Category Archives: History

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.)

What Lu Xun can teach us about modern-day China

25 September 2011 was the 130th birth anniversary of Lu Xun (1881 – 1936), considered to be one of the founders of modern Chinese literature. Known for his plain criticisms of hypocrisy, dogmatism and irony appearing in China’s political life at his time, most famously coining the political lexicon Ah-Q-ism (meaning self-deception) from his novel The Real Story of Ah-Q, his status has been compared with that of England’s George Orwell. Han Han’s immensely popular blog posts, which are characterised by satire and a dark sense of humor about contemporary China, are sometimes compared with Lu Xun’s essays.

While contemporary Han Han pokes fun at the absurdity and falsehood of the Chinese system, which pleases many young readers, a lot of observations made by Lu Xun many decades ago are equally applicable to modern-day China. Pan Caifu, an editor, has recently conducted an “interview” with Lu Xun, published in Shanghai’s Dongfang Daily,  to mark his 130th birth anniversary and to highlight to readers what we can learn from Lu Xun’s works about today’s China. Many things have changed from Lu Xun’s China, but some have not, which makes Lu Xun’s works even more profound.

Google Doodle (China) on Lu Xun's 130th Birthday

Is China any better than it was 100 years ago? From Pan Caifu’s imaginary interview with Lu Xun, a few sections of which are translated below, with some references added to recent news, you may think that the answer is no.

The world is not getting any better

Pan Caifu: Today is your 130th birthday. After having been away for so long, what’s your feeling?
Lu Xun: I have never had such a long journey. I do not feel excited. But seeing that the market is as peaceful as it was, and China is still the China as before, the one I’ve lived in, I feel relived.

Pan Caifu: In some universities, statues of Confucius are erected. On both sides of the Strait, ceremonies in honor of Confucius are being played out. The revival of Confucius seems hopeful ((Daniel A. Bell, The Confucian Party, The New York Times, 11 May 2009)).
Lu Xun: I also hear that a guy called Jiang Qing self-proclaims himself to be the master of the Confucius religion. Confucius is being held up by power interests in China. He is the sage for the powerful; there is nothing to do with ordinary people. But the powerful would only be enthusiastic for a short while. Yuan Shikai, Sun Chaunfan and Zhang Zongchang have all treated Confucius as the building blocks in their nation-building schemes, only to end in failure. It is true that Confucius had raised useful proposals on national governance, but they are all directed towards controlling the citizens in the interests of the ruling class. He has no proposals solely for the benefits of the common people. — Confucius in Contemporary China, 1935

Pan Caifu: Korean traditional medicine is now universally recognized as a world cultural heritage ((Mirror of Eastern Medicine Becomes UNESCO Heritage, The Korea Times, 31 July 2009)). China also wants its traditional medicine to receive the same recognition. You have a comment which hurts Chinese traditional medical practitioners…
Lu Xun: I once said, “Chinese medicine is no more than a fraud, intentional or unintentional.” If this comment affects their bid, I apologize. If Chinese medicine makes it, then Qigong, the “Golden Bell” martial technique and acupuncture can all become world cultural heritage. — Preface to Call to Arms, 1923

Pan Caifu: When you were alive, there were already talks that you should receive the Nobel Prize for Literature. Many years have passed. Why are still local Chinese writers unable to get the prize?
Lu Xun: This is because we don’t know how to speak. What politicians dislike most is people opposing to their opinions, or people opening their month to fight for things. Look at the monkeys in the zoo. They have their own leader; they absolutely follow the leader’s lead. Every tribe has a chief; people in the tribe follow the chief’s orders. If the chief wants you to die, you have to die. There is no literature we can talk about. Even if there is, it is only about praising the God. You cannot expect to win the Nobel Prize by singing hymns. — Divergence between Arts and Politics, 1928

Pan Caifu: Hunan Satellite TV’s Super Girls and Happy Girlstalent shows are very popular. But there are orders that these shows be discontinued next year ((Lights out for TY program Super Girls, China Daily, 19 September 2011)).
Lu Xun: I have said it early on. Only a real voice can capture the hearts of people in China and around the world. Only with a real voice can we live with people from other parts of the planet. — Three Leisures: Collection of Essays, 1932

Pan Caifu: You are very critical of the feudal ethical codes, especially the concept of filial piety. But you are a filial son yourself. Today, are you still critical of these ethical codes?
Lu Xun: In reality, the old Chinese ideals of harmonious family and father-son relationships have already collapsed. It is not correct to say that the problem is “especially serious today”, but has “already been so in the past”. Historically, China has promoted “five generations under one roof”, and this just shows the difficulties of cohabitation. The lack of filial piety is shown by the desperate promotion of it. The crux of the problem is that we promote hypocritical moral codes instead of real human emotions. — What is Required of a Father Today, 1919

Pan Caifu: You used to frequently eat out at a restaurant. At the time, although food was not abundant, they were at least not harmful. Today, we have tainted milk powder ((Tainted-Baby-Milk Scandal in China, TIME Magazine, 16 September 2008)), poison pork ((China: Pigs Fed Illegal Additive, The New York Times, 18 March 2011)), rice ((Heavy metals tainting China’s rice bowls, Caixin Online, 14 February 2011)) and vegetables ((Toxic vegetables uncovered in south China, China Daily, 31 March 2010)). Can you tolerate that?
Lu Xun: People at the bottom also hurt each other. They can be sheeps or beasts. When they meet a beast more fierce than themselves, they will become sheeps. When they meet a sheep weaker than themselves, they will become beasts. — Bad Fortune: Collection of Essays, Sudden Thoughts – 7, 1926, in Lun Xun Collected Works, Vol. 3, p.46

Pan Caifu: This makes me think of some people who complain about social injustice, but point their knives to school kids ((China seaches for answers after school attacks, BBC, 30 April 2010)).
Lu Xun: When angry, the brave points the knife to the strong ones; the cowardly to the weak ones. Match a beast like a least, and a sheep like a sheep! Then, no matter what kind of devils, they can only go back to their hells. — Bad Fortune: Collection of Essays, Sudden Thoughts – 7, 1926, in Lun Xun Collected Works, Vol. 3, p.47

Pan Caifu: Some local governments have established private channels of clean food and vegetable supplies for officials ((In China, what you eat tells who you are, Los Angeles Times, 16 September 2011)).
Lu Xun: Luxury and extravagance are the phenomenon of social collapse and corruption. They are never the reasons. — Accents from South and NorthAbout Women, 1934, in Lun Xun Collected Works, Vol. 4, p.396

Pan Caifu: A while ago, a bullet train accident happened in China ((China: Dozens die as bullet trains collide in Zhejiang, BBC, 24 July 2011)). I’m sure you’ve heard of it. How do you see it?
Lu Xun: Chinese people are reluctant to face problems squarely. With evasion and fraud, they create a wonderful path of escape, thinking that it is the correct path to take. This path is evidence that the Chinese people are cowardly, lazy and tricky. Day by day, they are contented; day by day, they decay. But they think that they are becoming more and more glorious. — The TombOn Seeing it with Open Eyes, 1929, in Lun Xun Collected Works, Vol. 1, p.328

Pan Caifu: But at the beginning China announced that its rail technology is world-leading and patented. It even offered to assist other countries in developing their rail systems ((China Offers High-Speed Rail to California, The New York Times, 7 April 2010)).
Lu Xun: China is developing its “self-deception power”. Self-deception is not a new thing, but it is becoming more conspicuous, eclipsing other things. — The ConcessionHas China Lost its Confidence?, 1934, in Lun Xun Collected Works, Vol. 6, p.91

Pan Caifu: Some people even think that they are blessed.
Lu Xun: What’s most painful in life is that you wake up to find yourself in a blind alley. People who dream are happy; if there is no way out, the most important thing is not to wake them up. — The TombWhat Happens after Nora Leaves Home, 1929, in Lun Xun Collected Works, Vol. 1, p.270

Pan Caifu: You’ve been very nice towards young people, but you’ve also been trapped by them. Han Han, Guo Meimei ((Guo Meimei Red Cross Controversy Pissing Off Chinese Netizens, chinaSMACK, 29 June 2011)), Li Tianyi ((Son’s Scandal Engulfs Chinese General, China Real Time Report, The Wall Street Journal, 13 September 2011)) and Lu Meimei ((“Lu Meimei” and China-Africa Project Hope Controversy, chinaSMACK, 22 August 2011)) are all young people of today’s China. How do you think about them?
Lu Xun: Today’s youth, it seems, are smarter than before, and they also see material interests as more important. For some small gains, they can make false charges and bite you back. This is beyond my expectation…… — LettersTo Cao Juren, 1934, in Lun Xun Collected Works, Vol. 7, p.141

Pan Caifu: At last, what else do you want to say?
Lu Xun: There is too much pain in life, especially in China. — Bad Fortune: Collection of Essays, Teacher, 1926, in Lun Xun Collected Works, Vol. 3, p.44

Debating the Massacre

Modern China is a paradox. Economic prosperity coexists with political autocracy. As Jeffrey Wasserstrom has beautifully written in the Los Angeles Review of Books, Huxley’s Brave New World might be as good a guide or better to China as Orwell’s 1984. It is important to keep in mind that different modes of control are in place in China. It is easy to imagine China as the kind of ‘Big Brother’ state that Orwell imagined, with ubiquitous surveillance and harsh crackdown on political dissidents. But less obvious is how ‘vulgar materialism’ imagined by Huxley could serve as a kind of control.

Perhaps Chen Guanzhong’s science fiction The Fat Years: China, 2013 best explains it. There are obvious parallels between Chen’s novel and 1984. But the hidden message of the novel is that Chinese people ultimately opt for a Brave New World at the expense of living in 1984. In the novel, He Dongsheng, a Politburo member, confesses that there was a period of chaos between the start of global economic meltdown and the advent of China’s prosperous era. For a week, the Central Government takes little action to suppress the public disquiet, panic buying and looting, and China was on the brink of falling into anarchy.

In He Dongsheng’s words, it is a deliberate attempt by the government to instil fear among the people, a fear that the government would abandon them. As Thomas Hobbes wrote in the Leviathan, isolation, impoverishment and violence was the state of nature of human beings. Insecurity was the ultimate fear. In a country as big as China, people fear anarchy and chaos. Instead of pursuing freedom, people would bow in front of the unpleasant Leviathan, because only through it can the security and life of people be guaranteed.

As the novel’s plot unfolds, the Central Government enacts a nation-wide dramatic crackdown on alleged criminals over the next few weeks, with absolute state violence which kills the guilty and innocent alike. Paradoxically, the public welcomes the crackdown. After the crackdown, the government announces that China has officially entered the prosperous age. Everyone in China is happy and complacent, with the party’s rule ever more secure.

It is with this background that two recent opinion pieces in BBC Chinese are illuminating. One of them argues why the massacre in Tiananmen Square 22 years ago was necessary to avoid chaos, which was strongly rebutted by the other piece. One is a path down Brave New World, the other anti-1984. Chinese people know that they live in a politically repressed regime, but this regime has brought a lot of material benefits to most people. And people are inherently shortsighted, because they are wired to enjoy pleasures and convenience at present, not freedom and democracy in some distant future. As experience in other democratized countries show, the transition to democracy is never a smooth path, and sometimes accidental. The fear, then, is that the Chinese Communist Party could ultimately entrench its rule in a 1984-style Brave New World.

By the time, the June 4 massacre would have been forgotten in China, and the answer to the debate, translated below, would have seemed too obvious.

1. The massacre was necessary to prevent chaos

ZLR: The June 4 massacre helped China avoid turmoil. As everyone knows, Russia does not have a democratic tradition. It is only through Peter the Great’s blood and iron policy and Stalin’s authoritarian rule that Russia became a global superpower. The ‘new thinking’ of Gorbachev and Yeltsin converted Russia into a second rate power. Putin the ‘new tsar’ brings back the superpower dream to Russia. Obviously, Russia has paid a heavy price in its recent history. In a similar way, China does not have a democratic tradition. Under the absolute power of the Kingly Way, China had a glorious history and stood out among the nations of the East. In China’s history, there also emerged a wave of democratic and liberal thinking. Luckily, Deng Xiaoping decisively upheld the banner of ‘stability over everything’ and suppressed this liberal wave through blood and iron tactics. It is the June 4 massacre which helped China avoid further turmoil.

拓腾斋主人: From the conclusion, it can be seen that the author is not familiar with Russian history. True, Russia became stronger under Peter the Great. But his concentration of power led to the concentration of wealth among dictators and grievances among the people.

On the eve of the October Revolution, Pyotr Stolypin ruled with an iron fist to defend the Tsar and brutally suppressed liberalism and socialism. The nation’s economic resources were plundered by a group of oligarchs through predatory policy and land reform. At the time, the Russian economy grew rapidly (isn’t this familiar in today’s China?), but reforms enacted by the dictators were highly unfair. As the private interests of most people were hurt, social dissatisfaction rose, leading to the October Revolution and the overthrow of the Tsar. You said dictatorship was good for Russia. But why did the rule of the Tsar collapse?

Under Stalin’s iron fist rule, many people, including Communist Party members, were persecuted and massacred. Stalin’s Russia was indeed a superpower on a par with the US. But after his death, malpractices and problems not obvious under his rule surfaced. Bureaucratic planning led to a brittle economy. Tanks and warships were more numerous than bread and biscuits. The common people endured a harsh life.

By this time, institutional reform in Russia was inevitable, even with or without Gorbachev. The downfall of Russia was not due to Gorbachev’s reforms, but the accumulation of abuses since the Stalin era. As for Putin, you can say he ruled with an iron fist, but he was ‘democratically elected’. Only with over ten years of democratic rule since Yeltsin could Russia hope for a renaissance.

2. A stable China benefits the world

ZLR: The June 4 massacre sent a message to the world: China is a responsible country. Uncontrolled liberalization will only lead to chaos, and it will be a disaster for the world. As Deng Xiaoping said: ‘If it is chaotic to the extent that the Party and national administration cannot function, power over the army will be seized by different parties, leading to civil war. Civil war will lead to massive loss of lives, a break-up of China, decline of productivity, destruction of transportation, and millions of refugees. This will affect the Asia Pacific, the most economically vibrant region of the world. It’s a global disaster. Hence, China cannot afford chaos. It’s about being responsible to China and the world.’ (Selected Works of Deng Xiaoping, Volume 3, pp.360-361) Today, China is appraised for combating the global financial crisis and contributing to global economic growth. US Treasury Secretary Tim Geithner admitted in his Peking University speech that rapid and stable growth in China brings concrete benefits to the US and the world. In this context, the whole world benefits from the June 4 massacre.

拓腾斋主人: The aims of the student demonstrations 22 years ago were to commemorate Hu Yaobang and oppose corruption and official profiteering. It was an expression of the wish that China could be strong and its government clean. Expressions of opinion like this, involving tens of thousands of people, are very common in Taiwan, Europe and America. In the West, governments would at most dispatch police to maintain order. But in China, the government acts as if it faces a deadly enemy. The government threatens the public with the argument that chaos could lead to civil war in China, and uses the army to crush demonstrations. According to the author’s logic, challenging the Party’s authority is messing up with China. In the first half of the 20th century, the Chinese Communist Party organized countless demonstrations, protests and even militarized struggles to challenge the Nationalist Party. At the time, who is messing up with China? Who is pushing China to the brink of civil war?

3. China is different from the West

ZLR: The June 4 massacre proved to the world that there is no universal principle. Although God has created diverse species, there is no one species which can adapt to any environment […] Mao Zedong and Deng Xiaoping cannot use their talents to rule in Western countries; Washington and Churchill would neither be great rulers in the East. Beef and bread is the main course of the West; in China it is sesame bread. ‘Dad beating up the son’ will be viewed as violation of human rights in the West; in China it is a show of affection. Democracy can only bear fruits in the West; in China rulers have to rely on authoritarianism. If the June 4 massacre occurred in the West, the government will surely topple, society becomes chaotic and development stopped. But in China, it strengthens the rule of the Party, society becomes stable and development accelerated.

拓腾斋主人: I cannot but ask a question: in China’s five thousand years of history, was a universal, democratic system ever being implemented? (I emphasized universal because democracy is not a privilege of the West. Japan, South Korea and Indonesia are all democracies.) Practice is the sole criteria of testing the truth. If democracy has never been implemented, on what basis can we say that it is not suitable for China? Since the Opium War, when shoots of democracy were emerging, dictators would mask their fear with the sophistry that democracy is not suitable for China.

Empress Dowager Cixi of the late Qing dynasty said that reform was not suitable for China. Then, the ‘Six Gentlemen Martyrs’ were executed. Yuan Shikai said that Chinese people still did not have the wisdom to practise democracy. Then, he became the emperor. The ‘anti-revolutionary’ Nationalist Party said that democracy was impossible in China. At that time, the ‘progressive’ Communist Party said: ‘They say that democracy is foreign and cannot be applied in China… Democracy is better than non-democracy. This is like mechanized production is better than manual labor, whether in or out of China… Some say even if China needs democracy, it has to be different, and Chinese people should not be granted freedom. This is ridiculous. It’s like saying that the West should use the Christian calendar, and China should use the lunar calendar.’ (Xinhua Daily, 17 May 1944) 70 years ago, the Communist Party told everyone that democracy is universal. How come in the 70 years that follows, democracy was never being practised, but the Communist Party switched to the side of Empress Dowager Cixi and Yuan Shikai!

4. Obstruction to stability needs to be dealt with severely

ZLR: The June 4 massacre opened a new chapter in the dictatorship of the proletariat. ‘Who is our enemy? Who is our friend? This is the most important question of the revolution.’ (Selected Works of Mao Zedong, 1-4 one-volume edition, p.3) The ‘three big mountains’ were the people’s enemies of yesterday. Today obstruction to stability is the people’s enemy. Today our interests lie in the building of infrastructure. Whoever obstructs the progress of development and stability will be the people’s enemy, no matter what slogans he shouts out. There is no choice and compromise; they need to be dealt with. How to deal with them? Dictatorship. ‘Antagonizing class is the tool of oppression and violence, never anything “benevolent”.’ (ibid. p.1365) The sound of gunfire is the highest form of dictatorship. The June 4 massacre signals a message: ‘If there is need, we will use severe measures to eliminate any chaos which appear.’ (ibid p.349) Bullets are used to kill. Gunfire under the dictatorship of the proletariat is the enemy of obstructers of stability. For those who die, the question of reversing the verdict does not exist.

拓腾斋主人: The author’s logic is not clear. Stability is indeed a pre-requisite for a strong nation. But factors which lead to instability are many. One of them is dictatorship leading to grievances among the people. In such a situation, it would only lead to further instability if the government does not think about what it does wrong, but suppresses expressions of opinion and justice under the banner of ‘stability preservation’.

Looking back in Chinese history, many regimes depended on suppression to maintain stability: the Qin dynasty suppressed the rebellion of Chen Sheng and Wu Guang. But it did not think about reforms, which led to its overthrow by Liu Bang and Xiang Yu. The Tang dynasty was not alarmed by the Huang Chao Rebellion, and it was finally divided up by military governors. The Qing dynasty suppressed the Taiping Rebellion and stopped the Hundred Days’ Reform, only to be overthrown later in the Xinhua Revolution. History teaches us that regimes using the excuse of stability preservation to crack down on dissidents will not last long.

5. Don’t be afraid of foreign criticisms

ZLR: ‘We are dictators. Dear Sir, you are right. We are dictators.’ (ibid. p.1364) ‘Don’t be afraid of foreign criticisms. Their criticisms are all the same – we are uncivilized. Over the years, we endured much of these. But did we collapse?’ (Selected Works of Deng Xiaoping, Volume 3, p.286) We must learn from our two forbearers, Mao and Deng, who showed unusual contempt for the world, were fearless and unmatched then and now. Cheers for the June 4 massacre!

拓腾斋主人: Mao Zedong have said a lot of things in his lifetime. I would not argue with the author, and would just quote Mao’s conversation in 1944 with John Service, an American official in China: ‘There is no democracy unless we end dictatorship by one party. Our experience proves that Chinese people understand and need democracy. They don’t need to be taught and guided. Chinese farmers are smart. They care about their rights and interests.’ ‘Every American soldier in China is a living advertisement of democracy… We are not afraid of American influence through democracy. We welcome it.’ (Party History Communications, Vol. 20-21, 1983, compiled by Party History Research Center) These are in Mao Zedong’s own words. He knew clearly when to say the right thing. He needed to, because his power was at stake.

“History’s Conclusion: Western Style Democracy is Not for China”

The following is an article from Huanqiu Lianwang by Song Luzheng.


Translated by Tom Martyn

Both Marxism and Western style democracy arrived in China from the West, with the latter arriving first. Not only did democratic theory attract the interest of Chinese political elites, but democracy was attempted on two occasions. One was the constitutional monarchy-orientated 100 Days Reform movement and the reforms of the late Qing dynasty. The other was the American style ‘Constitution of Five Powers’ during Nationalist rule. Marxism only really influenced China after the October Revolution in Russia in 1917. However, it was Marxism that gradually emerged victorious amongst the various political movements, including Western style democracy, leading China to a new period. It was Marxism that culminated in the attainment of the long strived for goal of Chinese people of independence and national unity.

Both ideas came from the West, yet one led China to glory, and the other failed despite having first bite of the cherry. Looking back through history, the underlying reasons for this still have a very strong practical significance.

One explanation has been popular recently. It goes that during the 1930s and 40s, the West suffered from economic crises and war, which was in contrast to the successes experienced by the Soviet Union. Add in the necessity of saving the nation, this led Chinese history to choose Marxism. External reasons are indeed important, but they are not defining. The correct explanation comes from an examination of Marxism and China itself.

We know that Marxism is made up of two parts, basic theory and revolutionary strategy. Basic theory includes historical materialism and surplus value. Revolutionary theory includes class struggle and violent revolution. In the opinion of noted philosopher Li Zehou, historical materialism is central. This means that production methods, productivity and science and technology are the foundation of the continuation and development of society. This is a pre-condition of understanding why Marxism succeeded in China.

Before Marxism arrived in China, the theory of evolution had already been accepted by Chinese intellectuals. This is partly connected to the traditional practical and rational Confucian ideal of ‘productive learning’, or ‘learning to benefit the country’. The idea that humans developed from apes was especially able to be accepted by China, as it is not traditionally a religious country, in contrast to Western nations. Intellectuals including Lu Xun, Li Dazhao and Chen Duxiu first accepted evolutionary theory, then became believers of Marx.

There are four main reasons why evolutionary theory was replaced by Marxism. One, historical materialism more specifically explains human history, and is not a simplistic ‘survival of the fittest’ and species evolution theory. Marxism has a greater rational persuasiveness. This emphasis on history matches closely with China, which itself emphasises history and has a rich historical sentiment.

Two, China has a long and strong Utopian tradition. The Confucian ideal of a stable universe, the Taiping Heavenly Kingdom of Hong Xiuquan, Qing reformer Kang Youwei’s utopian treatise ‘Book of Great Unity’, and Sun Yatsen’s ‘all under heaven are equal’ concept are progressions of and from each other. Other schools of thought that have influenced Chinese society, such as Taoism, the Mohists and Buddhism, also have Utopian ideals. The Marxist depiction of the future is thus closely aligned with this Chinese tradition.

The third point relates to the moralism present in Chinese traditions and political culture. One of the key values of Marxism is criticism of capitalists, repudiation of exploitation, and sympathy for the proletariat and working class, i.e., it has a strong moral component.

Fourth and finally, Marxism has a strong emphasis on practical application, particularly class conflict and violent revolution. This was suitable to the requirements of the desperate situation China was in at the time.

Thus, the intrinsic reasons the Chinese intellectuals accepted Marxism are the identification and superposition of Marxism with Chinese traditional thinking, sentimental leanings and psychological structure. This in turn led to the swift ‘Sinofication’ of Marxism, i.e., it brought about the rise of Mao Zedong Thought, it united the disparate and individualistic Chinese people and gave rise to a huge revolution in society. The significance of this revolution in Chinese history is particularly special, in that it led to equality in society following the eradication of landlords and the capitalist classes, the improvement of the position of women in society, and land reforms. This energy or potential was evident at the foundation of the PRC. Even though the country was in a mess with much work requiring to be done, China was still able to match up to the most powerful country of the time, America. This changed the 100 year old weak and stagnant international image of China.

In contrast, Western style democracy went from being advocated early on but eventually discarded. It is the ‘practicalness’ of China that accounts for why Western democracy was accepted during the late Qing and Republican era. The systems used by the big powers of Britain, United States and France, as well as the Western system used in Japan, caused people all over the country to believe that only constitutionalism or republicanism could save China. However, the reason for its success was also the reason for its failure. During the Republican era, once these constitutional systems came under the influence of former Qing officials and later warlords like Yuan Shikai and Cao Kun, the ever-practical Chinese intellectuals quickly lost faith in such systems.

There are many reasons why Western democracy failed in China. One is the strictness of conditions required for Western democracy. To implement parliamentary democracy, a census needs to be conducted to determine the size of each province. However, the first census was conducted in 1953, after the establishment of the PRC. During the elections carried out during the late Qing and Republican era, numbers were only estimated, thus there was an innate inadequacy present.

Additionally, democracy requires the establishment of political parties. This runs counter to the Chinese political tradition of eschewing ‘group’ formations. More importantly, a system of competition between parties is not at all suited to China. Chinese traditional political thought holds that if power is held clearly in one place, then society will be stable and in a position to develop. Once the location of power becomes unclear, it will promote factionalism, infighting, open up power struggles and cause chaos. The only thing that competition between political parties brought to China was the assassination of Song Jiaoren, the failed Second Revolution of Sun Yatsen, and warlordism

A lack of moralism is another area where Western democracy is at odds with Chinese traditions. As early reformer Zhang Binglin said, ‘the dynasty changed, but the corrupt officials bandied together’. During the Republican era, bureaucrats and opportunists from the previous administration all remained in their old positions, and there was no shortage of degenerate and morally reprehensible tyrants able to enter Parliament. Zhang Binglin opposed them as enemies of the people. It was democracy of the monied classes and local tyrants. As far as the Chinese people were concerned, it was just yet another group of oppressors. This was the situation in China at the time. A democracy lacking in morals is naturally unable to compete with the collectivism, unity, selflessness, and probity of Marxism.

In conclusion, there are two main reasons for the failure of Western style democracy in China. Western style democracy deviates from Chinese humanist traditions, and it is unable to solve China’s actual problems. In turn, these are also the reasons for the success of Marxism. Without a sufficient societal, economic and thought base, any reform is destined to meet with failure. For a period after 1949, China went through a period that emphasized ideology and subjective initiative. This represented a departure from Marxism. However, since the beginning of Reform and Opening, Deng Xiaoping’s advocacy of ‘science as primary production strength’ is a return to Marxism. The success of China in the last 30 years cannot be explained or expressed by any Western theories. As American historical scientist and scientific philosopher Thomas Kuhn said, it is impossible to use words from an old concept to understand a new concept. China is creating a new path for the development of human society.

Chinese Overseas Students, Then and Now

The first Chinese overseas student is Rong Hong, who went to the US to study in 1847, first at Monson Academy, then at Yale. Since then, more Chinese gradually studied abroad, with the first surge appearing at the turn of the 20th century. Back then, China was in a difficult transition period from the late Qing Dynasty to the republican period, marked by foreign humiliation and domestic suffering. But it was also an age of awakening. Hundreds and thousands of Chinese students went to advanced countries like Great Britain, Germany, France, America and Japan to study all sorts of matters. They brought back visions of modernity, which included not only Western technical knowledge, but also society, politics, laws and culture, bestowing great hopes on the modernization of China. They acted like a bridge which connected China to the outside world, and made important contributions in arousing Chinese people’s wake to overthrow the corrupt Qing Dynasty, establish a republic, abolish obsolete traditions, and modernize and strengthen China.

Today, it is fashionable to talk of China as the next superpower. With the shift of power from the West to the East, the special position of Chinese overseas students has also eroded. Perhaps they are no longer needed as saviours of China. They might even need to rely on China’s glories. But beyond China’s economic rise lies authoritarian politics, rampant corruption and mounting social problems. However, the current generation of Chinese overseas students see little interests in making things better. In a few recent articles, Beijing writer and FT Chinese columnist Xu Zhiyuan, and prominent Hong Kong writer Tao Kit, have portrayed them as a confined community, predominately interested in enhancing their personal careers while showing little interests in Western ideas and cultures. In other words, they fail to act as agents of change in China, quite unlike their predecessors.

A confined community

Drawing on his exchange experience at Cambridge University during 2009-2010, Xu Zhiyuan described in FT Chinese how Chinese students in Cambridge live in their own confined world, showing little interests in things around them:

The largest overseas student community in Cambridge is Chinese. Counting in the sixth formers and visiting scholars, it includes nearly 1,500 people. They are numerous and everywhere, but are invisible in Cambridge’s public life. In Varsity, the largest student-run paper in Cambridge, I seldom see their news. I am not familiar with the overly-rich student activity scene, but I rarely see a Chinese face, whether in the theatre showing the tragic life of Alan Turing, in bookshops, or in the cinema screening the great famine of Ukraine. It is also apparent that Chinese students here are not interested in making their voices heard, even when the world media is hotly debating about China.

These Chinese youth live in a new kind of confined life. New technologies and open information have liberated but also destroyed them. Armed with Skype, emails, MSN, Facebook and Youtube, they live a tribal life. Even though they are in Cambridge, they will not miss any popular TV series in China, or the latest film If You Are The One. For them, Britain is just a temporary background. They neither have the ability nor the interests to express their views on Britain or the world. Meanwhile, the rise of China affects them in another way. They no longer view themselves as a progressive force which will improve China. Conversely, they strive to integrate themselves into the current Chinese order. The internal logic of the rise of China has also forced its way into their lives. Three decades of successful commercialism and consumerism is accompanied by political stagnation and incompetence, and a noisy and coarse culture.

Narrow visions

In addition to a lack of interests in the world outside, Tao Kit also pointed out in Hong Kong’s Next Magazine the narrow visions of Chinese overseas students, who are only interested in pragmatic subjects like engineering, finance and commerce, rather than the arts and humanities:

The scope of subjects studied is narrower. Late Qing scholar Shen Jiaben studied law in Britain. He returned to China and tried to reform the legal system based on the British model. At least, he abolished many inhumane corporal punishments. Zhu Guangqian of the republican era went all the way to Edinburgh to study aesthetics, and became a great master after returning to China. While Jeme Tien Yow studied engineering in America, Sun Yat-sen read medicine in Britain, and Liang Ssu-ch’eng studied architecture in the US, at least, there were those who chose to study law and aesthetics in order to enlighten the minds of Chinese.

Today, business administration, finance and technologies are the hottest choices among Chinese overseas students. Who would choose to read Latin or arts history? […] A century ago, Chinese decided to study overseas so that they can contribute to the nation, akin to the spirit of Fukuzawa Yukichi [one of the founders of modern Japan]. Today, Chinese overseas students only care about finding a good job, while the Chinese Communist Party only believes in GDP. […] How can Westerners not view them merely as a group of consumers?

The US public believes that young Chinese students are particularly good at maths. This is a prejudice brought about by the bias in subject selections. Westerners only know that the Chinese are good at engineering and sciences, but not arts and humanities. This is just like how Hollywood views Chinese movies – it is Chinese kungfu rather than romance that is recognized. This is because Western audiences don’t believe that Chinese can be romantic.

Blurred identities

Overseas Chinese students are well placed to bridge the ideological divides between China and the West, and lead social progress in China. But, unlike their counterparts a century ago, they have failed to do so. In another article on FT Chinese, Xu Zhiyuan explained why, and set out the political implications:

When Hu Shih returned to China in 1917, he said to his friend who welcomed him in Shanghai, ‘now that we are back, everything will be different.’ He was referencing Erasmus Darwin’s famous sentence. This was the confidence of Chinese overseas student at its height. They acted as a bridge between Eastern and Western civilizations, shouldering the responsibility to introduce new ideas, technologies and organizations into the Chinese society. In one of his later articles, Hu Shih wrote, ‘we always carry with us new insights and a critical spirit. They could not be found in a race so indifferent and used to the existing order, but are absolutely essential for any reform movements.

Those ‘new insights’ and ‘critical spirit’ often enjoy bad luck. They are swamped by the inertia of Chinese people. Their ambitions, anxiety and constraints are exactly the characters of China itself. But no one can deny their importance. In between the enormous gaps between China and the West in terms of power, wealth and knowledge, they act like transmission belts. However, the tragedy lies here – they are just that. Facing external pressures and internal weaknesses, they never develop their self-determination and value. Their roles are functional – they can build railways, chemical factories or new buildings. But their influence is only limited to the surface of the Chinese society. They are too eager to be useful. They may be noble hearted, aspiring to save the motherland; they may also be calculating, seeking personal successes.

20th century China was just like the Soviet Union criticized by Andrei Sakharov: ‘our society must gradually find its way out from the dead end of non-spirituality. This non-spirituality is killing the possibility of development, not only spiritual, but also material.’

Generations after generations of Chinese overseas students rushed in to join the rank. They helped new China to acquire missiles and hydrogen and atomic bombs, and were recognized as national heroes. But how many of them have followed the line of Andrei Sakharov to question the meaning and value of these actions, and their relationship with the profound suffering of this race? The ability and knowledge they learned from the West turn out to be tools of oppression and illusion directed toward their fellow countrymen.

The Egg and the Wall

Japanese author Haruki Murakami said in his acceptance speech for the Jerusalem Prize in 2009, ‘Between a high, solid wall and an egg that breaks against it, I will always stand on the side of the egg.’ Under the context of China’s numerous social problems, such as forced demolitions, petitions, corruptions, injustices and suppressed freedom, Murakami’s logic is one which easily finds its way in public discourse and forces everyone into this mindless choice: you are either ‘for’ the people, that is progressive, liberal, grassroots, the ‘egg’ which breaks against the stone wall, or ‘not for’ the people – that is the conservative, the rich and powerful, the ‘high, solid wall.’ An example of this mindset is the popular saying by an urban planning department vice director from Henan province in 2009, ‘Are you prepared to speak for the Party?  Or are you prepared to speak for the common folks?’, a reply made in response to a reporter investigating how come a real estate developer, having permission to build economic housing only, erected 12 villas and two mid-rise buildings instead on the piece of land concerned.

‘I speak for myself’

Huang Jiping, an economics professor at Peking University and formerly an economist at Citibank, recently mounted a defense against accusations that he is a speaker for the government and the powerful. He is of the view that this mindless stereotyping is harmful to any serious, rational discussions about public policy in China. Excerpted from his Caixin Magazine blog:

I used to work for Citigroup in the past. Those who criticize me did not point out errors in my opinions, but directly accuse me of being a speaker for foreign capitals. Now that I am in Peking University, I should be more neutral, right? Those who criticize me say now that I am receiving state’s money, I am a writer for the government. I need to clarify that part of my salary does come from the state education bureau. But isn’t it too far-fetched to say that I am a government speaker just because of this?

It’s indeed a low input, high productivity strategy to stand on the moral high ground and blame all those who hold a different opinion from you. The problem with this strategy is that people with differing opinions can no longer engage in rational discussions. The truth is no longer important. The result is that opinion leaders will increasingly cater for the sentiment of the public.

I once joked that it is very easy to become an enemy of the Chinese public or the netizens’ community. To be drowned by the spits of netizens, you only need to write an article predicting that housing price will still continue to rise. Conversely, those who predict a housing market collapse will be popular. Emotionally, those looking to buy a house will want the market to drop a bit. But the fact is that no one is questioning experts who predict a collapse of housing prices, when the market rises year after year. We can hence see that apart from emotional factors, economic theories are also very important.

He finally concludes for whom he is speaking:

My job is to analyse China’s economic problems based on my interpretations. If you need to ask who I am speaking for, I can only say that as a scholar, I speak for myself. I truly hope that people having a different opinion can debate with me on the problems, instead of saying that I speak for foreign capitals or the government. If you are still not satisfied, then you can say that Peking University professors are of mediocre quality. But you just want to frame me instead of discussing concrete viewpoints.

The reverse food chain of the media

Wang Shuo, chief editor of the Caixin website, was sympathetic of Huang Jiping’s experience. Voices from the grassroots are becoming increasingly common in the Chinese media, but it is also true that market reform without a check-and-balance mechanism has polarized public opinion into various groups, based on how much they support the regime, how much they gain or benefit, or whether they are winners or losers. Wang describes how this brings about a cynical atmosphere in the society, which in turn leads to the strange ecology of the media:

In contrast to the ecological food chain logic of the survival of the strongest, the media food chain logic is the survival of the weakest. Viewed in isolation, the media is not considered to have credibility, but not if it criticizes professors. Professors are not considered to have authority, but not if they criticize school leaders. And who will believe school leaders? But they too will gain credibility if they criticize officials from the education bureau. Education bureau officials have few targets to choose from, but they still can go for officials from the National Development and Reform Commission (NDRC).

Yes, NDRC officials lie almost at the bottom of the media food chain. The public opinion will definitely choose to side with the egg but not the stone. The contents of discussions do not affect the existence of this food chain. But even NDRC officials lie almost at the bottom, they still have targets to go after. They are the traitors of the country, especially those who are close to Japan. Traitors are absolutely at the bottom of the food chain.

A return to rationality

The polarization of public opinion can be linked to the political culture of China. In every society, it is normal for opinion to be divided into left, center or right. But in China, there seems to be a tendency for things to evolve into extremities: you are either the rich and powerful, or the poor and powerless. Wu Jinglian, Senior Research Fellow for the Developmental Research Centre of the State Council, recently points out in an article at the magazine China Reform how this polarization can pull China back into its historical cycle:

The cronies in the far right are not only hurting the interests of the weakest groups, but also those of the middle classes (professionals, entrepreneurs, etc) which do not have political powers. Nevertheless, ‘extreme leftism is a punishment to extreme rightism.’ Under this situation, leftist forces are utilizing public dissatisfactions about authoritarian capitalists to advocate for a return to Mao’s tactics like the Cultural Revolution and People’s Dictatorship. This is apparent from signs of violence linguistically as well as physically, and is a dangerous trend.

Some people think that China has been like that for thousands of years. As an entrepreneur said, two extremities of violence have dominated the political culture of China: one is the tyrant, the other is the mob. They take power in turns. When the tyrant’s rule is too much to bear, the obedient mass can turn into violent revolutionaries, and replace the tyrant ruler. When the mob has ruled for sometime, it too will decay into tyranny. Therefore, we have this cycle of ‘tyranny – revolution – new tyranny’ in Chinese history. The history of ‘ousting the emperor and become the emperor yourself’ has been repeated in China for thousands of years.

Nevertheless, Wu shows optimism in the article by pointing out that China’s social transformation is leading to the emergence of a middle class composed mostly of professionals and white-collars. They are an important component in China’s modernizing society. And even though they are demanding improvements, they basically approve of the current social order and do not wish to completely overthrow it. China’s prospects of escaping from its historical cycle lies in this group which represents not only stability but also gradual improvements.

As Wu points out, this group is still small in numbers, and their sense of civil values and responsibilities is weak. And at this time of great social transformation accompanied by injustices, it is easy for public opinion to fall into the trap of choosing between ‘egg’ and ‘stone wall’, or ‘left’ and ‘right’. What China needs is not populism and violence, but common sense and rationality, as Xu Youyu, Chinese philosopher and public intellectual, commented in an interview with Southern Weekend back in 2009:

Some people hold the same viewpoints as the New Left in the West, but many of their viewpoints expressed in rights defense cases are also approved by neo-liberals. I think it a good phenomenon that in the New Left community, there emerges a group which whole-heartedly defend their leftist stance, but at the same time make concrete contributions in public affairs. I admire their sincerity. This also illustrates that we can abandon the debate between left and right, and return to basic conscience and responsibility. In fact, things are not as complicated as we think, and we should do what we ought to. Moral consciousness can help most of us to make the choice. This is not the result of so-called reaching a consensus, but just a show of sincerity in us all.

The 9.18 Protest: a Show of Force

Much like Tom Lasseter, I had never been to a protest in China before yesterday. Unlike him, though, I’m not a professional reporter, and I got to the scene late, so I was mostly confined to the outskirts with the Chinese media, some expelled protesters, and a few curious onlookers.

I happened to have a camera, and created this video. Nothing about it is particularly good from a videography point of view–virtually everything that could go wrong did at every stage of its production–and to top it all off I got the date wrong. Not the most auspicious start to our plans for adding video content to this site. But I’m going to post it anyway, because I think there are aspects of it you will find interesting.

(Here is a direct link to the video on Youtube. If you live in China, you will need a VPN or some kind of proxy to see it.)

It was especially idiotic of me to get the date wrong, considering that it wasn’t exactly an accident the protesters chose September 18th.

But, as Mr. Lasseter said, it wasn’t much of a protest. It was rainy, there weren’t many people there, and I don’t think Japan is going to leave the Diaoyu Islands or return the Chinese captain just because somebody baked a cake.

Han Han recently wrote a blog post on the subject that was quickly deleted in which he expresses his thoughts on the protest:

People without their own land fighting for someone else’s land; people who aren’t respected demanding that someone else should be respected…how much per kilogram do people like that cost?

But anyway, protesting [something like this] is safe, fun, and makes you look cool. The key is that after the protest is over, you can still work and study as usual, in fact it might even look good on your resume.


Anyway, none of that is important, what’s important is that if I was allowed to protest for Tang Fuzhen and Xie Chaoping today, I would gladly protest for the Diaoyu Islands or the Olympic Torch tomorrow. But it’s a paradox, because in a time when you could protest for Tang Fuzhen and Xie Chaoping, you wouldn’t have problems like the Diaoyu Islands or [people trying to snuff out] the Olympic Torch to protest about. Protests of external issues are meaningless to a people who can’t protest peacefully about domestic ones, it’s all just an act.

What was impressive was the show of control put on by the police, especially given that the protesters were there in support of the official government line. By the time we got there in the afternoon, police had cordoned off at least a one-block radius in every direction around the Japanese embassy. The streets to the north and east of the embassy, outside of the police tape, were lined with PSB officers, one standing every five feet or so for several blocks. There were easily a hundred of them, and obviously many more inside the police tape.

At the northern entrance to the cordoned-off area on Ritan Road, People’s Armed Police officers in green camouflage guarded the area, but most of the other police there were regular PSB officers, milling about and sometimes photographing or filming the crowds outside their lines. Police vehicles were entering and exiting the scene regularly.

By the time we got to the Western approach to the embassy, where a small crowd had gathered on the intersection of Xiushui St. and Xiushui North St., there were reportedly no protesters left inside the cordoned off area, just some Western reporters and a whole lot of police. It was a show of force, a demonstration of control.

The reporter you can hear in the video above was not the only one complaining bitterly about how the Chinese media wasn’t allowed in. After our camera was turned off, another reporter came up and asked how to get in. “Good luck,” the first reporter said, “they’re not letting anyone Chinese in.” “I’m from Taiwan,” the second reporter said, but he, too, stayed outside the lines. A team from another domestic media outlet circled the scene with us (coincidentally), filming down each street towards where the protesters had been, but were never allowed to pass through police lines.

As I spoke to the protester you hear in the video, one of his friends circled us, photographing me repeatedly. I have no idea why, but it underscored the mood amongst the crowd at the Western entrance — angry, suspicious, and mostly all armed with cameras.

The police, on the other hand, were calm. They directed people around the blocked off area, they stared, and they waited. After all, there were so many of them that nothing was going to happen. And there’s only so long one can spend filming police cars before it’s on to the next story.