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Chinese Intellectuals’ Conception of Politics in the Early Twenty-First Century

Émilie Frenkiel
p. 88

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1At first glance, Chinese scholars’ academic freedom and freedom of expression seem very limited. It is difficult to imagine that an interesting debate on the question of political reform could take place in China or that the proposals which some engaged academics put forward in spite of everything could have an impact on public policy. My experience of Pekinese universities and the interviews I was able to hold with about twenty renowned academics involved in debate on this issue have encouraged me to go beyond this reticence and to study what is actually being said and happening in Chinese universities.

2One must first understand the context in which Chinese resear­chers are taking a stand. This context has seen university departments in the humanities and social sciences reopen from 1978 onwards to enable and serve the Reform and Openness Policy, in parallel with access to higher education for a generation of students strongly marked by the Cultural Revolution and eager to discover and use the theories and research developed in American and European universities. Divided on the ideological front but united by their patriotism, certain academics step out of their domain of expertise and take a stand, in the hope of influencing the orientation of government policies. While the impact of their political interventions is often difficult to assess, the Party has opted for a strategy of promotion of its legitimacy, through greater attentiveness to society’s needs and adaptation to its changes – even though the Party readily resorts to repression when this charm tactic does not suffice to silence the opposition. This context explains the existence of a rich debate, in and around Chinese universities, on the most suitable regime for China. First of all, to the extent that the word “democracy” often comes to mean “good regime”, who, among Chinese academics, could express their opposition to a democratic transition? Hence only a few voices are raised against “Western democracy” to propose a meritocratic regime that is more in phase with Chinese “tradition” and Confucianism. More generally speaking, the debate surrounds the timeline of democratic transition. Apart from those called liberals, Chinese academics are advocating gradual and cautious reform, having given up on any form of revolution. Furthermore, the wide range of interpretations of what democracy is and of propositions for institutional reform is expanding, from the meritocratic defence of the rule of law to a critique of “electionism” in favour of the rise of a constitutional and/or substantive democracy that is more social and more participative.

3Such thriving debate is fascinating to study, not only because it allows us to understand how China’s political future is thought about in Chinese universities, but also because it simultaneously reflects the broad spectrum of our own questions, both pre- and post-democratic.

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Émilie Frenkiel, « Chinese Intellectuals’ Conception of Politics in the Early Twenty-First Century », La lettre du Collège de France [En ligne], 7 | 2015, mis en ligne le 03 novembre 2015, consulté le 17 janvier 2019. URL :

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Émilie Frenkiel

Research Assistant, Modern and Contemporary Politics (Prof. Pierre Rosanvallon)

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