Tiananmen Square 25 years later

This week witnessed the 25th anniversary of the death of former CCP General Secretary Hu Yaobang, an event that ignited student demonstrations throughout China, but most famously in Beijing — we all know the story. It was only two days after his death that the students began flooding into Tiananmen Square.

It is a futile exercise to look at the life of Hu Yaobang and ask, “What if…?” But it’s hard not to wonder. What if he had not been demoted in 1987 and if his program for political and economic reforms were put further into place? A touching interview with his son, Hu Dehua, looks at the opportunities China lost with Hu’s demotion. I enjoyed the part recounting how Hu spoke out against slavish devotion to Mao Zedong.

Twenty-five years after his death, Hu is still best remembered by many for his liberal boldness in freeing China from the strictures of Maoist dogma.

Hu Dehua said one of the most memorable exchanges he had with his father came at the height of the Cultural Revolution in 1968. The senior Hu asked his teenage son whether he thought the popular slogan of the era – “Everything we do is for Chairman Mao; All our thoughts are of Chairman Mao; and in all our actions we closely follow and obey Chairman Mao” – was correct.

Having seen it published in state newspapers, the younger Hu said he did not question its veracity. “Can’t you use your brains? This is clearly problematic,” Hu quoted his father as saying. “Everything we do should be for the people, not for Mao.”

Forty-six years later, Hu Dehua can still vividly recall how shocked he was when his father uttered these words. “It felt as if I’d been struck by lightning – people dared not speak like that in those days,” Hu said of the decade that ensued, when criticism of Mao could result in persecution, prison or death.

“From that moment on, I knew my father was an exceptional man,” Hu, 65, said. “He did not follow the herd.”

The Global Times, ever true to form, this week published a remembrance of Hu that dances masterfully around the fact that his death led to a catastrophe that even today taints people’s perceptions of China. I love the “For reasons known to all.”

For reasons known to all, Hu is rarely mentioned in the Chinese media. Remarks about him that frequently appear on the Internet are often swayed away from official line, given that some either intentionally quoted Hu out of context or reevaluated Hu based on their own values.

The CPC Central Committee has made official judgment on Hu twice from his death to 2005. The authoritative and mature commemoration judgment has stood the test of time. Some grass roots recalled and discussed Hu from their individual angles at different times and for varied reasons. We’d like to share our views against those personal comments.

The official judgment on Hu is well-defended. When commemorating the 90th anniversary of Hu’s birth, the authorities praised his glorious life while circumventing the political controversy of his later years. It’s right to do so. Hu has been written into the history of the nation and the Party as absolutely a positive spirit. Avoiding controversy shows not only respect for Hu but also a responsibility for the course of the Party and the country. This is also the case with judging other late Chinese leaders, one of the prerequisites to ensure Chinese society keeps moving forward.

That’s right. Scrub all the controversy out of the public consciousness to “ensure Chinese society keeps moving forward.” There is no need to look at the past and learn from it. If the memory is pesky, erase it.

One of the most gripping articles I’ve read this week commemorating the start of the Tiananmen demonstrations is from NPR, chronicling the uprising in Chengdu. It reads like a thriller. And it is balanced, and makes a point I’ve tried to make in past posts about the “incident” — the students were not all angels, and there were violent acts perpetrated against police and soldiers. But the violence against the demonstrators was on a far greater scale, and, I believe, could have been averted.

At a nearby medical clinic, the bloodied victims of police brutality lay in rows on the floor. Kim Nygaard, an American resident of Chengdu, recalled that they begged her: “Tell the world! Tell the world!”

A row of patients sat on a bench, their cracked skulls swathed in bandages, their shirts stained scarlet near the collar, visceral evidence of the police strategy of targeting protesters’ heads.

But the violence went both ways: Dennis Rea, an American then teaching at a local university, watched, horrified, as the crowd viciously attacked a man they believed to be a policeman. The crowd pulled at his arms and legs, then dropped him on the ground and began stomping on his body and face, crushing it.

I had just moved to Phoenix in the Spring of 1989, and for the first time in my life I was able to afford cable TV. I remember watching riveted as CNN covered the story of the student demonstrations nonstop. Although at that time I had no burning interest in Chinese affairs I was transfixed by the drama of young people defying a totalitarian government and watching each day just how far they were able to go, with the government seemingly paralyzed. Of course, the government finally overcame its paralysis, and again, we all know the story.

There has been debate among bloggers as to whether we should continue blogging about Tiananmen Square, that it’s time to let go and move on. To me, it is an important part of China’s modern history and should never be forgotten. And it can never be forgiven until the government releases its archives, tells the truth about what actually happened on June 4th, and hopefully offers something of an apology. For many Chinese, memories of the massacre remain acute, especially those who lost loved ones or who witnessed the violence firsthand. The NPR piece relates the story of a Chengdu mother, Tang Deyang, who seeks justice for her son, beaten to death by the Chengdu police during the crackdown there. The government uses all means possible to shut her mouth.

What happened in Chengdu 25 years ago matters enough that the local government continues to devote financial and human resources to muzzling Tang. Her treatment shows how scared the Chinese authorities are of their own recent history.

A quarter-century ago, the government used guns and batons to suppress its own people. Now it is deploying more sophisticated tools of control — censorship of the media and the falsification of its own history — to build patriotism and create a national identity.

Though China’s citizens have become undeniably richer and freer in the post-Tiananmen era, Tang Deying’s experience shows the limits to that freedom. Simply by keeping alive a memory that others have suppressed or simply forgotten, Tang has become seen as a threat to social stability.

What happened in Chengdu matters because it shows the success of the Chinese government in not just controlling its people, but also in controlling their memories. In the China of today, that most personal space of all — memory — has become a political tool.

“The People’s Republic of Amnesia.” I believe in keeping the memory of Tiananmen Square alive. It must not be airbrushed out of the Chinese psyche. It is impossible to understand contemporary China without understanding the causes and effects of the demonstrations. The memory mustn’t die.

Over the past ten years I have put up scores of posts about the crackdown on the students, and as June 4th approaches I will repost the best ones here.

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Time for the CCP to apologize for the Cultural Revolution?

There is a moving essay in yesterday’s NY Times by author Yu Hua about growing up during the Cultural Revolution. It starts with the story of teenage man and his father turning over their mother/wife to the police for an anti-Mao remark she made. After being tortured, she was shot to death. Last year the Chinese media told the son’s story, and he related a dream he kept having of seeing his mother and begging for forgiveness, but she remains silent. Yu Hua comments,

Why, in those dreams, does Ms. Fang never say a word to her son? It’s not, I think, that she wants to punish him, for she knows that the true blame lies with others — with those who were in power at the time. She — like the souls of all who perished during the Cultural Revolution — is awaiting their apology. She has been waiting for 44 years.

Yu Hua notes how the government has forgiven itself for the horrors of the CR but has never sought the forgiveness of the Chinese people. Instead, memories of the disastrous social experiment have largely been scrubbed away, and it is even romanticized, with CR memorabilia for sale and models dressed up in Red Guard outfits beckoning customers on billboards. The Chinese people are practically obsessed with Japan’s reluctance to offer an adequate apology for its crimes against the Chinese people, yet the government shies away from acknowledging the nightmare Mao ushered in ten years later that resulted in millions of lives lost.

The attitude of the Japanese government toward its nation’s history infuriates Chinese people. But the Chinese government also needs to reflect on its own record. We keep warning Japan that it runs the risk of repeating its mistakes if it will not face up to its history of aggression. Surely there is a lesson for us to learn, as well.

I just want to go back to the beginning of this story to offer a brief footnote. I was reminded as I read it of a recent lengthy post on another web site that claimed the nightmare of the Cultural Revolution came about largely because people were given total freedom of speech. The implication is that give people too much freedom of speech and the result will be violence. But the opening story of this column belies such simplistic thinking.

In 1970, when China was in the grip of the Cultural Revolution, Zhang Hongbing, a 16-year-old in Guzhen, a county in Anhui Province, made a fateful decision. During a family debate that year, his mother, Fang Zhongmou, had criticized Mao Zedong for his cult of personality. Her son and his father, believing her views to be counterrevolutionary, decided to inform on her. She was arrested that same day.

Mr. Zhang still recalls how his mother’s shoulder joints gave a grating creak as her captors pulled the cord tight. Two months later, she was shot to death.

A form of “free speech” was indeed a part of the Cultural Revolution — but only free speech that remained within the accepted Party discourse. You had no free speech to criticize Mao and his henchmen. To do so meant death. People were punished, even killed, for remarks they had made long ago. So the argument that the CR’s bloodshed was caused by “too much free speech” is spectacularly ludicrous. Just ask Fang Zhongmou, above, about the delights of freedom of speech during the CR. (Sorry for going off on that tangent, but the post in question really bothered me.)

China, so insistent on apologies being made to them, needs to look in the mirror and tell the truth to its people and apologize for one of the ugliest chapters in its modern history. I realize that’s as likely as China releasing all its documents about the student crackdown in 1989, but it would be the right thing to do. Please read the entire essay.

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Ye Fu’s book of essays, Hard Road Home: China’s Golden Age of Liberation

Before I discuss this touching, beautifully written book, I’d like to cite a quote from a book review I happened to read at the same time I was reading Hard Road Home. It was an excellent review of Frank Dikoetter’s new book on the Chinese revolution, The Tragedy of Liberation: A History of the Chinese Revolution, 1945-1957. It offers this excerpt:

By the beginning of 1948, when the pressure abated, some 160 million people were under communist control. On paper the party determined that at least 10 percent of the population were “landlords” or “rich peasants.”… The statistical evidence is woefully inadequate, but by a rough approximation between 500,000 and a million people were killed or driven to suicide….

By the end of 1951, close to two million people had been murdered.

I cite this because in this new book of essays, author Ye Fu tells the story of those unfortunate enough to be among China’s landlord and rich peasant classes after Mao’s “liberation,” and how they and their families suffered. It is about much more than that, namely the effort of a contemporary Chinese man to explore his family’s past, but it is the references to the extermination of the landlord classes that are among the most vivid in the book. As translator A. E. Clark tells us in the preface, “An arduous journey drives the classical epic, and the protagonist’s goal is often an apparently modest one: to recover his place and establish his roots.” Mr. Clark reminds us, however, that the epic journeys are wracked with hardships, as in the stories of Odysseus and Aeneas. “It’s a hard road that takes them home.” And so it is for Ye Fu.

The ten-year period following the end of the revolution is commonly referred to as “the golden age,” a time when the Chinese Communist Party issued reforms and the country flourished, a period soon to be upended by the Great Leap Forward and the Cultural Revolution. The Ian Buruma review I reference above (please read it) debunks this rosy image, as do Ye Fu’s essays, which calmly but clearly depict a country ripped asunder by a new government intent on slaughtering entire classes of its citizens. Again, from A.E. Clark’s preface:

Though his accounts of China’s epoch of war and revolution and convulsive tyranny can be harrowing, Ye Fu seeks to illuminate, not to emote or shock…. He wants to identify the inhumane values that sprang from and sustained a regime of power without accountability.

Nearly all the family members Ye Fu introduces us to eat a lot of bitterness. His mother tries desperately to escape the ties to her father, an officer in the Nationalist army, but with no success. She is labelled a rightist and her home is vandalized, characters identifying her as a class enemy sprayed on their door. She will not be rehabilitated for 20 long years, she and her own mother always suffering with “the taint that caused them tribulation the rest of their lives.” Ye Fu himself spends four years in prison for his participation in an undercover pro-democracy group following the crackdown on Tiananmen Square. Prior to that he worked as a police officer where he witnessed the torture of suspects and prisoners. Yet despite its focus on man’s inhumanity to man, sometimes brutal beyond words, the book is never bombastic; mournful might be the best word to describes its tone. Ye Fu recounts the horrors of the landlords’ extermination and the Cultural Revolution in a calm, dignified voice, full of compassion for those who suffer, and full of sorrow at the chipping away of traditional Chinese values, both under Mao, and later as China opens up and classical values take a lowly place below making money.

My most vivid memory of the book, along with the tender, loving recollections of the life of Ye Fu’s maternal grandmother, is the heartbreaking death of his paternal grandfather who was the wealthiest (i.e., least poor) peasant in his village. He is respected, even beloved by the villagers for his role as a benevolent village leader, arbitrating disputes between villagers and playing a role similar to a town mayor. Mao’s land reform campaign of persecution, and finally extermination, against landlords and “rich peasants” was an early step in unraveling the glue that held society together and heralded what would become the disintegration of traditional Chinese values. I’m sure not all landlords were saintly, but they certainly did not deserve their fate. The dividing of society into different classes, like landlords and rich peasants and poor peasants, paved the way to state-sanctioned barbarism.

In a society founded on an appeal for justice and freedom, people were divided into various grades and ranks, and the highest authorities purposely created opposing camps and fomented hatred to open a chasm between each man and his neighbor, setting them against each other. Of the traditional values — humaneness, righteousness, decorum, and trust — nothing remained. The irreducible principles of ethics were gone. Everyone joined to exalt the Wicked, the False, and the Ugly, taking poverty for excellence, and the entire society seethed in an atmosphere of rapine and violence.

Cruelty was institutionalized as children were taught in class how to inform on their family, friends and neighbors. Ye Fu’s grim recollections from this golden age of liberation, and later of the Cultural Revolution, are beautifully told, and constantly made me wonder what China would have been without Mao (a fruitless task, I know). But the book is much more than a recounting of the catastrophes that came with “liberation.” Some of the most touching moments deal with the author’s relationships with friends and teachers and others from the village where he grew up. One particularly poignant story recounts Ye Fu’s reunion with a blind old man he hasn’t seen in ten years. On his return to the village, he spots him on a bridge playing the castanets.

Turning toward the sound I saw none other than Brother Blind Man leaning on a weathered bamboo walking stick. He stood relaxed at the end of the bridge, swinging the two clappers in an easy-going rhythm. He sang no song and uttered no plea, apparently unconcerned about receiving any money for his performance. His stillness suggested a transcendent disdain for the clamorous world around him. He had the demeanor of a sage of ancient times who had been waiting there for years to direct some gentleman who had truly lost his way.

It is a book about love and humanity as well as suffering. It calls to life one of China’s most terrible periods and puts it in intimate, human terms. And the writing is always poetic. For this, major kudos are due to the translator, A.E. Clark, who has done a masterful job not only in translating Ye Fu’s essays but also in supplying a wealth of footnotes that throughout the essays give the reader context and explain references to Chinese expressions, institutions, historical events, etc. Three years ago I wrote a detailed review of another book Mr. Clark translated, Such is this World@SARS.come. There too, I could only look on the notes with a sense of wonder, so meticulous is Mr. Clark in supplementing readers’ enjoyment of the book with footnotes that provide valuable context and perspective, and that are a pleasure to read.

The publisher of this book of Ye Fu’s essays, Ragged Banner Press, is a small one that depends on word of mouth to support its sales and marketing. I am proud to contribute what I can to this cause. I urge you to order your copy at this website, where you can also read one of the essays in its entirety. If you enjoy it as much as I did, please tell a friend.

It is a tired cliche to call a book “unforgettable,” but there are scenes and images in Hard Road Home I know I will never forget. These essays fill an important gap, giving us a snapshot of this tumultuous period as seen through the eyes of a villager from the countryside. It is an exquisite book, an infuriating book, a touching and at times heart-warming book. Please get yourself a copy.

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Chinese patriotism vs. nationalism

For whatever reason, the fenqing remain virulently adherent to the notion “If you criticize the CCP, you hate China.” This is one of those slam-your-head-against-the-wall arguments that never goes anywhere. “If you hate China so much why don’t you go back to America,” I was scolded many times when I lived in Beijing and had the temerity to point out stories of government excess or corruption or malfeasance or repression. Never mind that I also blogged often about how much I loved the Chinese people and treasured my experience living there, maybe my favorite place on earth. All my friends know I love China. but once you question the government, once you raise questions about the poor being thrown out of their homes or bloggers thrown in prison or rampant censorship you become an enemy of the people and a hater of the entire nation.

Which brings me to a superb opinion piece in the NY Times by Chinese author Yu Hua. In a voice far more eloquent than my own, he describes how “when the distinction between country and ruler is erased, patriotism ends up being hijacked, and easily manipulated by a narrow-minded nationalism.”

He gives a vivid example of an enraged official who vents his spleen at Chinese Internet users protesting the murder of a watermelon vendor at the hands of local officials in Hunan province. He also is enraged that the angry Weibo users aren’t focusing their rage at the US instead and shrieks, “These unpatriotic people are degenerates — the dregs of society!”

“These people so love to bad-mouth their native country, but then they hang around here instead of going off to America!…Off you go, hurry up! I’m all for it. But before you leave, be sure to get some plastic surgery done — you don’t want them to see you’re a Chinese! … These people hate their country so much they feel miserable that they’re Chinese, so let’s pack them off to America — the sooner the better! Such riffraff!”

All for protesting a murderous act by government officials.

For me, the high point of the column is where he relates a post that he himself put on Weibo:

Some people still aren’t clear about the difference between nation and government. And so anyone who aims a criticism at the government gets denounced as a traitor. Let me make an analogy: The nation is like one’s parents, and the government is like a steward; loving the steward and loving one’s parents are completely different things. One can’t change one’s parents, but one has every right to replace the steward.

Obviously a lot of young Chinese people have gotten this message. There was a backlash on the Chinese Internet against the official’s nationalistic hysteria, so much to the point that he was forced to tone it down. But there is another group, what we call the fenqing — young, usually male and totally unable to see the distinction between patriotism and nationalism — who can’t be reasoned with, and who actually become enraged at the very suggestion that there is such a distinction.

There is much more to this story than I can relate in a single blog post, and it is truly required reading. A pity those who need to read it most probably won’t, or will dismiss it as treason. After all, if he feels so strongly, why doesn’t he move to America? As I said, you might as well slam your head against a wall.

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70 percent good

There is a narrative about the halcyon period in China from when Mao assumed power in 1949 through late 1956 when he launched what turned out to be the insidious “Let 100 flowers bloom” campaign. These were the good years when women were liberated and the nation’s new leaders seemed reform-minded and effective. The bad stuff all came later.

In a scathing new book, The Tragedy of Liberation: A History of the Chinese Revolution, 1945-57, Frank Dikotter, a harsh critic of Mao in his earlier book on the Great Leap Forward’s unnecessary famine, demolishes the myth of Mao’s golden years. He maintains instead that was a time of unimaginable cruelty and wanton murder. I haven’t read the book yet, but recommend you read the review of the book in the Economist. These were years drowned in bloodshed.

The genius of communist violence was to implicate ever more people in it. After landlords were tried in front of village tribunals, then beaten and shot, land and possessions were divided up among the crowd. It was an incentive to find new victims, many of whom were burned or buried alive. But the more victims, the greater the fear of reprisals from distraught families. So the tribunals kept on killing. Children were not spared. By the end of 1952 up to 2m Chinese had been murdered.

A parallel terror was waged against those deemed to be counter-revolutionaries, Nationalists or foreign spies, some as young as eight, with new victims trucked daily to execution sites. Throughout these orgies of violence, Mao and other leaders coolly laid down quotas—up to four deaths for every thousand Chinese was considered appropriate. In the three provinces under the jurisdiction of Deng Xiaoping, known today for having been open-minded, 150,000 had been executed by November 1951. The total number of deaths will never be known. But in late 1952 Bo Yibo (father of Bo Xilai, whose recent trial has caused a sensation) said, approvingly, that 2m had been executed.

Not everyone could be killed, Mao acknowledged. So a vast gulag was born, swallowing up counter-revolutionaries, vagabonds, prostitutes, capitalists, marketeers, foreigners and, later, intellectuals. The population in the “reform through labour” camps quickly reached about 2m. The relentless indoctrination, one inmate later said, was nothing less than the “physical and mental liquidation of oneself”.

The country was, as Mr Dikotter puts it, well down “the road to serfdom”—literally so for farmers. All the landlord blood spilled was supposed to empower peasants. But the upheaval had devastated the countryside. Draught animals, fertiliser and skills were in short supply. The markets and other networks on which farmers had long depended were destroyed. Farming risked being branded the work of the evil landlord, yet the state demanded ever more grain from farmers in tax. Hardships multiplied. Villagers sold their children.

I realize that Chinese people don’t like to hear foreigners say negative things about Mao. It’s a topic of great sensitivity, as I myself learned the hard way when I tried to discuss it with a co-worker some years ago. But the story needs to be told anyway. They aren’t going to read about it in Chinese textbooks so I am grateful to scholars like Dikotter for making sure that anyone interested can learn the truth. Again, since I haven’t read the book I can’t say it’s all gospel truth. But based on the review, it sounds like a good and important read. I admit, I’ve been sucked into the “halcyon years” myth myself. It’s good to see it debunked.

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June 4th, yes, again

Once again, I am resisting the temptation to write another long post about a story that has been rehashed and argued about so many times that any attempt at serious debate would most likely be futile. Instead, simply go to my post on the TSM last year and follow the excellent links. Whatever you do, don’t miss the post by Philip Cunningham, someone I’ve taken issue with in the past and who is known for cutting the CCP a lot of slack. Read it, and see why he calls it an “unnecessary tragedy.”

No, the students were no angels, and yes, some angry mobs killed some Chinese soldiers, and yes, the story is in no way black and white. But most of the demonstrators were sincere and they were idealistic and they hoped to make a difference. None deserved to die. The argument that it was all worth it because the CCP then did so much good is depraved. The CCP could have gone on to do all that good stuff and grow the economy without the massacre. Revisionists who see the killings as a good thing are, in my humble opinion, self-deluded and, yes, brainwashed.

Also, if you are new to this blog, check out my post on an interview with a demonstrator from 10 years ago, It’s still among my very favorites, even if I totally disagree with the young man I interviewed.

We don’t have to make a huge deal about this day, but like 9/11, we should never forget it. That’s why every year I’ll say something about it, even if it’s all been said before. And let’s not forget, the CCP can be a benevolent force that can do a lot of good. But when its survival is threatened, something very different can emerge. Things are good now, China’s huge middle class is relatively content. But if things go sour and the people demand change from their government, don’t think what we saw on June 4, 1989 couldn’t happen again. The party will do absolutely everything it needs to to stay in power. Everything. Never forget.

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Tibetans, second-class citizens?

Yes, I know all about the schools, the hospitals, the highways and the end of serfdom. I know about improvements in the quality of life and all the economic benefits. I know how Chinese people see Tibet and I know that there is some justification for it. But I also know that many, many Tibetans do not see the CCP’s involvement in Tibet to be liberating. Many rage against the interference of the Han Chinese even while they profit from it. (This phenomenon is described in one of the best chapters of the new book Chinese Characters.) Some even go so far as to self-immolate.

But the debate as to how much the Tibetans have benefited thanks to the largesse and munificence of the CCP is largely irrelevant to the discussion of how so many Tibetans are treated as second-class citizens. And the fact that they are is simply undebatable. It is a matter of fact.

I urge you all to read this excellent interview of a leading Tibetan scholar by my former blog buddy Matt Schiavenza. Tibetans are being denied passports because the Party fears they’ll travel to India to hear the teachings of the Dalai Lama. Han Chinese, of course, face no such restrictions. Tibetans are the Untouchables. Matt asks the scholar, Robert Barnett, about other restrictions:

There have been many. These include the Chinese government putting Communist Party cadres in every monastery, requiring every monastery to display pictures of Chairman Mao Zedong, putting troops on every corner of the Tibetan quarter in Lhasa, limiting foreign visitors to guided groups, having to give their names before photocopying, not being allowed to enter Lhasa without a police guarantee if they’re from another Tibetan area, and many more.

The strategy of pouring money into Tibet has failed to bring the Tibetan people to that stage of enlightenment wherein they view the Communist Party as liberators. It will never happen so long as the CCP tries to force its own culture down the Tibetans’ throats. Things have only deteriorated since the riots of the Spring of 2008, and no matter how thrilled the CCP propagandists say the Tibetans are with their liberation (and you gotta check that link), the truth is far darker. The Party can trumpet its generosity and label all protest as the work of the jackal the DL, but the fact remains that many Tibetans do not believe they have been liberated, and instead see the Han as colonizers. Is it that hard to wonder why?

Read the whole piece
.

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Mo Yan and his stories

A.E. Clark, the translator of one of my favorite contemporary Chinese novels, has written an essay about Mo Yan and his defense of himself in the light of attacks that he is not concerned enough with human rights in China or with the plight of his fellow Nobel winner Liu Xiaobo, about whom Mo has remained silent. In response to such criticism, Mo told three stories, each of which Clark translates and analyzes (they were translated By Howard Goldblatt).

I cannot urge you strongly enough to go to his site and read these translations and commentary. I can’t do justice to them in a blog post. I love the way Clark writes, and I stand in awe of his panoramic knowledge of China. Each of these stories (parables, really) is an attempt by Mo to put into perspective his reactions to the criticisms of him, but Clark sees them as telling us much more about Mo than the author intended.

The first story is about a young boy who, along with his classmates, is expected to cry when viewing “an exhibit of suffering” presumably during the Mao era. Clark explains:

This scene was not an uncommon one for its time. The “exhibit of suffering” (in ‘63 or ‘64) would have consisted of dioramas that showed landlords extracting rent from peasants, KMT officials lording it over the poor, and other scenes representative of life under the old regime. The exhibit might have included Japanese atrocities and perhaps even the depredations of the British during the Opium Wars. What is important – and what Mo Yan as a novelist would grasp perfectly even if this anecdote were not autobiographical – is how meaningless and bewildering the exhibit must have seemed to a bunch of eight-year-olds from a farming village…

The unnamed situation to which the scene is being compared is none other than the situation in which Mo Yan finds himself today. Now he is the boy who will not cry. In the weeks since the award’s announcement, he has been badgered about human rights by Western reporters, pressured to sign a petition on behalf of Liu Xiaobo, and invited to join in Western handwringing about Chinese censorship. He has refused. But with this story, he does more than refuse. He dismisses all these issues as fake indignation manufactured in the service of a conformist ideology. He doesn’t feel the distress or the outrage voiced by his critics and, crucially, he doesn’t think they do either (“the tears are only for show”). This is not as extraordinary a statement as it might appear. Apologists for the Communist Party of China often say that foreigners’ purported concern for human rights is a pretext for China-bashing. To put it personally: Mo Yan doesn’t care what happens to people like Liu Xiaobo, and he doesn’t believe you care either. To him, the clamor for rights is humbug and bullying like what he witnessed under Mao, and he asserts his right to stand aloof from it.

This is very powerful stuff. I am somewhat on the fence about Mo because I still haven’t read his works (I have one ordered) and I’ve read wildly contradictory opinions about him. One writer/translator I have huge respect for recently wrote an eloquent post about Mo’s constant criticisms of China’s government, its policies and its cruelties, and how he is anything but a government patsy. And that’s a matter of fact. But I see those as two separate issues. As scathing a critic of the government as he might be in his novels, might it not be possible that at the same time he functions as an apologist for the party? Are the two mutually exclusive? I find Clark’s arguments more than compelling.

I’m not offering a definitive answer. But reading Clark’s essay certainly made me think, especially his take on the third story (too long for me to paraphrase here). He concludes by asking why it even matters if Mo Yan is making apologies for the CCP.

It matters, finally, because – even if he never wanted this role – winning the most prestigious international prize moves Mo Yan to the forefront of China’s pursuit of soft power. The leadership is surely pleased that he dismisses as hypocritical nonsense the values underlying the defense of human rights against the State. We will hear more of this, from Mo Yan and others, and it won’t always be so subtle. That is not to say there will be no improvements in the area of human rights. Liu Xia has probably already been assigned better guards.

Again, please read the whole brief piece. Even if you disagree with Clark’s conclusions, his arguments are beautifully crafted and certainly thought provoking.

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“The Chinese Way”

Kevin Carrico (who I believe is an occasional reader of this blog) has written an opinion piece for the Christian Science Monitor that poses a wonderful counter to the bizarre Daniel Bell-Jiang Qing op-ed op-ed on a “Confucian constitution” that set off a spirited debate in this thread. You remember: the one about a Confucian meritocracy system, in which leaders in at least one “house of authority” would need to be descendants of Confucius. (Every time I think of that I have to wonder if this was a parody, but it’s not).

Carrico counters:

Such ideas are part of a much larger discussion of “Chinese characteristics” in recent decades. Promoted by the state and state-friendly intellectuals, the notion of Chinese characteristics portrays the people of China as so unique, on account of their longstanding cultural traditions, as to be immune to the political and cultural change that has swept the world in recent decades. And while supposedly determining China’s sole proper path for handling any and all issues, these unique characteristics, according to their proponents, remain conveniently unable to be fully grasped by outsiders.

Whether applied domestically or internationally, this is a harmful line of thinking.

The primary political effect of these ideas is to deny the inevitable trend of democratization in recent decades – in Asia, Latin America, Europe, and Arab countries. Ironically, however, the notion of Chinese characteristics appeals to many of those whom it would deceive and ultimately disenfranchise. Internationally, it rationalizes authoritarianism under the guise of cultural sensitivity to a uniquely Chinese way. Domestically, it fulfills a desire for uniqueness and exceptionalism in order to distract citizens from the growing desire for basic political and human rights.

He eviscerates the Bell-Jiang nonsense with a biting wit:

The notion that China’s future must inevitably be found in its past, after all, is not particularly liberating, especially when one considers that this past represents a period prior to accountability in governance and recognition of human rights. Anyone who proposed a similar framework for the future of a western country, or even for such traditionally Confucian – but democratic – neighbors of China as South Korea, Japan, or Taiwan, would not be taken seriously.

Equally restrictive is the quirky proposal that the House of the Nation be populated by direct descendants of Confucius and other sages. One such male-line descendant is Kong Qingdong, a professor at Peking University and a contentious Chinese pop-culture figure. Besides his ancestry, which he never hesitates to cite, Prof. Kong is best known for his outspoken hatred of “traitorous” liberals, his fondness for the North Korean political model, and his recent characterization of the people of Hong Kong as “dogs” and worse. Clearly, cultural sensitivity is not a two-way street.

As “a PhD. candidate in sociocultural anthropology at Cornell University, researching neo-traditionalism, nationalism, and ethnic relations in contemporary China” Carrico has credentials. This opinion piece is a joy to read and a much needed antidote to the op-ed that I still can’t believe the New York Times allowed to grace its pages.

The bottom line is that “the Chinese way” is a fancy way to rationalize keeping China an authoritarian state. Whether that’s good or bad isn’t really the point. But let’s call it what it is.

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High theater

There’s a fascinating post over at this website that I’ve added to my daily read list about the way China often goes about arresting dissidents — with pomp and melodrama and brute force that would give inspiration to Hollywood producers of action films for teenagers. Houses are burst into, doors knocked down, black hoods placed over heads and the victim herded off by throngs of policeman when one or two could have handily done the trick.

He describes the 2006 arrest of Chinese rights lawyer Gao Zhisheng, after a throng of bare-chested police surrounded his sister’s house he was visiting. Pardon the long clip, but it’s good stuff.

“At the very instant when my sister unlocked the door, three men kicked the door open…with thundering noises.” When they came in and seized Gao, “one man sat on my mouth, another pulled my hair backward, quickly wrapping my mouth with yellowish tape. Then they pulled me on the floor, two big men stepped on my calves to keep me in a kneeling position. Then they wrapped the same tape around my eyes. After that, they put a sack over my head.”

He was taken to Beijing, barefoot, in a pair of shorts. His T-shirt had been torn into pieces. The same night in the 2nd Detention Center of Beijing (北京第二看守所), he was interrogated, locked in a metal chair by metal shackles with bright light shining on him on both sides. He was no longer referred to by his own name, but the number 815.

Four interrogators came in. One of them, who Gao Zhisheng believed was the head of the pack, paced back and forth in front of him. “815, now you have an idea how powerful our party is, don’t you? From what has happened today, have you not seen how powerful our party is?”

To apprehend a bare-foot man in his shorts who was not known for extraordinary martial prowess, two policemen would suffice. Okay four. But instead, you have dozens. Instead of wearing their uniforms which represent the legitimacy, dignity and authority of their job, they resorted to bare chests and dark glasses. From the head interrogator we know that the whole sequence was choreographed to show force. A lot can be said about the need to “shock and awe,” but why bare chests? Why dark glasses? What’s going on? Why does the head interrogator sound like a mafia boss? Why did he talk like that?

The detention of AiWeiwei last year was similarly theatrical. We’ve all seen stories about these arrests. We even know some people who had the honor of being hooded and whisked to secret jails.

Following the logic of Occam’s Razor, wouldn’t you think the reason for the pyrotechnics is simply to instill terror? Terror for those being hooded and those witnessing it and those who hear about it later? Terror works. It’s a scary thing to go up against the Chinese leadership, and you have to know that once you cross that red line anything goes, and you will be made an example. You will experience repression CCP-style.

Read the entire post. It’s witty and wryly written, but it is in no way funny.

(And I realize a lot of this is done at the local level, and not all dissidents are treated this way. But the party seems to welcome the publicity of such grandiose operations. Maybe it’s all part of its strategy to stay in power?)

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Richard Burger is the author of Behind the Red Door: Sex in China, an exploration of China’s sexual revolution and its clash with traditional Chinese values.

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