The “Directed Public” of China’s Public Intellectuals

Memo #13

Timothy Cheek

Back in 2004, Guangzhou’s People Magazine Weekly listed their pick of China’s 50 top public intellectuals – writers, lawyers, and academics who lead on public issues. Not any more. Have China’s public intellectuals disappeared?

They survive, but they live in China’s “directed public sphere.”

Public intellectuals in our sense don’t fit the Party’s idea of public life. The best way to think of this directed public sphere in China is to think of China’s authoritarian capitalism. In China, the Party manages both the market and the public arena. Mouthy intellectuals are an anathema to Party management in the same manner as floating exchange rates: too unpredictable.

The Central Propaganda Department runs China’s directed public sphere. Just as the Party maintains control of key industries, banks, and exchange rates, all within the global capitalist market, the propaganda system of the Chinese Party-State has adapted its controls to accommodate glossy magazines, reality TV shows, commercial advertising, and even annoying foreign reporters. China has a vibrant, colourful, and sometimes overwhelmingly raucous public sphere. But there is no doubt that it is carefully managed by the Party – not only by prison sentences such as that handed out to Charter 08 activist Liu Xiaobo last year, but also by grants, promotions, and other carrots.

Finding China’s public intellectuals means looking into this managed public. There, we find them hard at work criticizing social wrongs and offering solutions. Yu Keping advises on democracy as an academic and an official; Xu Jilin critiques Shanghai’s expo, but in an academic voice; Chan Koon-Chung has written the satirical novel of the year that lampoons the “harmony” of the Party (despite being published in Hong Kong and circulating only on the Chinese internet). Only some of what they do turn up on our radar screens.

When a Chinese intellectual hits our headlines, we should remember that the directed public sphere available to them is different from ours. If we want to understand their words and actions, we need to understand their world. If we understand this managed world, the voices of Chinese public intellectuals become clear, alongside those instances when they are silenced.

If you enjoyed this memo, subscribe to our e-newsletter for free and receive new memos 2+ times per week via email.


  • Yu Keping, who advises the government on democracy, The Globalist

Related Memos:

  • Our other Memos about China

Print Friendly