Unfulfilled Dreams: China’s 'Liberal' Communist Party Intellectuals’ Struggle for Democracy from the 1930s to the 2000s

Amid the Sino-Japanese and civil wars in the 1930s and 1940s, many patriotic young intellectuals joined the Chinese Communist Party out of a fervent desire to ‘save the nation’. Attracted by its promises of freedom, democracy and equality, these underground party members braved arrest, torture and prison under the Nationalist government to fight for a communist utopia. After 1949, following an initial period of euphoria, they found themselves painfully struggling between their twin goals of democracy and revolution under the Mao regime. Towards the end of their lives however, a group remained committed to their ideals and openly called for democratic reforms, becoming known as the ‘democrats within the party’.

This talk explores the intellectual journey of these party intellectuals, who struggled in a dynamic tension throughout their lives between their longing for democracy and their devotion to the Communist revolution, liberal and Marxist-Leninist values, and between humanity and class-conscious party spirit.

Having interviewed them and examined their writings, diaries and memoirs, Dr Verna Yu attempts to decipher what attracted these young intellectuals to the Communist revolution in the pre-1949 era, what contributed towards their unquestioning faith in the party in the Mao era and what triggered their intellectual ‘awakening’ in the post-Mao era. The examination of their mental conflicts and thought transformation, dissent and collaboration in the party has contributed towards our understanding of 20th century Chinese intellectuals and Chinese contemporary history.

Dr Verna Yu is Departmental Lecturer in Modern Chinese Studies at the University of Oxford and Research Associate of the China Institute at SOAS, University of London. She researches and teaches the history and politics of modern and contemporary China. She has a PhD degree in history from the Chinese University of Hong Kong. Her doctoral research was focused on the intellectual history of contemporary China, and in particular, how young Chinese intellectuals were attracted to the idea of a Communist Utopia in the 1930s and 1940s and their pursuit of a democratic China from the pre-1949 era to the post-Mao era.

Prior to academia, she was an award-winning journalist whose works on human rights, civil society and Chinese politics have been published widely in the international press, primarily The Guardian and the South China Morning Post, and also in the Diplomat and New York Times among other international publications. Her two-decade China coverage has been recognised through 10 prestigious press awards, including seven Human Rights Press Awards and three Society of Publishers in Asia Editorial Awards (SOPA) awards.