Han Han and the “Suzhi” Argument

You may have missed it with the holidays, but Han Han celebrated with a trio of essays (“On Revolution”, “On Democracy”, and “On Freedom”) that got lots of people talking. Certainly, you should check out ESWN’s translations of all three essays; John Kennedy’s translations of various comments from Chinese thought leaders for Global Voices is also very worth a read. Finally, if you’re the podcast-listening sort, you can listen to me discussing these essays with Kaiser Kuo, Jeremy Goldkorn, Gady Epstein, and Edward Wong in the latest episode of the Sinica podcast.

Here, I want to ignore most of Han Han’s essay and focus on the germ of one particular argument that he uses which I find to be particularly unconvincing. But first, the obligatory disclaimers: I agree with Han Han in his general assertion that a violent revolution tomorrow would be a disaster for China. His arguments beyond that are harder for me to get on board with, but I want to discuss only one here and now, the suzhi [素质] argument.

Suzhi is a Chinese term that means roughly “quality” or “character” and often refers to people in specific or the characteristics of a type of person in general. In the context of discussions of democracy in China, the “suzhi argument” is essentially this: the Chinese people as a whole are not qualified for democracy; their suzhi level is not high enough, and thus any attempts at democracy would be unsuccessful.

All kinds of evidence has been trotted out in favor of this argument, which is espoused primarily by Chinese pro-government commentators. Most foreigners, even those who agree with the general sentiment about democracy in China, wouldn’t dream of advancing this argument for fear of being labeled racist. Such labels would not be entirely unfair, and in fact, even Chinese purveyors of this viewpoint have often met with a harsh blowback of angry public opinion. Jackie Chan learned this the hard way.

In any event, rather than talking about it in the abstract, let’s look at Han Han’s arguments about suzhi in particular. At the end of his first piece, “On Revolution”, Han Han writes:

Revolution and democracy are two terms. These two terms are completely different. A revolution gives no guarantee for democracy. We proved this already. History gave China an opportunity, and our current situation is the result of the choice of our forebears. Today, China is the least likely nation in the world to have a revolution. At the same time, China is the nation which needs reform the most in the world. If you insist on asking me about the best timing for revolution in China, I can only say that when Chinese car drivers know to turn off their high beam lights when they pass each other, we can safely proceed with the revolution.

Such a country does not need any revolution. When the civic quality [suzhi] and educational level of the citizens reach a certain standard, everything will happen naturally.

Later, in “On Democracy”, he writes:

The poorer the quality [suzhi] of the citizens, the lesser the importance of the intellectuals […] The quality [suzhi] of the citizens will not prevent democracy from arriving, but it can determine its [democracy’s] quality.

In “On Freedom”, the term suzhi does not appear at all.

It’s interesting that in his original essays, Han treats the “poor quality” of Chinese citizens as essentially a given, without offering a whole lot of evidence to back up that claim. Nor does he really support the assertion that a “poor quality” people make for a poor quality democracy.

Perhaps in response to challenges on this issue, after posting it, Han Han actually expanded on his second essay (“On Democracy”) in a paragraph that Soong didn’t translate, presumably because Han Han added it after Soong had already completed his translation and moved on ((that’s just a guess)). We can’t very well proceed without a translation of that section, though, so here you go:

Adding on an additional question, with regards to suzhi and democracy, people say to me: I’ve been to developed countries and beyond the appearance of suzhi on the surface, people’s natures are the same [as Chinese people’s], so only a good system can guarantee a high level of suzhi [for a country’s people].

I answer: I completely agree. But we’re talking about superficial suzhi. Don’t underestimate the importance of superficial suzhi just because the underlying nature of people is whatever it is. The quality of a democracy is determined by the superficial suzhi of its people. When someone turns off their high beams, it may appear that they’re courteous and respect social mores, but then in discussion with them [you may discover] they are weak, greedy, selfish, narrow-minded…so what about that? There’s no meaning in discussing suzhi and human nature together. Of course American and Chinese people have more or less the same essential natures, human nature is more or less the same the world over. So what we have here is a chicken-and-egg question: is it that first a nation’s people have a good suzhi and then comes the good system [of government], or does the system come first? There’s actually no doubt, at times when a good system can be made, it should be guaranteed to be made regardless of [the people’s] suzhi because a good [political] system is long-lasting, wide-spreading, and real, whereas suzhi is empty.

The problem is that during times when a good system can’t be created for whatever reasons, we can’t be waiting around for one to drop from the sky before we start working on anything else, otherwise even a good suzhi isn’t necessary [for democracy], it’s slow-moving and not necessarily effective. There are two ways that good systems and good democracy arise; one is where there is a day of commemoration ((i.e., democracy arrived swiftly and suddenly, likely after the overthrow of the previous system)) and the other is where there’s no specific day but it comes from the hard work of generations. I think we need to be a bit realistic, the reason the US Declaration of Independence, Constitution, and Amendments are as good as they are is that their political parties and people implemented them. Our [Chinese] Constitution is also good, and our ruling Party has declared some things that were as good as the Declaration of Independence, but most of them weren’t implemented. They [Chinese leaders] won’t look at these declarations and reflect on their shortcomings, the cost of revolution is too high and it’s too uncontrollable, reform is slow and [easy to] delay, it really seems like [we’re in] a tight knot. But I still choose to believe in reform. Violent or nonviolent revolution [as ideas] can only serve as a bargaining chip in supervising reform, it can’t actually be put into practice.

I think Han Han is right in distinguishing suzhi here from human nature because what we’re really talking about is civic/social consciousness and education. That said, I think Han Han — and other less eloquent purveyors of the suzhi argument — are completely wrong.

Since Han Han made the comparison with America’s democracy, and since I’m at least somewhat familiar with American history, let’s take a moment to do something I often try to avoid on this site: compare the US and China. Since we’re talking about the emergence of an operational democratic system, though, we’ll have to compare the China of today with the US of the 1700s.

Immediately, this raises a number of issues, and many of you are no doubt thinking of things like the three-fifths compromise and wondering why China would want that sort of democracy. It’s a fair point, but I’ll argue that slavery is actually an example of how low suzhi doesn’t prevent a real democracy from being implemented. And while admittedly that led to horrible abuses and finally a catastrophic civil war, the fact that the American system of government has lasted and remained firmly grounded ((Though less so in recent years)) by the principles laid out in its founding documents is, I think, evidence that a people’s low level of suzhi is not a disqualifier for a democracy, nor is it a particularly accurate indicator of how that democracy will turn out in the long run.

And it must be said that by nearly every measurable metric I can think of, Chinese people are light-years ahead of eighteenth-century Americans. For example:

  1. Education: It’s difficult to find reliable national statistics for the 1700s, but by all accounts, most Americans at that time weren’t attending much school. A 1773 survey of German immigrants to Pennsylvania, for example, found that only 33% of their children received any education in the two years prior. Education in New England was more widespread, but nowhere near current levels in terms of either implementation or quality. In contrast, according to China’s Ministry of Education, 99% of Chinese children attend primary school and 80% attend both primary and secondary school. Of course, there are significant concerns about the quality of that education, but I think very few people would choose an 18th century American education over a modern Chinese one, especially given that a large part (in many cases, all) of 18th century education in the US was religious education.
  2. Literacy: Literacy rates in colonial America were surprisingly high, apparently: between 70% and 100%, although those numbers come just from New England and the overall number would almost certainly be lower. China’s current literacy rate is about 92%, which, although not comparable to the 21st century US, certainly compares equally or even favorably with literacy rates in colonial and early independent America. Again, it’s also worth mentioning that most American education at the time was religious; people learned to read so that they could read the Bible, not to stay informed on current events.
  3. Social Conscience: This is admittedly an extremely subjective thing to try to assess, but it’s difficult for me to believe that any people could rate below colonial Americans, who by and large believed it was okay to enslave other people, even after it became clear that moral concerns aside, this issue was causing a tremendous rift that threatened to (and nearly did) completely destroy American society. Chinese drivers may leave their high beams on at night — though the fact that Han Han is so convinced this is a Chinese characteristic is only proof he hasn’t spent much time driving at night in America — but it’s hard to believe that betrays a level of social conscience lower than that of Americans who were, at the moment their democracy emerged, engaged in enslaving a race of people (not to mention stealing from and massacring another race of people).

Hindsight, of course, is 20-20, but I don’t think that many people in the 1700s would have been particularly optimistic about the nascent American democracy if they shared Han Han’s belief that its quality would be impacted by the suzhi of its people — a people that were by and large literate but poorly educated, preposterously religious, and dedicated to the belief that owning slaves was totally cool. Certainly, this picture of Americans at the turn of the 19th century makes the complaints most often levied against Chinese people’s suzhi — they spit in public, they can’t queue properly, they only care about watching TV — seem benign in comparison.

The history of other countries could likely provide counter-examples, but that’s not the point. I am not arguing that China could easily implement a democracy; rather, my point is just that the argument that China couldn’t implement democracy because its people still spit on the sidewalk or leave their high beams on at night is total horseshit.

That said, by way of epilogue, I’ll offer a few brief words on Han Han’s implication in his add-on paragraph that China is currently in a period when it’s not possible to implement democracy. He doesn’t really explain specifically why he believes that’s the case, but looking at American history again, there certainly would have been reasons to suggest the same thing about an independent America in the 1700s. The colonists, after all, wanted to challenge the most powerful military and economic power on earth. They ended up succeeding for reasons that might seem obvious in retrospect, but my guess is that many outside observers before the revolution began might have suggested that democracy was “impossible” for America at a time when England was so powerful militarily, especially since the economic losses they stood to suffer if they lost the colonies made it more or less a given that they would resist any efforts at independence quite…robustly.

I’m well aware that there are plenty of issues with any analogy involving the 18th century US and modern China. My point is simply that Han Han’s offhanded dismissal of the possibility of democracy in China perhaps deserves a bit more questioning than it has gotten.

Moreover, I hope we can all agree once and for all that the suzhi argument is a load of crap. If a bunch of uneducated slave-owning religious fundamentalists could take on the world’s greatest power and establish one of its longest-lasting (representative) democratic states, why is it so impossible that Chinese people could do the same thing?

(Whether or not they would is another question, perhaps for a future post. This one is already way, way too long.)