Unpolitical Political Statements

This post begins with a reading from The Treason of the Clerics by Jonathan Rée at The Nation:

Unlike some other stars of Parisian intellectual life, Michel Foucault was always reluctant to air his opinions about big political issues. It was not that he was uninterested in politics or indifferent to human suffering, just that he was suspicious of the sort of thinkers--"universal intellectuals," he called them--who consider it their privilege and duty to set the world to rights, as if history had appointed them to speak on its behalf, or morality had summoned them to be the conscience of the human race.

Anyone who has read his books--from Madness and Civilization and Birth of the Clinic, published in the early 1960s, to the multivolume History of Sexuality, which he was still working on when he died in 1984 at the age of 57--will understand why Foucault would not presume to speak in the name of others. He was in his way a hands-on historian, who spent half his life peering at brittle old documents in the Bibliothèque Nationale. He was also a social theorist with a special interest in small-scale processes, or in the "micro-power," as he called it, that travels through the "capillaries" of the institutions by which we live. On top of that he was an accomplished writer in a particular French tradition, and an admirer of the "radiant uncertainties" of the Surrealist poet Raymond Roussel. There is a Surrealist exuberance in all of Foucault's works, and he was constantly on the lookout for themes that refused to align themselves with the normal ways of the world--tales of oddballs, fantasists and fanatics, or idiosyncrasies, exceptions and discrepancies. He was, you might say, a poet of the uncommonplace: a philosopher of the unphilosophical, a historian of the unhistorical and a politician of the unpolitical.

This then leads to the occasion of the 20th anniversary of the publication of The Wildfire Collection by Lung Ying-tai.  I read the book when it came out back then.  I don't know where my old copy of the book went, but I just picked up the newly re-published version this week and re-read it.  It was every bit as stunning and powerful.  This was the most politically influential book of the 1980's.  It was first published in Taiwan as a collection of essays published in China Times.  When the book reached China some time later, somehow everyone was sure that it was talking about China.  How is that possible?  Because the author was making apolitical political statements!

Lung Ying-tai was not interested in saying that the Nationalist government was right or wrong on this or that issue.  She was not interested in saying that the opposition was right or wrong on this or that issue.  If she did that, that the reception of her writing would have fallen automatically along the party lines.  But she was just interested in the issues.  The first essay in the collection just asked, "Dear Chinese people, why aren't you angry and mad?"  And all the essay referred to are mundane issues such as an illegal food stall in your building, or an evening spent by the river to watch the sunset.  She asked why people couldn't just call up the police department or health department to get rid of the food stall, or call the environmental protection department about the polluted waters of the river.  She just wanted to know why people were not angry.  These were simple questions, but they touched very deep nerves back then.

In the 20th anniversary edition of The Wildfire Collection, there is a retrospective article dated 1999 by Lung Ying-Tai.  Here, she summarized the reception of the book in 1985.

[in translation]  The Wildfire Collection appeared in bookstores and newsstands.  In 21 days, it sold through 24 editions ... four months later, it had sold 100,000 copies.

The Nationalist newspapers published critical articles almost daily:

Without a government led by the Nationalists, no one can survive.  Even the Wildfires that wanted to cause 'trouble' will stay silent unless they want to be politically persecuted and slaughtered.

We must tell people sternly that the Chinese people who live in Taiwan today with Taipei as the leader that the government system, the social structure and the popular culture may have some flaws, but it is definitely healthy, it has no serious ills and it can love and be loved.  Only the sort of [name-calling] such as Lung Ying-tai ... we have the right and the obligation to denounce her publicly.

From the opposition, the criticisms have a different basis:

Lung Ying-tai harangues the readers: "Why are you not angry?  Why won't you take action?"  She does not know (or she deliberately omits) ... what kind of system caused the people to become "so angry"?  ... any form of individual resistance is basically useless ... Lung Ying-tai obviously did not recognize that.  She persisted in her individualism and American-style freedom, but in the end she has to come up to the last gate -- what restricts, suppresses and oppresses individual freedom the most is nothing else but the political system ...

With respect to the abuse and threats from the Nationalists, I never responded with a single word because that was beneath me.  With respect to the criticism from the opposition, I never offered any explanation, because I did not want the people who are waiting to destroy me to know my writing strategy.


In my personal life, I maintained a low profile.  On one hand, I wanted to continue to write.  On the other hand, it was beneath me to become a popular heroic figure.  I accepted no interviews, I did not go on television, I gave no speeches and I made no public appearances.  Of course, I made no contact with anyone in the opposition.  For the longest time, no one even knew that the author of Wildfire was a woman.  Those essays were written while contemplating in solitude.

In my writing, I knew that I could not directly attack the system.  That would be something that the opposition publications do.  I could discuss and criticize the environment, security, education and other social problems.  Yet, under that authoritarian system, any thinking person will figure out that all social problems ultimately and unavoidably must be rooted in politics.  But I could not write about that.

And I did not feel that I need to write about that.  If a person has the ability to think independently, he will be able to see the crux of the problem and find his own answer.  I believed that the unjust system existed because individuals allowed it to exist; the more basic problem about the system is the individuals.

And that is why every single essay in Wildfire attributes the ultimate responsibility on the individuals, and that is the citizen himself.

On the occasion of the Hong Kong Book Fair 2005, Lung Ying-tai was invited to give a special talk by Yazhou Zhoukan (Asia Weekly). The following account is based upon what appeared in the August 7 issue of the magazine.  This talk was attended by an overflowing crowd of more than 1,000 persons.  Since this event took place in Hong Kong, she asked the question on behalf of the people of Hong Kong: "Who am I?"  This was an apolitical presentation because she did not refer much to the Communist Party of China, the Democratic Party of Hong Kong and other political organizations.

The presentation began with a citation of a May survey of Hong Kong self-identification.  23% of the people regard of themselves as Chinese people of Hong Kong, 21% regard themselves as people of Hong Kong, and 70% of them are proud of being Chinese, etc.  Lung then cited an anecdotal case: A certain Hong Kong-born person held a BNO passport as a second-class citizen of the British Empire.  He went to study in the United States and obtained a green card.  When he thought that those passports in his drawer were not enough, he even got a Portuguese passport through Macau.  Yet, these passports are merely instruments with which to pass through borders.  When he presents a Portuguese passport, immigration officers regards him with suspicion since he obviously does not look Portuguese.  Can he be said to be a Chinese in Hong Kong?  Well, he certainly is not at all familiar with the geography of China proper, so how can be said to be a Hong Kong person "of China."

Lung Ying-tai then presented a survey of "personal values and satisfaction with the country."  She went through a number of countries about how satisfied citizens were with their personal lives and then with their countries.  So she reviewed the numbers for the United States, Poland, Argentina, South Korea, and then she showed China: 23% of the Chinese were satisfied with their lives and 48% of them were satisfied with their country.  Then she dropped the kicker: What about the people of Hong Kong?  There was stone silence in the auditorium.  Lung said, "What about it?  That's a very embarrassing question!  The answer must be very different if the 'country' refers to all of China or the little piece known as Hong Kong!"

Next Lung Ying-tai presented a statistical map of the countries across the world by the University of Michigan along four dimensions: nationalistic government; traditionalist government along the lines or religion and doctrines; governments which advocate individualism and respect while opposing hegemony; and pragmatic and rational governments.  China falls into the category of being unaffected by traditional religion but is strong on nationalism and weak on individual freedom.  The United Kingdom was strong on rationality and individual freedom.  So where was Hong Kong, which had gone through 150 years of British colonialism and eight years under China, going to fit?

At this point, Lung Ying-tai pointed to the screen and said that Hong Kong was struggling between colonialism and patriotism.  She offered no answer, but instead recounted a 'secret' meeting in 1986 in Taipei, in which she spoke of the taboo subject of a 'Taiwan consciousness.'  Today, she wanted to know if this 'Taiwan sovereignty' degrades the insistence on human rights and the rule of law (such as treating mainland Chinese brides as second-class citizens and ostracizing politically incorrect dissidents), then whether that type of "Taiwan sovereignty" and "Taiwan first" attitudes can be acknowledged and accepted?  These questions are obviously beyond what most of what Hong Kong people are thinking about right now.

After more than one hour of presentation and Q&A, Lung Ying-tai offered no definitive answer to the "Who Am I?" question for the people of Hong Kong.  She only offered three suggestions: First, the people of Hong Kong ought to step beyond the sheer politics and rethink their position with respect to China.  She does not say, but I will point out the obvious that the relationship between Hong Kong and China is far beyond that between the central government of China and pan-democratic camp in Hong Kong.  Second, they ought to go beyond the existing culture and look for the roots that are underlying it.   Third, they ought to go beyond the languages and clarify the relations between the tool languages and the spiritual languages, while making sure that they learn putonghua, English as well as Cantonese.