Today is the birthday of Cai Yuanpei (1868-1940). A classically-trained scholar who later decided to broaden his education and study in Germany, he was Minister of Education (briefly) under Yuan Shikai and (more famously) the chancellor of Peking University during the New Culture Era. Chancellor Cai took over a campus squalid with the scions of the idle rich and transformed it into a hotbed of intellectual dynamism for a new age. Cai took risks, hiring firebrands such as Chen Duxiu and Li Dazhao, and luring young scholars such as Hu Shi back from abroad. The dining halls and classrooms of the school brimmed with the kind of debate that forges ideas and ideologies, and the campus became the epicenter of one of the most fertile and exciting times in China’s (or any other country’s) intellectual history.
Hu Shi revitalized the study of China’s past, introduced new ideas of philosophy and learning to the student body, and changed the way Chinese was written and read. Chen Duxiu’s magazine La Jeunesse (New Youth) was snatched up immediately whenever a shipment dropped, young students and intellectuals rushing to buy the few precious copies printed and distributed. In those pages Li Dazhao introduced Marxism, Mao Zedong published his first essay, and a whole generation learned the language of individual liberation and political revolution.
But most people didn’t care.
The vast majority of the Chinese population had never heard of Chen Duxiu or Li Dazhao, hadn’t ever seen a copy of New Youth and were too busy making ends meet to read it in any case. For most people, Peking University was as lofty and remote an environment as the far side of the moon.
And yet during the May 4th Movement of 1919 the new youth took to the streets in anger and frustration, a movement that — much to the shock and dismay of the government — spread throughout the different classes of society. Workers joined students joined urban residents in a potent alliance and the government fell.
Today’s “kinder gentler” CCP does tolerate dissent…to a point. And that point is when dissent looks to have the potential to spread to different geographic regions or among disparate social classes and thus link together areas or groups in common cause. This is the CCP’s nightmare.
This brings me to Charter 08. Charter 08 is the product of a single class: the intelligentsia, a group which Roland Soong aptly notes is hardly unified in ideology, ambitions, or style. Nevertheless, there has been some snickering among the usual suspects that Charter 08 is simply the work of eggheads, out-of-touch bookworms who don’t understand (or don’t care about) the priorities of “real people.” More conspiratorially, some suggest Charter 08 to be the work of US-government backed moles in the Chinese intelligentsia, that the signers of Charter 08 have been “pallin’ around with splittists.” Anti-intellectualism and innuendo: It seems those who seek to defend the CCP against such ominous harbingers of doom like “not arresting people for voicing their opinion” and “relaxing controls on the media” have taken as their rhetorical role model Sarah Palin. Good luck with that strategy.
The truth is, however, that Charter 08 is unlikely to have a major impact, at least in the short run. First of all, the government is up on its history, and takes great pains to isolate and denigrate groups who express inconvenient opinions. In a recent interview with the NPR show “Fresh Air with Terry Gross” Atlantic Monthly national correspondent James Fallows expressed grudging admiration for the current regime’s ability to influence debate; not merely blacking out information, but spinning the conversation by controlling what information remains easily accessed.
But to dismiss the importance of Charter 08 because it is the product of a single class (or sub-group within that class) is to miss a lesson of history. With a nod to Margaret Mead, I might suggest that modern Chinese history has had its own share of small groups of committed individuals whose ideas did not receive their due when first published or spoken but whom we now look back upon as transformational figures: Wang Tao, Yan Fu, Kang Youwei, Liang Qichao, Sun Yat-sen, Li Dazhao, even Mao Zedong. This is not to say that the authors of Charter 08 are destined to enter such a hallowed pantheon, only that history warns us not to immediately dismiss their ideas because “only” 2000 intellectuals signed the document.
In 1919, our birthday boy Cai Yuanpei wrote:
“With regard to ideas, I act according to the general rule of the various universities of the world, following the principle of “freedom of thought” and adopting the policy of tolerating everything and including everything…Regardless of what schools of academic thought there may be, if their words are reasonable and there is cause for maintaining them, and they have not yet reached the fate of being eliminated by nature, then even though they disagree with each other, I would let them develop in complete freedom.”
From the archives