November 29, 2012, by China Policy Institute

The Bo Xilai Scandal and China’s Intellectuals

by Giorgio Strafella.

Sometimes one is so dazzled by China’s economic performance that one forgets how important ideas and ideology are for the CCP’s claim to legitimacy. While managerial merit is often invoked by the party’s eulogists, party leaders rely more on ideas than performance when arguing that they constitute the best possible ruling elite. Furthermore, the emphasis placed on a monistic ideology that is assumedly true and exhaustive, and on their infallibility as interpreters of said ideology (see my previous post), makes China’s party-state resemble what Piekalkiewicz and Penn called “ideocracy.”

Only some in society possess the hermeneutic art and authority to elaborate on this ideology. Beside from political leaders themselves, this elite only includes intellectuals. This is why, despite the political and economic “marginalisation” they have experienced since 1989, intellectuals still matter in Chinese politics — the CCP itself was originally a party of philosophers and literati.If the rise and fall of Bo Xilai has political implications that the career-ending scandals of Chen Xitong, Chen Liangyu and Liu Zhijun lacked, it is also because Bo’s spectacular claim to possess a superior and more faithful interpretation of Marxism-for-China within the ideocratic context of the party-state.

Based on my conversations with Chinese intellectuals during the unfolding of the scandal (April-May 2012), it appears that during his years at Chongqing and especially shortly before his downfall, Bo eagerly searched the support of prominent scholars and public intellectuals. Rumours circulated that Bo even paid a few of them to skew public opinion in his favour. Some well-established scholars close to the “New Left” (NL) accepted positions at Chongqing University — a move widely interpreted as an endorsement of the “Chongqing Model.” Explicitly endorsing a politician represents a dangerous gambit for an intellectual in China, as the sorry fate of the “democratic elite” associated with Zhao Ziyang in the 1980s taught us. For NL intellectuals, Bo Xilai represented an alternative to “market capitalism” and economic inequality, but also — and for some at least, especially — the promise of a new state-enforced, intellectual-designed, ethico-political hegemonic ideology for a “spiritual renaissance” of Chinese society.

As a consequence, the implications of the scandal extend into the realm of intellectual politics and factionalism. The rumours about alleged crimes by Bo and Gu Kailai became a source of embarrassment for the NL, as liberals accused their opponents of supporting a degenerate clan. In the habitual overlapping of individual morals and political ideas, an alleged murder became an indictment of the NL’s rejection of (Neo)Liberism and Westernisation. At the same time, NL intellectuals want to save the value of their search for a new development model from the downfall of their patron/hero, stressing how the country still needs to formulate its original and sustainable path toward social justice and societal harmony.

The scandal marks a turning point in contemporaneous intellectual politics not only because of its polarising effects on the debate. It also highlights a disturbing fact — the lingering of a servile attitude among intellectuals vis-à-vis power holders. This may surprise, as some of those NL intellectuals rejected such a role during the so-called “debate on the spirit of the humanities” in the 1990s. Whether their recent move was due to career calculations, or to the Confucian dream of entering the royal court to enlighten the king, it nonetheless reveals the inability to finally abandon any elitism and engage directly with society (minjian) on an equal level, as some of their colleagues in the social sciences already do.

Giorgio Strafella is a PhD Candidate of School of Contemporary Chinese Studies.

Opinions expressed in the CPI blog do not represent the views of the China Policy Institute or the School of Contemporary Chinese Studies at the University of Nottingham. They are the personal views of the bloggers/authors.

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