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By Fengsuo Zhou, Yaxue Cao, published: November 4, 2014
We did not foresee writing this letter. We didn’t think it was necessary. All we need to do, we thought, is to present facts to the public, including the Wellesleyans. And we thought that truth is the only thing that matters, and that, before racism and McCarthyism become issues, the first order should be to find out what happened.
Let us introduce ourselves first. Fengsuo was a senior and physics major at Tsinghua University in Beijing in 1989. During the Tiananmen democracy movement, Fengsuo told the House Foreign Affairs Subcommittee on May 30, 2014, “I was responsible for setting up a student network that directed the protesters on Tiananmen Square, provided medical services to thousands of students on a hunger strike as hundreds and thousands more poured in from all corners of Beijing to rally in support. Through this network, ambulances were able to pass every 5 minutes through the crowds. Through this network [which included a radio station], many Chinese were able to express freely and publicly, for the first and only time in their life, their love for freedom and democracy and their hope for a better China” (watch hearing here). After the movement was suppressed with machine guns and tanks on June 4th, 1989, Fengsuo was No. 5 on the Chinese government’s most-wanted list of 21 student leaders. He was jailed for one year in Qincheng Prison in Beijing. He came to the United States in 1995, studied finance at Chicago University, and he is a financial analyst, father of two, living in California. Fengsuo was one of the tweeps who took part in google-searching “步起跃” (Professor Charles Bu) and exchanging thoughts on our findings on November 23, 2013.
Yaxue attended Peking University from 1980-1984. She came to the United States to pursue graduate study in English and American literature in 1991. She is a writer, translator, mother of two living in Washington, DC. In June, 2013, she launched ChinaChange.org, a website “devoted to news and commentary related to civil society, rule of law, and rights activities in China. It works with China’s democracy advocates to bring their voices into English and to help the rest of the world understand what people are thinking and doing to effect change in China.” Reports and translations on China Change have been cited or hyperlinked by the New York Times, Time magazine, the Guardian, the Telegraph, the Washington Post, the Economist, the New Republic magazine, the Atlantic (to name a few) and Congressional reports.
Last fall, Professor Charles Bu wrote three articles, as far as our search results show, in connection to the Xia Yeliang incident. On October 22, 2013, he published the first of the three in Chinese in Xinhua News under his Chinese name Bu Qiyue (步起跃). In it, he defended Peking University’s decision to fire Xia Yeliang as a pure professional decision that has nothing to do with Professor Xia being a dissident intellectual, and he chided his Wellesley colleagues for writing an open letter calling on the college to reconsider its partnership with PKU. “What makes them think they can point fingers at the internal affairs of a university on the other side of the planet?” (Wellesley has a full translation). Professor Bu wrote again on October 29, in the Wellesley News: Why the PKU partnership is good for Wellesley and, then again on November 3, in the Chronicle of Higher Education: Journalists Should Ask Peking U. Students About Yeliang Xia.
While Yaxue explained, clearly and meticulously, how her article Why Is a Math Professor at Wellesley So Hard Hitting against an Economics Professor Fired by Peking University in China came about in her Letter to the Editor on October 27, 2014, professor Bu has so far made no mention of his article on the Xinhua News website. Instead, Professor Bu hurled insults at Yaxue in his Letter to the Editor on October 30, accusing her of [making] false and defamatory statements, [feeding] a bogus story, and calling her a “complete joke.”
But to us, Prof. Bu’s Xinhua article is at the heart of the matter in terms of Professor Bu’s involvement, and the role he played, in the Xia Yeliang incident.
Professor Bu is entitled to his opinion about Xia, about his Wellesley colleagues, and about PKU’s decision. That’s not the problem. Yaxue’s report stated that in the very first paragraph.
Professor Bu might, or might not, have known his article was going to be used by all of CCP’s major “mouthpieces” in what appears to us, to other China watchers, and to veteran Chinese journalists Yaxue talked to, a state engineered, all-out smear campaign against Mr. Xia, but this much is certain: Whether Professor Bu was approached to write this article, or he wrote it voluntarily and submitted it to Xinhua (highly unlikely by our assessment), when he wrote it “in Boston on October 21, 2013,” he knew perfectly that:
- Xinhua is not an impartial and independent news organization, and as a CCP mouthpiece, it would never allow Mr. Xia to defend himself on Xinhua website;
- if Bu himself, or anyone else for that matter, happened to be a supporter of Mr. Xia, he or she would not be able to voice their support on Xinhua either;
- Professor Bu’s article could be published in Xinhua News precisely because it meets the need of official propaganda.
Let no one tell you that Xinhua News Agency is just like AP, Reuters, AFP or any other free and independent international wire service. China is an authoritarian state without press freedom where the Communist Party has a monopoly over the news organizations. According to Xinhua’s own description, “The work of the Xinhua News Agency has always been under the direct leadership of the Central Committee of the Communist Party.” “The Xinhua News Agency performs the duties assigned by the Central Committee: to be the mouthpiece, the ears and eyes, the think tank, and the information confluence.” “Xinhua News Agency follows the requirement of the Central Committee, upholds correct political direction, and directs the public opinion.”
In China, reporters and newspaper commentators have been regularly expelled, jailed, or beaten for dissenting from the Party line or for cutting-edge investigative reports. It is increasingly difficult for foreign journalists to obtain visas. Those whose reporting is deemed “critical” are denied visas altogether.
We believe that professor Bu’s engagement with Xinhua over the Xia Yeliang incident was highly problematic. At the very least, it shows his poor judgment as an American academic about what is, and what it is not, appropriate to do. If Professor Bu really wants to defend his honor and integrity, he can begin by telling us how his article for Xinhua came about, instead of hurling mud at people in a hysterical, unsightly manner.
From our search, we concluded that Professor Bu has close ties to the Chinese government. We believe anyone who has found what we have found will come to the same conclusion. He had been, until at least May, 2014, and may still be, an “overseas commissioner” of the Federation of Overseas Chinese of Changzhou; he was received by the deputy director of the CCP’s department of United Front Work (see my report for further explanation of this party organ) in Changzhou; he and his family were guests at a banquet at Diaoyutai, China’s state guesthouse in Beijing. All of the above information was found on official websites of these government/Party entities. We welcome Professor Bu to explain his connections with the Chinese government and the CCP. He can begin by telling everyone what title and position an “overseas commissioner” is.
After Yaxue’s Letter to the Editor was posted on The Wellesley News, two reports, titled similarly “The Municipal Federation of Overseas Chinese Received [its] Overseas Commissioner Bu Qiyue,” one dated October 16, 2013, and the other May 26, 2014, were taken down from the official website of the Federation of Overseas Chinese of Changzhou. Professor Bu owes the Wellesleyans an explanation.
According to both reports, Professor Bu thanked the Federation for “taking care” of his aging father. Professor Bu probably can also explain what “taking care” entails. We believe there is an issue of conflict of interest here.
In his agitated state, Professor Bu had trouble keeping his narrative together. In his article I Am Not a Communist Spy, he alleged that Professor Cushman worked with us against him. “Mr. Cushman and so-called ‘freedom fighters’ resorted to a McCarthy-style witch hunt. They couldn’t find anything, so they went after my hometown connection (Changzhou, a city most Americans have never heard of) and wrote a bogus story about me. In particular, it fabricated a ‘Communist Commissioner’ position for me, which I don’t even qualify.” (Again, nowhere in our report did we describe Bu Qiyue as a “Communist Commissioner.”) When this accusation fell apart, a week later in his Letter to the Editor, Professor Bu made Yaxue the main villain who “mislead Professor Thomas Cushman,” damaging not only Professor Bu’s reputation, the reputation of Professor Cushman, but also the reputation of Wellesley College. We are very amused by this remarkable show of mental gymnastics.
We are aware of the controversy over Professor Xia, Professor Cushman, and Professor Bu on the Wellesley campus. We are aware of the ongoing student petition and the issues raised by 20+ faculty members in their Letter to the Editor on October 22. We want to remind Wellesleyans that Yaxue’s report, which sums up the findings about Professor Bu by a group of Chinese Twitter users, is a key part of the whole picture, and should be considered carefully. In answering Professor Bu’s accusation that Professor Cushman worked with us to produce this report, Yaxue wrote to The Wellesley News and explained how our report came about. In this letter, we ask Professor Bu a few key questions and lay out some larger issues.
Wellesleyans know better than we do that identity politics at the expense of truth is poison. It can be easily manipulated to silence critics. For the sake of academic freedom, we ask Wellesleyans to carefully examine the facts first before letting loose these -isms. Wellesley students and faculty should not rush to sign a petition or take a side without knowing and understanding the facts of the case. Of all people, Wellesleyans should not be intellectually lazy.
Finally, we would like to share our thoughts on Wellesley’s partnership with Peking University. Professor Charles Bu has spoken glowingly of Wellesley’s partnership with Peking University and how great it is for Wellesley. Professor Cushman does not oppose such engagement but gives warnings about the limits and price of such exchanges. A reexamination of American universities’ partnerships with Chinese counterparts seems to be underway on some campuses, and we look forward to reading more studies from our scholars. Here we want to tell Wellesleyans a few stories you will not learn from your partnership with PKU.
Xu Zhiyong (许志永) was a PKU law student who went on to found Gongmeng, or the Open Constitution Initiative, in 2003, pioneering China’s rights defense movement over the last ten years. When Gongmeng was shut down by the government in 2009, he went on to launch the New Citizens Movement with a band of rights lawyers, journalists, liberal intellectuals, and pro-democracy netizens. Across China in over 30 cities, citizens met regularly to discuss current affairs, engage in activism, and to press for changes in social and legal arenas. When the crackdown on the New Citizens Movement came last year, scores were arrested and tried, and Dr. Xu Zhiyong himself was sentenced earlier this year to four and half years in jail for “disturbing order in a public place.” His court statement, which was translated by ChinaChange.org into English, was called “the China Manifesto” by the Telegraph. His close friend Teng Biao, also a PKU alumnus, is currently at Harvard, and perhaps Wellesley can have him over to discuss a few things you will never be talking about in your partnership with PKU.
Cao Shunli (曹顺利) was another PKU alumnus whose story you will never learn from your partnership with PKU. In September, 2013, Cao Shunli was detained in the Exit & Entry area of the Beijing Capital International Airport where she was en route to Geneva to attend human rights training. Her “crime” was to demand participation in China’s domestic plans to advance human rights, and report the progress to the UN Human Rights Council in advance of its Universal Periodic Reviews. For her work, she had been put in labor camp, and finally in jail. When her health deteriorated in prison last fall and this spring, the Chinese authorities denied her treatment. She died in custody in March, 2014. When NGO representatives around the world held up Cao Shunli’s photo on the floor of the UN Human Rights Council to protest her death, the Chinese delegates “went beyond diplomatic protocol….to block the moment of silence for Cao Shunli.”
Do you know Who Lin Zhao (林昭) is? She was another PKU woman you should know. She was executed during the Cultural Revolution for criticizing Mao Zedong and the Communist Party’s rule. You will not hear her name in your partnership with PKU but you can watch this documentary about her.
The list is long and this is not the place to enumerate it. As this letter is being posted, a 34-year-old PKU alumnus name Shen Yongping (沈勇平) is being tried in Beijing on November 4th for making a documentary about China’s failed one-hundred-year pursuit of constitutional democracy.
Although we are not Wellesleyans, based on our understanding of the Chinese Communist Party and our close knowledge of the Party’s practices, we are sure your partnership is sanitized and bleached to prevent you from any meaningful discussion with your PKU partners about some of the most important and riveting issues regarding China and the world.
And worse, since the university authorities, not independent but also directed by the Communist Party, have control over what you would be exposed to, and your activities would be monitored carefully, you would be led to believe the China they package and present to you is the real China if you are not thinking vigorously and seek out for yourself.
With spite and clenched teeth, Professor Charles Bu spoke of “freedom fighters.” We don’t know if we deserve to be call freedom fighters, but we are convinced that freedom is worth fighting for.
Fengsuo Zhou, California.
Yaxue Cao, Washington, DC.
A timeline of the events from September 2013 to the present:
1) On September 3, 2013, 100+ Wellesley professors published a letter to Peking University regarding the possible dismissal of Professor Xia Yeiang;
2) On September 13, 2013, Professor Cushman published the article Conscience and Compromise: The Troubling Case of Yeliang Xia in the Chronicle of Higher Education;
3) On October 18, 2013, a Friday, Peking University formally announced the dismissal of Professor Xia Yeliang;
4) On October 22, 2013, Professor Charles Bu published in Xinhua News website the article In American Universities Faculties Also Have to Be Evaluated to Get Contract Renewal (Wellesley has a full translation);
5) On October 29, Prof. Bu published the article Why the PKU partnership is good for Wellesley in The Wellesley News;
6) On November 3, Prof. Bu published the article Journalists Should Ask Peking U. Students About Yeliang Xia in the Chronicle of Higher Education;
7) On November 25, 2013, Yaxue Cao posted Why Is a Math Professor at Wellesley So Hard Hitting against an Economics Professor Fired by Peking University in China on China Change website;
8) On February 27, 2014, Professor Cushman gave a presentation at Cato Institute: Chinese Intrusions into American Universities: Consequences for Freedom;
9) On Oct 5, 2014, New York Times published an article about Professor Cushman, Policing University Partnerships in Authoritarian Countries;
10) On October 22, 2014, Professor Bu published the article I am not a Communist spy in The Wellesley News;
11) On October 23, 2014, Professor Cushman published a rebuttal On Charles Bu’s Falsehoods in The Wellesley News;
12) On Oct 26, 2014, 20+ Wellesley faculty members voiced disapproval of Prof. Cushman in The Wellesley News;
13) On Oct 27, 2014, a faculty/student/alumni petition against Prof Cushman led by Sophia S. Chen, Class of 2013, was initiated. Unclear how many people have signed the petition;
14) On Oct 27, 2014, Yaxue Cao explained how her report from a year ago came about in a Letter to the Editor of The Wellesley News;
15) On Oct 30, 2014, Prof. Bu threatened to bring a lawsuit against Yaxue Cao in his Letter to the Editor of The Wellesley News;
16) On November 4, 2014, Fengsuo Zhou and Yaxue Cao posted Take a Considered Position through Disciplined Thinking – An Open Letter to Wellesley College on China Change website.
17) On November 6, 2014, Wellesley Student Tiffany Chan published the article Conflict between Professors Bu and Cushman Creates Unsafe Environment in The Wellesley News.
By Fengsuo Zhou, Yaxue Cao, published: June 11, 2014
Henry Degroot is a student at Newton North High School, Massachusetts. He wrote a pro-democracy note in a Chinese student’s notebook during an exchange program in Beijing and signed it. A Chinese teacher found out. Henry was detained for five hours, forced to apologize by his American teachers, and, back to America, the school barred him from prom.
As two naturalized Chinese Americans and democracy advocates, we feel compelled to offer our perspectives on Boston Globe’s recent story Newton student penalized for democracy notes in China. Fengsuo Zhou was a student leader during the Tian’anmen Square democracy movement in 1989, No.5 on Chinese government’s wanted list when the movement was crushed by tanks and machine guns, and imprisoned for one year after he was captured and paraded on China’s state-run national TV. Yaxue Cao founded and edits ChinaChange.org to bring news and analysis about China’s democracy movement into English.
First of all we want to ask: Did young Henry Degroot do anything wrong? He wrote in a Chinese student’s notebook, “Democracy is for cool kids;” “don’t believe the lies your school and government tell you;” and “it’s right to rebel.” One does not have to look further than the recent Tiananmen commemoration to see that the Chinese government lies to its people and the Chinese schools teach lies to its students. Is it wrong to rebel against lies and repression? Is it wrong to extol democracy?
The Newton School officials said Henry violated a code of conduct, insulted his Chinese hosts, showed disrespect for the Chinese, and failed to adhere to the standards of the exchange program.
We want to ask: What code of conduct is it that discourages our students from expressing a moral attitude in perfectly decent words? To whom did Henry show disrespect, the people of China or its totalitarian government’s practices? Who did Henry insult when he voiced an objection to government-engineered lies? What are “the standards” of this exchange program anyway? To teach our children to be tame, fearful, unthinking, and muzzle their thoughts so as not to offend a morally repulsive host?
Mr. David Fleishman, the Newton School Superintendent, spoke of the “the intricacies of Chinese culture and social norms.” There is nothing intricate about right and wrong, freedom and bondage; and it should be no one’s norm to deprive human beings of their God-given freedoms and reduce them into sub-humans.
Twenty-five years ago, Chinese communist party crushed protesters with tanks and shot them with machine guns. But for nearly sixty-five years, the regime has never stopped crushing free thinking and free expression. In the 1950s, hundreds and thousands of intellectuals were persecuted for expressions. In 1970, a young Beijingese by the name Yu Luoke (遇罗克) was executed for writing a pamphlet arguing against persecution by family association. Nobel Peace Prize winner Liu Xiaobo has been serving a 11-year sentence since 2008 for drafting the Charter 08 that spells out a blueprint for a free and democratic China.
We can go on with a long list of Chinese citizens who are serving long prison sentences, often tortured and mistreated, simply because of a few articles or poems they wrote.
Last year, the Chinese communist party issued a document known as “Document No. 9” highlighting “seven perils” to its rule, including ideas about Western constitutional democracy, universal values of human rights, freedom of the press, civil society, liberal ideas of free markets, and criticisms of the party’s traumatic past.
In China, internet censorship nowadays is such that you will not be able to express any dissent without your account being deleted. You can register 100 times and you will be deleted 100 times. Every day the Party’s propaganda department issues directives to all media outlets across China, traditional and digital, to conceal truth or stem public discussions about anything that might veer towards criticism of the party, whether it is a speed train accident, an environmental protest, or an alleged terror attack.
Last week, on June 3rd, Fengsuo slipped into China – he is still banned from returning China to see his relatives – to visit Tian’anmen Square on the eve of the 25th anniversary of the 1989 democracy movement. He succeeded in taking a brief look at the heavily-policed square devoid of any sign of activities, and he was apprehended soon after he returned to hotel, detained for 18 hours and deported.
On Monday, June 9th, we learned that a 22-year-old Chinese Twitter user had been arrested for tweeting a proposal to use fake base stations to spread the truth about the June 4th massacre.
We understand why the Newton school officials are so upset with Henry: Jingshan School is perhaps the most prestigious school in all of China attended by the children of the most powerful and the richest, and Newton School cherishes its exchange program with Jingshan school above anything else. That’s precisely why we shudder at the choice our educators make. We believe that the Newton School community – the students, the teachers, the parents, and the taxpayers – deserve a debate about the incident and the meaning of the exchange program.
In fact, America needs a debate about its China policies. As a nation, we have acquiesced to China’s atrocious human rights abuses for too long. Such acquiescence has emboldened communist repression, and made the fight for democracy in China much harder. With China representing 1/5 of the human race and under an increasingly aggressive one-party dictatorship, the stakes are high not just for the Chinese people, but also for the world.
Finally, to the Newton School officials, we quote Mr. Slade, the fictional protagonist from the movie “The Scent of a Woman” whose words however should not be treated as fiction: “What is your model here? ….I say you are killing the very spirit this institution proclaims it installs. … There is nothing like the sight of an amputated spirit, and there is no prosthetics for that.”
To the young people in Newton School, in China and everywhere else, we say, “Democracy is for cool kids. And it is right to rebel against lies.”
Fengsuo Zhou, Bay area, California
Yaxue Cao, Washington, DC
By Teng Biao, translated by Rogier Creemers
Even in Robinson’s world of one man, his life required information, reflection and memory. Human society not having information is even more impossible to imagine. It may be said that a person is moulded by the information he or she comes into contact with and masters; a society is the same.
Thinking and memory cannot be separated from language. Modern philosophers have paid more and more attention to the extreme importance of language in human societies. The thinking human (homo sapiens) exists first and foremost as a language human (homo loquens). Society and language have not stopped interacting for a blink: regardless of whether philosophy is concerned, or whether politics or society is concerned, language not only is a tool for expression and memory – language itself has a huge capacity to create reality.
Because of this, all systems that want to control and transform society attempt to control and transform language. (Do you remember “Newspeak” from Oceania?) Movements to transform thinking are at the same time movements to transform language; the education to keep people in ignorance is at the same time an education that promotes a language system designed to keep people in ignorance. The highest effect of controlling language is ensuring that a person cannot produce heterodox thinking, and to ensure that persons cannot become their true selves. Because totalitarian ambitions are not only to transform public politics and transform private lives, but also to transform spirits (“Wreak revolution in your innermost soul”); they are surely aware of the deep effects of this revolutionary tool, language, and know how to achieve the greatest effect.
In the various Spring and Autumn thinkers, Han prose and Tang poetry, Song verse and Yuan drama, Ming and Qing novels, the Book of Odes and the Historical Records, essays and letters, plays and storytelling, calligraphy and couples, Mandarin art has extraordinarily enriched the spiritual world of Chinese, and has made immortal contributions to the culture of humankind. But its fate is similar to that of Russian, and the Mandarin that once created outstanding culture was unable to escape the ravages of totalitarianism in the 20th century. From character reform to revolutionary slogans, from applications to join the party to ideological reports, from the Little Red Book to poetry contests, from model plays to the Three Old Articles, from eight-legged Party writing to language and literature course, from letters to diaries, from film and television to comic dialogue: Mandarin has met with complete abuse and pollution. Totalitarian politics are a politics “without laughter” (dixit Zizek); totalitarian language must be a language lacking in humor, mechanical and insipid. Bloody and hypocritical politics have led to the withering of Mandarin; dull Mandarin has led to the desertification of the minds of the Chinese.
The editorials of the People’s Daily and the CCTV Evening News once were an important part of Chinese people’s lives and, for some, it is still their “compulsory course” every day. As soon as it turns seven in the evening, some people concentrate their attention on the television to watch the Evening News with the piety of apostles. If they watch a sports program at that time, they feel they have let down the benevolence of the Party, the country, heaven and earth. Every day, people see or hear these phrases in newspapers, magazines or the television:
“The Party’s strong leadership is the basic guarantee for doing good in everything. ……The Party cadres and State personnel across the board must persist in seeking truth from facts, progressing with the times, and maintaining a good spiritual outlook and work style, persist in using their powers for the good of the people, showing concern for them and working for their benefit, so as to better unite and lead the masses to base themselves on scientific development, strive for indigenous innovation, perfect structures and mechanisms, and stimulate social harmony.” (People’s Daily, January 1, 2006)
“Let us raise high the magnificent banner of Deng Xiaoping Theory, completely implement the important ‘Three Represents’ thought, closely unite around the Party Center with Comrade Hu Jintao as General Secretary, carry forward the cause into the future, progress with the times, work diligently in spite of difficulty, pioneer and innovate, and wrest new and even greater victories in the cause of Socialism with Chinese characteristics, imbued with confidence.” (People’s Daily, March 19, 2003)
“Carrying forward Lei Feng’s spirit is consistent with the basic requirement of completely implementing the important ‘Three Represents’ thought, and is a concrete reflection of practicing the important ‘Three Represents’ thought. Launching activities to learn from Lei Feng under new circumstances, we must closely grasp this topic of the times that is to study and practice the important ‘Three Represents’ thought, and we must persist in making the important ‘Three Represents’ thought into a mandatory course for young officers and soldiers to grow and establish themselves, a mandatory course for Communist Party members’ to train them about the nature of the Party, and a mandatory course for leading cadres to govern and use power. The broad officers and soldiers must carry forward the Lei Feng Spirit, earnestly comprehend and deeply grasp the scientific connotations and spiritual essence of the important ‘Three Represents’ thought, persist in using revolutionary theory to guide lives, consciously make the important ‘Three Represents’ thought into ‘nourishment,’ ‘weapons’ and ‘the steering wheel’, ensure that it becomes a formidable spiritual pillar for strengthening political convictions, hold high the magnificent banner of Deng Xiaoping Theory throughout, and determinedly obey the commands of the Party Center, the Central Military Commission and Chairman Jiang.” (PLA Daily, March 5, 2003)
The result of these sentences is not only that they strangle our thinking, but that they also strangle the delight and aesthetics of our language, so much so that chewing wax is more interesting than reading these sentences. If I am required to choose between ignorance and insipidness, I would rather select the former. But totalitarianism requires that we are insensitive towards language, that our souls become numb, and that we are both ignorant and insipid.
Through the round-the-clock and repeated clamor and unobtrusive influence of public language (newspapers, radio, television, plenary reports, red-headed documents, news bulletins, textbooks of history), the flavor of our writing, reading, lecturing and even daily speech is molded. When picking up a pen, we come up with nothing but clichés and hackneyed expressions. When we talk, there are either lies and double talk, or boasts and idle talk. Regardless of whether it is an official, an actor, a professor or a journalist, as soon as someone gets on the stage to speak, they all become prigs as if by appointment. The haughty official’s tune, the hypocrite’s tune, the revolutionary tune, in short, people just cannot talk like normal human beings. A few years ago, someone criticized the television drama “Grand Justice” for not speaking “the people’s language”, and I shared the same feeling deeply. In real life, people who talk like that are either lunatics or political counselors at Tsinghua University. It isn’t just in “Grand Justice”; in all the works with officially-promoted themes, few people speak the people’s language. The characters are either tall, grand and perfect, or false, ugly and vicious. How can they speak the authentic language of humanity when what they do is deceive by either dressing up as gods or playing devils?
“The style of Party newspaper editorials” and “the tune of the news broadcast” indicate that totalitarianism dominates our thinking habits and our aesthetic habits as a dominant grammar and as an official aesthetics. “Wolf’s milk” has become “wolf’s blood” in our veins through language, thinking and unconsciousness. Are there more “microscopic” or more profound “techniques of power” than these?
The governance of writing and speaking is realized through governing language users’ flesh as well as their minds. In order to transform memories, inject ideas into people’s minds and prevent independent writing, a formidable, comprehensive governance project to purge language is required: the work unit system of intellectuals, the prior censorship system, prototypical literature, the officially-promoted themes, language textbooks, political exams, the “five one project,” the writers’ associations, the literary inquisition as well as writers and speakers’ self-censorship. Furthermore, Mandarin has also been trampled beyond recognition by all sorts of banning and filtering technologies. Under so many taboos and restrictions, people can only say one thing and mean another, hold their tongue, make oblique accusations, beat about the bush, and perfect the art of being indistinct and ambiguous. The Mandarin world after passing through the filter is a harmonious society that is beautiful without parallel: “there is no speech that isn’t important; there is no applause that isn’t enthusiastic; there is no policymaking that isn’t wise; there is no path that isn’t correct; there are no popular feelings that aren’t inspired; there is no progress that isn’t smooth; there are no ranks that aren’t united; there are no masses that aren’t satisfied”. Thanks to our wise leaders, life has climbed another step up, enemies have made asses of themselves again, and the situation is excellent everywhere we look.
Because of this, apart from the fact that today’s Mandarin overflows with politicized clichés and prudery, it is also congested with naked lies and shameless perversions: “the Chinese Communist Party has first and foremost rushed into the forefront of the anti-Japanese war, the Communist Party is the mainstay of the nation’s united anti-Japanese resistance”, “the masses enthusiastically welcome delegates of the Two Meetings”, “our country’s human rights situation is at the best period in history”, “there is no conflict between peasants and the police in China”, “There is no one in China who has been arrested for speech online.” Such lies can be found everywhere. In totalitarian ideological language, there is a “class struggle” without “class enemies”, a “democracy” in which the people cannot make decisions, “constitutionalism” in which the Constitution is willfully trampled underfoot, “freedom of speech” that doesn’t let people speak freely, “citizens” who have no power and also aren’t protected by the law, “public servants” who are always higher than the “people” in power and position, “the representatives of the proletarian class interests” who care more for capitalists than workers”, etc. (Xu Ben). Through forced and deliberate misrepresentation, the CCP has changed China.
Mandarin under totalitarianism is brimming with tautologies, self-aggrandizement and gangster logic, it has no use, no mercy, no reason, no fun, and no taste; it is reduced to a language game that has no connection with reality. China’s “fault lines” are first and foremost the fault lines between the signified and the signifier in Mandarin, and the fault lines between Mandarin and Chinese reality. Mandarin is the home of every Chinese person, but nowadays it is as if all Chinese people are living under an enemy occupation.
Under the mirages constituted by false, aggrandizement and empty Mandarin, another, real world of Mandarin has been growing arduously on the solid ground. Behind a world that “puts up a false show of peace and prosperity,” ordinary people’s anxiety and difficulties are hidden; behind forced collective forgetting, there are tenacious individual memories; behind the grand lies and narratives, there is resistance against slavery as well as an incessant thirst for freedom. Public language and official language, often rigid, affected, ugly, dull, overbearing and coarse, has become the target of ridicule, sarcasm and disdain in private conversations.
Browsing some independent Chinese-language media or websites, you see a different world: “United Nations Special Envoy for Torture Novak says China’s use of torture is still broad”, “blind rights defender Chen Guangcheng has been arrested for 58 days without any whereabouts”, “Election results of Dashi Village Challenged”, “Yahoo Company has been exposed again as allegedly providing evidence to the Chinese police, resulting in a prison sentence of 10 years for Beijing online dissident Wang Xiaoning”, “‘Freezing Point’ weekly refuses to publish the reply article of Yuan Weishi”, “After a secret visit and investigation, rights defenders refute the official statement about the shooting incident in Shanwei,” “On the eve of the Two Meetings, the appropriate authorities have again been searching and arresting petitioners, and a petitioner was struck and killed by a train during pursuit.”
Through folk poetry, underground publications, individual blogs, network periodicals and free media, Mandarin begins to recover its vitality. Ever more people begin to write honestly from their heart; ever more people hope to read truthful, idiosyncratic writing; ever more people begin to think independently and speak the truth. In order to clean out the poison of totalitarian language, and in order to save Mandarin, individual writers, citizen journalists, liberal intellectuals, poets, directors, teachers, students, network writers as well as all conscientious Mandarin users have sprung into action. They do not want Mandarin to become a series of mechanical and dogmatic words devoid of imagination, to become a yoke that confines thinking and suppresses the individual, or to become a writing game of altering history and glossing over reality. Among the writers and journalists locked up across the whole world, the absolute majority are writers and journalist who write in Mandarin. This fact indicates the brave exploration and struggle of Mandarin speakers under grim circumstances.
They are creating a new Mandarin world. This new Mandarin world is continuously vying for members with the old Mandarin world. This process of competition and its results will decide what China looks like in the future. And every person is able to influence this process by answering the following questions: What sort of writing do we read? What sort of Chinese do we use?
The first step in rebuilding civil society is to build ourselves up; building ourselves up needs to begin with re-building our own language. “Power is the language of the powerful, language is the power of the powerless” (Hu Ping). Tyranny has occupied and continues to occupy our homes, bodies and language, and one of the easiest and the most basic works perhaps is to drive away the tyranny of Mandarin from our writing and speech.
May 6, 2006
The following is a guest post from a friend who writes on her blog ChinaB.org
My Chinese friend turned to me the other day and said “What time is it? I got a plane to Shenzhen to catch.”
“Shenzhen? What are you doing going there on a Sunday night?”
She looked suddenly embarrassed and told me quietly that she was taking a PhD qualifying exam for someone. The first question that came to mind was why?; why this thirty-some-year-old was being flown out to Shenzhen to take a PhD exam. I have known her for two years, and she is a very kind and curious woman, but by no means a mover and shaker. Her English is pretty good, and if she had any other hidden talents, she kept them very well hidden.
“There is an English part to the exam, but it’s on a couple of different subjects. The girl I’m taking it for is overseas at grad school and can’t come back to China just for the test. My company [a study abroad facilitator who sends Chinese students overseas] helped her get into grad school, so her father asked my boss if he had any employees who could take the PhD test for her. I look the most like her, so he interviewed me then said I could do it.”
Moral quandary aside, I was a bit worried for both parties. Could she pass the test? What if she didn’t?
“He’s already paying for my flight and giving me 5000 RMB.”
Well, that’s not a little money.
She flushed in embarrassment again. “My father’s giving me a lot of pressure to make money, he says I’m underpaid and I need to step up, so whenever I can find a side gig, I take it.”
I smiled to show I wasn’t judging her. She is beyond the reasonable marriageable age (after 27 in China you’re “leftover,” not to mention 30). She worked overtime regularly to get Chinese students into schools in America, Australia, and England, but had never left the country herself.
“He also said if it goes well, his company could use an English interpreter when they go overseas. They’re going to Germany in the fall and I’d love to go.”
In America, there is a direct correlation between a student’s SAT score and his/her father’s income. It is undeniable that the top SAT scorers tend to come from environments that speak standard English, promote intellectualism and hard work, and/or have enough money to hire a tutor. So the US has its own set of systematic pulleys and levers that propel some while restraining others. For China, this system is also true, and then some. After living through a turbulent modern history, surviving famines, political crusades, and the destruction of religion, there is little platform for anti-cheating ethics. Many Chinese would not even call this a case of cheating, but rather a case of someone being well-off enough to afford a good education.
And as for my friend, I sincerely hope she does pass the test and get to go to Germany. It is hard to hold her morally accountable when, as she said, “If I don’t do it, he’ll find someone else who can.” Her saying no to the job would have caused more trouble than taking it on; her boss would have been angry, possibly lost face and business, and the possibility of strong connections and future opportunities would have been nixed. From her point of view, there is nothing to be gained by turning down the offer.