Dissertation Abstracts

The Making of Liberal Intellectuals in Post-Tiananmen China

Author: Li, Junpeng , jpli3023@gmail.com
Department: Department of Sociology
University: Columbia University, USA
Supervisor: Gil Eyal
Year of completion: 2016
Language of dissertation: English

Keywords: Intellectuals , Knowledge , Politics , China
Areas of Research: Historical and Comparative Sociology , Political Sociology , Theory


Drawing on 67 semi-structured interviews with Chinese intellectual elites across the ideological spectrum, as well as detailed historical and textual analyses, this dissertation examines the social forces that have shaped the political attitudes of liberal intellectuals in contemporary China. It argues against the prevalent attempts to define Chinese liberalism as a social category with a coherent ideology comparable to its Western counterpart; rather, as a community of discourse that contains a number of competing and contradictory discourses, it is embedded in China’s social reality as an authoritarian regime governed by a communist party, and contingent on China’s history straddling the Maoist and post-Mao eras. Rather than a monolithic or tight-knit group, Chinese liberals are comprised of an array of social actors, including scholars, journalists, lawyers, activists, and house church leaders. They are liberal not because of what they are for, but because of what they are against; more specifically, Chinese liberals are united by an anti-authoritarian mentality, which is a historical product of the Cultural Revolution from 1966 to 1976 and the Tiananmen Square protests of 1989.

In addition to biographical factors, the views of Chinese liberals have been shaped by structural factors represented by the neoliberal reforms and the rise and growth of the intellectual field since the 1990s, as well as interactive factors manifested by the polar opposition between the liberals and the New Leftists. On the one hand, as state-driven capitalism unleashed China’s economic potential, China was well on its way to becoming a major player in the international community toward the end of the 1990s; on the other hand, the fusion of the free market and political power led to rampant corruption and social injustice. How to make sense of China’s crony capitalism became an important dividing line between the New Left and liberalism. As the intellectual debates were increasingly cast as part of global cultural production, how to appropriate Western thinkers and concepts became a site of contestation. While the dramatic expansion of higher education led to the growth of the intellectual field with its own logic and rules, in which both liberals and New Left intellectuals were struggling for symbolic power, the penetration of the political field remained, not only in terms of visible incentives and punishments, but also in terms of its subtle influence on the manner of problem construction and debate. Through combative interactions, the liberals and the New Leftists have defined themselves by reference to each other. In the process of binary opposition, the views of both sides have moved further and further apart with little overlap.