The New Yorker ran a fantastic article about the state of intellectual conservatism in China.  I was reminded of a conversation I had recently at a restaurant with my friend from Peking University, Yiyang.  We discussed the difference between political and theological conservatism, and what it means in the United States to be a liberal or a conservative.  What about in a philosophical sense?

It interests me that Chinese intellectuals are so interested in Harvey Mansfield, in Leo Strauss.  It makes a great deal of sense to me that young Chinese, so enamored of the explosion in material wealth that is characteristic of China today, would see conservatism in an intellectual sense the reasonable alternative.  And I can see why the affluent lives of young, educated Chinese are such good tools to convince them that in this political moment, what really matters is national pride, because China is on the rise, and so long as China is on the rise, what does it really matter that the government is viewed by the West as oppressive?

As the New Yorker notes, it’s common practice to sidestep the Great Firewall.  In fact, it’s a little less like scaling the Berlin Wall than a rabbit digging under a garden fence.  In a matter of moments, through a wide variety of technological tools, you can get to the other side.  Young, educated Chinese don’t see the Great Firewall as a threat.  The government’s censorship program is malleable, as well.  Though there are notable exceptions, like the dissident blogger, Shi Tao, who was ‘betrayed’ by Yahoo to Chinese authorities and was sentenced to 10 years, the topic of direct and intentional censorship by the Chinese government hasn’t really come up in my circles.

Is lack of speech about free speech equivalent to free speech?  I certainly don’t think so, but the philosophy graduate student, Tang Jie, featured in the New Yorker essay says,

“We are always eager to get other information from different channels.” Then he added, “But when you are in a so-called free system you never think about whether you are brainwashed.”

Sure, it’s a good point, and I’d argue that Tang probably thinks more about his media intake than does the average American, though…that isn’t saying much, is it?  Life in this so-called repressive state sure doesn’t seem repressive from the inside, and not during daily life.  The importance the West places on things like freedom of the press and the social and political issues that sparked Tienanmen Square seem to be largely lost on my Chinese friends.  The question of the influence of intellectual conservatism on young Chinese is something that fascinates me — because it certainly has a pull on the way I see things, but I can’t deny the fact that I am avowedly a socialist.  I can’t help but find my Chinese peers’ indifference toward some of their government’s mismanagements mystifying and frightening, at turns.

It will be interesting to see what comes of the new political lines being drawn in China.  Mostly everyone I’ve talked to is dissatisfied with the government in some respect, but how will — and can — the liberals and the conservatives, who are both unhappy with the way the Party is managing things, come together to make a positive change?  After the economic prosperity, what are the priorities of China’s educated elite?

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