Rong Jian 荣剑 was a rising star in the 1980s in the then much-prized field of Marxism Studies before 1989 derailed his academic career. Like many disillusioned intellectuals of the time, he turned away from scholarship and entered the business world.
In the late 1980s, Rong was an active participant in the intense intellectual debates over the correct reform path for the nation. This was a time when policy advisers close to then Party General Secretary (former Premier) Zhao Ziyang were much taken with Samuel Huntington’s notion of ‘new authoritarianism’, known as 新权威主义 in Chinese. Huntington had argued that, instead of rushing to form democracies, Eastern European countries that renounced communism should adopt a gradualist approach to market economics and the development of a multi-party democracy. Huntington called this approach ‘new authoritarianism’ as it required a reform-minded elite, serving as a form of benevolent dictatorship, to oversee the transition to democracy. This view gained many supporters in China’s intellectual world (in particular as the ‘peaceful transition’ to democracy unfolded in Taiwan), and Zhao Ziyang was said to have discussed ‘new authoritarianism’ with Deng Xiaoping in early March 1989.
Participants of the mainland debate over ‘new authoritarianism’ agreed that China should pursue market reforms and political democracy but they differed on how these goals should be realised. Whereas the advocates of ’new authoritarianism’ believed that a strong and powerful state was vital in the post-Maoist period, their opponents called for the dismantling of the party-state system and the immediate inauguration of multi-party democracy. They viewed the new authoritarian approach as a dire threat to political reform in China. Rong was among those calling for more radical change. In an article titled ‘Can New Authoritarianism be Implemented in China?’ 新权威主义在中国是否可行?, he argued that the very idea was regressive and would only further weaken the prospect of substantive political reform in China. Published in the Shanghai newspaper World Economic Herald on 16 January 1989, the article made Rong famous. It also marked the moment when ‘new authoritarianism’, which had hitherto been confined to academic and policy circles, became an issue of broader public discussion. (The chief public proponent of new authoritarianism, Wu Jiaxiang 吴稼祥, has, like Rong Jian, resurfaced in recent years.)
At the time, Rong was a PhD candidate in Marxist philosophy at Renmin University in Beijing. The volatile events of that year meant that he was unable to defend his dissertation and this deprived him both of his degree and of a state-allocated job. Instead, he began to collect contemporary Chinese abstract oil paintings and, in the 1990s, he became a highly successful curator. During that decade he retreated from the intellectual scene, publishing only occasional essays in prestigious academic journals.
In the 2010s, Rong returned to the realm of public discourse and debate. Since early 2012, he has published more than twenty articles on the highly-regarded news and commentary website Consensus Net 共识网, stories and material from which often feature on this site. These articles, or in many cases running commentary or feuilleton, address a wide range of topics, from Bo Xilai’s Chongqing Model 重庆模式 to criticism of Hu Xijin 胡锡进, the editor of Global Times, a daily known for its commercialised, crowd-pleasing nationalist posture (and overblown rhetoric).
Regarding his launch into online commentary, Rong has said he was inspired by Han Han 韩寒, the popular young novelist who enjoys an outsize influence among mainland readers for his satirical blog posts. Han Han’s incredible popularity led Rong to rethink the role of public intellectuals in the digital age. He observed that many Chinese scholars and professors have lost their voice in the public arena: ‘They don’t know how to talk, and nobody cares about what they have to say… . They are only good at professional writing; they know nothing about writing for the public.’
Rong has expressed deep concern for the present situation in China and the urgency of political reform. In an interview with Consensus Net, he emphasized the necessity of implementing what he called ‘de-statism’ 去国家化 (a somewhat tongue-in-cheek in the au courant neo-Marxist NPPCC member and academic Wang Hui’s 汪晖 buzzword description of post-1989 Chinese politics as ‘de-politicisation’ 去政治化; for our snapshot of Wang Hui, see here). He explained that the government controls too many resources and that state-owned enterprises (SOEs) are generating enormous profits that are not being equitably distributed. He added that the alliance between power and capital, as well as a lack of moral and institutional constraints on the political and economic elites, has been the major cause of rampant corruption in China. He (like many others) notes that crony capitalism has not only undermined the image and credibility of the Communist Party but may potentially lead to another revolution.
Rong is noteworthy among other publicly engaged Chinese thinkers for his acid-tipped pen. His droll style separates much of his writing from the worthy verbiage of his peers and clamorous wannabes. Particularly enjoyable in this context was his April 2012 lambasting of the intellectual camp followers of Bo Xilai, most of whom were quick to disassociate themselves from the former Chongqing Party boss after his March 2012 fall from grace (see Rong, ‘The Scholars who Rushed to Chongqing’ 奔向重庆的学者们). A lengthy article published in late March 2013 offers reflections on the poverty of intellectual and ideological resources in modern and contemporary China (see Rong, ‘An Unthinking China’, 没有思想的中国).