If anything, the recent sanctions imposed by the US government on Chinese telecommunications equipment maker ZTE Corp. and the ongoing Sino-US trade war have given many Chinese a rude awakening as to the huge economic and technological gap between the United States and China.
Humiliated into deep anger and frustration, many mainland “patriots”, who have a giant chip on their shoulders when it comes to national pride, immediately embarked on a witch-hunt for scapegoats who have fostered the widespread delusion that China is ahead of the West in almost every aspect of endeavor.
Among these scapegoats is Hu Angang, the director of the Institute for Contemporary China Studies at Tsinghua University, who has come under intense fire for having promoted the misleading notion of “China’s comprehensive and sweeping edge over the United States”, a theory that, at one point, had made him a national sensation.
In fact, Hu has become so hated that over a thousand Tsinghua alumni have signed a petition urging the university to fire him.
But are mainland intellectuals like Hu really to blame for Beijing’s major policy failures and miscalculations? And did their theories really have such an enormous impact on state policies as to lead to the current national humiliation that China is facing?
The truth is, in my view, members of the mainland public simply dare not put the blame on the ones who are truly responsible for fueling such delusions of grandeur across the nation, i.e., the Beijing leaders who have endorsed these delusive theories.
As a result, all they could do was to come ferociously after their lackeys in the academic sector who came up with these theories.
Ever since the Communist Party took power in 1949, mainland intellectuals and academics have served as a handy tool and humble servant at the disposal of the regime.
And the main reason why some academics were able to rise to prominence is that the theories they developed were very much to the taste of their paramount leaders and were able to meet the party’s ideological needs.
Simply put, mainland intellectuals would always come in handy whenever Beijing leaders need lackeys “in academic clothing” to provide theoretical support and make “footnotes” for their policy initiatives.
For example, the reason why Hu Angang’s theory of “China’s omnipotence” has become so popular across the mainland is that it just perfectly fits the main official themes of “China’s revival as a great nation” and “the China model providing guidance for the world” eagerly pitched by Beijing in recent years.
As Heng He, an independent commentator based in New York, has put it during a recent interview with the Voice of America, “Chinese social scientists who manage to secure funding from the government for their research projects are generally people who are able to make ‘footnotes’ for the regime.”
“Apparently, Hu Angang managed to gain favor with the Communist Party not because he has come up with an ingenious theory, but because the Communist Party needed his theory to support and justify its official lines,” he added.
Heng did have a point there, because at the end of the day, the main objective of most academic researches in China is to attract the attention and win the favor of Beijing leaders rather than push back the frontiers of knowledge.
What most academics are truly eyeing are actually the perks and the juicy funding brought about by the endorsement of their research efforts by Beijing leaders.
Also, being able to invent theories or compile studies that are to the taste of the party leadership provides a shortcut for academics to positions of power and fame.
Just look at the number of academics who are currently sitting on the standing committees of either the National People’s Congress or the Chinese People’s Political Consultative Conference, and you can understand why so many intellectuals are so eagerly kissing up to the top brass with their new academic theories in a desperate bid to join the ranks of “party and state leaders”.
Dismayed at the rapidly deteriorating political climate and the raging stampede among their fellow academics to curry favor with party leaders, some intellectuals who still have integrity have chosen either to remain silent in order to avoid trouble or simply leave the country and take up research fellowships overseas.
Sadly, the majority of Chinese academics just couldn’t resist the temptation of playing “cheerleaders” for the regime in exchange for money and power.
Back in 1957, Ma Yinchu, then the vice-chancellor of Peking University, published a highly polemical article warning of the possible catastrophic results of unchecked population growth.
Unfortunately, since his views flatly contradicted Mao Zedong’s policy of “the more people the better”, Ma was brutally persecuted in the decades that followed. It wasn’t until 1979 that he finally got vindicated.
Perhaps what today’s China needs most are academics like Ma Yinchu who aren’t afraid to speak out against the overly ambitious and unrealistic policy initiatives of the Communist Party rather than spineless lackeys like Hu Angang.
Yet morally courageous intellectuals like Ma are hard to come by in China these days.
This article appeared in the Hong Kong Economic Journal on Aug 17
Translation by Alan Lee
[Chinese version 中文版]
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