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David Ownby on the Lack of Dialogue among China's Intellectuals and His Upcoming Book

China scholar David Ownby talks to CACR about the difficulties facing China's intellectuals, the impact of the end of COVID controls, his latest book project, and the robustness of the Chinese regime. This interview is edited for clarity and length. (September 25, 2023)

David Ownby is a retired member of the Département d'histoire and the Centre d'études de l'Asie de l'Est of the Université de Montréal and an Associate Member of the Max Planck Institute for Social Anthropology in Halle, Germany. His recent research focuses on intellectual life in contemporary China, and his translations and commentaries can be found at his website, Reading the China Dream, as well as in a number of books: Xu Jilin, Rethinking China's Rise, Ownby, ed., and trans., Voices from the Chinese Century, Timothy Cheek, David Ownby, and Joshua Fogel, eds., and Qin Hui, Globalization after the Pandemic, Ownby, ed., and trans.

I want to talk about the work you have been doing since our last interview, but I also know that you just came back from a trip to China. Can you share with our readers how that went?

Sure. The first thing I want to say given who are is that I am not a Party specialist and don’t take myself for one.

So I made a trip to China; I left May 1st, and I got back May 23. I spent a week in Beijing, a week in Shanghai, and a few days in Hong Kong, because direct flights to Shanghai and Beijing were not yet back, so it was 30 hour trips both ways. It was worth it. And I made a side trip to Guangzhou. This was the first time I’d been in China since December of 2018, so a fairly long period of time in which I had been reading and translating a lot of stuff.

Everything went smoothly. I still had a tourist visa left over from before the pandemic. I had gotten a 10 year tourist visa maybe in 2016, I don’t know, so it was still valid, so I didn’t have to go through the hoops that the government was setting up for some people, which involved getting a letter of introduction from a work unit in China, so I just went as a tourist. I had no problems with access. Before I went, I contacted a lot of old friends and a lot of new people that I had encountered through my reading but had never met, and the success rate of getting to see people was very high, despite the fact that China was a pretty somber place. Even people I had never met were happy to meet with me, particularly older folks, whom I think feel like they don’t have much to lose by talking to me in a teahouse somewhere, but younger folks too. There are cameras everywhere in China, so I may have been surveilled, I have no idea, but I never felt it, and no one ever came to see me and asked me to have tea with the local police, so everything went perfectly well on that front. And moving around in China, I mean, I didn’t try a lot of it, I flew from Hong Kong to Beijing and then took a train from Beijing to Shanghai and flew back to Hong Kong, and all that worked like it was supposed to, so that was all good. Travel works more by passport than by QR code in China, which I found surprising. You get tickets with no QR code on them and they scan your passport. I suppose it is a security measure, and it didn’t always work, but they just waved me through when it didn’t.

As I said, I found China very somber. This was in May, so it was just a few months after the end of zero-COVID, and China had been battling the virus for three years or so with its various tools, which included pretty harsh lockdowns and controls, data-driven controls that I’m not sure we would have put up for very long.

And of course as we all know, it’s Xi Jinping’s China as well. And I think he has tried pretty much since he came into power to control intellectual discourse. He doesn’t like pluralism, of course he doesn’t like dissent, but when he came to power, China was a pretty pluralistic place as a result of any number of things that had happened in the 2000s or the early 2010s. You could say pretty much anything you wanted to say in print in China as long as you didn’t take on the government directly in the period before Xi Jinping came to power. I have no idea if he was reading it or if he had people telling him about it. But it’s not hard if you go back to find people saying, you know, our system is completely ridiculous, it’s going to fall apart like the Soviet Union did, we’re captives of crony capitalism, you know, pretty much anything. The same sort of stuff you can say in the West, with a little bit less spice to it, and all that was completely possible. When I happen upon it now, it’s kind of shocking, and I’m kind of worried for people who wrote it, although they don’t clean it up all that well. A lot of that old stuff is still there in the most visible, accessible places if you know who to look up and how to read it.

It took years for Xi Jinping’s campaign against pluralism to really start to work, because there are lots of intellectuals, and the way they resist is to just smile and nod and go about their business, and the state really doesn’t want to confront them. So unless the intellectuals get too far out of line, they just kind of nudge them back. So I think there was this long kind of non-battle where Xi Jinping and the Party-state just kept saying, let’s all sing the same tune, will you guys please stop doing that, and they ignored it as long as they could. But whether it’s just the weight of Xi Jinping or that plus the controls of COVID, I think it finally hit home. People complain constantly that they couldn’t say anything– of course, they always say this, they’ve said this from the time I started going to China and talking with these people. So it would have been I think the early years of Xi Jinping, they were complaining about that, and China’s intellectuals always complain about whatever is going on, just like we do. You can't find an academic in the West who thinks his dean is a decent person. We complain all the time, and the Chinese are the same.

But I had the sense that by now it really matters– they just really don’t want to talk. What that manifests itself in, which was kind of troubling for me and my blog, is they don’t read one another, and it struck me over and over again that no one talked about anybody he had read recently. The reading they seem to do, and I’m generalizing, of course, but they seem to read in their WeChat feeds, of course, because that’s where their buddies are, that’s where they talk about what they want to talk about, but I didn’t get the sense they were reading broadly online and trying to keep up.

For example, I had dinner with a New Confucian scholar who has written in English on the advantages of the Confucian state. I had never met him before. This was in Shanghai, and I’d just been in Beijing with someone else who publishes on exactly the same topic, and in fact I just translated a book by him on that topic, so I asked this scholar in Shanghai what he thought about the work of the guy in Beijing, and it was clear he hadn’t read it and was not embarrassed to not have read it. And these were direct competitors in our sense.

This struck me over and over again. I felt like, and I say this with all modesty, and I’m probably completely wrong, but I felt several times like I was better-read, I was keeping up better than they were, which was at all not a feeling I had had before. And I think that just has to be fatigue. The fatigue that has finally kicked in again from Xi Jinping and all the conformity and censure visited upon them, plus COVID. The controls lasted longer and were more invasive in China, so that I think that plays a role.

I also noticed that any intellectual, or any university professor with any game at all, what he or she does is get off the campus and go give talks to businesspeople or whoever they want to talk to because they get paid for it, usually, there’s a lot of money still floating around China, in those circles especially. The entrepreneurs are not Bill Gates-level figures, but maybe mid-level people who say, yeah, it would be cool to have a historian from whatever prestigious local or not-so-local university come and spend the weekend with us and tell us about this, that, and the other. And it’s just going on all the time. Pretty much everyone I met was doing that, and since I didn’t meet that many people, they couldn’t have been the only ones doing it, and so my conclusion was, they want to get off the campus, that’s where the control is concentrated, that’s where their minders are, get out and have fun and do something else. So that’s what was going on. That of course does not necessarily feed their intellectual life. They’re just basically talking about whatever the entrepreneurs want to hear about, or their latest book project or whatever. I think it’s a nice way to avoid the worst of what is going on in China, but I don’t think it’s making it a more lively intellectual place. I think China’s less lively intellectually than it has been over the last few years.

It’s not completely bleak. I met one person whom I’ve translated a bit on my site, he’s a youngish guy. He wrote a bestseller, sold about half a million copies of a book, so that gave him enough money to sort of rise above certain things. And he has plans for several books he outlined to me. This is a liberal historian who thinks that China is working through its issues in various crises, that it is enduring and evolving, and that there’s hope for the future. So I’m going to follow him. Unfortunately, he writes very large books, which I’m not going to translate. 700 pages– I mean, even a world-changing book, I’m sorry, I’m just not doing that. That’s like a year and a half of my life. I’d be happy to translate his introduction and conclusion but not huge books!

So it wasn’t completely bleak. There were people like him, and I’m sure there are more people like him, and he probably knows people who think like he does. And international exchange is starting up again, so a couple of my buddies will be at Harvard this fall, which means that that’s the kind of life that most Chinese intellectuals enjoy, the exchange. I remember before all this started, you’d go to any major Chinese university campus, and it would just be so lively, posters for everybody, it was just the place to be. And then COVID knocked that out, and I think there’s been some hesitation on the part of some universities or some minders to let it come back. But there’s so much pressure, the Chinese have so much to say, and they want to go and do stuff, and people want to go to China, so I’m moderately hopeful that will pick up in such a way as to move things forward.

The other thing I had not expected at all was the reaction, particularly of young people, to the end of zero-COVID, of the policy itself. I had watched, like everyone else, the end of the policy in December, where they basically turned on a dime and said, well, no, whoops, Omicron is not that bad, it’s not life-threatening, it’s just a bad cold, and if grandpa dies, too bad, he was old. This was after three years of really extreme language and policy, and it came as a result of the blank paper revolution and any number of pressures from below, and it came also from the fact that the rest of China, including the Party, was looking around the world and seeing what was going on. They saw the World Cup on television, and it looked like a lot more fun than a lockdown in Shanghai. The rest of the world was getting on with things, even if it wasn’t perfect. So anyway, the Party just reversed policy overnight, and I remember thinking that that was way up there in the bad optics competition. They didn’t stock the pharmacies, they didn’t do any prep, they just said, ok, you don’t want COVID controls, you don’t have COVID controls, and changed the propaganda to say “China has now triumphed over COVID.”

One day during my visit in Peking, I went out to see a couple of people that I sort of knew at arms-length but had never really met. They are independent and work in the “culture industry,” let’s say. They had their own space, so I got there, and went into a room, and they closed the door, and they just bared their soul to me, just talking about how bad the end of that was, how the end of that policy really threw them off base, just like an existential crisis. One of them was just furious, and said “You like to think your government cares a little bit about you, but obviously not, and I have to rethink all these stories my parents and grandparents told me about the sacrifices they made. Were they real sacrifices, or were they just bullshit the government made up?” I don’t know this person from Eve, right, which happens a lot in China. If you’re a foreigner who knows how to keep your mouth shut, they will tell you a lot. So she was angry, and the other person was just lost, just talking about him and his friends who didn’t know what to do. It just threw them off their game completely or gave the lie to some kind of script that had given their life meaning. And he talked about all his friends for whom “lying flat” really came to mean something after this, saying “I’m getting out of here. I don’t want to be part of this system. I’m not getting a government job. I’m not going to do any of this stuff. I’m just going to go out in the countryside and do whatever I can just to live, and not do any of this.” Or people were leaving the country. It was just the angst, the raw pain, that I had not known was there. Like I said, I had watched the end of the policy and said, oh my, that’s not good, but it never occurred to me that five months later, it was still an open wound. And for those two, it clearly was, and I was just stunned by this. I felt bad that I didn’t know.

Anyway, I thought maybe it was just these two, and the next day I was having lunch with a professor I’d never met. And I took the opportunity to ask him, I said yesterday, I met with these two people who told me just how bad they still felt about the end of COVID, and I just wondered, is this something that is generalizable? Does it mean anything to you? And he just said, yeah, look around the room, everyone here’s going through some sort of post-traumatic stress. I looked around, and they all looked completely normal, and I said, they all look normal to me, and I don’t see anything in the streets or in the subways, and he said, no, you can’t talk about it, because if you talk about it, you get in trouble. Everybody has to sing the tune that we’re winning, but no, we all feel something like this. So this was just pretty astonishing to me, because I just had not known. And I asked everyone else that I met in China about it, and they all said, yeah, it’s just, that’s what it is, we all try to get through this. So at some level, it could be a turning point, a fundamental turning point in the history of the regime, depending on how things go. If the economy falls apart and there are political problems, this could mean that young people in particular, but a lot of other people as well, are ready for a certain amount of change. Because the government, which had been able to say that whatever we are, we’re competent, we brought you sustained economic growth, we brought you the best subway system in the world, we brought you airports, new cities, we brought you all this material stuff, your life is vastly better than your grandparents’ life was, and we can take some credit for that, because we’re competent, and that’s a story I can kind of buy. But on those few days in December, they demonstrated a manifest lack both of competence and concern for the population, in a way that was memorable. So that was stunning to me, to realize just how deep that had gone.

The older folks were a little bit more blasé about it– I mean they said, yeah, it’s true, but we had our moments in the past, we learned that lesson on June 4 or whatever. But I mean, another hint of how far this went, I was talking to another friend of mine, and he had published a little piece, early in June, just after the lockdown was over, and it’s very nice, it just talks about living through two and a half months of silence, he called it silence, in Shanghai, and what that meant to everybody. And he told me it was taken down because it was read by 20 million people. It’s a very moderate piece, and he said, his minder said to him, yeah, it’s a moderate piece, there’s nothing wrong with it, but 20 million people read it, we can’t have that up there.

So anyway, those were the two points– the fact that people are really not reading all that much in China and the existential angst going on, those were big points for me. I had been wondering about reading and about the value of the texts that I run across online and translate, how are they situated, what do they actually mean, are people reading them, are they not– and this sort of answered that to some extent. It was not a hopeful answer. I had been imagining the texts I read and translate as part of an ongoing “dialogue” of some sort, but if people are not reading, then that is not what is going on.

I had another experience that also spoke to that. I spent an afternoon with the editors of a journal I’ve translated like 30 pieces from, I like them a lot. And I got to meet them just sort of by chance. And I was surprised, although I shouldn’t have been, to see just how statist the editors were. The pieces I translated, I translated them because they struck me, and they still strike me, as relevant and mildly critical, timely, well-written– the kind of stuff you’d want from journalism. And in the Chinese context, now and again, they’re mildly critical, trying to nudge the regime in one way or another. So I was surprised, in the 2 or 3 hours that I spent with the editors, they were not in any way critical, they were completely team China and anti-America. And that kind of threw me a little bit, because again, I’ve been translating these things as if they have this one meaning, which I saw, and quite clearly, another meaning you get from the editors who publish them, which has led me to try to work this through in my own head about what this kind of journalism means in China. And what I think it means is that the individual pieces that I take off the web– they’re worth what they’re worth, but I haven’t taken the care to look at their packaging all that carefully, which is a lot of work. If it’s just a text from somebody’s personal blog, then you’re ok. You know who they are, and you’ve read them a few times, you’ve got a sense of what they’re talking about. But if I just take a piece from a major journal, be it that one or Kaifeng Shidai, or there’s three or four of them, when I read them, I just read them for their individual content, which of course is important. I think we tend to ignore the content from the Chinese media and spend too much time on structural issues. But nonetheless, I should spend some structural time. Here’s an example of why. The editors asked me why I was in China, and I said I’m writing a book about how the Chinese view America, and they said, oh, cool, we just published a bunch of issues about that, and they gave me 5 of them. And it comes to a small book, maybe 250 pages or so of essays loosely on that theme. It’s still a journal, it’s like Atlantic Monthly, like the Atlantic could decide to do a thematic thing 5 times in a row, and dedicate like 3-4 pieces each time to that– that’s what they did. And when I read them all lumped together, these individual pieces that by themselves strike me as pretty good, well, they deliver another message when they’re grouped together under an editorial introduction that tells you how to read them, so that’s just a reminder to me that individual voices are packaged in ways that mean other things, and that there should be a reminder on my website, and I’ll add notes. It’s not like everything I said was wrong, it’s just like, let’s pay attention to the context in which this stuff is being said.

So that was my trip. It was very rich, if kind of a sad trip in some ways. But I’m very glad I went. I learned a lot.

Tell us a little bit more about your book project.

I’m working on a book about how Chinese view America. It’s not a policy book, but America is so important or has been so important to Chinese intellectuals in China in general over the past 50 years and more, part of how they work through what China should not do, or perhaps what China should do, it’s just their takeoff point for many things since Reform and Opening. So it’s just a framing mechanism that allows me to get my intellectuals to talk about different things.

The book will open with my project and how I started doing this, and who these people are, and why they’re worth reading, and then I will go through a number of thematic issues where Chinese authors discuss or debate topics like civilization, governance, Black Lives Matter and Trump, Sino-American relations, COVID, a whole series of these things. And then I think I’ll add– they’re not really methodological, but a couple of chapters on things like this encounter with the editors, and how that made me change my views about a couple things on the website, and then speak to that. So it keeps changing in my mind, it’s hard to write a book when you’re adding material every two weeks, so it keeps slipping away from me. I’ve written like half or three-quarters of it, but still the main focus of it continues to evolve, against my better judgment, but it’s because I keep reading and translating. So I hope to get that done by the end of this year. Someone’s paying me to write it, which is a new experience, but it means you can’t just shuffle off into the distance and pretend it never happened. At some point, they want to see those books on the shelves somewhere. And I do too.

I intend to read it. As I’ve had more time to think about these issues, I’ve come to realize that what you and Tim Cheek do is crucial for understanding China. Even if these intellectuals cannot plug into the policy process directly right now, the political process will surely be more open to intellectuals’ thinking at some point down the line.

I didn’t start out thinking this, but what my project has done, I think, is humanize Chinese intellectuals in a way that’s really, really valuable. When you read policy documents, it’s somehow not human at all. When you read somebody reacting to policy documents, it is. And if you follow my stuff, one thing you can draw from it is a familiarity with people– not just individuals, but you’re learning that Chinese think about stuff kind of like we do. I think that’s an immensely important and potentially powerful thing to see. It’s a very basic thing, like many basic truths are. But it’s one that we can easily forget. Even the New York Times, which strives very hard, still relays pretty much that basic message, that China’s another world, etc. So thanks for understanding it that way. It’s been a fun thing to do.

One other direction my trip sent me in was, I was looking for information about this angst that people had felt, and after I did that interview with Kaiser Kuo, some Chinese woman in New York, she just wrote and said you should read this. It was an article by this famous Chinese feminist, one of the “Feminist Five” who happened to be in the States when the others were arrested, so she said, huh, maybe I’ll stay here. She’s been here for 5 or 6 years now, and she writes and publishes here, so I think her voice is really important, and if I had the time, I would translate more of her. There may be other feminists or people who work on Chinese feminism who are doing it, in which case I will leave them to it, because there’s a richness there that I probably don’t know as well as I should, and I’m happy to leave that for other people. But the bigger thing I learned is that Chinese discourse is leaving China. Lots of smart people have left, but they still want to talk. So they set up websites or publications or whatever in the States or in Australia, or wherever they can, or in France, there’s stuff in France. Someone should be studying this as a topic, Chinese discourse abroad, and maybe someone’s doing it. If there were three of me, I would assign one of me to do that. I don’t know how broad it is. But it’s really something worth looking at. This stuff is being read in China. Some of it’s powerful, some of it’s nonsense, but that’s just the way discourse is.

I really got the sense from your last interview that intellectuals are more widely read in China than here– can you talk about how common it is for intellectual journals to have millions of readers, or for some of the people you know to have millions of readers?

I have no idea about the journals’ circulation. As for the intellectuals, it used to be the case that they could get hundreds of thousands or even more readers. But that was before the WeChat era. WeChat makes it smaller. With Weibo, if you were big, it was like you could reach arenas full of people on your blog, but WeChat is more like a coffee house. I just don’t know about the journals, but I doubt, frankly, that any of them are that huge compared to, you know, the various kinds of fandom that you can find in China. Young people’s lives in China is another topic I really wish I had the time and energy to explore– it’s just a very different life than anything I know. I’m reasonably ok for a 65-year-old in terms of technology. But these people live online all the time, and it means stuff to them that I don’t really understand. My friend Xu Jilin tries to understand this because he’s got a son who I think is 25-ish, and that’s just something he’s trying to get to, but he still writes like a 65-year-old. We’re just stuck with that, I think. So the journals, I don’t think young people read any of this stuff. I’ve met a handful, just nerds, that read this, because they think it’s interesting.

One interesting data point which I really don’t know what to make of is that I translated Xiang Biao’s Self as Method, which was a bestseller in China, I think in 2020 or 2021 when it was published in Chinese. I think it sold maybe 250,000, so in China that’s not a bestseller, because China is huge, but this is a book of interviews with an anthropologist, and it made a lot of noise in China, it was named the #1 important book by Douban for the year. So I translated it, and Biao got the money to make it open access– and the translated version has been downloaded 228,000 times, and the only thing I can figure out is that a lot of the Chinese people wanted the English version. So I think there’s still intellectual enthusiasm for stuff if they can get it.

But the stuff on offer, the marketplace, is just not that great in China right now. That was my impression, but again, it was a very brief trip, and I saw a fair number of people, but my trip was not systematically organized to see what was going on in China. The way I do ethnography is just hang around and see what people say to me. It’s valuable, but it has a limit.

There’s a contractual view of Chinese governance that’s widespread in the United States– that the Chinese government, because it’s delivered the goods on economics, has kept itself afloat with the public, but once it runs into economic problems, it’s going to face a crisis of public support. Yet as bad as COVID is, it didn’t kill anywhere near as many people as collectivization, and maybe it’s comparable to the Cultural Revolution in casualties, but the Cultural Revolution lasted a lot longer, and you can probably argue that the Cultural Revolution was more traumatic in many ways. In those periods, the government certainly wasn’t delivering on economic goods–the economy was appalling during collectivization, it was appalling during the Cultural Revolution, and people didn’t have a sense of fulfillment– but the regime was fine.

The regime is robust. I think we just have to admit it’s robust.

I think of the contractual stuff as starting with Reform and Opening, that before that there were ideological things– and I believe that’s true to some extent. But I was just thrown by the extent to which that extreme lapse in competence in response to COVID prompted this full-throated emotional response.

In China, I think they did have expectations, and the government upped those expectations by doing what it did for so long– with the first resounding, if painful, success, which they tried to replicate in various ways, through the total disaster of the Shanghai lockdown. I translated stuff where people were supporting the government saying, it’s not clear that we’re not doing the right thing if you look at the data from here and around the world. And these were not just propaganda stooges who were saying this. People wanted China’s approach to succeed, and fighting the virus through data makes a certain amount of sense if you have the capacity to do it. Western regimes generally don’t have the capacity or the will, but China had both, for a while, but then it got too costly and everything turned political and it wasn’t really about the virus anymore.

I’m sure you’ve talked to many statist people over the years. Do you get any sense of whether those people believe the conspiracy theories and the outright disinformation that the Chinese government puts out– do they swallow that?

No, I’ve never been party to conversations like that, so I just don’t know.

The journal editors I spoke to, my sense is that they’re true believers, I mean, they’re statists, who look past what really pisses everybody else off, for whatever reason, and it didn’t seem to me that they were– they didn’t dress in such a way to suggest they were filthy rich, and the offices were pretty spare, so nothing said, we’re throwing money at you. And I think they just believed in it, the way that some people do. But at the same time, they’re intellectuals and proud of being intellectuals. I think this really, really matters for them. And part of that means, when they do their job, they have to be convincing. Most of their audience is probably not true believers. They’re probably liberals of some sort. And I asked my liberal buddies about that journal, and they said, oh, it’s pretty good, we’ve all published there. It’s gotten a little more narrow over the last couple of years, but what do you expect, it’s Xi Jinping, and it’s China, so it gets a little bit more narrow, but yeah, that’s pretty much the best you get in China.

When you read these five issues they gave me, I’ve spent more time with it than I should have, but when you read the editorial slant on America’s decline, it’s not nearly as triumphant or as team China as they were in person, so they backed off when they put their message into words. And they take care, I think they’re taking care, to get articles that on their own are pretty good in terms of being solidly researched and well-written. A lot of these articles on American decline use only English-language sources. They’re citing not Marx or Xi Jinping, they’re citing the same people that 40- or 50-year-old history professors or political science professors are citing in the United States.

Have you read about intellectuals in the USSR and how they became politically influential, what their influence was, and the thoughts that people in the USSR and the Eastern Bloc in Europe had but weren’t able to publicly express?

Not systematically. I always expect Russia to come up more than it does in China. It seems to me they should talk about Russia almost as much as they talk about the United States, but they don’t, as far as I can tell, but the stuff that shows up in what I read– Russia is this declining power that no one cares about, until the war, and then when the war happened, it became interesting or important for other reasons. Many of the basic reflexes of the Chinese regime are copies, carbon copies, of the Soviets. And I assume there are think tanks somewhere, because the Chinese are not stupid at all, where they are thinking about this. But I have never seen it in the kind of stuff I read. Which doesn’t mean it’s not there, but by now I’ve been doing this for about 10 years, so I think I would have run across something, but not much. There is surely academic stuff.


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