China and Habermas's public sphere

There is a public realm, and it nurtures a society of free citizens. The painful, complex evolution of this idea in the People's Republic of China is one of the great struggles of the modern world.

Kerry Brown
4 July 2014

It has been over half a century since the original German publication of Jürgen Habermas’s The Structural Transformation of the Public Sphere. The questions of public opinion and public space that he analyses in this work have, in the age of the world wide web, become even more confusing and complex. The resources that technology has supplied make a key relationship - the private space of family and the personal, ranged against the invasive organising and dictating tentacles of the state - more contentious than ever. To understand this relationship requires clarifying the very meaning of the "public sphere". Here, Habermas's elegant exploration of the seamless link between the birth of modernity and the processes of marketisation and capitalist industrialisation, out of which grew the idea of a public sphere and its political importance, acquires even more relevance today.

Habermas’s work is firmly rooted in Europe. The relevance of his ideas to China might seem limited. After all, it could be argued that the public sphere in China barely existed until the last couple of decades. In the imperial, agrarian China of the Qing dynasty, and then in the republican and Maoist periods, there was no "public sphere" in Habermas's sense. There were constellations of political forces around intellectuals, bureaucracies, landowners and court rulers; but the world of coffee-shop debate and free discussion in places like Paris or London since the 18th century, which planted the seeds of a public domain, was lacking in China. And Maoism was brutally antagonistic to any articulation of public aims not dictated by the state. It is only since reform and opening up progressed since around 1980 that what could be called a Chinese public sphere has begun to evolve.

Habermas’s discussion of the growth of public opinion in Europe is thus a reminder of how hard it is to create a zone of civil society, of open expression and public debate, and a warning that this process in China is certain to be equally as tough.  John Stuart Mill and Alexis de Tocqueville - much quoted by Habermas - regarded the notion of public opinion guiding politics and policy as akin to surrendering to mass ignorance and intellectual turpitude. For them, there needed to be informed guidance, embodied in the idea of representative democracy.

This idea of elite guidance, albeit in a wholly different context, is something that the Chinese state is keen on. Beijing’s leaders may airily appeal to public opinion for support, and they are glad to stress that it is mass popular support that supplies their legitimacy and forms the basis of "Chinese-style democracy". But just how any Chinese leader, at local or national level, can truly know or demonstrate what the public mood is remains a mystery. Mao could dictate. Before the internet, Deng Xiaoping and Jiang Zemin could grandly declare that "all Chinese believe..." and then fill in the gap any way they wanted. But these days, even a novice can spend two minutes using Baidu to see that the public sphere in China is truly in ferment and Chinese public opinion often divided.

Many varied examples can illustrate this. One is the ferociously mixed public response to Chinese tennis superstar Li Na's failure to offer any thanks to the Chinese government after her grand-slam victory in Australia in January 2014 (the official Xinhua newsagency caustically commented that without state support she could never have enjoyed such a successful career). Another is the chorus of disapproval over the grandstanding clampdown on sex joints in Dongguang. The public sphere in China is unified only in its disunity. The state's response to this has been to define a limited area it seeks to operate in and control, while jettisoning large parts of the Chinese world where it used to be heavily involved. The result is to leave these two zones - the official and the civic (both public and personal) - to inhabit parallel universes.

Habermas’s work, in highlighting the deep connection between the public sphere and state power (indeed any form of power), casts doubt on how far such a separation is possible. "The bourgeois public sphere may be conceived above all as the sphere of private people come together as a public", he writes. At heart this was political because it involved the "people’s public use of their reason." From the 18th century onwards, the idea emerged of a civic realm with public interests and a public zone with associated new forms of expression and enfranchisement. That entailed profound institutional changes and new accommodations.

China is still very far from this. There is a sense in which, despite all its grand talk of modernity, the state in China remains deeply old-fashioned and conservative - possessed both of a powerful sense of its importance and prestige, and of a deep unease at the signs of resistance emerging through civil society and other power-centres. The state continues to contest these forces, in ways that reveal its contradictions: the state's zone is in some ways diminishing, yet it retains its technical ability to survey and snoop, and has even expanded it to a greater extent than ever.

For the next few years a vital theme in China will be, so to speak, "watch this public space". For the first time in history, an authentically Chinese public sphere in the People's Republic of China is struggling to be born. Indeed, its painful, slow and complex evolution is one of the great struggles of the modern world.

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