The Rise of China’s Grassroots Intellectuals
by Sebastian Veg
Pub Date 23 Apr 2019
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Who are the new Chinese intellectuals? In the wake of the crackdown on the 1989 democracy movement and the rapid marketization of the 1990s, a novel type of grassroots intellectual emerged. Instead of harking back to the traditional role of the literati or pronouncing on democracy and modernity like 1980s public intellectuals, they derive legitimacy from their work with the vulnerable and the marginalized, often proclaiming their independence with a heavy dose of anti-elitist rhetoric. They are proudly minjian—unofficial, unaffiliated, and among the people.
In this book, Sebastian Veg explores the rise of minjian intellectuals and how they have profoundly transformed China’s public culture. An intellectual history of contemporary China, Minjian documents how, amid deep structural shifts, grassroots thinker-activists began to work outside academia or policy institutions in an embryonic public sphere. Veg explores the work of amateur historians who question official accounts, independent documentarians who let ordinary people speak for themselves, and grassroots lawyers and NGO workers who spread practical knowledge. Their interventions are specific rather than universal, with a focus on concrete problems among disenfranchised populations such as victims of Maoism, migrant workers and others without residence permits, and petitioners. Drawing on careful analysis of public texts by grassroots intellectuals and the networks and publics among which they circulate, Minjian is a groundbreaking transdisciplinary exploration of crucial trends developing under the surface of contemporary Chinese society.
Sebastian Veg is professor of the intellectual history of twentieth-century China at the School of Advanced Studies in Social Sciences (EHESS), Paris. He is the author of Fictions du pouvoir chinois. Littérature, modernisme et démocratie au début du XXe siècle (2009) and the editor of Popular Memories of the Mao Era: From Critical Debate to Reassessing History (2019).
"Published at a moment when the Chinese government is making increasingly muscular efforts to limit free speech, Veg’s timely and engaging study examines the ways in which Chinese “grassroots intellectuals” use a variety of different media and platforms to comment critically on sociopolitical conditions in contemporary China."
—Carlos Rojas, Duke University
"Minjian offers a comprehensive study of new types of intellectuals in the age of digital media. Ranging from independent filmmakers and historians to lawyers and journalists, these grassroots intellectuals have transformed public culture and the meaning of being intellectuals in China. Veg tells captivating stories of feisty individuals in the context of broader historical change. An important contribution to China studies and an excellent resource for teaching."
—Guobin Yang, University of Pennsylvania
"At a time of deepening authoritarianism in China and beyond, this book provides important insights into civic resilience in the shadows of a repressive system. The author is uniquely placed to show how independent and critical minjian intellectuals, working in a variety of roles and settings, have resisted control by the system, thereby challenging the Party’s claim to power."
—Eva Pils, King’s College London
"Sometimes to the distress of its leaders, China has developed an active sphere of intellectual creativity and political discussion outside the control of the Communist Party. Though unofficial this has considerable influence. Western observers tend to see only fragments. Sebastian Veg provides a major service by offering this overview, with individual biographies and a helpful analysis."
—Craig Calhoun, Arizona State University
"Chinese intellectuals used to focus on the state and 'take responsibility for all under heaven.' But commercialization and a government impervious to moral approbation have given rise to a new generation of intellectuals who focus more on the concrete problems of society and distance themselves from the concerns of the state. It is this remarkable change in the ideas and status of intellectuals that Sebastian Veg dissects with such precision in this carefully researched and wonderfully written book."
—Joseph Fewsmith, Boston University