The Flowers Blooming in the Dark

The historian Xu Jilin
Gueorgui Pinkhassov/Magnum Photos
The historian Xu Jilin, Shanghai, 1995

Ever since the founding of the People’s Republic in 1949, Chinese people have sought to give voice to how they would like their country to be run. In 1956, Mao Zedong announced a brief flourishing of free speech called the “Hundred Flowers Campaign,” referring to a vibrant era in antiquity that gave rise to Confucianism, Daoism, Legalism, and other ideas that went on to dominate Chinese thought for thousands of years. Of course, Mao didn’t really want such an atmosphere to take hold; it was a trap, and people who spoke out in favor of political reform or against government abuses were quickly snapped up by the security apparatus. China entered a twenty-year period of brutal policies that only ended with Mao’s death and the purging of his allies in the late 1970s.

In 1978 Deng Xiaoping began to relax government control over the economy and society, allowing a freewheeling decade of spirited discussion in which the country’s future seemed up for grabs. It ended with the 1989 Tiananmen massacre, setting China on what many people now take to be its inevitable course: that of a development dictatorship, in which economic growth is guided by a repressive state that brooks little opposition.

And yet it’s possible to identify another period that might surpass the 1980s as China’s most open: a ten-year stretch beginning around the turn of this century, when a rich debate erupted over what lay ahead. As in the past, many of those speaking out were establishment intellectuals who were careful not to challenge too directly the Communist Party’s right to rule but took advantage of the relatively relaxed social policies championed by Deng’s successors, Jiang Zemin and Hu Jintao, to launch a sophisticated discussion about how China should be run and its place in the world.

Even more remarkably, this period brought the rise of grassroots thinkers and dissidents who took advantage of new, harder-to-control forms of expression, such as blogs, independent documentary films, underground art movements, and social media. Taken together, these (often angrily opposed) groups of people created what is arguably the most coherent discussion of China’s future since the founding of the People’s Republic—indeed, perhaps since the epochal May 4th Movement of 1919, when writers and thinkers overturned tradition and set China’s course for the next century.

The competing academic voices fall into three schools of thought: liberals, leftists, and new Confucians. That’s the framework adopted by Timothy Cheek, David Ownby, and Joshua A. Fogel, three Canada-based academics, in Voices from the Chinese Century: Public Intellectual Debate from Contemporary China. This ambitious effort to bring to an English-reading audience many of China’s most important contemporary scholars builds on work that originally appeared on the website Reading the China Dream, a guide to the intellectual life of early-twenty-first-century China.


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