[This is an original translation of this post by Li Yinhe. Previously, we translated Li’s critique of the nationalist book Unhappy China; in this post she addresses a larger issue inspired by the book’s front page.]
I went to visit Xiaobo’s grave [i.e., Wang Xiaobo, her husband]. A wind sprung up suddenly, and light pink flower petals — I don’t know if they were cherry or peach blossoms — floated down one after another. I thought of Xiaobo’s life, just like this flower: after blooming magnificently, it floats softly down. My heart filled with an endless sigh, my tears clogged up in the pit of my stomach.
That day, Hong Huang (of Frank Remarks) and the authors of Unhappy China had a chat I was connected to via phone line, I talked a bit about my opinion on “driving out villains and protecting the people”:
On the title page of the book [Unhappy China] it says we must “drive out villains and protect the people”. This desire is good, but there are two problems with it; one abstract and one concrete. Or, to put it another way, one is an ideological problem, the other is a problem of interest.
First the ideological problem: we want to “drive out villains and protect the people”, but who is the “villain” and who is the “people” is not black-and-white; in other words, there’s no standard that everyone can accept to know for sure who is a “villain” and who is a “person”.
For example, America attacking Iraq could be subjectively called “driving out villains and protecting the people”, as Sadaam’s government was corrupt, but there are also those who say America was only waging the war to get at oil. According to the standards of “driving out villains and protecting the people” of the people who wrote this book, should we help America attack Iraq or help Iraq attack America? Another example, supposing North and South Korea started to fight each other, according to “driving out villains and protecting the people”, should we help North Korea or South Korea? In a word, I mean that it is abstract, who is good and who is bad is not easy to clearly separate.
Then there’s the concrete problem: Thinking from the perspective of national interests, if we go to attack another country it’s for the interests of our own country. That is certainly unjust, it’s invading someone else, and we cannot do that.
If we’re not [doing things] purely for national interests, and instead only work to safeguard justice, then our efforts definitely won’t be rewarded in the same way. “Driving out villains and protecting the people” costs money, can a poor country like this one afford it? Although on the large scale our economy is already the third largest in the world, on a personal scale China is still a poor country. Rather than spending money trying to right the injustices of the world, it’s better to give that money to the rural population that struggles below the poverty line.
Of course, there’s one kind of exception, if a new Hitler were to arise, then we should give money no matter how poor we are and not hesitate to make great sacrifices, “driving out the villain and protecting the people”. Looking at it carefully, I believe that there is no “new Hitler” currently in the world, so talking about “driving out villains and protecting the people” isn’t really applicable.
Li Yinhe is undoubtedly right in saying that “driving out villains and protecting the people” (which is our translation of the chengyu 除暴安良) is easier said in the abstract than enacted in reality. She mentions there’s no international standard for good and bad, but even within China, what’s good or bad. Even what’s in the nation’s best interest is hotly disputed. Given that, how can China “drive out villains”? The answer may be that, practically speaking, it cannot. No matter who is defining the terms, there will always be villains, whether those villains be corrupt officials, Tibetan “splittists”, foreigners dating Chinese girls, etc. A more productive question than “how can we drive off villains to protect the people” might be “how can we live in harmony with villains to protect the people”, or more simply, “how can we turn ‘villains’ into ‘people'”.
What do you think? Is “driving out villains and protecting the people” just nationalist dogma or is there something to it that Li Yinhe missed?