Chen Guangcheng and Rebiya Kadeer have something in common: they seem to embody what the CCP itself likes to sell to foreigners as “the Chinese people’s strife for a better life”. Chen became a lawyer of sorts, despite his blindness. Kadeer, an Uyghur, became a successful business woman. That was how she was portrayed by CCP propaganda, anyway.
Both, at some time during their careers, found themselves at odds with the Chinese Communist Party. They still are.
A too idealistic view? Maybe – but that’s what narratives are about. That’s probably why the Water Margin, one of the Chinese classics, came to my mind when I heard about Chen Guangcheng’s escape from his “house arrest” in Shandong Province. Mount Liang, where the novel is set, is located in Shandong Province, too.
The narrative here is this (more or less): 108 outlaws form a sizeable army (officials at the time would refer to them as a gang, of course), the outlaws become pretty convincing (illegal) military personalities, they teach the imperial armies lesson after lesson, and are then – as usual with successful rebels – granted an amnesty, and coopted to defend the Chinese empire.
The rebel idealism is one narrative – the one of co-option is another. They seem to complement each other. That China’s intellectuals have been co-opted by the CCP has been frequently said. Kang Xiaoguang suggested in 2007 that the CCP had replaced farmers and workers as the country’s elites, and chose the intellectuals instead:
However, the relationship between the intellectual elite and the CCP has gone through twists and turns. There were constant conflicts between the two in the 1980s, which gradually died out after the 1990s. Why did the intellectuals stop making noise? Some say it is due to heavy-handed suppression while others say that the intellectuals have been bought off. Indeed, suppression has never stopped, and has been dreadful, too. In the mid-1990s, the government started a policy of massive buy-off. For instance, there has been a marked increase in the outlay for education and research, and much better working and living conditions for teaching and research staff. However, suppression and buy-off cannot fully explain the change in the intelligentsia. Otherwise the intelligentsia would not be the intelligentsia any more. No, there are deeper reasons for this change of attitude. First, the Chinese government continued the reform and opening-up policy in and after 1992, which was what the intelligentsia wanted. […] »
Kang’s explanation goes beyond Wu Renhua’s description of how CCP cooption works. Wu, in his Tian An Men 1989 tweets of 2011, wrote that the CCP learned its lesson from 1989, and bought the intellectuals off, with 1,800,000,000 Yuan RMB allocated to Tsinghua, Beijing University, as teacher subsidies which were spent within three years.
That may create stability, at least superficially. But it also rots civil society.
Soft power comes from values, Chinese intellectuals keep stating. But when values begin to resist state power, they seem to become irreconcilable, in China.
Many people who allow the party establishment to buy them off will hate Chen Guangcheng. Others will silently admire him – after hours, and without consequence.