[Documents menu] Documents menu

The Big Split; Chinese intellectuals torn over how to take country out of difficulties

By Foong Woei Wan, The Straits Times, 10 September 2000

Market reforms in China cause social disparity, dividing opinion. Liberals say problem will end, while leftists feel the poor have been left behind

CHINESE intellectuals have locked horns over the emergence of social disparity in China -- the price which the country is paying for introducing market reforms in the last two decades.

The liberals, optimistic about the long-term outlook for China, expect the problem of social injustice to resolve by itself, as a more developed economy delivers a bigger pie to be shared out among the people.

The new leftists, however, fear that the market economy, being fundamentally unjust, has fattened a handful of officials and nouveau riche, leaving behind the poor farmers and workers who make up the masses.

This is one of the more contentious issues raised as China's intellectuals react to changes brought about by political and economic reforms and ponder over their country's future direction, said Professor Xu Jilin of Shanghai Normal University.

Speaking at an East Asian Institute seminar, he told about 50 participants that Beijing now faces complex problems which have been described as a cocktail of the worst of socialism and capitalism.

China's intellectuals cannot agree over how it ought to find its way out of its current difficulties and have split into two camps: the liberals and the new leftists, he noted.

The liberals felt that China's problems were not related to market reforms and indeed what the country needed was more freedom such as basic human rights like personal property rights and freedom of speech.

Prof Xu, who specialises in China's political history, said the fact that prominent liberals like Mr Li Shenzhi and Dr Liu Junning were criticised recently by Beijing for their views did not mean they were more anti-government than the new left.

Rather, it was because the two camps expressed their ideals in different ways, he said.

The liberals prefer to use plain language because they believe in sharing their knowledge with beginners.

When the commoners understand, Ding Guangen understands too and he will suppress you, he said, in a jesting reference to the Communist Party's propaganda chief Ding.

Although it seemed that liberalism had fallen foul of the authorities, many in China would gladly profess to be liberals, he said.

This is because most people think of liberalism as a sacred term, much like how revolution was unquestionable decades ago.

Prof Xu said the term left still held negative connotations as it reminded people of old leftists like the infamous Gang of Four.

The new leftists, he added, were convinced that more equality was the solution to China's problems. In their view, every Chinese should be playing an active role in the country's political and economic reform.

In expressing their opinions, their tactic was to point at the mulberry and scold the locust: they appeared to discuss the ills of Western capitalism while directing their critiques at the effects of Chinese market reforms.

They also wrote such obliquely-worded essays that even undergraduates had trouble comprehending, much less the authorities.

One participant at Friday's seminar suggested that both camps were not revealing their true agenda but were hitting edge balls by pitching their opinions in a way that would be more acceptable to officials.

For instance, liberals might want to advocate democracy but played up the liberal tag since democracy had become a negative word in the wake of the Tiananmen incident.

Likewise, the new leftists may want to avoid mention of class struggles as they did not want to raise the spectre of the Cultural Revolution.

If this was the correct reading, then the freedom-equality dichotomy between the two camps might be a false one, the participant said.