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Yaxue Cao, November 27, 2016
Ms. Liu Huizhen (刘惠珍) is a villager in the District of Fangshan (房山区), on the southwestern outskirts of Beijing. She’s a victim of forced demolition who fought hard to preserve her property but lost it anyway. This year, she is one of the 70 or so Beijing residents who organized to compete for seats as district People’s Representatives. China held its once-every-five-year grassroots elections for county-district level People’s Representatives on November 15. In a joint statement, Ms. Liu and other independent candidates promised that “they will make sure every voter knows who they are and how to reach them with their problems, and as their representatives, will monitor the government and its functions.”
Financial Times, Washington Post, and other media outlets reported Ms. Liu’s candidacy. On November 17, BBC posted a striking 5-minute video of its Beijing correspondent John Sudworth visiting Ms. Liu, showing him blocked and manhandled by a throng of plainclothes cops, or government-hired thugs. The video went viral on WeChat, and got a lot of play on Twitter too.
On November 19, a CCTV journalist based in London — according to her Twitter bio in any case — with the handle @KongLinlin, accused John Sudworth of making “fake” news. She has since been identified as Kong Linlin (孔琳琳).
Several Twitter users, including BBC’s Stephen McDonell, asked her to point out which part of John Sudworth’s reporting was fake. She replied in Chinese:
“Liu Huizhen has been party to a lawsuit because of a housing demolition, and a BBC journalist in China got himself involved in the Chinese judiciary, trying to artificially lump together Chinese grassroots elections with a demolition suit. When he reported for Western audiences, he made no mention of the woman’s background, misleading people exactly the way he reported the Obama Red Carpet Gate.”
Ms. Kong is referring to the fact that Liu sued Fangshan District Housing and Urban-Rural Construction Committee for unlawful demolition and lost in the first instance and then, in 2015, the appeal.
In his reporting, Sudworth made no mention of the demolition suit, as it’s irrelevant to the elections. So how did Sudworth “artificially lump together Chinese grassroots elections with a demolition suit”?
Does Liu’s “background” matter in the elections, and in her role as an independent candidate? It appears to me that it’s the CCTV reporter who’s lumping together Liu Huizhen’s lawsuit with her participation in the elections.
Ms. Kong went on to explain why the story is supposedly fake:
“Isn’t he deliberately blurring this woman’s lawsuit and using Western political concepts to get involved in China’s rural economic disputes? Hasn’t he been making hate propaganda for BBC?” (Emphasis in original.)
Continuing to explain the alleged falsity of Sudworth’s reporting, she tweeted (English her own): “Deliberately reporting on unclear fact , depend on single resource ,misleading the audience .That is also a fake news.” (A Twitter user commented: “this is not how you type punctuation.”)
She picked it up some two hours later on November 20:
“A Chinese person who doesn’t abide by Chinese election laws but fantasizes that she can ‘participate’ in elections in the American way. It’s inevitable that she’d be ‘locked up’. Ms. Liu also supported Hong Kong independence — how could she have the right to be elected?”
According to Article 3 of China’s Electoral Law, “All citizens of the People’s Republic of China who have reached the age of 18 shall have the right to vote and stand for election, regardless of ethnic status, race, sex, occupation, family background, religious belief, education, property status or length of residence. Persons who have been deprived of political rights according to the law shall not have the right to vote and stand for election.”
Ms. Liu may have lost a civil lawsuit against her local government, but she’s not a criminal and has not been deprived of political rights. In November 2014, Liu and nine others in Beijing were detained for holding signs to support the Umbrella Movement in Hong Kong, and she was released after seven months in detention.
By now, many Chinese Twitter users were arguing with and ridiculing Kong Linlin.
A few hours later, Ms. Liu Huizhen, who recently joined Twitter, became aware of the unfolding argument and tweeted: “You are a Chinese journalist, and you have no regard for fact. All you do is sing the praise [of the Party]. Have you eaten up your own conscience?”
“I’m Liu Huizhen,” she continued, “they blocked me from leaving my home because I declared that I would take part in the elections as a candidate. The world wouldn’t know such ugliness if the BBC didn’t happen to capture the truth. Ms. Kong Linlin, you may eat you dog food with your conscience unperturbed, but you’ve got no right to insult me!”
“I’ve decided to tweet more details of my candidacy. @KongLinlin, open up your titanium dog eyes to see who’s violating the law,” Liu went on.
“I submitted my name [to the district’s electoral committee] in mid-October, 2016 to stand for election. Around 10 am on October 30, I picked up the voter recommendation form and candidate CV form. Around noon on the same day, I began to seek support in the No. 50 electoral zone. By the next day, 24 voters in my zone had signed on to recommend me as a candidate for office of People’s Representative.”
According to Article 29 of China’s Electoral Law, any citizen with the recommendation of 10 or more voters can enter the primary selection.
Liu continued, “What the BBC video revealed was only a tiny fraction of my far more complicated experience. The repressive agents were so blatant that not even policemen dared intervene. So you tell me: who is backing them? I can’t imagine there are journalists like Kong Linlin who would defend them! I ask the whole world to judge this. Thank you everyone!”
She attached photographs of the neighborhood posting of five candidates for the No. 50 electoral zone, and her ballot, where she wrote in herself and another candidate.
An hour later, the CCTV journalist resumed her attack:
“You should also disclose how you received guidance, and how much funding you received, from overseas anti-China hostile forces.”
“How did BBC accidentally videotape you? How did you accidentally have photos as proof when you supported Hong Kong independence? You’ve actively taken part in anti-China political activities. Stop pretending you’re an innocent village woman.”
Ms. Kong provided no evidence for these accusations. To a Twitter user who pointed out her distorted logic, she replied: “I also support legitimate candidates who use the ballot to gain rights, but those who are funded by foreign political forces will have no lawful right to stand for elections in China.”
To a Twitter user who criticized the Chinese government’s use of thuggery to stop independent candidates, Ms. Kong has this to say: “China prohibits the use of illegal assembly to participate in People’s Representative elections. If [she] wants to be elected as a representative the American way, [she] should go to the United States.”
One comment asked Ms. Kong: “How many people together constitute ‘illegal assembly’?” while another comment pointed out: “So far, Ms. Liu’s ‘violation’ of the law only existed in your mouth, but I saw with my own eyes the violation of law by the thugs, I also see that you are defending such violations of the law. …By defending such violations of the law, you don’t show your high ground in rule-of-law thinking, but the lowness of your moral standard.”
To a Twitter user who asked Ms. Kong to explain what a “legitimate” candidate is, she replied:
“First of all, [a candidate] cannot be manipulated by foreign forces. This is a basic requirement for candidates in any country.” She didn’t reply when the same Twitter user asked her: “Which law defines whether or not a candidate is ‘manipulated by foreign forces’? Who has the right to define it? Through what procedures is it defined? Or is it just an arbitrary decision from the lips of the relevant organ?” (i.e. official government body.)
Finally, CCTV’s Kong Linlin had this to say to Ms. Liu Huizhen:
“Ms. Liu, to petition your case, you go to the court. Nobody is blocking you from taking part in the elections, except that you have to go through appropriate procedures and abide by Chinese law. You mix your petition with illegal assembly, and in addition, you collude with foreign forces, and support Hong Kong independence. You are doing so many things, and each one of them endangers the country. Don’t be sold out by those people in the end.”
Because of this prolonged argument between Ms. Kong Linlin and Ms. Liu Huizhen and a good number of Chinese Twitter users, I scrolled down Ms. Kong’s Twitter feed and had a few more peeks into her world:
- On UK public opinion against the Hinkley deal: “Very close mind .” (English her own.)
- She likes to use the word “democrazy” to answer Twitter users who express disgust with her views.
- On the Hamilton cast reading a statement to Vice President-elect Mike Pence: “Insult your audience is not the real free speech.” (English her own.)
- On the execution of Jia Jinglong (贾敬龙): “If the case is so easy to judge ,why we need a professional judge .” (English her own.)
- On Syria: “…it is all because of Obama.” (English her own.)
- On the CCP and China today: “Chinese young people have to thank that big mountain that blocks the wind for them when they wear high-end earpieces and listen to music and discuss current affairs, spared of the fate of the Iraqi, Libyan, and Syrian refugees who are displaced or die on their journey because of the harm of color revolutions.”
- On Western media: “To understand the evil side of western media , they try to provoke and make more troubles on the rising China.” [English her own]
- On the UK: “Hahaha, The British,’ like a lion,they like to roar,but can no longer hunt.'” (English her own.)
Yaxue Cao edits this website. Follow her on Twitter @YaxueCao
Compare Ms. Kong’s worldview to that articulated in these two propaganda videos released during the trials of four lawyers and activists earlier this year:
‘We Have a Fake Election’: China Disrupts Local Campaigns, the New York Times, Nov. 15, 2016
For Over 36 Years, Grassroots Elections in China Have Made No Progress – An Interview With Hu Ping, China Change, Nov. 1, 2016
By Xu Zhiyong, Xiao Shu, Teng Biao, et al.
April 18, 2013
As of noon today (April 18, Beijing Time), at least seven citizens in Beijing have been criminally detained for demanding asset disclosure by government officials. Around noon today, the family of Mr. Zhao Changqing (赵常青) received a notice that he had been criminally detained. Around eight o’clock last night, lawyer Ding Jiaxi (丁家喜) was taken away for a criminal summons on allegations of “illegal gathering.” Also last night, Mr. Sun Hanhui (孙含会) was criminally detained. And before him, on the evening of April 15, Mr. Wang Yonghong (王永红) was criminally detained, both on allegations of “illegal gathering.”
Earlier on March 31, four citizens—Yuan Dong (袁冬), Zhang Baocheng (张宝成), Hou Xin (侯欣) and Ma Xinli (马新立) –were criminally detained after displaying a banner in Xidan (西单, downtown Beijing about two miles west of the Tian’anmen Square) calling for officials to disclose their assets.
On December 9, 2012, Sun Hanhui, Ding Jiaxi and dozens of other citizens initiated the campaign to call for China’s 205 top officials to disclose their assets, and the campaign has since collected over 7,000 signatures that, along with a written proposal, were submitted to the National People’s Congress during the Two Sessions in March. Carried out by the Public Transportation Security Bureau of the Beijing Public Security Bureau, this wave of detentions appears to be targeting the four citizens who demonstrated in Xidan.
The public is indignant about the gross and epidemic corruption in China. The central government has vowed repeatedly to rein it in, but has not taken effective measures to do so. It is completely legitimate for citizens to call for disclosure of officials’ assets, and citizens have the freedom of expression, guaranteed by the Constitution, to voice their demands by displaying banners. The government has promised asset disclosure for over 30 years. While they have not made good on their words, they are now trying to charge citizens who push for it. How is it a crime for citizens to fight corruption?
In most of the democratic countries with rule of law, it has long been a norm for government officials to declare their assets. But in China, citizens, like Yuan Dong, Ding Jiaxi, Sun Hanhui, Wang Yonghong, Zhao Changqing, are being detained for demanding it. Is this what the so-called “China Dream” is all about?
State power cannot deprive citizens of their right of free expression granted by Article 35 of the Constitution. We resolutely demand the immediate release of Yuan Dong, Ma Xinli, Zhang Baocheng, Wang Yonghong, Li Wei, Sun Hanhui, Ding Jiaxi, and Zhao Changqing, the seven citizens (Hou Xin is out on bail due to a heart condition) who have participated in calling for Chinese government officials to disclose their assets.
Please join us to sign the appeal by sending your name, profession and city of residence to the asset disclosure campaign mailbox email@example.com.
Xu Zhiyong 许志永, Doctor of Law, Beijing
Xiao Shu 笑蜀, journalist, Guangzhou
Wang Gongquan 王功权, entrepreneur, Beijing
Teng Biao 滕彪, Doctor of Law, Beijing
Liu Weiguo 刘卫国, lawyer, Jinan
Fu Yonggang 付永刚, lawyer, Jinan
Zhao Yonglin 赵永林, lawyer, Tai’an
Zhou Xingyuan 周兴远 , lawyer, Shanxi
Guo Lianhui 郭莲辉, lawyer, Jiangxi
Liang Xiaojun 梁小军, lawyer, Beijing
Li Xiongbing 黎雄兵, lawyer, Beijing
Ai Xiaoming 艾晓明, scholar, Guangzhou
Hu Jia 胡佳, citizen, Beijing
The Chinese original is being circulated widely on Weibo and Twitter. Here is the link to the version Yaxue published via google docs.
Simply put, Teng Biao (滕彪) is one of the best known human rights lawyers and legal scholars in China. This is his preface to a memoir entitled “A Worthwhile Trip—A Documentation of Beijing Reeducation-through-Labor Dispatch Center”, in which he looks deep into what these camps do to inmates as human beings. It’s much worse than just turning them into cheap labor making Christmas gifts for the American market.
It’s inconceivable, in a modern society, to detain a citizen for up to three, even four, years based merely on police decisions without going through any proper judiciary procedure. But in present-day China, it is a vivid reality, and hundreds and thousands of Chinese citizens have fallen victims to it. That is since China’s re-education-through-labor system was implemented in 1957. More and more scholars, lawyers and citizens from all walks of life have been making strong demand to abolish it, while the international community has also been pressing China to end it by honoring a series of international human rights conventions that China has adopted. But until today, re-education-through-labor is still widely used. Re-education-through-labor camps detain not only petty criminals, but also drug addicts, prostitutes and clients of prostitutes, and people with mental illnesses. More and more, it has been used to persecute Falungong practitioners, petitioners and dissidents.
Like with most of the things in life, people often are satisfied with a general impression or prevailing description without a chance, or the willingness, to explore and study it in detail, especially the fate and the feelings of the people involved. On topics such as that of war, disaster, mass murder, imprisonment and torture, we tend to, intentionally or not, avoid its dark and bloody depth. But this is precisely what good writing does, especially documentary writing. It is an important addition to our routine experiences. We must face it all; we must not pretend these things have never happened.
The book in front of me, A Worthwhile Trip—A Documentation of Beijing Reeducation-through-Labor Dispatch Center, is a witness’ testimony of China’s re-education-through-labor system. It reveals the system to us, and at the same time, it also raises much larger issues about our political system, society and human nature. The author of the book is Ye Jinghuan (野靖环), a victim of “Xin Guo Da” futures fraud (新国大) in late 1990s involving former Prime Minister’s son. During eleven years of petitioning, she was repeatedly beaten by police, detained, arrested, and finally been given reeducation-through-labor. In the Reeducation-through-Labor Dispatch Center, she suffered various torture, sometimes on to the brink of breaking down. But she kept telling herself, “I can’t die, I can’t lose my mind, I must get out of here alive! I must tell everyone about the evils of re-education-through-labor, and I must tell it to posterity!” Because of her refusal to give in, the world is able to see the true face of re-education-through-labor. At the same time, writing is cathartic for the author; through it she is able to re-examine life and participate in reality constructively.
According to the author’s investigation, most petitioners among RTL detainees have been subjected to electric baton and confinement in the “little dark room”. Even though China adopted the UN Convention against Torture in 1988, torture is still widely used these days in detention centers, prisons and other incarceration venues, and a great number of citizens die of it, or are debilitated by it. Torture perpetrated in RTL camps is extremely cruel; brutalities against Falungong practitioners are beyond imagination and continue to be perpetrated. The persecution of Falungong has long marked the nadir of human civilization, and constitutes, without a doubt, crimes against humanity. But internationally and domestically, only a few are willing, or would dare, to condemn it. For intellectuals and politicians, it is an irony and a shame that will only grow as time moves on.
The “characteristics” of Chinese prisons lie in that “law enforcers humiliate and abuse prisoners as a part of the system,” said Wang Lixiong when commenting on Liao Yiwu’s Testimony. A Worthwhile Trip is less about physical abuses than the routine “teaching” in the camp that abuses and tortures the “RTLers” mentally. Many of its rules and informal requirements are designed to humiliate people so as to destroy their basic dignities as human beings. For example, “Head must be lowered when walking in hallways, lining up, speaking to police officers. Standard head-lowering is to look at the tip of your toes.” For another example, no going to restroom is allowed except at designated times. “Shoes, tooth brush and other objects must be displayed in a straight line; no compromise is tolerated.” If you wash your neck when you wash your face, watchers will call you out immediately, “Who said you can wash your neck? Wash your face only, no washing anywhere else!” To receive your meal at meal times, male RTLers must kneel on one knee with both hands holding up the bowl. Damp clothes cannot be dried over bedframes or chairs even during the night. No looking out the windows. RTLers must address each other by names; calling someone “Aunt” or “Sister” will result in point reduction for behavior. Such requirements are ubiquitous. The first day in the Center the cadre said, addressing to the newcomers, “To put it simply, don’t think you are a human being.” While urging the RTLers to forget about what it means to be a human, the administration officers indeed carried out that advice. Some RTLers summarized the methods as “Strike down your self-esteem; destroy your soul; humiliate your dignity; and weaken your health.” Obviously, these methods are not meant to “educate and reshape” but to degrade.
Along with physical “disciplines” are remake of the mind. For any little error that’s been discovered, you have to repent in writing. Those who are disobedient or unwilling to give up their beliefs are subjected to a form of solitary confinement, Bao Jia (包夹, wrap and sandwich) where two or more RTLers are used to punish a particular RTLer by sandwiching him or her 24 hours a day so that he or she will have no freedom whatsoever to move or talk. Other punishments include reducing his or her points, denying family visits, extending or threatening to extend, his or her sentences. Bao Jia seems to be a unique Chinese invention. According to the rules, the sandwiching RTLers must stay less than 10cm away from the sandwiched RTLer, and they are required to keep detailed record of every utterance, every movement, and any mood changes of the RTLer. Even his or her sleep has to be described too.
One time, Ye Jinghuan was upbraided for having “too relaxed expressions” that the lieutenant noticed from surveillance cameras. Along with microphones and small speakers, they readily remind us of the screens and the Big Brother in 1984. In the camp, the more you appear strong, composed and humane, the more they hate you. Those who are degraded to the level of a worm or an insect submitting to the apparatus or becoming its helpers are the ones who please the camp keepers the most.
The book tells a story: Lu Jing (卢静) and Ye Jinghuan were roommates and became good friends. Lu called Ye mom, and this is how Ye describes the young girl: “She was always sunny, full of joy. She was so uplifting to me. I liked her very much.” But having been assigned to sandwich Ye Jinghuan for a while, one day, she suddenly broke down. She said, crying, “Lieutenant Yuan said everybody was reporting to her that I had never upbraided you; and that I often talked to you, and I let you use bathroom and wash your hands when I was on duty. She knows everything. She said if I wanted to reduce my sentence, I must change my attitude toward you. She said she knows our relationship in Haidian Detention Center, and that’s why she has put it up for so long. But not anymore! Ye Jinghuan, from now on, I have to watch you the way the lieutenant requires of me; or I will have no hope.” The author said, “Lu Jing, do what you want to do; don’t think about me.” Lu Jing said, “The lieutenant requires me to scold you every day, I can’t do it because of our friendship in Haidian Detention Center. But I have no choice. If I don’t pick on you, they will pick on me. In the end, I will be given the sandwich treatment just like you. If I am like you, upbraided and dressed down every day, I won’t be able to live. So I am going to protect myself first. I have been in prison for four years and I have never felt so terrible. It’s only been four months here, and I can’t take it anymore.”
From that point on Lu Jing changed. It is a minute story of how a Re-education-through-labor camp is a place that eats up and erodes away your humanity. It puts everyone in a moral dilemma: If you follow your conscience, your sense of right and wrong, you will hurt yourself. It works the same for both the detainees and the jail guards. Victims become tormenters. In too many cases, “criminals” watch, beat, torture their peers way beyond policy allowance, sometimes way harsher than the abusive guards. On the other hand, persecutors are also victims. As they abuse others physically and destroy their dignities, they themselves also lose the wholeness of human beings; as they make others less human, they are doing the same to themselves.
The RTL system is a microcosm of Chinese society, but also a microcosm of the political system in China. It epitomizes the destructive capabilities of the totalitarian system. Ran Yunfei (冉云飞) once said, “China is a mutual harm society.” From this book, from the many witness accounts and from the blocked news online, we can see the confirmation of “mutual harm.”
Remarkably, Ye Jinghuan managed to maintain her dignity in such a hostile environment. She taught others to read, helped others to write letters. She didn’t just fight for her own rights; she also helped others stand for their rights. Sometimes, in the camp, the protest would actually have a little effect, even to the point that these results may become customary that would benefit other inmates. Sometimes, Ye Jinghuan struggled, disciplinary cadres would make other inmates “keep her company,” and she was forced to give up the fight in consideration of the interests of others.
In the labor camps Ye Jinghuan tried her best to explore the radiance of humanity in others, even it was only an occasional, fleeting flash in the surrounding darkness. She made the greatest efforts to understand the evildoers, not treating them as simply monsters. Sometimes this came in a gesture of support, an understanding eye contact, or a warm word, all a reflection of the humanity that had not been destroyed. She so comments on camp cadres: “Why are they always hiding their own beautiful side while presenting a cruel and ruthless side to us? Because in their eyes and in their hearts, inmates are not human beings! Since they started working there at twenty years old, their leaders have trained them to be the tools to persecute the inmates!” “One basically kind-hearted, sunny girl was transformed to be a person like Lieutenant Yang. Everyone with a little medical knowledge knows that a person with blood pressure of 180 needs a break, otherwise it will be dangerous. But Gu Li ordered such a hypertension patient, an old lady, to turn left and right non-stop, just to vent her own dissatisfaction. At the Dispatch Center, it was not just the inmates who have been devastated, but also many young guards who by nature are not bad people at all.”
To record sufferings is to prevent tragedies from happening again. After the author obtained her freedom she wrote to a disciplinary cadre saying: “I wrote this book, in the hope that these stories of blood and tears of the inmates never occur again, and I hope that you will stop abusing inmates, stop participating in such violations of human rights and things that offend the heaven and the reason. Let it all become history!” But Ye Jinghuan heard no response.
Reeducation through labor is an anti-human system, and its existence is a shame to humanity, not merely a disgrace to the Chinese people, just as Auschwitz is not just for the Jews, but for all humanity. It is an evil system entangled with the evil in human nature: men’s choices of actions define the system; and the system in turn encourages the dark and evil side of human nature, thereby creating more sins. Institutional evil does not absolve individual responsibility. A system is not an abstraction without action takers, nor is there a law that can implement itself once written in words. If all sins are easily blamed on the “evil system of reeducation through labor “, that is tantamount to giving up the individual responsibility of humanity and the meaning of life. If there is no remorse and self-reflection, the sins of any evil regime will not end. To face the truth and to refuse to forget are the precondition for reflection. For those who live under the totalitarianism and those who witnessed the evils and sufferings, remembrance and recording are a way to restore their humanity, also a meaningful resistance. Once the truth is spoken, it cannot be defeated by violence; once testimony is made, it cannot be buried and forgotten.
“Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it” (Santayana). Without remembering, it is very difficult to become a complete person; just as without hope, it is difficult to develop human nature. Memories and hope are essential for the advancement of humanity. Our actions and dreams alike are all connected to remembering. Many authors have discussed the political and philosophical significance of memory. Günter Grass believes that the essence of literature is memory. When he received the 1999 Nobel Prize for Literature he said: “Literature is still a force, people are eager to forget things, but literature can remember them for a long time.” Nobel Peace Prize winner Elie Wiesel wrote that remembering “is not a profession, not an ambition, but an obligation.” Avishai Margalit spent a whole book discussing “The Ethics of Memory,” and he believes that interpersonal relationships include a moral obligation to remember, and when murderous crimes against humanity occurr or universal humanity is under attack, individuals bear the moral responsibility of preserving the memory. People must remember the evil events that destroy humanity.
Totalitarianism seeks to control memories, making people forget the real history. Those who dare to tell the truth would be subject to varying degrees of punishment, because the truth in the records and speeches are often testimonies of crimes that the totalitarian rulers want to conceal. If nobody testifies and remembers, the suffering of the people will never stop, and the perpetrators will continue their crimes with impunity.
We must be worthy of the immense sufferings we have been subjected to. The suffering of the Chinese people over this past century is similar to that experienced in Auschwitz. Liao Yiwu (廖亦武), Yang Jisheng (杨继绳), Zheng Yi (郑义), Long Yingtai (龙应台), Yang Xianhui (杨显惠), Yan Zhengxue （严正学） and other writers have written powerful works; and we have reason to call out more powerful memories and narratives of the past and current suffering. We look forward to China’s own Wiesel, Solzhenitsyn, Celan and Kapuscinski. No matter it is through testimony or works of fiction, real literature must be true to our history, must ruthlessly question our own souls, and compassionately gaze at the future of the human race.
A few weeks ago I witnessed something that warmed the cockles of my typically icy heart.
In China, when one pictures a middle school student, they picture a small child diligently studying behind a great wall of books. Outside of the classroom they are spotted in their uniforms around 5pm being brought back from school for several more hours of homework. These few minutes on the bus in Nanjing were almost always filled with a few rounds of Fruit Ninja or Angry Birds on their smart phones. In rural China, the students were boarded, and so had no chance of furtive gaming between school and study.
In my two years at the hospital, I sat through dozens of chats between co-workers that focused on their children’s progress in school, but I never heard them discuss other aspects of their children’s lives with each other. Questions from them about life in America also focused on the scholarly instead of the fun. This reinforces the stereotype that Asians are more studious than their American counterparts. For me this was confirmed a few weeks ago when I visited the Stanford campus and saw a handful of Chinese tour groups wandering the campus with their toddlers in tow (you can’t plan too far ahead).
For expats living in China, the conversation turns toward a concern over whether or not Chinese children ever actually get to enjoy their childhood. After all when a friend asked his students to recount their happiest memory, he was met with tales of passing tests, dog bites, and child abuse.
So when I saw two boys, about 12 years old, roaring and running about like dinosaurs, I couldn’t have been happier. It was wonderful to see them lost in their own world, completely ignoring the stares of working folks headed home.
It’s important to remember that even after years in China, there are large parts of people’s lives you have simply missed. So much happens within the home or behind the walls of their apartment compound and if you live in the wrong neighborhood you may miss it all.
It reminded me of a story one of my college students told me. He said that one night in the dormitory, when it was too hot to sleep, his roommates and him decided the only way to cool down was to go for a swim. The problem was they couldn’t leave their room. So they came up with a way of converting their tiny bathroom into a pool. All it took were a few towels stuffed into the squat toilet and under the door and their shower turned on full blast for about thirty minutes. Somehow all eight of them fit in there, and splashed away in their “pool.” The student, and his classmates hearing of it for the first time, giggled through the entire story, even though they had nearly destroyed their dorm room.
With what feels like an unending stream of depressing news about China’s human rights, food safety, and environment, it is easier to forget that more often than not it is a place of loving families and enduring friendships.
Picking up from where Hannah left off yesterday, I want to look at a couple ideas from Ai Weiwei’s essays that jumped out at me.
Chinese Contemporary in Dilemma and Transition
Ai’s essays provide a great reminder of why Ai was so popular in China before the West took an interest in him – he isn’t speaking to a western audience and he is directly challenging Chinese culture.
In fact much of his essay on Chinese art is in direct opposition to how the gov’t tried to paint him after his arrest; Ai is in no way infatuated with Western ideology, as he wants to see a strong and prosperous Chinese art scene, and by extension China. That Chinese artists should resist western influence, and instead look more deeply into their own history to inspire their works. These ideas that China should be treated as a wholly unique civilization, sounds in some ways similar to what one hears from Global Times when discussing issues like human rights and democracy, which made me pause for a moment to question whether the imprisoned Ai of 2012 would still agree with the Ai of 2004.
Then I began to realize that these ideas about art resonate strongly with Ai’s views on politics: that while the Party is not right for China, and that individuals must have their own voice within whatever system replaces the current one, it must still be a uniquely Chinese government. It should not blindly follow the path of the West, nor can it continue on it’s current destructive course.
As Ai warns against labeling Chinese artists as anti-establishment, it is also worth remembering that we should avoid assuming that all Chinese dissidents are pro-western, or that all of those opposed to the one-child policy are necessarily pro-life.
Uli Sigg’s art collection, which Ai admires for its breadth.
Who Are You?
In the next essay we read, “Who Are You?” Ai launches into a philosophical discussion of design and it’s need to label things. In one section he says,
“In certain social situations we may say: ‘I am you, and you and I are the same.’ In other circumstances we may say: ‘I am myself and I am different from all of you.'”
At this moment in China, the Party seems to be reasserting that all Chinese people are united as a single mass, but that this push has led to a growing call from the younger generation for individual and distinct identities. There seems to be an ebb and flow to this cycle throughout all cultures, and that in times of unity (or as Hu prefers to call it “harmony”), there is often an urge to reconsider the possibility of disunity.
Within the dissident community, I would hope to see much more recognition of the idea that their efforts are one in the same. The other day a friend sent me a link to an article decrying the problem of harvesting organs from Falun Gong practitioners, but shouldn’t we really be opposed to all forms of coerced organ harvesting? Or that Chinese Christians, Tibetan Buddhists, and Uighur Muslims have yet to unite on issues related to the repression of their religious practices; opting instead to each go it alone (with few tangible results).
Ai also argues that, “People today expect to gain status, acceptance, or pleasure from the particular number of square meters in their homes or some set of fixed standards, a life of simply filling in the blanks.” This call for a counter-culture, in which we question whether or not the speed of development is worth the price, has begun to take shape in China over the last few years, especially after the train crash last summer.
Next week we will be reading three essays from Ai Weiwei and discussing them here on Thursday and Friday (the series will continue through August, as Ai Weiwei is a prolific essayist, and we want to make sure you get the most out of your book). They are: “A World without Honor,” “As Soon as You’re Not Careful…an Encounter with Idiocy on a Sunny Day,” and “Aftershocks.” If you are reading along, we encourage you to send your own reflections on the pieces to Hannah@SeeingRedinChina.com