Social Criticism in China

‘A warlike, various, and a tragical age is best to write of, but worst to write in,’ said Abraham Cowley, a seventeenth-century English poet. In a sense, this can be used to describe the politics in China: for the conscious social critics, there is so much to criticize, so many corrupted leaders, unreasonable policies, false ideologies, anomalies and tragedies. China itself is a rich source of writing material. At the same time, however, social criticism in China is a profession of despair. You always confront unpleasant facts, and write many negative accounts. But be prepared to accept the fact that little would change, that change would take a long time, perhaps never.

In a similar spirit, a Chinese poet in the Qing Dynasty said, ‘The misfortune of the country is the fortune of its poets. When one writes of national calamities, one inevitably writes well.’ Leung Man Tao, a social critic from Hong Kong who writes for many influential mainland Chinese newspapers, had a modern interpretation of this poem in the Preface to his 2009 book Common Sense, a collection of his political commentaries about China:

If there is one thing which makes current affairs commentary immortal, it is that the things you criticize about happen again and again. Commentators carefully analyzed the reasons for mining accidents, and proposed rehabilitation and preventive measures. Often, the result is that mining accidents not only fail to disappear, but happen with increased frequency. If the purpose of commentary is to effect social change, then the unchanged reality is its greatest irony. Any social commentator with conscience would want to see its articles becoming obsolete. It is a sorrow if their articles continue to have relevance, except if the author’s ego is greater than that of an intellectual: The misfortune of the country is the fortune of its poets.

As one of the most critical writers of contemporary Chinese society, Han Han expresses similar feelings this month in his blog, which has not been updated for a while:

I discover that writing about China is a painful experience. No doubt, this country gives us a lot of materials to write about. But you will suddenly discover that after writing for a while, when a piece of news breaks out, you could not help but just write a sentence: ‘Please refer to my article dated XXX.’ Our leadership has changed from that group to this; our slogans and national achievements have changed from those to these; tragedy has befallen on this person instead of that one. Tragedies reoccur, just with different people. This is a painful experience for the writer. Writers hate repeating the same thing over and over again, as it demands a high level of writing skills. I really want to keep on writing, and do not want to be bored and paralyzed.

This week, the popular column of Chan Wan at the Hong Kong Economic Journal was discontinued. Chan is a leading intellectual in Hong Kong. It was reported that his column’s removal was due to his fierce criticisms on Hong Kong’s real estate developers, which, in Chan’s words, ‘control the Legislative Council of Hong Kong, obstructing the democratization of Hong Kong and, indirectly, that of mainland China.’

In an article this week on Hong Kong newspaper Ming Pao, Chan expresses a strong sense despair about the practice of social criticism in Hong Kong and China:

When the society is controlled by vested interests, and the masses become indifferent, political commentary just becomes a ‘thinking exercise’, or a kind of cultural activity. It has no real social functions, except for people to satisfy their curiosity and vent their anger. Our real hope lies in the irrational impulses of the masses when a critical threshold is reached. This reconstruction of the society from the ruins is called revolution. Under a suppressive environment, rational analysis and well-intended advice are limited to like-minded people, or risk being accused as ‘obstructing the usual way of things’ or anti-revolutionary if they are widely published. Therefore, I have decided a few years ago to stop commenting on mainland Chinese politics, except if it relates to Hong Kong. From China’s chaotic environment, you can foresee its ‘end-game’, just that it is meaningless to explicitly say it out. Knowing that you cannot control and stop this continuous deterioration towards the end-game, you know it is also time to set the end-game for your social criticism.

It isn’t only revolutionary crises that can effect social changes. Whatever the views of these critics about the future of China, their writings have helped the masses find their way. As always, social criticism requires consciousness, courage and perseverance, as Michael Walzer wrote ((Michael Walzer (2002), The Company of Critics, New York: Basic Books, p.239)):

The important thing is not to sink – and how else does one keep afloat except by criticizing what is going on in the surrounding waters? ‘Always, in every situation,’ wrote Martin Buber, ‘it is possible to do something.’ I would be inclined to say, almost always; criticism is never without reasons and warrants, but there may be terrible moments when it has no point […] So it behooves the critic to be ready and waiting, maintaining his independence, keeping in touch with common complaint, polishing his glass. He is like a commuter watching expectantly for a train (but there is no schedule).

0 thoughts on “Social Criticism in China”

  1. Great post, Andy. It’s interesting to look at how much of this discussion itself has been had many times before (I’m thinking of May 4th/New Culture movement, but there are other examples too) but the same problems do seem to keep cropping up and China’s social critics somehow manage to keep at it despite what seems to be the near-crippling weight of hopelessness many of them seem to feel. You can find that in Lu Xun’s writing a century ago, but it’s just as evident in some of the stuff you’ve posted here, too. Fascinating.

    I also think the “the misfortune of the country is the fortune of its poets” principle applies to almost any kind of writing. In college, a friend and I formed a songwriters club, and one of the things we discovered was that there was a part of all of us that basically wished for bad things to happen to us. It’s terrible when something tragic happens, but we knew that great songs are often a byproduct of tragedy. I’m not sure if all songwriters feel that way, but a lot of us found ourselves thinking along those lines from time to time. Any kind of misfortune, I think, is fortunate for the writer who uses emotion as ammunition.


  2. Cry out loud. There are woman being stoned to death elsewhere why don’t you write about them?? China has lots problems but ‘A warlike, various, and a tragical age’? you can say this too any society at any time in history depends which angle you take.

    Do something USEFUL – an article open with a dated quote just doesn’t help anyone


  3. Well. There is certainly less to criticize about China now than in any time in the past 200 years or so, and there are a great many things to be positive about.

    That being said, there are extensive social problems in China on a scale unseen in any western countries – corruption, lack of the rule of law, income inequality, and environmental degradation being the most prominent.

    But the main issue(and this not dealt with fully enough in the article) is that social criticism itself is extremely difficult in China. The obvious barrier that most people would think of is the CPC itself.

    Perhaps more importantly, though, is that the actual culture lacks the ability to criticize and analyze itself in any meaningful or sustained way. This is partly a function of the suppression of the media, no doubt. But the media itself is a reflection of a culture that frequently prefers to ignore, skim over, or pay mere lip service to what are often serious problems.


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