The Unknown and the Unknowable

The following is a translated section from an article by Bei Ming in the collection dedicated to Chinese exile writer Liu Binyan.  The section begins with an inventory of banned subjects in China, and then poses an interesting epistemological question.

[translation]  I can still remember that when I first arrived in Hong Kong, I saw newspaper stands full of 'reactionary' newspapers and magazines and I heard 'anti-revolutionary' speeches everywhere.  But the truths about my home country did not hit me in full until I went far away to America.

The Henan AIDS villages, the prevalence of sexually transmitted diseases, SARS, the Yangtze River flood, mine collapses, Daqing demonstrations, netizen arrests, peasant suicides and self-immolations, the stopping of 10,000 petitioners at Tienanmen Square, strikes by dismissed workers, peasant riots, petitioners from around the country, petition-intercepts, the cause and speed of the spread of AIDS, the criticisms about the Three Gorges project, the sky-high bad debts at all the banks, high-ranking officials running away with money or committing suicide when placed under the "double discipline", the children of high-ranking officials entering into business deals, the triad penetration of low-level governments, black gold politics, the oppression of the Falun Gong, the Golden Shield project that realized Orwell's idea of 1984 thought control, Tibet independence and the Tibetan government in exile, the Taiwan issue, the Hong Kong elections, the bloody clashes in Xinjiang, the collapse of agricultural production in North Korea, the printing of fake money by the North Korean government, arms smuggling from North Korea, forced abortions, government sales of the body organs of executed prisoners, the collapse of the Banqiao dam in Henan that killed more than 200,000 people, the dynamiting of the Jianghuai levees to relieve flooding, the serious environmental pollution problems, ... , and so on.

Apart from the present, there was also the history: the Opium Wars, the Pacific War, the Boxer massacre, the invasion of the eight foreign allied nations, the war of resistance, the Korean war, the Vietnam war, the various political fights, the foreign policies, the Tibetan rebellion, the suppression of the Inner Mongolian People's Party, the Great Leap Forward and the manmade disastrous consequences, and so on.

If I were a little bit older, I would throw everything in the newspapers into the trash bin.  Like many intellectuals from the Cultural Revolution era, I thought that I was immunized against lies.  But when all these frightening bits of truth came together to form a torrent from various areas, angles and perspectives, I found that I had to ask myself over and over again: even if I think that I now understand China, what do I really understand?

No matter how strong your sense of immunization is, you will discover that you only have an abstract understanding about lies, propaganda, distortions and misdirections.  This means that your immunization exists only in an abstract sense.

I have done a rough study of the banned areas in Chinese media, and I ultimately found very few areas which are unrestricted: the Three Represents, the improvement of the livelihood of the people, the accomplishments of the party and the government, the effects of the economic reforms, the results from scientific and technological research and the public activities of government officials.  No matter how immunized you are against these unrestricted areas, you still won't know what you don't know.  And you won't even be aware of what you don't know.

During my study of the banned areas in Chinese media, I interviewed more than a dozen outstanding and experienced Chinese news workers.  Among those who were willing to speak out, most of them could not list in detail what is not being reported in the official media.  Finally, I had to resort to using the Yes/No format that professional news reporters really do not like to use -- I listed a number of subjects and I let them say Yes or No as to whether these subjects are being reported.

A socio-psychologist would have called this the internalization of values.  I think that if you ask the typical American about what he cannot do, he may not be able to give a comprehensive account.  In a similar process, you can show him a list of activities and he will probably be able to check off the list of banned activities (e.g. driving while intoxicated, have sex with an underaged minor child, send anthrax through the mail, beat his wife, snort cocaine, eat dog meat, rob a bank, etc).  The author continues:

Confucius said, "You know what you know and you don't know what you don't know.  That is knowledge."  But we are live in a state of lies and propaganda in which "You know what you know, you think that you know what you actually don't know, and  you even think that you know what you don't know that you don't know.  That is not knowledge."

But here is where the author threw me completely for a loop.  He quoted a poem titled "The Unknown" by a traditionalist who came out of Princeton University, and it goes something like: "There are some things that we know that we know.  There are some things that we know that we don't know.  But then there are some things that we don't even know that we don't know.  Sometimes, we don't know that we don't know about the situation."  The author then went on to say, "It is the power of wisdom that can maintain such clarity of mind about one's own ignorant state."

Why was I thrown for a loop?  I looked at the name of this Princeton graduate.  The name was Donald Rumsfeld.  He is the current Secretary of Defense for the United States of America.  The quote did not come from any poem.  It came during a US Department of Defense press conference.  The subject was Iraq's weapons of mass destruction and the question was whether they had been given to terrorist organizations.  Rumseld's response was (DoD News):

Reports that say that something hasn't happened are always interesting to me, because as we know, there are known knowns; there are things we know we know. We also know there are known unknowns; that is to say we know there are some things we do not know. But there are also unknown unknowns -- the ones we don't know we don't know. And if one looks throughout the history of our country and other free countries, it is the latter category that tend to be the difficult ones.

This response left the press aghast, for a question about a serious issue on the whereabouts of those weapons of mass destruction was addressed by a discourse on epistemology.  Was this how the mightiest army in the history of the world was run?  Besides, Rumsfeld was fully aware that there never were any such weapons to begin with.

So I too had an epistemological problem.  Was this author actually so na´ve as to believe that this statement was a poem that represented "the power of wisdom that can maintain such clarity of mind about one's own ignorant state"?  Or was this author playing a cynical trick on unsuspecting readers?  My vote is for the latter.  If another lazy writer comes along and cites the quote by this author without consulting the original source, they can look quite foolish.

I will not ask my readers the same open-ended question that the author asked the media workers that he interviewed: "Which subjects are not permissible in Chinese media today?" because it is easy to refer to the second paragraph of the translated excerpt.  That is by no means an exhaustive list.  

Extra Credit:  For those who live outside of China, what does your supposedly free media choose not to bring up?  Case study: Why won't any mainstream media in the USA go near the first Downing Street memo when it came out in April?  Why do they refer to it as the 'famous Downing Street memo' now when they had never ever mentioned it before? (see Joe Conason in A Press Coverup)