Li Datong: "It's Lung Ying-tai again, f**k!"

This essay originally appeared in two parts in China Times (Taipei) on July 10-11, 2006.  A Chinese-language copy has been presenved on this blog.

It's Lung Ying-tai again, f**k!.  By Li Datong.  July 10-11,2006.

[in translation]

(From the China Times editor)  "Wildfire" has spread to the city of Beijing and its passion melted "Freezing Point."  In late May, the Beijing-based China Youth Daily's "Freezing Point" supplement published Lung Ying-tai's essay "The Taiwan That You May Not Know About" and rocked the Chinese-language world.  Although it created displeasure among the Chinese authorities and the Central Propaganda Department called it inappropriate to "publicize democratic freedom in Taiwan in this manner," the act was a done deal already.  "The Taiwan that you may not know about" became a super-hot topic among Chinese readers.  The following essay is written by "Freezing Point"'s chief editor at the time, Li Datong, with a first-person perspective about how the process which Lung Ying-tai's essay was commissioned, examined, edited and published.  This reads like a true mystery novel and deserves multiple readings.  This book has been collected in Lung Ying-tai's new book: "Please use civilization to convince me" published by Times Culture.

How much do the people in mainland China know about the democratization process in Taiwan?  Quite a few people know that at the end of the 1980's, Taiwan allowed political parties, newspapers and the election of leaders and legislators ... the netizens are delighted by the sight of the legislators in Taiwan parliament flighting in melees and they make fun of this.

Generally speaking, though, the true situation inside Taiwan is half real, half false in the heads of mainland Chinese people.  They pay attention, but they also know nothing.  Even among journalists, some of us have this problem too.  This situation was finally broken open because of two unprecedented visits.

From the end of April to the beginning of May in 2005, Taiwan Nationalist Party chairman Lian Chan and People First Party chairman James Soong visited mainland China and met with Chinese Communist Party secretary general Hu Jintao.  They gave public speeches at universities, paid tribute at the Sun Yat-sen mausoleum, went to their home towns to pay respect to their ancestors ... the gestures, sayings and behaviors of the Taiwan political figures appeared on mainland Chinese television screens, sometimes in extensive direct broadcasts.  There were also many specials, discussions and interviews.  The mainland Chinese media received no instructions from the Central Propaganda Department, and so this was basically open-ended journalism.

The attention and impact of these visits far exceeded those from any American president visiting China.  We paid close attention to these visits and we watched the real reactions of the people on mainland China.  The responses were quite unexpected: everywhere these two Taiwan political leaders went, the people gave them huge welcomes.  The responses were spontaneous, the people created their own banners, they shouted "Elder Brother Lian," schoolchildren sang "Grandpa Lian, you came back.  You finally came back" ... The photographers from our newspaper, China Youth Daily, took large numbers of photographs of the two chairmen at their hometowns, and we were astonished by what we saw -- the local peasants practically killed each other in order to get a glimpse of their compatriots.

What was happening?  The Nationalists and Communists had been deadly enemies in the fight for political power.  After the dust of the civil war settled down, the two sides demonized each other in media and education.  But could the ideological barriers erected over several decades actually be so fragile?  A simple visit was enough to completely knock them down?

For the mainland Chinese intellectuals, the best part of the Lian-Soong trip was the two public speeches on the Peking University podium.  The two did not carry any paper, they looked straight at their audiences and they talked naturally.  Each has his unique style.  Their speeches contained barbs, for they presented the developments in Taiwan while subtly criticizing the current situation in mainland China -- "mainland China has some space to develop" with respect to democratic freedom and sharing of wealth.  It is likely that for the mainland citizens, these Taiwan political figures had won already because they were not reading off papers containing officialese like mainland officials do.  When our newspaper reporter came back, he said: "Even the taxi drivers were praising them.  Look at them ..."  Ha ha, if you didn't compare before, you wouldn't know the difference.  Once you make a comparison, you are stunned.

The problem is, What are the implications of this incredible opening?  The Nationalists also agree with "One China."  If they take back political control in the 2008 election in Taiwan, is it possible for them to enter mainland politics to some extent?  Will the political situation in mainland China change as a result?  It is obviously premature to discuss these scenarios, but there is no doubt that Taiwan will become a factor in Chinese politics in the future.  It is the responsibility of the media to let the mainland people understand the real Taiwan as quickly and accurately as possible.

At "Freezing Point," we held a meeting to discuss the subject.  Lu Yuegang proposed to follow up on the new atmosphere created by the visits of Lian and Soong.  Everybody agreed.  But the problem was, How?  Who is capable of writing a proper and true analysis of Taiwan now?  We listed all the mainland authors capable of writing these types of essay and we did not think that they were ideal.  Although these people are good writers, it is hard to say that they really understand Taiwan or know how to position things.  Finally, the name of an obvious writer came up -- Taiwan writer Lung Ying-tai.  It goes without say that she has all the requirements for this type of essay.  Earlier this year, she had delivered a speech at China Youth Daily.  After the speech, she came specifically over to the Freezing Point editorial room to chat with us.  We got along well.  Since Lu Yuegang is also a writer, he got the assignment to contact Lung Ying-tai.  Later developments proved that the heavens must have wanted Freezing Point to join with Lung Ying-tai.

Lu Yuegang got the assignment to ask Lung Ying-tai for an essay.  It started off badly, because Lung Ying-tai was highly skeptical.  She did not believe that such an essay could be published in mainland China.  There was an amusing interlude.  In order to test the boundary of Freezing Point, she wrote a short essay that analyzed what happened when Lian Chan went back to visit his alma mater school in Shaanxi and the small schoolchildren were ordrered by the adults to recite the dreadful, vulgar 'poem' titled "Grandpa Lian, you came back ..."  The Taiwan media were making fun of this event.  She asked, "Can this be published?"  We had to admit that it obviously could not be.  "If you can't even publish a short essay like this, what can I write?"  This was a question that we really did not know how to answer.

She did not believe that any essay that presents the true Taiwan could be published in mainland China.  She has a column in mainland media and so she understood too well about the political taboos in the media.  But after Lu Yuegang's strong and persistent persuasion, Lung Ying-tai finally agreed.

On May 24, we got to work and we impatiently waited for Lung Ying-tai's essay.  Nobody knew what she would write or if the chief editor will spike it immediately.  As insurance, I even prepared a back-up essay.

At 10am, I checked the email.  Nothing.  At 11am, nothing.  At 12n, still nothing!  At past 1am, it arrived!  Heavens!  I downloaded it and switched the text from traditional into simplified form.  Several editors were reading it at the same time, so that we can collectively decide whether this could be pushed along.  We had no time to do this one after another.

First section: The Beijing opera "The Red Lantern" in Taipei.

"Passed!"  I yelled out aloud.  There was no problem with this section, and it was a fancy opening!

Second section: The brook flows slowly and nothing comes easy.

This section also 'fits' even though the name Gao Xingjian is never mentioned by mainland Chinese media.  "Passed!" I yelled a second time.

Third section: Many versions are described.  After reading it, I hesitated but in the end I still said :"Passed."

Then I read on and I could not possibly say "Pass" anymore.

People in Taiwan are accustomed to living in a democratic system.  This means that the democratic system holds the same place in their daily lives as as daily necessities such as tea, rice, cooking oil and salt.

Here is one such person.  His government building is open to the public.  There are no guards at the door to check his documents.  He comes out of the government building just as he would come out of a shopping mall.  If he has to go through a procedure, apply for a document or get a few stamps on some documents, there is no barrier.  He gets a queueing number and he waits, and no one will jump in the line ahead of him.  When his turn comes, the workers will not give him a hard time or cause him trouble.  When he is done, he can wander around the government building, browse in the bookstore and have a cup of coffee.  The coffee and the snack are brought over by a mentally handicapped youth, because the government requires that every government office must employ mentally or physically handicapped people in certain ratios.  He sits in center court to sip his coffee and if he sees the mayor walk past, he can run over to get an autograph.

If he waits too long at the government office, or if the attitude of the government worker was bad, he can cast his vote for another mayoral candidate in four years' time.


Damn, what will the Central Propaganda Department have to say about this?

By the time that we finished reading, we all realized that this was an excellent article.  If we can publish this, it will be an entry in the history of journalism in China and an entry in the relationship between the two sides of the Taiwan strait.  This was also an essay about the truth of Taiwan that entails huge political risks because the direction of the essay was obvious.  The whole essay was also highly interconnected and it would impossible to use technical editing means to reduced the risk.  Therefore, there were only two options for this essay: either it will be spiked without any recourse; or else it will be published in full.  If large amounts of excision are done to the point where it becomes "safe," it will have no value left -- we could not agree and Lung Ying-tai could not agree more so.

The time was getting close.  I decided to typeset it first and then argue with the chief managing editor later.  Of course, there were some excisions and I carefully deleted one sentence (not more than 100 words).  Then I added my editor's comments: "Exchange and understanding complements each other.  The two sides of the strait have broken off relationships for almost 60 years.  The people of Taiwan need to understand mainland fully and accurately, just as the mainland people need to understand Taiwan the same way."

The draft was quickly sent to the chief managing editor.  Then we began to discuss how to handle the ensuing debate.  Our reasoning must be extraordinarily powerful.  We could not argue on the usual basis that the "risks were small," because it was obvious that the risks were great!  Finally, we decided that our reasoning will be based upon: "This essay did not exceed what Lian and Soong said during the live broadcast speeches on mainland.  Lung Ying-tai is a Taiwan writer and her freedom of speech should not be the same as mainland writers; rather, she should have the same freedom as Lian and Soong."

At around 5pm, the deputy chief managing editor Chen Xiaochuan entered the Freezing Point office.  We took a look at the draft and he had already signed "For printing."  Wow, this was so unexpected!  We were so elated that we started to yell.  He said that he had shown it to the chief editor Li Erliang with the comment that "this did not exceed the speech boundaries for Lian and Soong in mainland China."  Li Erliang agreed and deleted about 200 words of so.  "This is truly a good essay!" He sighed.

"This is a meeting of brilliant minds!"  We yelled again.  Then we looked at the words that were removed, but they did not seem important.  The original title "The Taiwan That You Must Know" was changed to "The Taiwan That You May Not About."  We agreed that it was better to leave a little room.

Then Lu Yuegang went downstairs to call Lung Ying-tai and told her about the outcome.  Previously, Lu Yuegang had made a bet with her.  If the essay cannot be published, Freezing Point will treat her to dinner; if it is published, she will have to treat Freezing Point to dinner.  She lost!  She actually lost!

On May 25, the essay was published on both sides of the strait.  The editor's comment in China Times (Taiwan) stated that this was an essay that Lung Ying-tai wrote at the invitation of Beijing's China Youth Daily and China Times is merely re-printing it.  China Times was very professional in not stealing the thunder from another newspaper.

That morning, China Youth Daily's Washington DC-based reporter Weng Xiang was surfing the Internet and saw this essay at China Times.  He noticed that this essay was "re-printed" from our newspaper.  He could not believe it, so he went to our website and confirmed it.  He was very emotional and he left a public statement on our intra-net website: "I am proud that my newspaper published Lung Ying-tai's essay; I am proud to be a reporter for China Youth Daily!"

This essay led to strong responses and intense debate on both sides of the strait.  The aftereffects are still in action, but I won't talk about this here.  No one will challenge this essay's place in the history of Chinese journalism.

We were ecstatic.  On the morning after the essay was published, I left a public statement on the newspaper's public comments area to thank Li Erliang and Chen Xiaochuan for their decisions.  I met Li Erliang at lunch, and I shook his hand vigorously.  It must seem that I was losing it!

For the next half month, things went peacefully.  There was no "critical reading" from the Central Propaganda Department.  Our analysis was that the reports about the Lian-Soong mainland visits and their aftermath were managed by the two cross-strait relations offices and the Central Propaganda Department was out of it.  After all, this matter concerns unification and since there is freedom of speech on the other side of the strait, there cannot be too big a difference.  So this essay was able to find the perfect combination of circumstances.

But we were celebrating prematurely.  If it is going to come, it will come sooner or later.  On June 7, in the Critical News Reading Issue Number 263 from the Central Propaganda Department carried this:

It Is Inadvisable To Publish Essays That Promote Taiwan Democratic Freedom In This Manner
On May 25, the Freezing Point supplement of China Youth Daily published Taiwan writer Lung Ying-tai's essay "The Taiwan That You May Not Know About - Reflections on Lian and Soong visiting mainland China."  This essay mentioned how the Taiwan compatriots want urgently to learn about mainland China and that was quite moving.  But the essay also stridently promoted the so-called democratic freedom in Taiwan.  It is inconceivable that our newspapers can use so much space to publish this kind of essay.

... the essay said: "For some people, their personal experience was that the rule of Taiwan by the Japanese was more civilized than that by the Kuomintang.  No matter how uncouth the Japanese governor was, it was still the rule of the Japanese legal system, and Japan at the time was a modernized country that had went through the Meiji reformation."

The essay said that the people of Taiwn never felt that they were a part of the People's Republic of China.  Those Taiwanese who were ruled by the Japanese were obviously forced by history to think of themselves as Japanese nationals.  Those who cross the strait from China in 1949 think that they are citizens of the Republic of China.

... Lung Ying-tai's essay spared no effort to promote democracy, freedom and equality of wealth in Taiwan today.  This is different from the reality that people see in Taiwan.  The essay said that Japan's rule of Taiwan was characterized by the "rule of law," that the people who lived under Japanese rule "are regarded as Japanese nationals in history" and that is nonsense.  The essay also praised Gao Xingjian who won the 2000 Nobel Prize in Literature.  In 1987, Gao Xingjian ran away from China and went to France where he became a French citizen.  The fact that he won the Nobel Prize in Literature proves that the Nobel Prize in Literature was used to serve ulterior political motives.  It is inappropriate for our media to publish essays such as the one by Lung Ying-tai.  One of the consequences is that the mass of readers may be seriously misled.

Li Erliang told me that the superiors were extremely upset at this essay.  The Central Propaganda Department director Liu Yunshan called China Youth League First Secretary Zhou Qiang in and severely chided him that about this essay that was "against the Communist Party at every point" ...

So the storm blew over with a lot of excitement but no damage.  There was no reason to stop Freezing Point's plan to present Taiwan.  I asked Lung Ying-tai to "start" again beginning with certain less risky subjects at the rate of one article per month in Freezing Point.  In two years' time, there should be enough to have material the mainland Chinese counterpart of the Wildfire collection.  Lung Ying-tai agreed to "try."

On October 19 and 26 of 2005, Freezing Point used two full pages to publish Lung Ying-tai's "What is Culture?"  The direction of this long essay was obviously about how the rapid economic development in mainland China came with the cruel demise of culture.  The old streets, hutongs, houses and shops were swept away and replaced by shining tall buildings, luxurious movie and opera  houses, imitation "Tang cities" and "Song streets" ... But is this culture?

Apart from the basic needs of the political system, an important reason why this was happening is that mainland officials have no idea what culture is.  The education in mainland China after 1949 turned one generation after another into "screws" that the Party can place wherever they want.  The people who come out of this educational system are only artisans looking for short-term accomplishments and there will never be any generalists who understand humanist ideas and values.

The major purpose of this long essay by Lung Ying-tai is to reveal some minimal cultural awareness for mainland officials.  She used beautiful but popular language to tell these officials just what "cultural policies" are ...

As the essay was being typeset, Li Erliang walked past the workstation and saw Hu Jian, the Freezing Point typesetting editor.  Li asked casually: "What is in tomorrow's Freezing Point?"  Hu Jian replied: "The essay by Lung Ting-tai."  When Li Erliang heard that, he said, "Why Lung Ying-tai again!?"  That last experience was still etched in his mind.

"How is this essay?" he asked me.  "Great essay!" I praised loudly.  He turned and left, even as he mumbled, "Oh, f*ck!"  It seemed that whenever I said that it was "good," he sensed big trouble.  We could not help but laugh loudly.

The essay was published and it served to inform mainland officials.  When our Yunnan-based reporter saw this essay, he printed it and sent it to the Yunnan province party committee deputy secretary in charge of cultural activities, who praised it and asked our reporter to do the same whenever such good essays appear again.

Shortly afterwards, certain mainland Chinese websites reported the news that Taiwan Nationalist chairman Ma Ying-jeou apologized to the leftists who were oppressed and murdered during the "White Terror" era in the 1950's, inclduing several thousand Communist Party members.  After looking into the background material on this affair, I discovered that when Lung Ying-tai was the Minister of Culture of Taipei City, she had organized an exhibit on the executed Communists and Taipei City mayor Ma Ying-jeou did the opening ceremony.  The exhibit had photographs in which the various male and female Communists calmly went to the execution fields.  This affair touched me immensely.

What caused thse two age-old enemies who had sworn to kill each other on the battlefield to reflect on their actions and apologize to the enemy?  Undoubtedly, it was the development of the democratic system and the acceptance of notions about basic human rights!  Should not the fact that the Taiwan political scene underwent this change be a warning and an example for the development of mainland politics?  During the many oppressions in mainland China after 1949, how many people died?  During the "three difficult years" after the insane "Great Leap Forward," more then 30 million people starved to death in that unprecedented famine in Chinese history.  Did the ruling party ever apologize?  "Don't get tangled up with historical arguments" is a common phrase in mainland politics.  But why do these "historical arguments" get re-examined again and again in a democratic system?  These are questions that need to be answered.

So I invited Lung Ying-tai to write that essay.  Since the reason is compelling, Lung Ying-tai could not refuse: "It was you who organized that exhibit!"

On November 23, "A Chairman Bowed Formally Three Times" was published.

During a time when the Democratic Progressive Party was ruling, it required a great deal of courage to organize an exhibit to memorialize the massacred Communist Party members!  At the time, the principal Xu Zongmao wrote in Asia Weekly magazine:

In 2000, I mentioned this matter to Taipei City Minister of Culture Lung Ying-tai and I showed her the phogographs.  We decided to use the name of the Ministry of Culture to hold a special exhibit in the basement of the 2/28 Memorial Museum.  This was an extremely courageous decision.  Taiwan society was not mature to the point of being able to objectively look at the martyrs with various political colors.  After 50 years of relentless anti-Communist education, the Communists are now being presented in a positive manner.  Whether human rights or humanism is invoked will not make it a calm process.

After the exhibit opened, the people responded warmly but the attacks came in waves.  Lung Ying-tai was called "butcher," "oppressor," "cultural Hitler," "Communist fellow traveler" ...

Lung Ying-tai looked at it coolly: "I actually only did not think that human rights ought to segregated according to political position.  The Nationalists, the Communists, the Democratic Progressive Party, any fucking party ... if human dignity is not your core value and if you permit human rights to be determined by those in power, then you are just someone that I despise.  You do not intimidate me."

At the end of the essay, Lung Ying-tai answered my question:

Ma Ying-jeou carried the cross of the Kuomintang to apologize to history.  This is an important symbol, but it is not an isolated or uniquely occurring incident.  It is one of the many road signs on the road to democracy in Taiwan.  When he made the deep bows, it not only shows the internal transformation of the Kuomintang.  The core driving force is the deep structural change of Taiwan caused by democracy in Taiwan.

Without democracy, there would not the bows from Ma Ying-jeou.

God, can such an essay be published?  Any mainland media person would recognize that this was an essay with huge political risks.  On one hand, I gave the praise "Good article!"  On the other hand, I was considering how I would argue with the chief editors.  The reason was easy to find: "The Nationalists are apologizing to the Communists!"

The result shocked me.  Li Erliang approved it without changing a single word.  I hestitated for a moment as I pondered whether I should change "any fucking party" but I decided to let Li Erliang do it himself.  But he did not change it!

So I sent an email to Lung Ying-tai and informed her about this stunning outcome.  She was amazed.  All previous experiences with mainland media were inoperable.  She called me at the office immediately: "Datong, what is going on?  I don't understand where the 'boundary' is anymore!"  I could not help but laugh.

Two months later and right before Freezing Point was halted, Li Erliang told me that the essay was criticized from above.  "What?  The Nationalists were apologizing to the Communists!"  I acted as if I did not understand.  Li Erliang laughed bitterly: "Yes, but they said that everyone on the Internet was saying: When will Hu Jintao make three bows ...?"