By Liu Yu, published: February 25, 2015
“You see? No hands are raised by those who are absent in the classroom. Everyone is here. What a wonderful class!”
I complain about China now and then, and a friend of mine pointed out my failing to appreciate it. “China is in great shape now,” she pointed to the window. “Can’t you see? It is now in many ways a lot more advanced than overseas!”
I guess I have to agree. Following the direction of her finger, I can see the gleaming facades of skyscrapers, the new cars of all makes and models, and the hustle and bustle of daily activities, even with the polluted air and reduced visibility. The prosperity is real. And add to that, there are the elderly women practicing Taiji, the boys playing basketball, and the roadside vendors selling kababs. If Zhang Zeduan (张择端) were still alive, he would have more than enough scenes for a modern-day scroll of “Along the River during the Qingming Festival” (清明上河圖).
Ashamed of my negativity, I suddenly recall a well-known joke: a teacher, making a roll call to take attendance in the class every day, would shout to the class: “Absentees, raise your hands!”
I ask my friend: Do you know Han Ying (韩颖)? She doesn’t. I then explain to her that Han Ying is a woman who lives in the Haidian district of Beijing. Ms. Han was stalked, harassed, and even beaten up by government thugs simply because she came out as an independent candidate in the elections of the local people’s representatives. Ms. Han is only one of the many independent candidates who have been brutally suppressed this year . [Ms. Han is the founder of Smile, a Beijing-based volunteer group that collects used clothes and raises school supplies and books for poor children and families. Ms Han was arrested on September 30, 2014, for voicing support for Occupy Central. – The editor]
I ask my friend: Do you know Lei Jinmo (雷金模)? She doesn’t. I told her that Mr. Lei is a mine worker who suffering from “black lung,” or pneumoconiosis, an illness resulting from years of unprotected exposure to industrial dust. He is dying but has no money for medical treatment. Mr. Lei is just one of the countless patients afflicted with “black lung” or other work-related illnesses who receive no healthcare, no relief of any kind.
I ask my friend again: Do you know there have been farmers who have perished while defending their properties and rights? She doesn’t. I told her that a villager who had clashed with the government while defending his rights died in detention of a “sudden illness,” and his is just one of the many mysterious cases of “death in custody” across this wonderful land of ours.
In the same breath, I has recounted the stories of more than a dozen people of whom my friend has never heard. They are “the absentees in the classroom,” missing from our era of great prosperity. Information about them has been scarce and fleeting, for their very existence puts stains on the picture of social development and stability. We catch a glimpse of them now and then on the Internet before censorship wipes them out. In our time of mass media, if the media are stripped of their stories, they are next to non-existent. I am not suggesting that the prosperity painted in the modern version of “Along the River during the Qingming Festival” is phony; I only want to point out that there is a world out there behind the scenes that is not so glorious.
“Those are the teething problems of our rapid development,” my friend responded, “we must focus on the mainstream of our time!” I am not sure what the mainstream really is, but I do know this: when a person afflicted with gastric ulcers seeks medical help, his doctor is not going to turn a blind eye to his ulcerous stomach by advising him that he need not worry because the “mainstream” of his health is good: “After all, your other organs are good!”
It is said that there are three kinds of knowledge: what you know, what you don’t know, and what you don’t know that you don’t know. For my friend, the stories of the likes of Han Ying and Lei Jinmo probably fall in the category of “what you don’t know that you don’t know.” Since she doesn’t know what she doesn’t know, even though in nature she is kind and considerate, she will never have the urge or curiosity to peek behind the “Along the River during the Qingming Festival” scroll; she is bound to believe that what she sees and hears within the 5th ring road of Beijing are the “true notes of our time.”
Well, back when humans didn’t know about the existence of Mars, nobody was curious about what was on it.
In a society where dissemination of information is restricted, narrow perspective is inevitable. “How can you nag about our society so much?” Someone might chastise you, “you drive a new car, you live in a beautifully renovated apartment, you hold a cup of coffee worth 30RMB a piece in one hand and an iPhone in the other, you eat McDonalds and wear Septwolves, and do you realize you are biting the hand that feeds you?”
You must know that China is not an enclave within the 5th ring road of its metropolis, and out there beyond our narrow horizons, there are Han Yings and Lei Jinmos. And for every known Han Ying and Lei Jinmo, there could be countless Han Yings and Lei Jinmos whom we might never get to know. To stay alert to what has been covered up in whitewash, one must constantly tell oneself: Don’t fall asleep, don’t fall asleep, don’t fall asleep.
This may sound simple enough, but not everyone understands it. In the early 30’s of the 20th century, the famous Irish writer George Bernard Shaw visited the Soviet Union. He was given guided tours of the many accomplishments of the great Soviet socialism. Upon returning home, Mr. Shaw wrote articles to dispute the numerous contentions that “defamed” the Soviet economic success. “We desire to record that we saw nowhere evidence of such economic slavery, privation, unemployment and cynical despair of betterment as are accepted as inevitable and ignored by the press as having ‘no news value’ in our own countries.” “Everywhere we went, we saw enthusiastic workers full of hope for the future.” The stark realities were that around the years of Shaw’s visit, about seven million people in the Soviet Union died of starvation, a result of forced agricultural collectivization.
Another example was Edgar Snow, the author of “Red Star over China.” After visiting China twice in 1960 and 1964 respectively, Snow dismissed the news about a great famine in China as groundless “cold war propaganda.” “I assert that I saw no starving people in China,” Snow declared, “nothing that looked like old-time famine.”
You see? No hands are raised from those who are absent in the classroom. Everyone is here. What a wonderful class!
Liu Yu (刘瑜) is a professor of political science at Tsinghua University. She lived in the U.S. from 2000 to 2007 and held a doctorate in Political Science from Columbia University. She now researches democratization in developing countries, including China, and she is the author of Details of Democracy (《民主的细节》，in Chinese), a collection of her blogs that described how politics works in America, A Bullet for You (《送你一颗子弹》, in Chinese), and The Water Level of Ideas (《观念的水位》, in Chinese)
How to Be a Chinese Democrat: An Interview with Liu Yu, by Ian Johnson, February 3, 2015.
(Translated by Zhong Ming)
Chinese original, published in December, 2011.