21 October 2016
Things have worsened under President Xi Jinping, whose relentless and sweeping crackdown on dissent is unprecedented. Photo: Reuters
Things have worsened under President Xi Jinping, whose relentless and sweeping crackdown on dissent is unprecedented. Photo: Reuters

Why Chinese intellectuals are fleeing to the West

A recent report in the British newspaper The Guardian said China is witnessing the biggest exodus of intellectuals since the Tiananmen crackdown in 1989.

Tens of thousands of academics, writers and artists are fleeing the country, mostly to the West.

Professor Jerome Alan Cohen, a renowned Sinologist and legal expert in the University of New York, compared the massive flight to the “Great Escape” of European Jews to the US in the 1930s.

Cohen has first-hand knowledge of what is happening to intellectuals in China. He has been looking after famous Chinese dissidents who have defected to the West such as Chen Guangcheng, the blind civil rights lawyer who sought asylum in the US in 2012.

This year not only marks the 27th anniversary of the June 4 massacre and the 50th anniversary of the outbreak of the Cultural Revolution but also serves as a painful reminder of how Chinese intellectuals have been relentlessly persecuted by the Communist Party since 1949.

Zhang Kangkang, a famous dissident writer and an icon of the so-called “scar literature”, once described the Communist Party as a “highly efficient and ruthless machine that operates 24/7 and produces nothing but slaves for years on end”.

Perhaps due to thousand-year-old Confucian values that are deeply entrenched in them, the traditional Chinese intelligentsia have tended to resign themselves to fate during tough times and have rarely risen up against tyranny.

For example, Yang Jiang, one of the greatest dramatists and novelists of modern China who died in April this year, and her husband, the late Qian Zhongshu who was also a great novelist, remained largely philosophical about their suffering under Mao Zedong and never openly criticized his brutality and dictatorship. 

In fact, the Communist Party has been notorious for its intense contempt for intellectuals and social critics and has gone to extremes to persecute them.

Most intellectual elites who remained in the mainland after the communists came to power were either cruelly persecuted or forced to toe the Maoist line.

Despite the fact that a few of them like economist Gu Huai and famous columnist Yu Luoke did stand up to the regime and become martyrs, the vast majority of the intellectual elites chose to remain silent.

And that begs the question: why didn’t these prominent and righteous intellectuals such as Yang Jiang and Qian Chungshu, who were supposed to act according to their conscience and criticize social injustice, speak out against oppression and cruelty of the communist regime throughout their lifetime?

Perhaps theologian Wang Yi has the answer.

In a recent article, he argued that Chinese intellectuals did not rise up against the party not because they did not want to but because they knew that their righteous indignation, their knowledge, moral convictions and values would be useless.

In other words, the Chinese intelligentsia were simply too afraid to speak up because they were terrified by the brutality of the party which has no respect for basic human values.

Their backbones broke easily in front of dictators,” he wrote.

Things have worsened under President Xi Jinping, whose relentless and sweeping crackdown on dissent is unprecedented.

Under President Xi, state expenditure on “maintaining national stability” has exceeded defense spending and there are no signs Emperor Xi will relent anytime soon.

However, even though dissident intellectuals who have fled China can no longer exercise oversight inside the country, they can still play an important role away from home by drawing international attention to human rights abuses in the mainland and showing the rest of the world the truth.

This article appeared in the Hong Kong Economic Journal on June 9

Translation by Alan Lee

[Chinese version 中文版]

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Adjunct Professor, History Department, The Chinese University of Hong Kong

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