What China's Thinkers Need Most Is Also Most Elusive Chinese artist Yang Weidong has devoted the past four years to asking more than 300 Chinese intellectuals a deceptively simple question: "What do you need?" The resounding answer is "freedom." The results reflect both a sense of crisis and progress, in that such criticism can be openly voiced.
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What China's Thinkers Need Most Is Also Most Elusive

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What China's Thinkers Need Most Is Also Most Elusive

What China's Thinkers Need Most Is Also Most Elusive

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A generation after China's bloody crackdown on pro-democracy demonstrators in Tiananmen Square, one man is on a mission. Yang Weidong has spent years putting a single question to Chinese intellectuals - more than 300 in all. NPR's Louise Lim reports on the question, and the answers.

LOUISA LIM, BYLINE: What do you need? This question has become an obsession for Yang Weidong. He's been asking it for the last four years, again and again. As for the answer, one word pops up time and time again: ziyou. It means freedom.


CHANG PING: (Foreign language spoken)

MAO YUSHI: (Foreign language spoken)

YE KUANGZHENG: (Foreign language spoken)

LIM: I need freedom, says writer Chang Ping. I need freedom of speech, says economist Mao Yushi. I need freedom of expression, says poet Ye Kuangzheng. This is from a short film collated from the interviews conducted by Yang Weidong.

YANG WEIDONG: (Through translator) Of China's thinkers, more than 95 percent of those I interviewed need freedom, though they used different ways to express this.

LIM: Of course, there were other answers, too. Many talked about the need for faith or spiritual life. Three interviewees said they needed money. About the same number said they needed Marxism-Leninism. At least three couldn't think of anything they needed. And one, a philosopher, said he'd never considered this question before.

Yang's project is called "Signal." He believes it underlines a sense of crisis among Chinese intellectuals, chafing at the restrictions that bind them.

YANG: (Through translator) We live in a ridiculous society. Now, we Chinese people are treated like pigs. At the most basic level, two people who are married don't even have the right to have babies. You have to be allowed. You will eat whatever they feed you. They ask you to be happy, and you're happy. They don't let you think.

LIM: Many bemoan the lack of academic freedom. Some talk about having been bought off by the Communist Party, which offers jobs, housing and a salary. The price is their obedience - or silence, at the very least. Others describe the wholesale attack on scholars during the Mao era. They broke our backs, says one interviewee. Eighty-year-old historian and philosopher Yuan Weishi describes his intellectual journey.

YUAN WEISHI: (Through translator) Most intellectuals were suppressed and deceived. Many of them were seduced by very extreme theories and ways of thinking. I, myself, am included. When I was young, I bought into all of that. But slowly, I woke up.

LIM: The animosity towards the Communist Party is startling. Yang describes it, saying those who haven't benefited from communism curse it, but those that benefited curse it, too. More than a dozen elderly interviewees even said they believed life was better before the communist revolution in 1949.



LIM: Such views amount to heresy here. The official line is that the Communist Party saved China - the words in this song, which practically every child in China learns in school. But even this comes under question. Wang Kang is a scholar of Soviet-style communism. When it comes to Chinese communism, he says, bluntly: The emperor has no clothes.

WANG KANG: (Through translator) China is now a union of power and money. Power is especially expressed in Beijing. Look at those advantaged groups - the princelings and the state-owned corporations. They're all dazzlingly rich. A large part of China's historical dividend has been swallowed by a small minority. What part of this is socialism? It's never been socialist. It's fake socialism. It's the opposite of socialism.

LIM: Unsurprisingly, Yang's project has attracted the attention of the authorities. His house has been searched, and some interview tapes confiscated. He's published books of some of the interviews, in Hong Kong. He's not been able to publish in China. But in April, he was prevented from leaving the country. He was trying to go to the U.S., to meet the Dalai Lama. Now, he fears he could be putting his family at risk. When I ask him what he needs, he echoes the answer he's heard so many times.

YANG: (Through translator) I need freedom myself. I can't leave the country. My freedom of movement is restricted. I also need my freedom to create.

LIM: That's the paradox of Yang's experiment. He's given Chinese scholars a free platform to voice their complaints. But it is, in fact, a step forward that there is enough freedom in China for such open criticism to be voiced.

Louisa Lim, NPR News, Beijing.

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