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positions: east asia cultures critique 12.1 (2004) 203-235

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What Kind of Knowledge Do We Need?

An Interview with Kin Chi Lau

Kin Chi Lau is an activist-intellectual who works with the China Social Services and Development Research Centre. This voluntary organization is based in Hong Kong and provides research on rural alternatives and development issues in China. Lau's commitment to public intellectual activity is highlighted by her work in 2000–2003 as council chair of Asian Regional Exchange for New Alternatives (ARENA), a network of scholar-activists in Asia. Her research has included work on attitudes toward sexuality among women in mountain villages in China, alternative education in the People's Republic of China, and renegotiating the public/private divide through citizen participation.

Lau's recent articles include "Resurgent Patriarchy and Women's Responses in China," in Resurgent Patriarchies: Challenges for Women's Movements in Asia, ed. Urvashi Butalia, Neng Magno, and Kin Chi Lau (Hong Kong: ARENA, 1999), 101–36; and "China," in The Dispossessed: Victims of [End Page 203] Development in Asia, ed. Vinod Raina, Aditi Chowdhury, and Sumit Chowdhury (Hong Kong: ARENA, 1998), 22–67.

Currently, Lau works in the Department of Cultural Studies at Lingnan University, where she teaches courses on contemporary Chinese literature, global culture, local governance, and negotiating violence. This interview is part of an extended conversation that began in June 2001 at the City University of Hong Kong.

Tani E. Barlow: Kin Chi Lau, I was struck by your earlier statement that you are not an intellectual. Let's begin by asking you what you meant.

Kin Chi Lau: For a very long period in China—including Hong Kong—people were largely illiterate. The sharp divide between the "educated" and the "uneducated" reflected the sharp divide between the ruling elite and the ruled, characterizing systems of power that denied the subaltern any position from which to speak, except revolt. However, the polarization as the breeding ground of contradiction also brought about conflicts within the self, leading some intellectuals to feel ashamed at the plight of those who were dominated for just innocently trying to lead a simple life. Hence there is a long tradition of the intellectual, that is, the "educated," made intelligible by the simple divide between the "educated" and the "uneducated," nurturing a conscience and the responsibility to stand up for and protect the poor and the wretched.

With the question of how to make a new China, a process in which ordinary people must be involved as principal agents, the idea was that intellectuals should go and learn from the people in their efforts to help educate the people. Help them become adequate to the task of building a new China. During the Maoist Cultural Revolution, the humbling experience of learning from and in the midst of the people turned into a coerced reeducation of intellectuals. The campaign of coerced reeducation can be read as the institutionalization of shame and negative connotations with regard to the concept "intellectuals." An effect of this process was that the reductionist simplification—the "educated" and the "uneducated"—became a kind of common sense. The simple image of intellectuals is that they are captive in a world of their own making, disconnected from the world of the people but maintained at the people's expense. [End Page 204]

There is a certain truth to this picture, to the extent that intellectuals are very much a part of the system of power that accounts for the maintaining of relations of domination over the people. If the world of intellectuals is disconnected from that of the people, it is not because they, wittingly or unwittingly, have confined themselves within an ivory tower. Rather, they are deeply implicated in institutions and practices that are responsible for securing benefits at the people's expense. I do not like to identify with this historical formation.

However, to be critical of the social conditions supporting intellectuals is not to deny the importance...