Expert Voices: David Ownby
China scholar David Ownby talks to CACR about Chinese intellectuals, official censorship, and the surprising number of Trump supporters in China. This interview is edited for clarity and length.
David Ownby is Professor of History at the Université de Montréal. 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.
Could you briefly introduce the research that you do and the main questions that you’re trying to answer?
Let me start off by saying that I don’t think of myself as a Party expert. What I’ve been doing for the past few years is reading, translating, and curating writings by contemporary Chinese establishment intellectuals in what to me are mainstream Chinese publications. I’m looking for people who are writing to reach more than an academic audience. Most of the people I read are professors, so they write for their specialty, but they also try to address public issues in the same way that public intellectuals do in the United States, or in France, or pretty much anywhere else. I’m not doing dissenters. Because of the era of the Cold War, we have a tendency to think in terms of communist countries that an intellectual is either pro-regime or anti-regime, and it’s true to some extent, but in China, since reform and opening, this new world has developed in which there is space for people to think and write with a reasonable independence about certain things.
I should hasten to say there are topics that you can’t address in China. None of my guys write about Xinjiang. They say very little about Hong Kong, Taiwan, Tibet, the Falun Gong, or the whole range of issues that are of great concern to us. So if you decide that means they’re not serious, then that’s up to you. But that still leaves a whole range of issues that they can talk about, be it what Chinese democracy should look like or how far reforms should go in China.
What I’ve discovered, and what I think is really interesting, is that alongside the China that we see when we read the mainstream media, which is a China that approaches totalitarianism and in which there are severe limits to free speech and all sorts of problems that should be full-throatedly denounced, is this other China of people saying reasonable things and trying to convince one another of the reasonableness of their positions. That China looks a lot more like us than we’d think. My finding is not that we’ve got China completely wrong, but that it’s useful and perspective-giving to read what Chinese intellectuals read in their equivalent of the Atlantic or the New York Review of Books, although they’re not exact equivalents. It’s certainly changed the way I look at China. If you read what I do in addition to everything else, we just wind up with China being a modern society with a sadly authoritarian government which is dysfunctional in certain ways, but not the evil empire that often comes across on the news.
Tell us a little more about this stratum that you refer to as the “China we could talk to” or the Republic of Letters, the intellectuals who aren’t simply parroting the Party-state. How important and influential do you think they are? How big is the audience of these people, and how much ability do you think they have to shape and influence Chinese society?
In terms of numbers and how to measure impact, it’s hard to know. There was an era before Xi Jinping came to power when the internet was a more wide-open place and a lot of these intellectuals were what is known as Big V’s, so they were verified [on social media] in some way, and they could get tens or hundreds of thousands of followers, which is a pretty big amount for an intellectual. So in terms of numbers, it’s pretty good. Chinese intellectuals often complain that they no longer have anything like the kind of social cachet they used to have, but I don’t know if it’s true or not. The sort of instant respect that came with the Confucian tradition, they think that’s been wiped away. I think they think the internet has wiped out a lot of it, just the fact that people have so much ready distraction and diversion and entertainment in their hands, in their cell phones. If you compare China with North America, I think Chinese intellectuals still enjoy greater automatic respect than happens here.
I also feel like most of the people I read are some version of a liberal. That doesn’t mean they’d be on the left wing in the United States, but it means that their view of the world may be closer to a Western view than the Communist Party would like. It doesn’t mean they’re dissidents, it doesn’t mean they are against the regime, but it might mean they would be more comfortable if the regime had another posture on certain basic issues, like rivalry with the United States. So I think a lot of the debate that I read is Chinese intellectuals trying to convince one another of the rightness of their particular position or the position of the group to which they feel they belong.
Of course, you can’t come out and write a full-throated support of the United States, although you can be a Trump supporter. There were any number of Trump supporters in China, and there still are, and this was kind of a proxy for pro-Americanism of a certain type. So that’s the impact they’re trying to have, although it’s very hard to judge how large the issue is or how much impact they’re having.
One of the things that happened over the 40 years of reform and opening is that intellectuals no longer use Party-speak when they write. They don’t write with slogans, they don’t write like the People’s Daily at all, they write more or less like you and I do, and this is the impact of the West and globalization that they’ve been living with for 40 years. This means that people who are on the government’s side and want to convince more liberals to believe their view of the world need to develop a language and a set of arguments based on Xi Jinping Thought that will reach the others. I find Xi Jinping Thought less than inspiring– not as a value judgment, I just don’t find that there’s a whole lot of there there, and I think I’m not the only one to think that way. I have never had a Chinese intellectual whisper in my ear that it really is not that bad at all. I’ve never detected the slightest intellectual admiration. My impression is that what a lot of them would really like to do is help the government. They may not be pro-Xi Jinping, they may have different thoughts about the Chinese Communist Party, but it’s been there for a long time now, so the notion that the Party is going to go away is a hard sell in China.
Can you tell us about these intellectuals’ sense of their relationship to the government? Are any of them working for the government, or are they just privately publishing their views? Can you also speak to how influential they might be in Party-state circles? Are they sought out for their opinions, or do they feel that they simply don’t have any policy influence?
Most of them, I think, feel they don’t have any policy influence. Most of the people with whom I’m close tend to be liberals, so they don’t want to have all that much to do with the government. In fact, a lot of them are sort of on the fringe of being labeled dissidents, which is something they very much don’t want to do. There’s a lot of money to be made in China if you want to sing the Party song. You can get grants, and I think they’ve funded a lot more Marxism academies. But I don’t know to what extent those people’s writings wind up in the mainstream media.
I have to ask about the author Qin Hui, who I saw from your blog has been openly critical of Vladimir Putin and implicitly critical of Xi Jinping over the Russian invasion of Ukraine. You’ve noted that the Chinese publication where he’s publishing his pieces, FT Chinese, is softening his language. How do Qin’s raw opinions compare to what he’s being allowed to publish? Can you talk about the guardrails that intellectuals have to talk about the Ukraine conflict in particular?
I haven’t done careful comparisons yet because he writes faster than I can translate, but I can tell you the main thing that I noticed that they cut out. Xi Jinping is known for having said at some juncture that the reason why the Soviet Union fell apart was because at the end, there were no real men around to stand up. And what Qin Hui’s basic point is is that Putin just dissed the entire communist experience in Russia, he blamed the Ukraine on Lenin, on the communist experience, and basically stated that communism was the root of all evil there. And Qin basically says, well, dude, where’s the real man standing up for communism now? Which is a direct way of calling out someone I would not call out. And this is what they kind of got scared about. I’ll eventually get around to indicating in footnotes what’s in and what’s out, because it’s interesting. Qin wants me to be the website of record. He wants what he wants to say to be out there, somewhere. I’m happy to do that.
One thing I imagine you get asked all the time is, doesn’t the fact that these people are able to publish mean that their speech is not that politically important? As you’ve mentioned, they’re not able to talk about Xinjiang, Hong Kong, Tibet, or anything directly about Xi Jinping. Does the fact that they’re able to keep publishing merely suggest that the Party-state doesn’t care?
To some degree, they don’t care, but I think the government would like to be seen as legitimate. Xi Jinping thinks of himself as an intellectual. In his speeches, he tries to sound intellectual themes. I mean, when push comes to shove, we know who will do the pushing, and it won’t be the intellectuals. I think the extent to which these writings directly impact policy is probably not very strong, but I think there’s an impact on how people think in general.
Many of the Chinese intellectuals that I deal with clearly have a hubris that I do not. I do not expect to have any impact, ever, on my government. There’s a guy named Yao Yang who’s a New Left intellectual at Peking University who has been moving towards New Confucianism over the past few months. On July 2, he published in a very mainstream publication, the Beijing Cultural Review, a long essay suggesting that China needs to sinicize Marxism by Confucianizing it. This was the day after the Chinese Communist Party’s hundred-year birthday bash. There had been weeks and months leading up to that where the whole apparatus had been talking about sinicizing Marxism through Xi Jinping Thought. He didn’t make a single mention of that on the day after the speech. I don’t want to over-interpret that, but that’s some kind of pushback. I happened to run into him online shortly after I translated that piece, and he made a point to tell me that he knew that Xi Jinping had read his essay. Now, I don’t know how much impact that is, but that certainly suggests that he has the ambition to get his ideas out there in the sense that it’s going to change something, or at least be in the game.
I saw a couple references in your writing to some of these intellectuals being supportive of Trump. Trump’s policy towards China was rather antagonistic in a number of ways, so why are some of these people supportive of him or have a favorable opinion of him or other American administrations?
There are some of them who just take it as the enemy of my enemy is my friend, so if they were not fans of the Party, then Trump could be fighting their fight for them. But that wasn’t most of the cases. Most of the cases believed in Trump because they saw him as a kind of beacon taking America back to a more traditional stance on politics. So these people are anti-political correctness, they’re anti-Black Lives Matter, and they think that Trump represents a more classical vision of liberalism and constitutional democracy than where America is headed. I was just blown away to discover this.
Does this group align with any of the major intellectual groups? Are these mostly liberals?
They’re all liberals. “Liberal” in the States means left; liberal in China can mean classical liberals like Hayek or 19th century, completely libertarian free market liberals. There are a lot of those in China, and these are generally the ones who jump on the Trump bandwagon, arguing that identity politics is a really bad idea.
It’s also related to the popularity of Samuel Huntington in China, which was a real surprise to me. I think he’s sort of lost his cachet in the American academy– I could be wrong about that– but there are vast numbers of Chinese liberals who swear by the clash of civilizations, who think that culture is the thing. They go directly to his racial stuff, and this sort of [concept of an] Anglo-American tradition that made us great and that we’re losing as we dilute it with immigration. That’s what surprised me, and it’s not just these outliers. This comes up a lot. That’s basically where the Trump support comes from, the notion that he was fighting back against political correctness [and that political correctness] is obviously wrong. If you want to make a principled argument about that, the principled argument is that political correctness means identity politics, identity politics means the end of consensus politics, which means constitutional democracy cannot work. That’s the way they argue it. And they base that, somehow, on Huntington as well. I found it surprising and interesting. And these are very, very smart people. These are not hacks by any means. There are hacks in China like there are hacks anywhere. There were Trump supporters that seemed to like Trump for the same reason that my uncles from Tennessee like Trump, so it’s not a sophisticated thing, it’s just an impulse. But these other guys are making fairly complex arguments on the basis of their support for liberal democracy in the United States.
Do you know how widespread those views are? Is there a big sector of Chinese society that’s pro-Trump?
Bigger than you’d think. The Chinese community outside of China, in the United States, was quite pro-Trump for a set of reasons. They feel like they’ve worked hard and earned their money, and they don’t want people to tell them what to do. And that’s sort of the message they got from Trump. This sort of bleeds back into China, in the way that things do. Black Lives Matter was much discussed in the Chinese press when it was discussed in the Western press in terms that I found to be surprisingly conservative from an American point of view, in other words, most of them were not terribly open to or supportive of that notion.
How do these intellectuals you read and translate feel about China’s foreign policy under Xi Jinping? China’s expanded its international influence through things like BRI and AIIB and continued to poach former diplomatic allies of Taiwan, and its economy and military have continued to grow. But Xi’s tenure has also been marked by a very antagonistic and confrontational approach to Europe, the United States, and neighbors in Asia and Oceania, and that’s sparked a backlash. How do the Chinese intellectuals you’re familiar with feel about all of that? Do they ever criticize China’s foreign policy under Xi?
That’s a great question, and they’re all over the map, frankly. You can’t really criticize. And one of the things that I find frustrating about reading Chinese on foreign policy is that they talk a lot more about the rest of the world than they do about China proper. So you can find any number of essays condemning the practice of American foreign policy, but then you hope when they get to the end of their essay, they’re going to say, and China will do x, y, and z. But they usually don’t devote all that much time to it. And like you, I feel like Chinese foreign policy under Xi Jinping has been fairly aggressive, and this just doesn’t come up all that much. I read a book by Edward Luttwak a few weeks ago talking about great power autism, that [great powers] really can’t understand how other people see them. I think that’s the case of the United States, and it may be the case of China as well, that you don’t realize it when you’re being a jerk to the Solomon Islands or anybody else, you just don’t know. But beyond that, it’s a cottage industry to write articles attacking US foreign policy.
You can’t write pieces in support of American foreign policy, but I think there’s a huge reservoir of intellectuals who continue to think that the American-led world order is not really all that bad, even through the perspective of China, because China has prospered considerably when they were playing sort of second fiddle to the United States. I think there’s a general nervousness about [the question], are we really ready to take over the world?
You mentioned that you think there has been a decline of these groups of intellectuals– New Left, New Confucians, and liberals– and you mentioned how that’s overlapped with Xi Jinping’s tenure. Can you speak a little more about that? How has Xi’s crackdown happened? What are the specific things that he’s cracked down on that intellectuals have ceased to be able to talk about, and what has the impact been on the intellectual sphere?
Well, he cracked down on pluralism. China sort of became an intellectually plural society over the course of reform and opening without anyone really noticing it. By now some of the liberals openly endorse pluralism as the best thing for China because China is plural, but [Xi] didn’t like that, and if you read some of the more outrageous stuff that came out right before he came to power, I can see why he didn’t like it. People were saying all sorts of crazy things in the 2010s, 2011s, so his idea was, let’s stop this nonsense. If we accept the idea that intellectual pluralism is ok, then how far away can political pluralism be? Why do we need a single-party regime if we're a plural society?
So he started to push back. I think he quite quickly discovered that it was very hard to do. There are lots of Chinese intellectuals out there. They’re pretty independent. It takes more than him just saying “cut it out” for them to cut it out. What people have complained about, my friends and colleagues, was a couple things. One is the anti-corruption campaign that he launched at the outset and which is ongoing. This gums up the works everywhere. The anti-corruption campaign scared everybody, which just slowed everything down. The second thing is that people are afraid to publish things, not intellectuals but editors. There’s just all sorts of blockages. The government will come out with a set of words that are minganzi, sensitive words that you’re not supposed to use, and you’ll wind up spending months trying to get past that. It may be a very minor issue from the point of view of the intellectual, but it just gums up the works as well.
Websites have been closed down, and certain journals have been closed down. Most of the ones I’m thinking of were pretty identified with the liberal side of things. No one says things are good, but most of them seem to be soldiering on regardless. Some of them change topics. My friend Xu Jilin, the guy I started out with, was writing quite pointed critiques of New Left thought. Basically, this was right before Xi Jinping came to power, or right as he came to power. Xu Jilin was accusing New Left thinkers of being statist, basically, and warning about possible dangers of fascism, which is a pretty out-there thing to say, and he has moved in other directions. He wrote a book about 50 lessons on traditional Chinese culture. He writes a lot about youth issues these days. And this of course may just be a natural evolution in terms of his ideas and what he’s interested in, or it may be a savvy choice not to say things.