In a footnote to Habermas’ “Public Sphere: An Encyclopaedia Article,” Peter Hohendahl writes that “the state and the public sphere do not overlap, as one might suppose from casual language use. Rather they confront one another as opponents.” In China, the dominant public sphere and civil society discourse negates the Habermasian model, and claims that the relationship between the public sphere and the state is not an antagonistic one.
It is not difficult to understand why intellectuals in China have proposed a benign theoretical framework. Just last month we are reminded again that our freedom is in the state’s hands. On July 14 Xu Zhiyong, the head of Gong Meng,ii was arrested. Gong Meng was founded in October 2003 by Xu Zhiyong and a few other lawyers devoted to defending citizens’ rights. Since then, Gong Meng has been involved in several high-profile cases, providing legal support to victims of coal mine catastrophes, victims of poisonous milk powders, editors of Nanfang Dushi Daily who were punished for reporting SARS, etc. Xu Zhiyong was arrested on tax fraud charges, but activists and intellectuals believe the real reason behind the arrest was that the government has been pissed off by the public support Gong Meng has been so effectively masterminding in promoting social justice. Gong Meng understood the power of mass media and were adept at phrasing its legal pursuits within the boundary of law and official rhetoric so that media organizations could report its work without failing censorship. Media report in turn generated public outcry, forcing the government to acknowledge its mismanagement and punish relevant officials and business owners. Gong Meng not only was a huge annoyance to the state, but represented the rise of the public sphere and civil society, which increasingly threatens the boundless power currently enjoyed by the state and its stakeholders. It seems that the state understands Habermas unfailingly – the public sphere is the state’s opponent. Thus, the state is trying to destroy the public sphere in its infancy, or at least slow down its development as much as possible.
anonymous chinese artist