My colleague and I observed the other day there seems to be wide variations on how the term is used in different places. In Hong Kong, the term is commonly used, and often with a positive connotation. As in, “大家都係知識分子... ( We are all intellectuals here, hence it is assumed that each of us will behave honourably. )” Knowledge in general, and academic standing in particular, is a respectable attribute. Perhaps partly because of the traditional Chinese respect for knowledge, and also partly due to the relatively low level of academic achievement among the population. In 2000, only 15% of the adult population has attained post-secondary education, and the average years of schooling was 9.47.
It seems that the term is not as commonly used in the USA and Canada. In my 18 years of living in North America, I don’t recall hearing or using the term much in normal conversation. Not because the term has a negative connotation. Perhaps more because academic attainment is so high, that being an intellectual is not as an uncommon achievement as in other places. In 2000, 50.1% of the adult has attained post-secondary education, and the average years of schooling was 12.25. Hence there is no need to bring up that fact.
It seems, however, the term is not used as often on the Chinese Mainland. And when it is used, it is not often with a positive connotation. That might be due to the attitude towards the intellectuals as exhibited by the Chinese Communists. As in Mao Tse-tung’s famous saying, “知识分子最无知识！(Intellectuals are most ignorant!)“. As in “知識越多越反動 (The more knowledgeable, the more reactionary.)”, and “臭老九 (Stinking number 9 - second lowest rank in society, where 1 is top, and 10 is the beggar.)”. Hence it is understandable educated people do not wish to be considered intellectuals.
That also reminds me of the situation in Cambodia during the reign of the Khmer Rouge. Even knowledge of a foreign language, or wearing eye glasses, can be a cause of persecution, torture, and death. It is not unlike the situation during the Cultural Revolution on the Chinese Mainland. It should not come as a surprise, as many in the Khmer Rouge were trained in, or by Communist China.
Culture, evidently, is extremely variable from place to place, and can actually be a matter of life, or death.