Chinese intellectuals, digital media, weibo,

Where have the Chinese public intellectuals gone?

9 minutes to read
Mingyi Hou

The year 2013 marked the high point of public intellectual’s online fame in China. Highly visible opinion leaders were invited to state-owned broadcasting companies as guest speakers. But it was also the year in which they were put in jail as criminals for disseminating rumors. 

Five years later, Weibo, the microblogging site of which intellectuals believe it can ‘change’ China, has evolved into a platform embodying a very different cultural atmosphere. Although social issues and current affairs still appear in the trending topic list, Weibo nowadays is seen as a platform for celebrity scandals. This article will explore why public intellectual’s online visibility has declined.

Chinese public intellectuals and the democratization paradigm

Isn’t it the case that Chinese public intellectuals have just been censored by the state? In both journalism and academia this is a popular explanation. These observations sound reasonable and assume a relationship between the state and media - something which is often seen as precluding full democracy. Which is why analyses focus on how a more democratic system could be built in China. In this democratization paradigm the focus is on the question to what extent media institutions are free from state intervention.

The democratization paradigm is limiting our analysis, especially when we want to gain insight into public deliberation in digital China.

China, in this paradigm, is an exception compared to some liberal democracies in the Western world. In a similar vein, studies on Chinese digital media often adopt a democratization paradigm, asking whether a freer flow of information facilitated by networked communication technologies can bring political democracy to China (Herold, 2012).

Nevertheless, the democratization paradigm is limiting our analysis, especially when we want to gain insight into public deliberation in digital China. It directs our scope of observation of the antagonism between digital-activism and state-censorship - a simplified good vs. evil struggle criticized by Leibold (2011).

When focusing on the discourse and behaviors of the users, however, we may realize that ‘the Chinese-language blogosphere is producing the same shallow infotainment, pernicious misinformation and internet-based ghettos that it creates elsewhere in the world’ (Leibold, 2011:1025).  So we need to dig somewhat deeper into this issue.

Political microbloggers as public intellectuals

Public intellectuals are ‘those figures who, on the basis of some recognized standing in a creative, scholarly, or other non-instrumental activity, are also accorded the opportunity to address a wider audience on matters of general concern’ (Collini 2002: 209). In China, the public intellectual is a more recent phenomenon, and fueled by the popularization of microblogging sites like Weibo. This is because individual opinion leaders can bypass mainstream media institutions and voice opinions through personal accounts.  

Since several types of creative professionals can function as public intellectuals, microbloggers are none of them but also all of them.

One category of public intellectuals consists of political microbloggers. They are full-time bloggers managing content aggregation Weibo accounts, with commentaries on current affairs and historical events as primary content. Many of them are grassroots writers, meaning that they do not have a background in academia, literature or journalism.

Since several types of creative professionals can function as public intellectuals, microbloggers are none of them but also all of them. Although lacking professional credentials, they can write on histories, comment on current affairs or even report news by sourcing their own news stories.

Cultural authority and ‘national characters criticism’ discourse

To convince their audiences, academics, journalists and authors as public intellectuals derive their cultural authority and credentials from professional-artistic achievements and specialization (Heynders, 2016). However, grassroots microbloggers lack such credentials. In their case, their authoritative voice is invoked by enacting the discourse of ‘national characters criticism’.

National character is ‘an expression which describes forms of collective self-perception, sensibility and conduct which are shared by the individuals who inhibit a nation state’ (Neigburg, 2002). To criticize the 'national characters' of Chinese people assumes that there are undesirable and flawed elements in Chinese people’s personalities and mentalities.

This social criticism can be dated back to the early 20th Century and it marked the high point of Chinese intellectuals’ public intervention to solve the national crisis of that period. The following post is from a famous political microblogger called Baigu Lunjin on Weibo (Figure 1). It showcases the content of national characters criticism

Figure 1

This portrait represents a specific form of Chineseness situated in the late 19th and early 20th Century. The post summarizes a few characteristics of Chinese people’s cultural personalities, including servility, chauvinism, immorality, lack of conscience and belief, obsession with power.

I suggest that this portrait represents a chronotopic Chineseness of the colonial past in late 19th and early 20th Century. A chronotope is ‘invokable chunks of history organizing the indexical order of discourse(Blommaert, 2015):

  1. It is first and foremost a ‘trope’ or ‘token’ against which we make sense of the discourse.
  2. Secondly, a chronotope entails a particular plot, actors and moral or political normativities. It orders what and how things happen and the power relations among the subjects as well as the moral evaluation towards what have happened.

By invoking this discourse, the microblogger has brought specific actors, power relations and sociohistorical context to the here-and-now public deliberation on Weibo. The actors in this chronotope include Chinese Enlightenment intellectuals who criticize, on the one hand, and the Chinese population in that historical period who are criticized, on the other.

The Chinese public intellectual and orientalism

Things are not that simple, though, for Chinese academics indeed have very different understandings of this discourse. For one, Chinese intellectuals' public interventions in the late imperial and early republic period strived to solve the national crisis in the contacts and conflicts with the West and modern Japan. They took the image of modern Western citizen as a standard, identifying a series of deficiencies in the personal characters and social psychology of the Chinese nation (Guo and Yuan, 2000).

For another, the flawed characters identified by these intellectuals are considered as a form of Orientalist discursive construct. When the Western diplomatic corps and missionaries arrived in China in the 19th Century, they constructed Chinese culture as the opposite of modernity, so as to provide legitimacy for colonial activities (Liu, 1999).

Digital nationalism is a prominent discourse enacted by networked actors on the Chinese internet

The (in)accuracy and genealogy of the national characters discourse is beyond the scope of this article. However, the abovementioned discussions are most relevant when we view national characters as a chronotopic Chineseness. Firstly, the flawed Chinese image is a historically situated concept. It was applied by early modern intellectuals to criticize the particular social problems of that particular historical conjuncture. Secondly, we can see the implied power relation in the criticism. In Mo’s (2011) analysis, when the intellectuals took the initiative to criticize the uncivilized features of the public, they were also establishing elite voices in the new political order emerging after the fall of the last empire in China.

But through invoking this specific chunk of history, the microblogger can position himself/herself as the elite subject of the discourse. S/he identifies his/her microblogging career with the Enlightenment intellectuals’ efforts in China’s New Culture Movement, a movement for both cultural and political modernization in the previous century. In this case, the microblogger can articulate certain elite voices, and the credibility attributed to them, in spite of the fact that s/he is a grassroots - read, underqualified - online writer.

Still, this chronotopic Chineseness does not guarantee a positive uptake, for the construction of national characters is shot through with particular historical conditions. Starting from 1920s, the ideal Chineseness in intellectuals’ discourses was re-oriented from the individual citizen of (Western) liberal democracy to revolutionary proletariats with class consciousness. The previously immoral and uncivilized population of the lower social class suddenly became the brave and leading forces in social revolution (Xie, 2015).

The discourse of nationalist pride

At this point, we should recognize the here-and-now political and cultural atmosphere of Weibo. Digital nationalism is a prominent discourse enacted by networked actors on the Chinese internet, including dominant political propaganda as well as user communities and highly visible celebrities (Schneider, 2018). Much user-generated content on message boards and Weibo is replete with chauvinist sentiment and nationalist pride.

Your Majesty, the foreigners are going to help us construct railways

In 2015, a picture about railway construction went viral on Weibo (Figure 2).  The picture compares two scenes. One is from the Chinese TV show Towards the Republic, telling the political struggles in the last few years of the declining Qing Empire. The other is a photo of then British Prime Minister David Cameron and Queen Elizabeth II standing in front of 10 Downing Street.

The two scenes are marked with different time and location. One is in 1885 Beijing, the other 2015 London. However, the subtitles in the two photos are identical ─ ‘Your Majesty, the foreigners are going to help us construct railways’.  

Figure 2

Although we don’t know who first created the picture, it went viral after Chinese president Xi Jinpin’s visit to the UK in 2015.  The picture sets two tropes of Chineseness in contrast. One recalls the colonial past, during which Western capitalist expansion brought a railway infrastructure to China. It marks the starting point where China to be involved in the deep and long process of geopolitical globalization.

The other indicates the here-and-now historical conjuncture, where contemporary China strives to take a leading role in the recent process of geocultural globalization (Blommaert, 2015). This picture showcases the popularity of nationalist pride in Weibo public discussions, and it also resonates with the mainstream political discourse of national rejuvenation.

The conflicting discourses

In such media environment, political microbloggers’ appropriation of the national characters discourse may not be received well. The invocation of the older chronotopic Chineseness triggers a particular power relation in the world system, in which Western political power and technology outshine those of the Chinese. For the proponents of national pride discourse, this power relation only existed in the colonial past.

More importantly, the dominant political discourse of China’s rejuvenation taps exactly into the sense of humiliation and sufferings of the colonial history. It is suggested, as implied in the picture, that contemporary power relations have been effectively reversed.

A reduction of impact for critical voices, consequently, can also be attributed to the actual features of such voices.

Analyses of censorship by banning accounts and removing posts rely on superficial observations on the actual situation in which Chinese public intellectuals currently find themselves. Sullivan (2014) reminds us that the dominant political power is using the same tools of online public opinion mobilization as those of the political activists to exert social control and claim legitimacy.

A reduction of impact for critical voices, consequently, can also be attributed to the actual features of such voices and the changing nature of the fields of discourse in which they circulate. Thus, national characters criticism is a less than satisfactory discourse strategy to convince audiences in the contemporary trends of digital nationalism in China. This cannot be ruled out as an element explaining the decline of Chinese public intellectual's voices on Weibo.


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