25 May 2019
Amid a crackdown on dissenting voices, thousands of public intellectuals and social critics in China have become too scared to speak up anymore. Photo: Bloomberg
Amid a crackdown on dissenting voices, thousands of public intellectuals and social critics in China have become too scared to speak up anymore. Photo: Bloomberg

Why it is important for Beijing to let intellectuals speak

Yuji Miyamoto, a former Japanese ambassador to China and a well-known Sinologist, recently gave an interview to BBC, during which he spoke up, in fluent Mandarin, for the intelligentsia in the mainland and called on Beijing to ease off politically.

Miyamoto served as Tokyo’s envoy to Beijing between 2006 and 2010, when Hu Jintao and Wen Jiabao were in power as president and premier respectively.

During their reign, mainland “public intellectuals” by and large enjoyed a substantial degree of freedom of speech, and were allowed to touch on sensitive issues. And in face of public pressure, the authorities were sometimes willing to make considerable compromises over controversial issues.

Unfortunately, after Xi Jinping took power in 2012, he began to mount a relentless and nationwide crackdown on dissenting voices. As a result, public intellectuals who dared to speak out against government policies in the past are now silenced across the mainland.

As Professor He Weifang, a prominent “public intellectual” and legal expert, expressed in his recent statement released by the Associated Press, he has decided to cease publishing any article or making any comment on current affairs on the social media from now on because China is currently witnessing the harshest suppression of free speech by the communist authorities in decades.

Professor He’s blog and social media accounts had once garnered a huge online following of 20 million people, but were recently shut down by the authorities.

In his statement Professor He said he was “completely overwhelmed by a sense of helplessness”, as he felt that “he is no longer allowed to make any sound over anything”.

The case has raised considerable public and media concern given the name recognition he enjoys, but the fact remains that what happened to Professor He was just the tip of the iceberg. The reality is, across China, tens of thousands of public intellectuals and social critics have become too scared to speak up anymore.

Dismayed to see that tolerance for dissent is fast disappearing in China, Miyamoto told BBC that only by allowing intellectuals to think and speak their mind can Beijing resolve the various problems it encounters during the course of reforms.

“Constructive criticism is the most invaluable form of criticism,” he said.

It is because, he explained, in an authoritarian society like China where checks and balances are absent, professional and constructive advice given by intellectuals from an objective perspective is extremely valuable, as it can prevent the authorities from making bad decisions that may result in huge social disasters such as the Great Leap Forward campaign in the past and the recent massive eviction of the so-called low-end population in Beijing.

As a matter of fact Miyamoto has proven to be right. Beijing municipal authorities would probably not have called a halt to the highly controversial eviction of migrant workers had it not been for the petition against the measure co-signed by more than 100 prominent intellectuals across the mainland.

If the eviction had continued, it would definitely have provoked an even more ferocious backlash in society.

The report of the 19th National Congress of the Communist Party of China last October pointed out in no uncertain terms that “nowadays the major social conflict in China has already evolved into a fundamental conflict between the mounting need among the general public for a better life and the imbalanced as well as insufficient development in society.”

In order to resolve the various conflicts in society, the party undoubtedly needs the advice of intellectuals. The Chinese government would definitely make a lot of mistakes and pay a heavy price for them if intellectuals across the mainland are either too afraid to speak or only dare to say “what the officialdom likes to hear”.

This article appeared in the Hong Kong Economic Journal on Jan 5

Translation by Alan Lee

[Chinese version 中文版]

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Hong Kong Economic Journal contributor

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