Zhang Wen: “Citizens cannot take responsibility, Democracy cannot succeed”

Zhang Wen

Below is a translation of this post by Zhang Wen commenting on the Nobel Peace Prize being awarded to Liu Xiaobo. Zhang Wen discusses how the lack of more people like Liu Xiaobo will ultimately keep democracy from flourishing in China.


Chinese people’s worst self is too deeply rooted.

Earlier this evening, the 2010 Nobel Peace Prize was announced. It is said that the recipient is China’s Comrade Liu. Amidst my cheering, I’d like to express some thoughts which have been pent up for some time.

As I’ve familiarized myself with Comrade Liu, I’ve gradually moved through a process of understanding. When I was young, I admired his political essays; sharp and profound. I hoped that one day I could, like him, give direction to the country. As some people approach their middle years, they hope to, through their own hard work, surpass the way one [like Comrade Liu] wrote with such morality. However, when it comes to practicing what one preaches, most are too inferior to bear comparison.

Like him, could I face tens of years without freedom? Like him, even was I to suffer the same plight, could I as before cherish hope and love? Could I look forward to reconciling differences with my adversary in order to live together peacefully?

Liu Xiaobo

Comrade Liu should be treasured just like a bottle of wine; with the passing years, it only becomes better and better. So many people look to him for guidance; in their hearts they have enshrined him. But none of these people are willing to invoke even half of his spirit and take action.

Early on, Mr. Lu Xun profoundly penned the very heart of this type of observer—this “ugly” citizenry. This [ugliness] has persisted for thousands of years, and to this very day has not yet waned. Heroes often stand isolated and without help, and at the moment of truth they have only themselves to sacrifice.

Actually, invoking the spirit of Comrade Liu really doesn’t require much sacrifice. Speak truthfully, and, according to the law, defend and fight for your rights. In reality, there are very few people who have suffered punishment because they spoke the truth in order to safeguard their rights, [and those] are only a small number of cases. Those unwilling and too cowardice [to do so] are those who, by the specters of history and the fear in their hearts, are scared into hiding, and can only, in a secret place, vent their grievances.

Everyone believes themselves to be a “grass citizen”, [exclaiming ] “The words of the lowly carry no weight”, “one’s own strength is not enough”, they are “afraid to attempt the impossible”. As a result, a peculiar image appears, one that we can say is distinctly Chinese: On an ordinary day, people sit around drinking and complaining of the government. One after another, [those sitting] trump the one who spoke before them with a more horrendous case [of injustice]. Amidst all of this complaining, it is only once one suffers personal injury and misfortune that he or she races off to find help.

Today, “to say one thing but do another” is the Chinese’s common failure. Everyone shirks responsibility, and this is one reason why China is so slow to reform. When something happens to a stranger, we merely look on as a passerby. Yet when something happens to us personally, we find a way to solve the problem. When something affects the masses, we place hopes [of a solution] on others. This type of cowardly and cynic citizen stands alongside the foolhardy government, each shining more brilliantly due to the other’s presence.

Liu Xiaobo's Wife Holding Picture of Liu

At work, I was once asked by an intern how I felt about using my real name online to express my opinions. “I whole-heartedly support it”, I responded to his surprise. But this is something I’ve mentioned many times before. I feel with intense sorrow China’s worst self, and I hope that [others] will use any means necessary to take responsibility.

By using one’s real name online, one must take responsibility for what they say. For example in criticizing the government, does speaking truthfully inevitably have to result in retaliation? Although this has happened, instances of [such retaliation] are very few. Moreover, under the supervision of public opinion, such cases can be made right. I cannot believe that speaking truthfully, with adequate reasoning and evidence, with conclusive facts, will result in someone doing something [unjust] to you.

It is really quite lamentable that some people have been scared by thoughts of province-wide hunting and capturing missions. But these people are intimidated by an unnaturally large fear which they’ve placed in their own hearts. Of the 300,000,000 people all over the country on the web, the chances of being hunted province-wide and eventually captured are smaller than if you were to walk down the street and be smashed over the head with a flower pot that fell from the top of a building.

There are too few citizens willing to sacrifice as Tan Sitong of the former days and Comrade Liu of today have. Without support, those with brave and courageous spirits cannot put adequate pressure on the government to reform and begin its life anew.

Sometimes I think of Mandela and Gandhi, and I’m grieved that my Chinese as a whole are not as good as either South Africans or Indians! Mandela and Gandhi advocated non-violent demonstrations. And although they endured much hardship, and made many sacrifices, with vast support and cooperation from their compatriots they achieved success. By contrast, look at China. With there presently being so few “clever” citizens, who can look at China and maintain any semblance of optimism?

Crowd Demands Liu's Release

Even were the situation so, the backdrop is too horrible to allow people to be optimistic. Cowardice would still prevail amongst the personalities of intellectuals, just as it exists within the common citizens. This type of citizenry characterized by the unwillingness to dare and the shirking of responsibility is no different than imperiousness and cruelty—both are enemies of democracy.

I believe that it will not be until most people understand and are willing to, according to the law, defend and fight for their rights that democracy will succeed in China. I therefore want to say that appreciating and admiring Comrade Liu is the right thing to do, but more important is that you first love yourself and those around you. Only then, when you or your loved ones’ rights are infringed upon, will you be courageous enough to make a stand and fight.

In a word, the success of democracy in China hinges upon its creation by the Chinese people. The Chinese people must come to know the intrinsic value of democracy and at the same time be willing to take action as modern citizens.

0 thoughts on “Zhang Wen: “Citizens cannot take responsibility, Democracy cannot succeed””

  1. Let’s overthrow the Chinese government, free Liu Xiaobo and make him the next leader of China. Let’s manufacture democracy in China and sell out China to the West. I’m sure that there will be some CCP Chinese be pissed off and maybe a few million will be killed when the Chinese dictatorship is overthrown. But hey, like Iraq and Afghanistan, democracy is messy and it is for the good of China.


  2. Chinese people’s worst self is too deeply rooted.

    Can a Chinese “democracy” “intellectual” ever write an article without being racist against his/her own race?

    Speaking of which, Li Yinhe is a shining example. She believes in the fundamental goodness of the Chinese people, which is shown in her numerous articles. Even though she argues for breaking some of the outdated traditions and customs regarding sex, she never inserts sentences like “The Chinese are inferior” or “The Chinese culture is inferior” or hints it , suggests or insinuates it.


  3. Cont. Which is why those “intellectuals” have such a bad name among the vast majority of educated Chinese, who, by the way, along with the rest of the 1.3 billion people, are fighting for their rights every day, but alas, just not as fast and traumatic as expected, no, dictated, by the minyuns.

    Every time a Chinese person does his/her work diligently, shows an interest in political, economic, social and cultural issues, tries to be civil, pays taxes, travels around within or outside China, or just tries to build a stable home and raise good children, he/she is helping building the country into a better one. To hint that they’re subhumans is just racist.


  4. The problem with this article is that it plays around with arbitrary definitions too much.

    It first defines a direction of societal development, which the author has a personal preference for. Then, the author proceeds to abuse his right as the writer to force unwanted connotations on the direction opposite that of his choosing.

    In short, by subtly praising the government’s adherence to law and the openness of society, he has, in effect, denied that the Chinese civilization has a right to existence, simply because it does not conform to Western standards. Which are, again, purely based on his personal preferences.

    And by “Chinese civilization”, I’m referring to thousands of years of centralized control, of “犬儒”-ism, of the “专横粗暴” nature of power, and of the habit of “不敢担当遇事弯着走”. Clearly, they do not conform to Western standards. They aren’t even my personal preferences, in fact, because I really do prefer living in a Western styled society.

    But are my personal preferences the only way I can be allowed to make decisions? I think the answer here should be a definite “no”. I’m neither willing nor authorized to condemn and sacrifice the evolutionary potential of an entire civilization, simply because of my personal prejudices.

    I have my personal preferences, which may or may not be shared by many others. But does that indicate the existence of an absolute “truth” in my personal preferences? The ever-changing paths of societal evolution proves that communal definitions of “truth” are bound to fail at some point, and in the absence of a “God-given” value system, I think it is fair to say that no values can ever be universal or time-independent.

    So, where does that leave us then? Does that mean that Chinese society is bound to stagnate forever? Once again, the answer would be “no”.

    A Marxian view of history is inevitably focused on the concept of economic determinism, which I believe still has great relevance today. Using this view to examine the industrial and labor history of North America, it can be seen that conflicts between the ruling class (bourgeoisie in this case)and the ruled masses (proletariat in this case) are engaged in a constant and permanent battle to maximize their own interests.
    The history of China may also be interpreted in much the same way, a view often used to justify the rise of CCP to power.

    In both cases, it is rarely a certain ideologically defined path believed to be “correct” that leads the societal and economic evolutions that are observed within North American and Chinese societies. Instead, more pragmatic terms characterize these phenomena with far greater accuracy, like “wages”, “taxes”, “rents”, and “working hours”. Thus, it can be concluded that despite the often-heard rhetoric from the political left and the right alike regarding the “natural” or “God-given” nature of rights and freedoms, such concepts arose mostly, if not solely, to safeguard the economic interests of those involved.

    Therefore, the reason behind the author’s view that the Chinese public is inferior to those of South Africa and India may be explained with extreme simplicity – his standard, while no doubt popular among certain groups, is fundamentally grounded on an ideology, and his view naturally focuses on China’s non-compliance with it.

    In this regard, it is not the Chinese that are inferior to the Indians and the South Africans, but the author who is treating the Chinese public as being inferior to the Indian and South African publics, in addition to those of Western societies. After all, the working class in just about any successful “democratic” country has had to fight for their own economic interests, which are then safeguarded with their rights and freedoms. Are the Chinese people so weak, so feeble that they cannot fight for their own interests, but must be united through religious devotion to an ideology? The CCP made this mistake, and quite frankly, it was an abysmal idea.

    Looking at the labor history of North America, we may be shocked and disgusted by the brutality with which the late 19th century capitalists and the governments they controlled, which frequently opened fire upon strikers. But what has all that bloodshed earned the working class of North America? I think the answer to that question is pretty obvious.

    Given that the different classes in North America were allowed to reach a compromise, and given that the North American workers were able to rewrite history in their favor with their lives, why should the Chinese public be denied this process? Is the Chinese society so hopeless, that foreign ideologies must descend upon China like angels, brutally reshaping China into a country that conforms to those fundamentally alien ideals? Must China not be given a chance to create a modern and applicable value system to call its own, through which it may be governed in a fashion distinct from the Western style of governance so popular today?

    P.S. Yes, I do know that this post applies to the CCP just as well as the article above. I also very much dislike the many radical economic and political reforms the CCP introduced at the earlier stages of PRC’s life, but at least they’ve stopped doing that now.


  5. C.Custer to Putz_ster: “Please. You’re smarter than the ridiculous straw man argument you’ve constructed and knocked down here.”

    You’re wrong, C.Custer. Putz is NOT smarter than the weak attempt at irony he makes above. Indeed, if you judge Putz by the quality of his comments (here and elsewhere), you must admit that he is ostentatiously, famoyantly NOT smart. More often than not, his comments are informed (a poor choice of words, I know) by an unapologetic – indeed, aggressive, even malignant – ignorance. In the end, Putz is impervious to reason. He is a rock. Or a bag full of them.


  6. Putz_ster: “Let’s overthrow the Chinese government, free Liu Xiaobo and make him the next leader of China…”

    Let’s first just free Liu Xiaobo.


  7. C Custer,

    I was just being sarcastic. The theory of Democracy all in all sounds nice but I fail to see some Democratic countries like the US actually adhere this kind of Democracy.

    Americans should heed Zhang Wen’s advice and not China. I watch TV and hear all those negative ads of why we should not vote for this person turns people off. Their idea is to turn people away from the polls. In addition, it is the first time that these faceless corporations can put in ads for or against an candidate. That’s their tactic keep people from participating from the government and allow the rich and elite to control the government and they are winning. Democrats, Republicans, and Tea Party members have no real solution to benefit an Average American as a whole but only themselves.

    There are countless number of protests in China every year and yet Chinese government has high approval rating shows that the Chinese government is mindful of opinions of an Average Chinese rather an Average American who seems lethargic.


  8. @pug_ster: “There are countless number of protests in China every year and yet Chinese government has high approval rating shows that the Chinese government is mindful of opinions of an Average Chinese rather an Average American who seems lethargic.”

    Please cite Chinese approval rating poll.


  9. @ Zhuge Jiong

    I think I remember seeing that statistic somewhere else too. It wasn’t an official poll or anything like that, but just by a bunch of foreign reporters (might have been just one guy, actually) going around asking random people on the street how they felt about the Chinese government. I can’t remember the source, but it was definitely on an English news website. The general consensus wasn’t that they unconditionally supported the government either, but rather something along the lines of “I’m confident the government will continue to improve itself”.

    But I really can’t comment on the reliability of the data, given that the sampling size was probably a tiny fraction of the Chinese population, all of whom were probably city-dwellers.

    So feel free to take my word for it, or don’t, because I can’t find the source anymore, or because they didn’t sample enough people, or whatever.


  10. I’ve seen that poll too. It was conducted by a Western org, though, and I don’t know how you’d correct a poll for 家丑不可外洋 attitudes so I don’t know how reliable that is.

    Anyway, that poll is also a couple years old, as I recall. I’m not sure I’d put any stock in the numbers now even if they were legit then. Remember, in between then and now we’ve had some violent riots, increasing censorship, the faster spread of non-govt approved information through things like Sina Weibo, etc. I think a lot has changed in the past few years.


  11. “Let’s first just free Liu Xiaobo.” — ??????

    Based on his answer to the question below, I am not sure what Chinese people are going to get after freeing this person.


    My personal opinion – he deserves 110 years by saying that, regardless when he said it. If he said that to his wife, that’s probably ok, but he was telling the whole world his ‘great’ solution. “Is 110 years enough? 我还有怀疑”


  12. I really enjoy this blog, but the amount of trolling that’s gone on over the past few days has made the comments section next to worthless.


  13. All these comments have made me change my mind!

    I demand everyone who doesn’t agree with me to be thrown in jail for 11 years!

    If someone has a different opinion from me, and is not put in jail for 11 years, China will immediately become the 51st American state!

    Resolutely pretend everyone in China agrees with me by jailing dissenters for 11 years!

    Only when 1.299999 billion trouble-making Chinese who don’t agree with everything I say are jailed for 11 years, can China finally be strong and not become the 51st American state!


  14. Frankly, I find the comments quite insightful and, in a sad way, hilarious. “Driven by both insecurity and pride,” as Evan Osnos from the New Yorker put it – even if he was only referring to the Chinese government’s quest for a Nobel Prize (another example that you should be careful what you wish for), it seems to apply to almost every aspect of Chinese self-perception. If not even Chinese are allowed to criticize their own people, then who is? Foreigners are supposedly too ignorant and for Chinese it’s an unpatriotic thing to do…


  15. Given how much outrage is generated over one party, imagine how much political polemics there would be if China could vote for separate parties. It’s would be like Taiwan magnified 100x, or the Dem-Rep divide in America. Chinese people don’t want this.


  16. Putz_ster: “Seriously, can you close this thread because of trolls like Gan Lu?”

    Stop whining, Putz. You’re a guy who spends his days anonymously polluting the sinosphere with your stupidity. Stop asking C.Custer to shutdown a thread because your feelings have been hurt, you big baby. I’m embarrassed for you.

    Read Charter 08 yet? Care to share your thoughts on why you believe that it’s a subversive document? How about explaining why you think Liu Xiaobo deserves to be in prison.

    Seriously though, Putz – if you’d just stop posting stupid comments, I’d stop calling you stupid.


  17. shuaige: “[I]magine how much political polemics there would be if China could vote for separate parties…Chinese people don’t want this.”

    Rather than focus on universal sufferage and multi-party elections, why don’t we start with a genuine commitment to freedom of speech, freedom of the press, freedom of assembly and association, freedom of religion, and the establishment of an independent judiciary – i.e., the kinds of things that Liu Xiaobo and others call for in Charter 08.


  18. Gan Lu,

    In the last thread you have your rant about me calling those people who determines who wins the Nobel prize ‘stupid’ yet you have trolling this thread calling me the same.


  19. @Zhuge Jiong

    The article is here:


    And I quote:

    China is clearly the most self-satisfied country in the survey. Nine-in-ten Chinese are happy with the direction of their country (87%), feel good about the current state of their economy (91%) and are optimistic about China’s economic future (87%). Moreover, about three-in-four Chinese (76%) think the U.S. takes into account Chinese interests when it makes foreign policy.


  20. “In a word, the success of democracy in China hinges upon its creation by the Chinese people. ”

    Fully agree with this statement.

    “The Chinese people must come to know the intrinsic value of democracy and at the same time be willing to take action as modern citizens.”

    In order for citizens to take action, this “intrinsic value of democracy” must be bring far more good to the average citizen then the inevitable chaos following the change in government right? The difficult thing here is to convince Chinese people that Democracy will solve their problems. Yet beyond the usual rhetorics I can’t find hard evidence that democracy can solve China’s problems.

    For example, corruption is one of the biggest issues in China. While it’s easy to theorize that Democracy addresses corruption, one can easily argue that Democracy and free press didn’t do anything to help corruption in India, which is just as corrupt as China. Another major issue in China IMO is inflation, especially home prices. Can democracy ensure that homes become affordable in China again? Looking at the US housing bubble and its aftermath, I somehow doubt that democracy can do a good job with that. Next, the economy. Can Democracy ensure better economies? Again here I am not so sure. While the US and many Democratic Western nations are extremely wealthy, the citizens world’s largest democracy India are also faring a lot worse than the Chinese citizens.

    I think a lot of people educated from the West assume that Democracy will solve all problems, and have successfully managed to convince a few Chinese people of this ideology. However they have alot more work to do in order to make this a popular idea in China.


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