The Case of Lu Xuesong

And now we come to the strange case of Lu Xuesong (卢雪松).  This matter has been going on for some time.  I have my usual reservations about saying anything on such cases for reasons that will become apparent at the end of this post.  I am only writing about this because this has become a meta-event on the matter of media commentary.

Lu Xuesong is a young instructor at the Jilin College of the Arts.  On May 17, she was suspended from her teaching duties by the school administration.  She tried to obtain an explanation from various administrators.  Not satisified with what she characterized as inadequate or everchanging responses, Lu decided to post open letters on the Internet to the general public.

In Lu's various letters, she claimed not to know the true reason for her suspension.  For example, in this letter:

[translation]  I have personally heard many versions:  According to the division secretary, it was because of my private communication with a female student in the class.  This secretary said that the communication was reported by another student.  Upon my repeated inquiries, the reason for suspension was changed to: I used "inappropriate materials in class and I had improper tendencies."  There are other private whisperings at the college that I was some kind of element or that I was a reactionary, and I have heard about those too.  Nobody is perfect and my lectures contain flaws, but the only response to my suspension has to be "I was not wrong."  My demand for an explanation of my suspension has been stalled or obsfucated, and I have not even received a written notice so far.

In another letter, she suggested that the "inappropriate materials in class" may be the use of the movie <<In Search Of The Soul Of Lin Zhao>>.  Lin Zhao was a dedicated revolutionary who was declared a counter-revolutionary and perished during a political campaign.  Lu wrote in this letter:

[translation]  I am a very considered person.  The materials that I used in the classroom are openly published in China.  All information obtained from the Internet came from websites that have proper ICP registration inside China.  All movies that I exhibited are widely used by instructors at higher institutions of learning around China.  My lecture notes have been written as an article that was openly published inside China.  Ignoring all those unverifiable and unsupported allegations, I assume responsiblity for everything that I say and do.  I assume total responsiblity for my quest for the truth in my research and all its consequences.  If there exist unwritten rules that caused me to be treated unfairly and unjustly, then I must follow my conscience to complain and protest in order to defend the truth.

These open letters from Lu Xuesong triggered a groundswell of sympathy from everywhere (see, for example, Yannan).  Apart from the Internet, newspapers such as Beijing News, Southern Metropolis Daily and Eastern Morning News joined in the discussion.  For example, here is an abstract from the China Information Center of an article by Fu Guoyong on July 25, 2005 titled Let Our Souls Rise Up With Freedom:

Lu Xuesong is only an ordinary woman, an ordinary teacher in an ordinary art school, but she had chosen to do something significant, though she could foretell what ordeal she would go through for what she did. She knew it is an adventure of the soul, but she prefers let her soul rise up with freedom. The appearance of Lu Xuesong in the spotlight of the social life has cast a thread of hope in the utter darkness. 

There are two main themes in the discussion about the Lu Xuesong affair (see, for example, Liu Xiaobo).  The first theme is about the culture of informing in China (see Xie Bing).  Here, we get into a semantical issue.  In Chinese, the term is 告密, which literally means "reporting a secret."  For example, a husband tells a wife that he took a bribe and the wife informs the authorities, then this is 'reporting a secret' between the two of them.

If this was about the teaching around the movie <<In Search Of The Soul Of Lin Zhao>>, then this is a lecture to a group of students.  As such, it cannot be a secret, and so it is not a matter of one student reporting the contents of her lectures for the entire class to the authorities.  As a commentator in Southern Metropolis Daily said, "What kind of school is this when a teacher can only teach if the students maintain the lectures as secrets?" 

Lu Xuesong also wrote that she was told at one point that this was about a private communication between her and a female student which was reported by another student to the authorities.  What is the substance of that communication?  We don't know from her letters.

In this case, is it true that any private communication between teacher and student must be held to be private and privileged, like that between priest-confessor, attorney-client or reporter-source?  Let us imagine this hypothetical scenario: a student thought greatly of a teacher as a wonderfully inspirational figure, and then the teacher tells the student that he/she is XXX and begins to start telling the student about being XXX.  What is the student obliged to do?  That depends on what XXX is.  Now work through the following -- XXX is (1) a William Shakespeare expert; (2) an al Qaeda jihadist/terrorist; (3) an expert in Einstein's general theory of relativity; (4) an AIDS carrier who wants to infect as many people as possible; (5) a Jehovah's Witness; (6) a pornographer; (7) a drug abuser/dealer; (8) a blogger; (9) a peeping tom; (10) a comic book collector; (11) a Far Loon Goon follower; (12) a critic of globalization, World Trade Organization and International Monetary Fund.  I don't think that the student must stay mum in each and every case.

There were also plenty of discussions about the moral and ethical propriety of informing on others.  Much of this was no doubt inherited from the disgust against the practice of filing 'small reports' (小報告) to score political points in the old days of permanent political struggle, when nobody could afford to trust anyone else (not even spouses, fathers, mothers, brothers, sisters, sons or daughters).  The burden is actually on the informer to make a judgment call.  As in the above examples, if the teacher says that she is an AIDS carrier who wants to infect as many people as possible, the student should inform the authorities; if the teacher says that he is a jihadist who wants to set off a bomb in a public place for maximum damage, the student will be held complicit if he/she does not inform the authorities; if the teacher says that he is a children's comic book collector, then the student really had no business telling that to the Party Secretary.  The revulsion against informing appears when the subject matter is clearly harmless by itself, but may still have dire consequences if disclosed to the authorities (such as dropping a copy of the little red book on the ground by accident).

The second theme is about the figure of Lin Zhao (林昭) (see, for example, Ai Xiaoming).  There is not too much disagreement with Lu Xuesong's assessment that "the martyr Lin Zhao was a philosopher, a warrior and a freedom fighter.  The censorship of her personal story for so many years should serve as a monument for the people.  The many years of censorship and the re-emergence of her figure is something that a teacher, especially a teacher of communications, should definitely choose."  So the present case in fact provides a platform for discussing the tragic experience of Lin Zhao again.

Just when everyone is working themselves into a frenzy, there came a public statement from the Jilin College of the Arts regarding the suspension of Lu Xuesong:

[in translation]

Recently, the young instructor Lu Xuesong from our College published <<An Open Letter to The Jilin College Of The Arts Party Secretary -- I Dream Of Returning Soon To My Beloved Lectern>> and caused society to pay attention.  Many scholars and netizens made comments.  In order to make sure that society understand the truth and regard this matter properly, the College makes the following public statement:

1. Lu Xuesong is an instructor in the Dramatic Literature Department of our College.  She joined us in 1996 and she taught <<The History of Chinese Cinema>> and <<Communications>> classes.  In May this year, our College's teacher assistant and our party cadre found out that a certain student (who was a provisionary party member) became depressed and dispirited and no longer wanted to join the party.  After the Party went into the details of her thought process, the student told the Party that Lu Xuesong had been giving her slanderous, distorted and libelous information about China from the Far Loon Goon after class, and that Lu had also introduced several other students to websites about the mass resignation of the Chinese Communist Party members.  After an investigation, these conditions were found to be true and therefore the College has decided to suspend Lu Xuesong and await further disposition.

2. Lu Xuesong began practicing Far Loon Goon in 1997.  In 2002, with the party base organization's patient assistance, she had admitted her error and promised the College in a written statement that she will no longer practice Far Loon Goon.  During the past six months, students have reported that Lu Xuesong had occasionally expressed extreme opinions against the Party and the government, while stating partial views about 'democracy' and 'communications theory', thus causing the students to become unmotivated and lost.  The College was concerned about while supporting the viewpoints of the young instructor, and made some criticisms in the hope that she can correct her attitudes and be a qualifed teacher of people.  In the decision to suspend Lu Xuesong this time, her personal performance in class was not a direct cause.

3. Lu Xuesong refused to address the keypoint of the issue and attempted to cover the truth.  She used the Internet to mislead the public and damaged the College.  This has hurt the feelings of the students and teachers at the College, and the College will have to handle the matter accordingly.

4. Our college thanks the general public for their attention to this matter.  But we wish the people would try to understand the truth of the matter before expressing their opinions and comments.  This is how you can act responsibly for your individual selves, your organizations and society.

As the blogger Anti wrote: "事情既然到了这个份上,那还说什么?只好闭嘴。" (translation: "Since the matter now involves this factor, what else can be said?  I'll just have to shut up.")  Wu Dazhi wrote: "其中有些内容(第一条、第二条)笔者不便涉及." (translation: "Some of the contents (the first and second items) are inappropriate for this writer to comment on.")  This case is as good as dead on arrival inside China once Far Loon Goon enters into the equation.  It does even matter if Lu Xuesong has no affiliation with that group at all, as this is no longer a subject of discussion.

There will be others who wish to further the discussion on overseas websites.  Then the question is: Is it alright for a university teacher to use his/her authority figure status to introduce students to his/her personal beliefs outside of the classroom?  That is a difficult question, and an overseas person might try to answer the following:

I have no idea what is the 'right' answer to any of these four questions, of which two are real instances (and one is quite current on the overseas Chinese-language websites) and two are made up.  I believe that such questions call for a judgment based upon the specifics and not just a matter of general principles (as in "anything goes for anyone anytime anywhere").  I would be willing to believe that people can hold and express their personal beliefs, but I don't know if they should be allowed to use their authority status to promote their beliefs to those under their tutelage.

My comment in the opening paragraph of this post is echoed by the last item of the statement from the Jilin College of the Arts: "We wish the people would try to understand the truth of the matter before expressing their opinions and comments.  This is how you can act responsibly for your individual selves, your organizations and society."  My discomfort with the Lu Xuesong letters was that I only had Lu Xuesong's side of the story, and I was not sure that I wanted to leap in to support her by automatic reflex because she had all the right points.  Every time that I have come across something like this, there always seemed to be something else going on.

As it turned out, this case wasn't that straightforward.  Lu Xuesong had to know that this was about her Far Loon Goon-related activities, but she chose to glide over that deftly and invoked the name of the revolutionary martyr Lin Zhao instead.  Is it alright to propagandize on behalf of the Far Loon Goon?  Is it alright for an instructor of history of Chinese cinema to tell her students about the 3 million plus Communist Party members who have 'resigned' from the party after reading the Nine Critiques?  Maybe it is, as this is a freedom of speech issue confounded with the fact that the speaker is an authority figure to the students.  But it is not alright to assert that the Far Loon Goon is for "Truth, Benevolence and Tolerance" and then misrepresent a situation such as this one.  I would certainly feel like an absolute fool if I had jumped in on behalf of Lu Xuesong.

Here we are in the Internet age.  People obviously know what the trigger keywords are: "democracy", "freedom" and so on.  They know that all they have to do is to create a narrative that invokes those keywords and images and the liberal BBSworld/blogosphere will fall all over it.  A few more times and all credibility will be eroded.

Of course, everything could be reversed if Lu Xuesong would only come out and say, "I am not a practioner of F*L*G.  I have in no way, shape or form discussed, suggested or proposed anything related to F*L*G to my students.  Thus, everything in that official statement of the Jilin College of the Arts is a lie."  She has not done so at this time.  If she does, you can probably expect to see her signed letter of repudiation of the Far Loon Goon on the Internet immediately.