One Author’s Plea for a Gentler China

On Wednesday, July 25, a famous Chinese author and liberal voice with the pen name Murong Xuecun (@慕容雪村) shared a long and heartfelt plea to his countrymen via Sina Weibo, China’s Twitter, based on a speech given earlier in Hong Kong. According to Hong Kong University’s Weiboscope, which tracks Weibo posts popular with influential users, the text of this speech became the most popular image for July 25, with over 36,000 reposts and 8,000 comments. Just over one day later, the post was deleted by censors.
Three Tea Leaf Nation writers have combined to translate Xuecun’s ambitious but important piece. (Section headings are our own.) Please enjoy.

The water in autumn and the unending sky
There is one clear advantage to living in mainland China: It’s always easy to separate theory and reality. We have some rights in theory, but in reality, they do not exist. Income has increased in theory, but once you get to the market, you’ll see that you can’t even afford to buy meat. In theory, some people have risen up, but actually, they’re still kneeling. In theory, you’ve moved a few mountains, but you’ve actually just fallen into a hole. In theory, you’re the master of your country, but in actuality, you live in chains.
Textbooks describe a society broken down into two classes: The rulers and the ruled. In these times, it’s fair to say that officials big and small–over 50 million of them in fact–make up the actual ruling class. Theirs is the highest paying work in the world; the mayor of one town can embezzle tens of millions, while a provincial governor can embezzle hundreds of millions. Even more powerful officials are wealthy beyond imagining. In the past few years, the phrase “the great endeavor” (伟业) has come into use, and this mostly refers to the great work of corruption and embezzlement. The phrase “the state of the nation” (国情) has also been bandied about quite a bit. This is the true state of the nation: We have the world’s largest and most corrupt system of bureaucracy–barbaric, wasteful, and immoral without precedent–but it insists that each and every one of us walk the straight and narrow path.
Modern China is a strange new world. Every day, tragic and unbelievable things happen, leaving us not knowing whether to laugh or cry. All of those mining disasters, incidences of black lung, infants with kidney stones, train accidents, car accidents, food safety incidents, the forced and violent destruction of homes, cases of corruption and embezzlement, all prisoners of conscience who died from “playing hide-and-seek” or “drinking boiled water,” and the rising storm of mass opposition incidents…you can be certain, within the next few years, these kinds of incidents will not only not go away, but they will grow in number and visibility. These incidents are mostly due to one reason, and that is almighty, unruly, unchecked government power.
Over the past few years, every time I’ve gone to Hong Kong, I’ll buy a few magazines about politics to see what observations and analyses political observers have to offer about China’s future. In my opinion, these analyses and predictions have ignored a very important point, which is that years of living under authoritarian rule and being brainwashed by the educational system have made residents of Mainland China into a special people. These people have not only influenced China’s present, but also will undoubtedly influence its future as well. They have made Chinese society barbaric, violent, incredibly unsafe, and they have also made it slow and stupid, unlikely to force a change of the present system of government.
The first kind of [social malady] is a “numb personality.” In a totalitarian society, people have already had most of their rights and privileges taken away from them, and any rights remaining are seen as a gracious gift from the rulers. Because of the simple fact of entropy, this state of affairs has become the new normal. Even in cases of extreme violence, the people are not able to protest, they have no way to protest, so they willingly accept this state of misery, this life of toil, this tragic fate. As time passes, they don’t even consider whether or not this should be their fate, whether or not it’s fair. When their food is robbed they just go hungry; when they’re slapped in the face, they just take it; when their homes are destroyed, they just watch it; when their wives are abducted and forced to abort their babies, they just cry. All injustices are seen as inevitable, expected; it would be abnormal only if it were otherwise. People live with heads bowed and eyes glued to the ground, they don’t cry out against their fate, they shut up and hide, shut up and clap, shut up and lend a hand. Even when they die, they do it with their mouths shut. All of this shutting up can be traced back to one precondition: They don’t dare start something. If it were just one punk you didn’t want to start something with, you could just hide, but if what you’re facing is a system full of punks, you can’t run, you can’t hide, and you certainly can’t afford to start anything. The only choice you have left is to change it.
Becoming numb is often an act of malice and cruelty towards others. If you could quantify empathy, it might sadden you to discover that residents of Mainland China rank very low. In the famous Wang Yue incident, a two-year-old girl died in the middle of the road, and 18 people walked by without helping. These 18 people represent a greater number, a very unkind number of people that will yell at beggars, ignore victims of distant disasters, and even lack empathy for their own relatives. If people are beaten, they’ll just stand around and watch. If people are complaining, they’ll just coldly mock them. If people say they are going to commit suicide, they’ll just say “They want to get famous.” I once painted a portrait of one of these kinds of people: If no one speaks up for them, they’ll just put up with it. If someone speaks up for them, they’ll just watch. If someone is able to secure rights for them, they’ll thank fate and say hey, what’s mine is mine! If someone isn’t able to get their rights for them, they’ll pretend like they knew that would happen all along. They’ll say, “Why would you waste your time?” If someone speaks up for them and is snatched away by the police, they’ll stand to one side, snickering, and say, “Serves you right for trying to stir things up!”
In George Orwell’s “1984,” the protagonist Winston Smith and Julia have one particularly moving conversation. They escaped the ever-present network of spies and met in the Golden Country meadow. At the end of their time there, Winston said to Julia: “Listen. The more men you’ve had, the more I love you. Do you understand that?”
“Yes, perfectly.”
“I hate purity, I hate goodness. I don’t want any virtue to exist anywhere. I want everyone to be corrupt to the bones.”
“Well then, I ought to suit you, dear. I’m corrupt to the bones.”
We might say this is the late stage of numbness. In this stage, the numb personality has become an antisocial personality. People will hate everything good, and harbor suspicion of all kinds of language and action. They will carry hatred in their bones. In this stage, they are no longer numb, but easily angered, easily provoked to violence. The smallest thing will set them off, and then they will stop at nothing to indiscriminately lash out in revenge. The cruelest part is, the victim of their anger is usually those who are even more unfortunate, even more vulnerable. Lu Xun’s Ah Q [a novel from 1920s China] is a prime example: When he’s beaten by the mayor, Ah Q doesn’t dare strike back, so he goes to hit Wang Hu. When he can’t hit him, he goes after Little D. When he can’t win in that match, he goes to hit Wu Ma. When he can’t match her, he goes after the children in pre-school. This is not simply a joke or fiction, and the increasing number of murdered preschool children in mainland China proves this point.
The second kind of personality can be called “difficulty in accepting reality.” A long period of ignorance and brainwashing must by necessity lower the ability to learn of the society as a whole and impair critical thinking. People are unwilling and unable to accept obvious facts, and do not hesitate to defend bold-faced lies. In this light, honesty is not just a moral issue, but also an issue of capacity. In Mainland China, at least half the population still believes Mao Zedong was the “great savior of the people,” and that he saved the Chinese people, rescuing them from poverty and suffering. At Mao’s Mausoleum in Tiananmen Square, people wait in line to pay their respects to his corpse. In taxis and private limos, people hang his picture like some kind of diety, seeking his blessings and protection. Even to this day, many people still feel nostalgic for the Cultural Revolution, believing that it was a time with no corruption, when everyone was equal. Just two months ago, a debate took place on the Internet about the great famine during the Great Leap Forward, and a substantial number of people believed that it had never happened at all, that it was just a story created by a small group of evil people to attack the government. They didn’t think it was possible that tens of millions had died of hunger. In order to prove their point, these people raised the following laughable doubts:
If that many people died of hunger, then where are the mass graves?
If there was really such a disaster, why haven’t there been any reports about it in the media?
If that many people really died of hunger, why do we still have to have the One Child Policy?
My hometown is also really poor, so why haven’t I heard of people starving to death?
If it’s true that so many people died of hunger, then let me ask you, how many people in your family starved to death?
Some people say 30 million people starved to death, that’s equal to 1/20 of China’s population, is that even possible?
The most shocking question was: If they didn’t have any rice to eat, why didn’t they just eat meat?
The third type of personality is called the “slave” personality. Like Lu Xun described, China has only had two [alternating] eras: Temporary stable periods during which people are slaves, and periods when people want to be slaves but can’t. In ancient times, slaves were loyal to the emperor and the dynasty. Today, most of them do not believe themselves to be slaves, but think they are the masters of their country. They have been taught since they were small to be loyal to the collective group, to the country, and to the Party. The only thing they are not to be loyal, is to themselves.
This type of person believes the government is above all else, and anyone who criticizes the government is their enemy. They believe they are patriots, and everything must be somehow “patriotic” to have any meaning at all. Studying is for the good of the country, and so is work, exercise, protecting one’s eyesight, even sex. The “national interests” that they speak of are actually mostly the interests of the government, the Party, the small minority of the people. Because of these so-called “national interests,” they’ll hate whomever the higher-ups tell them to hate. In a normal country, freedom, equality, and human rights are good words, but in the eyes of these slaves, they are all imperialist conspiracies. They support the practice of informing on others and betraying them, even turning in one’s own relatives, and are prepared to sacrifice their own lives at any moment.
This kind of slave, when subject to a long period of education in hatred, will become strange and easily angered, in its final stage becoming a “violent slave” personality. In the eyes of this type of person, most media in the world is anti-Chinese, all human rights organizations are anti-Chinese forces, all dissidents are filthy traitors and slaves to Western powers. If a Chinese woman marries a foreign man, then it’s a national shame; on the other hand, if a Chinese man seeks out a foreign prostitute, then that’s just China getting its revenge on everyone else. I’ve heard–and not just once–“patriotic” angry youth describing their ideals: They want to go to Japan after they get rich to find a Japanese prostitute, and then have their vengeance for a hundred hears of oppression on their bodies, until they are fully sated and she is dead. They openly call for war, and often say that China and Japan, or China and the U.S., will inevitably be at war with each other. The implication behind these lines is clear: Even if you don’t come after me, I’m still going to go after you. Some people even openly discuss putting bombs on commercial planes and setting them off on Japanese soil.
It is easy to appreciate the viciousness of this kind of thinking. These “patriots” are not so essentially different from the Red Guards of 50 years ago or the Boxer Rebellion of 100 years past. They are just as ignorant, just as furious, just as bloodthirsty and just as unstable. In a normal society, these people would be seen as a danger; but in China, the authorities coddle and fan their anger. It’s basically playing with fire. Once the conditions are right, this irrational fire will consume everything in its path.
Life in the minefields
The fourth type of personally is “minefield personality.” For many people, living in China does not make them feel safe. It is as if they are walking in a dangerous minefield. Here, the law is just a fiction, and state power can derail at any time. There is no clear line between the legal and the illegal. Almost every company is cheating on its taxes, and almost everyone does something not completely legal….Take the owner of a small shop for example. In his striving to run his business, the Commerce Department, the Tax Department, the Police Department, the Fire Safety Department, the Health Department… almost every kind of state power can force him to close down his shop. Every time he does not follow the wills of these powers, he faces the possibility of complete disaster for him and his family. Due to this kind of insecurity, most people do not keep long term plans, but rather focus only on instant profits. In government, business, and people’s personal lives, we see too many people care only about profits and not a bit about ethics. Government officials horde money into their own pockets and businesses disregard the standards of ethics and law to maximize profits. Once they make enough money, they either transfer their money away or spend it carelessly. These people never think of the consequences that might follow in the future.
The origin of this feeling of insecurity makes a group of uneasy people feel even more unsettled. Most people feel a need to rush: While the plane is still moving, people start opening the luggage compartments; while driving on the road, cars jostle for small openings in traffic without any care for safety; while waiting in line, there will be someone who cuts in line and break the rules. Furthermore, this pervasive insecurity has strained relationships among people. Family and friends guard against one another, suspect one another, and even despise one another. The old saying of “if someone is in trouble, help comes from every direction” has become just a fairytale. Instead, our society exemplifies “if someone is in trouble, everyone watches,” or “if someone is in trouble, no one helps.”
Who’s at fault?
There may be various reasons for all the personalities I mentioned above, but the most importantly, the fault sits squarely with institutional cajoling and instigation. Having been long immersed in slavery training, party-line indoctrination, and coaching in hatred, people have lost their true heart, forgot their conscience, and even thrown out their most important identity: Humanity.
“I am a person first, and then I can be everything else. I am myself first, then I can help with society.” This is a simple idea. However, it is sad that most people cannot understand it all their lives. As soon as you talk about the “human rights” situation in China, people will pick a fight with you, behaving as if “human rights” are not their rights. All the talk of how China is special, all the rationalizing that China is unique, originate from people forgetting their humanity. This is why there are a lot of weird ideas. Some people will see suffering—regardless of the reason for the suffering—as something that is naturally moral. A few decades ago, countless urban youth were sent to the countryside simply because people thought they needed to suffer. The countless hardships and trials ruined their youths and destroyed their lives. Some of these people, unbelievably, still sing the praises of their oppressors. They say their suffering was well deserved and much appreciated. The Russian writer Fyodor Dostoyevsky wrote a novel called “Humiliated and Insulted.” We see the humiliated and the insulted in our own lives; they rationalize their own suffering, defend their own suffering and cheer for own their suffering.
In China, “sacrifice” is a highly regarded ideal. Few people understand that the word sacrifice originally referred to the animals killed in religious ceremonies. So many songs, so many essays , so many heroic stories encourage people to sacrifice, to become those animals. What to do when the wood from the commune falls into the river? Sacrifice myself to pick it up. What to do when the production team’s sheep are lost in the snowstorm? Sacrifice myself to find them. Even today, many people believe in the saying “fear neither hardship nor death.” I can barely understand not fearing hardship, but not fearing death is just completely ridiculous. In this time of peace, why would you encourage people to not be afraid of death? What is it to you?
I am definitely not talking about something from the past. After flipping through the newspaper, you will see that this absurd era never ended. The legacy from those years has never left us; it is right beside you. Those inhumane ideas and encouragements have never left us. Here, I want to encourage every to learn from Professor Kong Qingdong. He created a famous “Three Mother Rule”: if someone asks you to endure hardship, you say “go find your mother;” if someone asks you make a sacrifice, you say “go find your mother;” if someone tell you to turn in your family for the good of the country, you know what to say.
Additionally, the government encourages people to embrace the idea of giving. In the past few decades, the Chinese government never stopped asking people to give. Every government official extols the virtues of giving (before they are caught, anyway). The more corrupt these officials are, the more they talk about giving. The truth is, giving and taking always come together. They are two sides of the same coin. Your giving is their taking. If a company asks its employees to selflessly give, all they want is for you to work more, and for them to pay less. If a country asks its citizens to selflessly give, then it is openly taking from them. Someone will ask: Isn’t true that we need to selflessly give in a society? A normal society needs selfless behaviors. However, what it needs more is a contract of freedom and equality. There is a sequence to these two rules. Once we have a contract, then they can give selflessly. If there is no contract, then there is no such thing as giving.
Government is supposed to work for us, not the other way around
We always see on TV or read in the newspapers about people who move into government housing or receive government monetary support. They’ll say to the camera, tears in their eyes, “Thank you, government!” We should not be criticizing the people who say things like that, rather we need to criticize the government for accepting the praise. We taxpayers living under your rule are having such a hard life, but you are accepting their gratitude? We now know that the government is not a splendid, wonderful, and perfect deity. The government should be something we elect. Its power should be borrowed from us. To some degree, the government is like our bodyguard or janitor. They take our money, and clean our floors. If a janitor does a good job cleaning the floor, is it necessary to thank the janitor, tears in your eyes? Is that not the janitor’s job? I am not looking down on janitors. However, if a janitor is not doing a good job, but instead always asks you to thank him, and even asks you to cherish him unconditionally, then you should ask him: “Can I scream at you?” At least you would tell him to come back after he cleans the floor.
In regard to government, the best comment comes from Thomas Paine: “Government, even in its best state, is but a necessary evil; in its worst state, an intolerable evil.”
We know that every penny that the government spends comes from our wallets. That’s why we need to check its account from time to time. If your janitor tells you that he bought a broom for thousands of dollars, then he is embezzling from you. If he takes your money and buys a million-dollar watch, then he is nothing but corrupt. If your cleaner, in the name of cleaning the floor for you, eats in upscale restaurants, drinks expensive Maotai liquor, smokes high-end cigarettes, then you have all the right to think: Would not it be better if someone else is cleaning the floor?
The key to success: Deregulation
A smart government will accept its own shortcomings and rely on its people’s strengths. On the other hand, a government that boasts its omnipotence is usually an incompetent one. It will try to control everything, but it does nothing well. In the last 30 years, they did make some progress, especially with the economy. As a result, many people have been lifted out of poverty. However, if we have to credit the government, it is because of its willingness to deregulate. The history from the past 30 years show that whenever the government keeps a loose grip, the Chinese people can always demonstrate an amazing innovative power. Only a few years after the government deregulated household electronics, Chinese household electronics can now compete with big international brands.
At the same time, every sector that the government controls strongly feels dead. Why are movies from China so bad? It is because the government controls the movies. Why are Mandarin TV shows so bad? The government controls the TV. Why are there no modern literary masterpieces? The government controls the culture. Why is Chinese soccer so bad? The answer is the same as to the other questions: The government cannot let go.
Why “bad news” isn’t bad
There are roughly two kinds of government in the world: Those who know shame, and those who do not. Governments that know shame will listen to criticism; even if they don’t want to, they will show some degree of humbleness. The latter kind of government, however, will only listen to flattery; worse yet, it will get angry even if your flattery was just a little bit off from what it wanted. Under the rule of this kind of government, “negative news” is usually hidden. Many incidents will be reported over and over again by overseas media, but you will never read about it in Mainland China.
In fact, “negative news” is itself a problematic phrase. There’s nothing negative about reporting bad news. By exposing atrocious behaviors, results, and traditions, we will be able to alert viewers who can then stay away from them instead of copying these incidents. Our life experience tells us that people can learn more from being informed of “negative news.” Watching 30 years of News Broadcast [a daily news program by China Central Television, known for its prescreened material] won’t teach you much, other than the fact that one can perfect the art of butchering pigs by studying Mao Zedong Theory. But a simple exposure to the death of 2-year old Wang Yue will teach you what it means to be a responsible parent and what the passers-by should have done. In the last few decades, our history books have muted out too much “negative news,” much of which are crimes of the system and violence of the collective. All of this should be seen as the misfortune of our country…If you really want to love your country, then you have to love more than its glory—you have to love its misfortunes too. Don’t just love this country’s prosperity; you have to love its scars, its sadness, its darkness, and its torment, too.
We often divide people into those who belong within the system and those who remain outside of it. In a system that stands against humanity, such as the ones in Nazi Germany and North Korea, people who work for the system usually only have two outcomes. Either they hurt themselves without reaping any benefits, or they benefit a little, but hurt themselves even more. Most people who are sitting here today are good people, but it’s possible that some among us are informants and spies too. If you are one of those, then I would like to tell you today that even you are responsible for the future of our country as well.
Open advice to government officials: Be decent
If your job is to merely approve of documents, issue licenses, fill a form, or catch a thief, then you are not closely related to the crimes of this system—the jobs you do have to be done in order for society to function. But I still hope you understand that your real bosses are the ones who ask you to help them and perform these functions. These are the people who contributed their wages to pay for yours, they are your sustenance, so please be nice to them. Even if you can’t greet them with a smile, at least you shouldn’t treat them with contempt or anger. You should follow the rules, do your job, and not make things extra difficult for them. If something can be done with little effort, please don’t beleaguer them with extra work and make them visit your office over and over again. You have to know this–it’s hard for them to keep paying for you.
If your job deals with education, propaganda, and ideology, then beware: Your influence reaches much more than one or two people; your influence reaches millions. Over the centuries, and across all societies, human beings have reached a consensus: We should keep our children away from poison. In fact, poisons for the mind, such as lies, fallacies, hatred, and propaganda against humanity, are equally if not much more dangerous than those that harm the body. Even if we can’t ban these things, we should at least keep our children away from it. If you are a journalist, then you shouldn’t contribute to the making of these poisons; if you are a teacher, then you shouldn’t engage in the distribution of these poisons; if you are a scholar, then you should insist on truth and reject fallacies; if you are an author, then you shouldn’t invent open-faced lies. These are not your highest callings; rather, they are the most basic demands.
If your job is to dismantle other people’s house, smash other people’s shop stalls, abort other people’s babies, and beat those who are unfortunate, then, well, I won’t expect you to go to them with an embrace, but I do hope that you can maintain some shreds of conscience. George Orwell, the author, fought in the Spanish War of 1936 as a sniper. One morning, he saw an enemy soldier coming out of his trench. He had no shirts on, and he was using his hands to hold up his pants. Orwell could’ve shot him easily, but he hesitated for a long time, and gave up eventually. He said: “How can someone whose hands are holding up his pants be a Fascist? How can you shoot someone when his hands are holding up his pants?”
This is “Orwell’s question,” and this is also where we differ from animals—our precious sympathy. Here, I would like to say this to those who work for the demolition teams, interception teams, and urban enforcement teams: I know that you have a responsibility, but I hope you can think about “Orwell’s question” occasionally. I know that your supervisors make demands on you, but I still hope that you can cherish the moments when your conscience becomes aware of itself again.
Or maybe you have a righteous heart, and you feel like you are fighting for the good side and protecting your country. But even beyond your country, there is a bigger good, and that is the righteousness in our heart. The figure kneeling in front of you is a person too, you know? He has emotions, feelings, parents spouse children and siblings just like you! If you yell at him, he will get scared; if you hit him, he will feel hurt; if you insult him, he will hate you. When you bury one enemy under your feet now, he will grow into two enemies next year. You are just doing a normal job; there’s no need to create so many personal enemies for yourself. You can do your job without embracing all this hatred.
The importance of a clear heart
A real tragedy happened in a jail in Jiangsu Province once—a prison guard was beating up a prisoner for no reason, and the prisoner said: “You are in charge of me, so it’s your job to discipline me and give me orders. But the beating that you are giving me now has nothing to do with your job, it’s purely between the two of us. I don’t have the guts to fight you back now, but remember, you will have to pay for this eventually!” A few years later, the prison guard’s child was found hanged in front of the prison.
I hate this prisoner’s crime just as much as all of you do. However, everyone within the system should learn from this. Hatred is like a knife—if you make it too sharp, it will be turned against you and hurt you too eventually. In a world where power is unrestrained, in a world where laws are powerless, even if you wield an enormous amount of power now, there’s no guarantee that you can have any sense of security in the long run. Today, you make him hide from you; tomorrow, you might need to hide from him instead. Today, you block those who want to appeal to law; tomorrow, someone else will block your attempts, too. We already know that those who are blocked are not just ordinary citizens—policemen, judges, officials, and even the head of the Appeals Department can be found among their ranks, too.
Someone once asked a wise monk: “What makes a person good?” The monk said: “Mercy and clarity.” The person asked again: “What are those?” The monk answered: “They are like the water in autumn and the unending sky.” I think what it means to be a good person is to be a modern citizen who values his character and who has a sense of shame. Mercy and clarity are our sympathy and conscience. These two things aren’t useful in real life; they won’t help you get rich or get promoted, and they definitely won’t help you to “do well” in this order-less world. However, they distinguish us from animals. It might not be smart to harbor sympathy for others, but these “stupid people” are even more valued in chaotic times. It is because of these people, who raised the muzzle, moved away from the trigger, and stopped the tank “at the wrong times,” that our society managed to maintain its basic humanity and dignity.
We live in an age when dust blocks the sky. Politics is dirty, the economy is dirty, and even culture smells like it’s rotten. Our heart is supposed to be clear like the water in the autumn and the unending sky, but if we place it in the dust for a long time, then it can’t help but getting dirty and frangible. When we mail fragile items at the post station, the staff there will stamp the image of a red glass on the package to show that what’s inside is fragile. I hope everyone stamps a red glass on their heart too. It will remind us that this is a heart that needs sympathy and a heart that needs clarity. It is precious, but it is also fragile. We should take care of it every day and keep it free of dust. It should be as clear as the water in autumn, and as clean as the sky.
[Note: Several of our dear readers have asked for the original Chinese version of Murong Xuecun’s post. For that reason, we have inserted it below.]

图片[1]-One Author’s Plea for a Gentler China-iYUMO|生活志
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