Wednesday, October 13, 2010

Your Old Men Will Dream Dreams: Wen Jia Bao's “Political Reform” and "Universal Values," Party Elders Calling for Free Speech, and the Addition of Old White Men into the Chinese Canon



There's an old, apparantely mis-attributed, quote by Winston Churchill that reads, “Show me a young conservative and I'll show you someone with no heart. Show me an old liberal and I'll show you someone with no brains.”  Whoever said it, I'd like to suggest that this is a kind of Western common knowledge.  We expect our children to feel, question, and explore – to make something new.  We expect that, through the process of maturation, accumulation, and procreation, those older than us will naturally become more conservative, as they have very important things – their children, choices, and dignity, among others – to protect.

Of course there are myriad exceptions to this rule, but I'd like to argue that this “common knowledge” is what makes dramatic actions, admissions, and changes of course by our elders so moving, and so persuasive.   Our fathers say things like this.  After twenty years of fly fishing with me and my two brothers, and after we'd just finished yet another day of scaring trout upstream with nothing to show for it, none of us expected my dad to sit down, sigh, and then laugh hysterically, saying, “We really don't know what we're doing, do we?”  We didn't, but never thought that he'd say that.  When the formally pro-death penalty Supreme Court Justice Blackmun stated, after twenty years of trying to formulate a just death penalty process, “I will no longer tinker with the machinery of death,” it caused even the most pro-death penalty law students to pause, and even the least wonder-prone to wonder.

I believe that in China, this “common knowledge” is exactly the opposite.  Tradition, pragmatism, and political necessity require that the young use their brains conservatively, nodding their way up professional and social ladders that don't want their opinions but only their obedience.  Only once one is at the top of the ladder can one be explicit about what her heart is telling her.   This, in some ways, is the essence of a Confucian, conservative society: learn everything that's been learned, experience everything that can be experienced, have children, wallow in life's complexity and contradictions, learn about hypocrisy, submit your will to the mass of greatness that has come before you, and if you still have something to say at 70, maybe we'll listen to you.

So while the common knowledge may be different here in the Middle Kingdom, the power of such admissions of elders may be even greater because their audience is better prepared to accept them (or, at least, less prepared to disagree).  Our elders here have said quite a lot of late.

Wen Jia Bao and his Regiment of Retirees

Those of you who've read my blog for a while (thanks!) know about my respect for Wen Jia Bao's year-long “dignity putsch” (posts here and here), he's bulwarked that with recent bold, public proclamations calling for political reform, both in China and in the U.S., even on CNN.  These last calls have been censored by Wen's political underlings, a most un-filial (and unconstitutional?) of moves.  As he has convinced incredulous reformers that he is more than just show, more than just a yingdi, “a king of the silver screen,” other murmurs have risen to the surface from another camp, daowen, “Take Wen down.”

For the most part, Wen had been the single public actor in this play.   But perhaps because of the censorship of their premier, perhaps because of the rise of the daowen camp, perhaps because of what happened in Norway last week, over twenty very influential and very retired former cadres have written an open letter to the National People's Congress Standing Committee asking for immediate and substantial reform of China's freedoms of speech, press, and to the internet.  It is a stirring read and fills one with hope; here's part of the introduction.

We have for 61 years “served as master” in the name of the citizens of the People’s Republic of China. But the freedom of speech and of the press we now enjoy is inferior even to that of Hong Kong before its return to Chinese sovereignty, to that entrusted to the residents of a colony. Before the handover, Hong Kong was a British colony, governed by those appointed by the Queen’s government. But the freedom of speech and freedom of the press given to residents of Hong Kong by the British authorities there was not empty, appearing only on paper. It was enacted and realized.

When our country was founded in 1949, our people cried that they had been liberated, that they were not their own masters. Mao Zedong said that, “From this moment, the people of China have stood.” But even today, 61 years after the founding of our nation, after 30 years of opening and reform, we have not yet attained freedom of speech and freedom of the press to the degree enjoyed by the people of Hong Kong under colonial rule. Even now, many books discussion political and current affairs must be published in Hong Kong. This is not something that dates from the [territory's] return, but is merely an old tactic familiar under colonial rule. The “master” status of the people of China’s mainland is so inferior. For our nation to advertise itself as having “socialist democracy” with Chinese characteristics is such an embarrassment.”

What's happening in China?   Where is this coming from?

There are many reasons for the change.  First and foremost, it's the bravery of China's elders and, of course, the dissociated persistence of millions of unnamed non-elderly all over China.  They all deserve part of Liu Xiaobo's Nobel Prize.   But I'd like to thank another group of people here, a group that's fallen into disrepute of late: old white men.

The Confucian-ization of the West's Old White Men

After the Opium Wars, when China suffered defeat at the hands of the British, there was much hand-wringing and brow(-)beating, but it also led to another, more positive, hyphenation: a collective soul-searching unlike any thing that's ever been done.  Thousands of scholars left China to study in Europe, the U.S. and Japan. They came back with science, technology, and ideas.  They also brought with them a whole new group of old men to deify: Beethoven and Bach, Newton and Pascal, Marx and Hegel, and countless others, some of whom were sanctified immediately, others, like Adam Smith, were adopted later on. [Please note, I in no means mean to downplay the enormous role, both explicit and implicit, that women have played in the development of Western society.  Part of this is just rhetorical, but it's also simply descriptive, these are the figures I have seen and heard discussed.]

I wouldn't be so quick to spout gross generalizations about an entire culture if I didn't have an esteemed octogenarian in my corner, Mao Yushi.


 Not only does Mao Yushi hilariously back up my point here, but he also backs up my earlier point about Chinese culture.  He says things that “no one else” would say in a public forum, according to the Chinese friends who were watching this with me.  His laconic, straight-forward statements and criticisms had them rolling – it was funny because it was so very true, but it was also funny because it's taboo to speak truth that could so obviously get one in trouble.  Mao Yushi is old, has the requisite credentials, and can say what he wants.

When I first moved to China, I was astonished to find the halls of my university filled with these men, their books, their portraits, their statues.   The main library downtown had huge busts of Beethoven, Tolstoy and Einstein outside it.  A square in Shanghai near the railroad station has the largest statute of Bach I've ever seen. As anyone who's travelled across China knows, its cities and countryside are packed --Citizen-Cane-basement-style-- with Greek and Roman statues, Corinthian Columns, and other massive, garish, totally out of place monuments to a (slightly) misunderstood “West.”  But they're not as out of place as I thought, the cultural founders of the West really have become esteemed here, in many ways more than they are in their countries of origin.

Many of the Chinese scholars who came back from the West believed not only that more old men needed to be added to the Chinese canon, but also that some of the Chinese old men needed to be exorcised from it. China needed to get rid of the yoke of Confucianism, of its slavish respect for the old and established, for it was a structure that stifled innovation.   And in many ways, I think that most of us who've spent time here feel that they did it that to a certain extent.  If the Socialist Revolution didn't do it, then the Cultural Revolution did, and if neither of them did it, well, the debate's been put to rest since the Reform and Opening.  But I'm not so sure anymore.

In fact, I think the truth behind what Mao Yushi is saying is this: we didn't change our Confucian culture that much; rather, we just greatly expanded the number of old men that we respect.  In many ways, it was easy.  If it's true that China didn't have much of a history at all in the natural sciences, in economics, in Western music, then there was very little dissonance in accepting these concepts into an already robust culture.  In that way, no one should be surprised at how fast China has grown: they had the cultural infrastructure to read Western (and East Asian) experience like a map, and import and reproduce anything that worked.  They imported engineering, left out post-modernist thought; imported monomaniacal belief in the progress of humankind, left out angst and self-doubt.  To this day still, this process of learning, revering, instilling, and reproducing goes on, at rapid pace.

But one clause of one sentence from Mao Yushi intrigues me, “This debate continued until Mao's time and, even now, the debate goes on but, for the most part, the debate on this issue has been resolved.”

What is still unresolved?  I believe it's the question of whether or not the concept of “scientific development” extends to political reform, rule of law, and universal values.

Besides the overabundance of Greek-inspired architecture, another thing one notices if one spends a lot of time here, is the belief that democratic progress is inexorable.  In many ways it makes sense.  The story of post-Renaissance Europe is a messy, violent, bloody period, but progress in science, culture, art and economics were intricately tied to political reform.  Enlightenment-era romantics certainly believed this was the case.  More than that, China's neighbors -- South Korea, Taiwan, and Japan -- are all excellent examples of how well democracy took in Confucianist countries who had it more or less imposed upon them (by foreign and domestic agents).  Perhaps their confidence that democracy is just another offshoot of this is not too far-fetched.

This confidence was evident in the Open Letter to the Standing Committee.  First it shamed China that it has yet to achieve the amount of free speech that England, that awful imperialist country, gave to Hong Kong. Then it said this:

There is little doubt that systems of legal responsibility mark progress over systems of censorship, and this is greatly in the favor of the development of the humanities and natural sciences, and in promoting social harmony and historical progress. England did away with censorship in 1695. France abolished its censorship system in 1881, and the publication of newspapers and periodicals thereafter required only a simple declaration, which was signed by the representatives of the publication and mailed to the office of the procurator of the republic. Our present system of censorship leaves news and book publishing in our country 315 years behind England and 129 years behind France.”

I agree with them, so I'll neglect the fact that this argument is committing a logical fallacy, namely, it makes an irrelevant conclusion. England and France could have been wrong to make the choice they did, or it could be wrong for China now.  But this isn't intended to be a logical argument -- they are appealing to “progress” and “scientific development,” to people that haven't gone through the loss of faith in those ideas that England and France did.  Our old men haven't let them down like they let us down, when they “killed half the seed of Europe, one by one” in the Great War and what came after.

Attaching civil and political rights to “scientific development” is the last frontier in this debate that Mao Yushi is talking about, and it will probably prove to be the most contested.  It's why Wen Jia Bao talks about “universal values” and “dignity.”  It's why Liu Xiaobo, when he “was asked by a Hong Kong reporter what China needed to make fundamental changes to its social-political system...answered, '300 years of colonization; Hong Kong had 100 years, so it should take more than that for the entire mainland.'” (A quote for which his conservative detractors have continually called him a traitor.)

But putting aside realistic obstacles to reform like entrenched political and economic interests, this concept has some ideological vulnerability as well.   For in politics, law, and the humanities, there's more competition among the “old men” that Chinese revere.  China has a long history of political theorists who were not so unsuccessful at building a social system, thank you very much, and they, like Plato, didn't place freedom of speech or freedom of the press high on its priority list.  Moreover, if your government is just going to keep following the Western plan of development, eventually giving you everything that millions of people had to fight, die, and wrest away from the hands of the elites in the West, is it even smart to call for all of the freedoms we have in the West, many of which large numbers of apathetic citizens never exercise?

But maybe I'm thinking about this too much.  Maybe I, too, need to just trust the judgment of Wen Jia Bao, Mao Yushi and these retired cadres calling for freedom of speech and freedom of the press. Perhaps old men dreaming such dreams shouldn't be questioned.   (Until my next post when I tell you about Hu Jin Tao's newest dream.)

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