Criticising the Critics

This previous post - Liu Xiaobo on Civil Rights and Ideology - contains information about the brief detention of three Chinese intellectuals: Liu Xiaobo, Yu Jie and Zhang Zuhua.  While Liu Xiaobo is well-known to the western world beginning with his support for the 1989 student movement and his many other travails thereafter, Yu Jie is lesser known outside of China.  So I was going through his essays to find some examples to translate for the English-speaking world.  This turned out not to be a straightforward exercise, and it leads to a different train of thought.

I am going to start off with a translation of a section from the essay Why doesn't Lung Yingtai criticize China?:

Here is the first reason offered by Lung Yingtai: "I was born in Taiwan.  I am familiar with the situation in Taiwan.  Therefore I can use the sharpest tone in criticizing Taiwan.  But I have not lived on mainland China.  I am not very familiar with it, so I can't say too much about it.  I will not overreach when I criticize something that I am not very familiar with."

I disagree with this explanation.  I believe that being overseas is no excuse to avoid criticizing mainland China.  First of all, the totalitarianism, corruption and brutality of the Chinese government are known even to illiterates.  It is 'common knowledge' that does not require any in-depth 'field research.'  It is not as 'complex' as Ms. Lung suggests.  How can this be glossed over based upon 'lack of familiarity'?

Next, with the advance of information flow in this increasingly globalized village, the connection and exchange among mainland China, Hong Kong and Taiwan are dense and frequent.  With this background, the totalitarian dictatorship of the Chinese Communists not only damages mainland China itself, but it also affects Hong Kong and Taiwan.  The most typical example is the SARS event last year.  The Chinese government not only attempted to cover up the epidemic for a long time and caused the virus to spread to Hong Kong, Taiwan and other Southeast Asian countries, but it also prevented the WHO from administering help to Taiwan.  Why does the outspoken Ms. Lung not say anything about the incompetence, stupidity and cruelty of the Chinese government?

Thirdly, I have read Ms. Lung's book <<In This Unstable World>> which describes the secret police system in the former East Germany: about one-fourth of the population of East Germany were secret police or their informants.  Actually, Ms. Lung had not lived in East Germany during the Communist era.  Yet, she referred to various sources and interviews and wrote a good book about the cruelty and evil of this system.  Since Ms. Lung goes in and out of mainland China, she should know about the nature of the government and the harshness of of people's life.  So then, why does she only make brief comments about "The Little Men of Shanghai" but continues to keep a silence about the system of dictatorship?

There are many specifics in this excerpt that are superficial and should require more detailed analyses.  I will just offer one example: the SARS episode was undisputedly mishandled by China, but is this traceable to the system of government?  Yu Jie might have to explain how the SARS epidemic was famously mishandled in the advanced capitalist quasi-democratic Hong Kong and the advanced capitalist fully-democratic Taiwan as well.  The total picture was that nobody in Greater China handled this previously unknown epidemic well, and so the fault must lie beyond one specific government system.

And the matter of speaking up is in fact more complex than Yu suggested.  Let me draft a short summary of what might be said: "The Chinese Communist Party is a dictatorship.  The Chinese Communist Party is a tyranny.  The Chinese government pretends to guarantee all sorts of freedom in its Constitution, but it in practice it does not allow freedom of speech.  It does not allow freedom of religious worship.  It does not allow freedom of press.  The Chinese government controls media contents through censorship.  The Chinese government does not punish corrupt officials.  The Chinese government arrests people without any legal basis."  

This is a pretty strong series of statements.  But the effect is zero because they are just content-free slogans.  This is preaching to the converted without being able to convert anyone else because it says nothing.  In order to have an impact, it is necessary to say something new or formulate a better argument.  To do that, it is necessary to have a good knowledge of what is going on, because saying inappropriate or incorrect things will detract from the overall effort as well as damage the writer's own credibility.  Yu Jie's own essays are interesting precisely because each seems to be about a completely different subject that he totally grasps, and yet they all lead to the same logical conclusions at the end.

But I am vexed by a broader question brought up by this excerpt: At what point does an intellectual overreach his knowledge base and make inappropriate and incorrect remarks?  It is true that freedom of speech includes the right to be mistaken in public statements.  There is nothing to lose -- except one's integrity, reputation and credibility.  I have an example on this blog of a Latin American intellectual commenting on Chinese Tourists in the Americas.

To show this point, here is a translation of an excerpt from Yu Jie's essay titled The Declaration By Chinese Intellectuals To Support The United States In Destroying The Dictatorship Of Saddam Hussein.  The essay is dated February 20, 2003 and is drafted by Yu Jie and Xu Jingru and signed by Shi Tao and Wang Guangze:

In the history of humankind, there have been innumerable wars.  These wars have brought men into greater hardship, but sometimes to greater happiness as well.  There are many reasons for these wars to occur.  Some of them were fought to satisfy the ambitions of a few individuals, some were conducted preposterously to promote paradise on earth and some of them were launched to liberate masses of peole.  We believe that in the history of humankind until now, there is a kind of war that is initiated based upon the ultimate values of freedom and humanitarianism and which is conducted so that we can accept our common future with a heavy and sad heart.  We believe that the pending war that the United States of America will conduct against the Saddam Hussein tyranny in Iraq is this type of war.


We draft this declaration to express our support of the actions by the government of the United States of America to destroy the Saddam Hussein dictatorship, and to express our support of intrinsic human rights and eternal justice.  We believe that democracy will triumph over dictatorship and freedom will defeat tyranny.  All the people of the world, including the people of Iraq, will have their inalienable rights in the form of Lincoln's "government of the people, by the people, for the people" and Roosevelt's four freedoms: freedom of speech and expression, freedom to religious worship, freedom from want and freedom from fear.

We hope that all Chinese citizens who use reason as their basic guide will openly express their moral positions by signing their real names to this declaration.  This is not only for the people who are suffering under Saddam Hussein's tyranny, but also for freedom and justice of all humankind.  In Chinese history, Meng Ke had discussed the righteousness of making war during the Era of the Warring States.  We must remember that the helpless Iraqi citizens who suffered under the tyrant long to breath the air of freedom and their children hope to sing freely in the sunlight.

Some time ago, it was the forces of good under the leadership of the United States of America that brought peace and calm to Kuwait and Afghanistan using limited warfare.  More than half a century ago, in China, in Southeast Asia and in Europe, the forces of justice led by the United States of America defeated the fascists countries of Japan, Germany and Italy and brought the dawn of peace to dozens of countries that lived under clouds of darkness.  Today, the brave American warrioers who will fight to defeat the Saddam Hussein dictatorship are just like those American heros who gave up their lives to liberate the Chinese people from the Japanese invaders, and they deserve our admiration and respect.  The effort to "demonize" America must stop now.

Where do I even begin to talk about this mess?  This essay was written before the actual invasion of Iraq by the Coalition of the Willing.  The justification offered by the Coalition was based upon a United Nations resolution calling for Iraq to disarm its weapons of mass destruction.  It was explicitly acknowledged by all the Coalition leaders (Bush, Cheney, Blair, Howard) repeatedly that the invasion was NOT to overthrow a tyrant.  There are many other tyrants in the world (in Cuba, North Korea, ZImbabwe, to name just a few) , but there seems to be no haste to overthrow anyone else by force.  Instead the justification was couched as the threat of WMDs "which can land in 45 minutes."  Yet Yu Jie, who characterized himself as someone "who uses reason as the basic guide," has decided that this whole enterprise was about regime change and he wants all morally upright Chinese to sign the declaration.  Where did he get this idea from?  And he does not even watch Fox News.

To many people from Taiwan, this paean to the United States of America for bringing peace and freedom to the world would draw contempt.  We can begin with vice-president Annette Lu, who was a government opponent thrown into jail for daring to speak of democracy.  Now this was the Kuomingtang government in Taiwan that lived off American aid and military backing.  In jail, Annette Lu received legal assistance from a lawyer named Chen Shiu-bian, who is now the president.  Do Chen and Lu have any illusions about American support for freedom and justice?  You bet they don't.  They may say nothing critical about the United States of America out of necessity, but they know that the United States will look after its own national interests first and foremost.  They may speak as if the United States will defend Taiwan in case of war, but they must be wary deep down about betrayal.

And the examples extend beyond Taiwan to include many other notorious tyrants such as Ferdinand Marcos of the Philippines, the Shah of Iran, Rafael Trujillo of Dominican Republic, Efrain Rios Montt of Guatemala, Augusto Pinochet of Chile, Fulgencio Batistia of Cuba, Anastasio Somoza of Nicaragua, and even Saddam Hussein of Iraq.  Realpolitik has always trumped freedom and democracy.  Now, there is nothing wrong with the United States of America looking after its own national interests.  What did you realistically expect anyway?  But there is something wrong when someone who is supposedly intelligent actually believes the rhetoric about freedom and democracy (or at least he talks as if he does).

Moving forward to today, this is more than 20 months after the invasion of Iraq.  The war on the battlefield itself was over within weeks, but what has happened since?  Did the United States of America deliver on the promise of bringing freedom and democracy to Iraq?  Did its actions in the ensuing months even look remotely like freedom-democracy related program activities?  As Yu Jie noted, with the advance of information flow in this increasingly globalized village, what is happening in Iraq (and also Afganhistan) is 'common knowledge' that does not require any in-depth 'field research.'  For example, the year's biggest photographic event occurred at Abu Ghraib. Yu wrote: "Why does the outspoken Ms. Lung not say anything about the incompetence, stupidity and cruelty of the Chinese government?"  This is easily turned around to: "Why does the outspoken Mr. Yu not say anything about the incompetence, stupidity and cruelty of the American government?"  

This is all the more vexing because Yu had written and signed the declaration to support the planned action and is therefore morally culpable.  At the very least, Yu could tell us either: "What is happening during the Occupation of Iraq is deplorable" or "Those acts were necessary and the price was definitely worth it" or "Everything is working according to plan except for a few minor incidents that were magnified beyond all proportions."

This is not a condemnation of Yu Jie's work as a whole.  In those areas where his strengths are (namely, on mainland China), he is very precise, sharp as well as passionate.  I hope to bring some of those essays into English translation.  

The points about this post are actually simple and difficult to dismiss.  

First, nobody can be said to know everything; there will be some areas in which their knowledge is deficient.  I don't think that statement is subject to debate.  

Second, some people will sometimes drift into an area in which their knowledge and expertise are deficient and they will make some inappropriate or incorrect statements.  I don't think everyone is right all of the time.  

Third, when someone makes what seems to be an obvious mistake, someone else should point that out.  This is the essence of intellectual discourse.  And that is so even if that someone is a public intellectual so favored by western media and overseas critics.  Such meta-critical voices are noticeably absent at this time in spite of some flagrant mistakes (here is one essay that I actually took apart because I was so offended).  Is this self-censorship, because criticising them would be to assist the Chinese Communists?