As we commemorate the thirtieth anniversary of China’s 1989 democracy movement, it is hard to imagine students and intellectuals playing a similar role today. In China’s highly marketized and politically controlled society, the space for intellectual inquiry and public intervention seems to have dwindled almost to the point of disappearing. It has often been argued that, over the course of the last century, Chinese intellectuals went from serving the state to serving the market, without ever securing a position of autonomy. However, in the last 10 years, the notion of “public intellectual” (now abbreviated as gongzhi) has become a derogatory term in China, referring to media personalities who deliver messages for interest groups and are rewarded in return.
Recently, the Tsinghua University Law Professor Xu Zhangrun published a series of articles criticizing the current leadership. Yet mainstream society seems to have paid almost no heed. Do intellectuals still have anything meaningful to contribute? In China, as elsewhere, intellectuals have been forced to rethink their role and the legitimacy of their public speech.