves rarely want to read editorials issued by the Propaganda Ministry.

This has led to tensions, between mass-market philistinism on the one hand, and the government on the other.

TV stations pile celebrity profiles upon celebrity profiles, regaling us with the eating habits and interests of the latest manufactured Taiwanese pop band or Hong Kong diva, just like western TV, only without the counterweight of serious news and debate. Desperate for advertising revenues, they try filling prime-time with real-life crime shows, and one regional station even introduced bikini-clad weather girls, but they are then rapped on the knuckles for “corrupting the morality of the youth”.

The crisis of Chinese civilization that hit during and after the collapse of the imperial order in 1911 was regarded as a golden age for intellectuals, but their role has always been slightly different from that in the west. They were traditionally the servants of their nation, motivated not by what Graham Greene has called the “duty of disloyalty” but by a genuine desire to serve. And so, thinkers queued up to declare solutions to the national malaise, drawing inspiration from Herbert Spencer, John Stuart Mill, Dewey or even the anarchist Bakhunin. After the Bolshevik revolution, they finally turned to Marx.

Intellectuals were always merely functional, instruments of the state. When we shoot a crossbow at a target, we do not praise the arrow, said Mao Zedong in 1942 during a criticism of the writer, Ding Ling. It was a sign of things to come. The intellectuals had played a crucial role in the revolution, but they would quickly come under attack themselves.

In the novelist and essayist Lu Xun, China had at least one great writer and political figure. Lu Xun died of tuberculosis in 1936, but was already thoroughly sceptical about the revolution, suggesting that “the oppressed quickly turn into the oppressors”. After his death, he remained a key figure, both lionized and bowdlerized by the regime, with statues and shrines set up to celebrate him as a “champion of the Party”. The only good intellectual, it seems, was a dead intellectual.

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