By Chang Ping, published: August 30, 2014
(This is Chang Ping’s fourth rebuttal, also declined publication by Deutsche Welle, to Frank Sieren’s defense of the Tiananmen massacre, the “right to forget,” and his accusation that some criticisms against the Chinese government are gross exaggerations (links in German) in the Sieren vs. Chang Ping debate earlier this year in DW about the June 4th massacre in 1989 in China. Read Tiananmen Massacre not a “Passing Lapse” of the Chinese Government, Without the Right to Remember There Can Be No Freedom to Forget, and How Brainwashing Works in China, Chang Ping’s first, second and third rebuttals to Sieren. – The Editor)
In the two pieces he wrote in response to criticisms about how he portrayed the Chinese government, Mr. Frank Sieren never directly addresses any of the questions his critics raised; instead, he keeps changing the subject and arriving at odd conclusions seemingly as his whims take him. Mr. Sieren reiterates that “we Westerners value evidence.” Nonetheless, as he passes on numerous judgments such as “the Tiananmen massacre is a lapse in the history of New China,” “many Chinese wish to forget the massacre,” “it is easy and cheap to circumvent of censorship by VPN,” “the Chinese are more fervent about consumerism than people elsewhere,” readers fail to detect any evidence that would hold water.
For example, he had reprimanded Western media for “unilaterally exaggerating the facts in describing the incident,” which happens to be the Tiananmen massacre. After Chinese activists questioned his conclusions, the “evidence” he comes up with is to claim that his critics “completely exaggerate when they call the government’s brainwashing efforts unprecedented.” Written in a ricocheting style deprived of logic, his views are difficult to refute in one sitting given the inconsistencies.
I am not altogether surprised that in his latest article (link in German), Mr. Sieren spends an entire paragraph launching irrelevant ad hominem attacks against me. I would like to let Mr. Sieren know that, while I decline to be provoked, these attacks do but little credit to the forum publishing his piece. He even goes so far as to state that my comments are spurred by a desire to keep myself in the spotlight. Such unworthy speculation is not reserved for me alone. In the same breath, Mr. Sieren drops studied innuendos about the presumed eagerness of Ai Weiwei’s agent to see government persecution against Ai sustained, in order to keep the money rolling in. These attacks are far from original, not to say mean-spirited. Nonetheless, I don’t plan to cite from the considerable vein of Internet opinion holding Mr. Sieren’s motive suspect, or to ask him to justify himself.
Totalitarianism, Authoritarianism and Post-totalitarianism
According to Mr. Sieren, Chinese society today is so open, he can no longer apply the adjective “totalitarian” to it, but would rather call it “authoritarian.” He appears unaware that this is old news insofar as such debates go. China has seen disagreement over this issue since the 1980’s, and Germany from the 1950’s on until its reunification. At the time, some people looked for a way to draw the distinction between Stalin-era Soviet dictatorship and the “thawed” Eastern bloc. Now that the dust of history has settled, it is the consensus in Germany to describe the GDR as a totalitarian country.
If the Socialist Unity Party of Germany (SED)’s reign in East Germany had led to the unnatural death of tens of millions, and that government had suppressed the opposition movement in a bloody crackdown using tanks and machine guns – if that very SED remains in power to this day and deals brutally with anyone who dares to challenge its authority, it is my belief that the SED would only gain in notoriety, even if it made economic progress by trading in human rights and the environment.
Whenever distinctions need to be made between the first and last thirty years of the Chinese Communist rule, Chinese political researchers usually use “post-totalitarianism” rather than “authoritarianism” to describe the current state of things. Those who use the latter usually do so as a capitulating or colluding gesture intended to curry favor with the Chinese government.
Who Forbids Chinese People to Forget the Tiananmen Massacre?
It’s not that I take much interest in what sort of concepts Mr. Sieren pegs the Chinese government under; after all, at least one-well known academic thought the term “totalitarian” inappropriate when applied to the Nazi regime. However, I do suggest that he learn not to manufacture facts in his articles. We may be able to defend unsupported and haphazard points of view for the sake of protecting diversity. Factual errors, however, are about the fundamental choices we make when writing.
For example, even though Mr. Sieren asserts that accessing information from a diverse range of sources beyond the government’s control requires “overcoming multiple barriers,” he goes on to say that “through VPNs, people can circumvent censorship easily and cheaply.” Even if we overlook the contradiction between the two parts of his statement, the assessment is not consistent with what we know about how things work in China. VPNs regularly break down during upgrades of the Great Firewall – some of the most sophisticated censorship mechanisms around. Technical interference is common, and in the worst cases VPNs put their users at risk of arrest. In addition, the authorities may camouflage viruses as popular circumvention software, and hapless users who install them find their computers hijacked or broken. Nor should we ignore the psychological impact of political taboos. Many people turn down offers of free VPN, seeing circumvention of censorship as something the government does not want them to do.
Mr. Sieren goes further to fabricate claims. For example, he writes that “everyone now can clearly see the difference between Chang Ping’s stance and mine, for indeed I believe it’s a good thing that ‘guilt by association’ is no longer the way we operate.” I would like to ask: at what point did I ever praise “guilt by association” as an approach, and how did this become the difference between our respective positions? Mr. Sieren repeatedly advocates that everyone not condemn the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) to guilt by association. I am curious to ask just who has been doing so? For no individual has the power to impose a legal punishment against a regime or those who hold power within it. The fact of the matter is, it is the CCP which, to this day, abuses its own laws in the unfortunate practice of guilt by association. There can scarcely be another explanation for the fact that the lawyers and friends of the prominent rights lawyer, Pu Zhiqiang, were arrested alongside him, or a school locking out a ten-year-old girl simply because her father, Zhang Lin, is a dissident. Mr. Sieren, given your obsession with the practice of guilt by association, I look forward with great anticipation to your thoughts on the above abuses.
The main point Mr. Sieren belabors, ““just as you cannot forbid people to commemorate, you cannot forbid them to forget,” is likewise founded upon something that does not exist – may we ask Mr. Sieren who has been stopping the Chinese people from forgetting the massacre or, for that matter, how such prevention can possibly happen?
“Otherization” as a Brainwashing Tactic
Mr. Sieren declares that “we Westerners” differ from the Chinese in the discovery process and court judgment, using the example that a judge in the West, unlike his counterpart in China, is free to change the indictment from premeditated murder to involuntary manslaughter should the evidence point that way. This demonstrates Mr. Sieren’s ignorance about Chinese law, legal studies and the popular awareness of law, for by now the need for such changes is well-understood in China. Where willful judgments continue to be made in violation of such legal principles, it is those in power who are committing felony, and has nothing to do with differences in laws or beliefs.
Why conjure up differences where none exist? In her book, “Brainwashing: the Science of Thought Control,” Oxford Professor Kathleen Taylor terms such lies as “otherization,” a common brainwashing tactic. This is precisely why the CCP insists that Chinese people and their culture have different expectations than those in the West when it comes to democracy and freedom.
To sum up: I staunchly support the right to a diversity of viewpoints, but do not believe that fabricated, illogical and unethical writing such as that of Mr. Sieren can be excused by appealing to this right.
Chang Ping (长平) was the former chief commentator and news director of Southern Weekend (《南方周末》). He writes columns for the South China Morning Post, Deutsche Welle, and a number of Chinese language websites. Forced to leave China and then Hong Kong, he currently lives in Germany.
(Translated by Louisa Chiang)