Is Dialogue Possible?

I was at CoChina-5 which was part of Blogfest Asia/First Annual HKbloggerCon.  The session was originally scheduled to have an online dialogue with the Fifth Annual CNbloggerCon in Lianzhou (Guangdong province), but technical problems prevented that from happening.  The participants were scheduled to be Professor Zhu Dake and myself in Hong Kong, and four other bloggers in Lianzhou.  The following is an expanded version of my prepared opening remarks (scheduled for 10 minutes only).

Is Dialogue Possible?

I am Roland Soong (宋以朗), the blogger at EastSouthWestNorth.  I was introduced at the HKbloggerCon dinner yesterday as one of the earliest bloggers in Hong Kong.  I also observed that I was the only one there with plenty of white hair.  In both real and blogging age, I am an old man.   Therefore, I may act like an old man and do things quite differently.  Let me explain ...

Today, the world is talking about Web 2.0, Twitter, Facebook, etc.  But EastSouthWestNorth is and has always been a Web 1.0 site – no comments allowed and usually not even a response to an email inquiry.

Why?  There is a history.

EastSouthWestNorth is a bridge blog that brings Chinese-language Greater China to the English-language blogosphere.  It carries information from Greater China via one person (me) to a great many English-reading persons all over the world.  Reader comments would be nice if the exchange is rational and construtive, but impossible when people become irrational and destructive.

When I started the blog, I allowed comments.  The first comment received was a solicitation for a criminal act.  I won’t describe the actual act, but let us say that it was like a recruitment advertisement to pay someone to take the TOEFL English-language test to enter American universities.  I deleted that comment immediately.  But the implication was clear: I would have to spend a lot of time moderating and censoring comments.  I decided not to allow comments at all.  I would rather provide information to several tens of thousands of people each day than engage in censoring extreme/illegal comments or refereeing the fight among a small number of trolls.  That was a personal decision of mine.  Other bloggers may decide differently.

If comments were opened up at EastSouthWestNorth, what might they look like?  Since I have several tens of thousands of page views per day, I am likely to get hundreds (and maybe thousands) of comments pouring in each day.  I would have to read them (or hire someone to read them).  The more lenient I am, the more likely people will take advantage of my laxity and kindness.  None of that should be surprising.  I quote from the recent talk given by Kaiser Kuo (郭怡广) (via Bob Page at Mercury Brief):

Chinese and Americans went after each other in the comment sections of news stories, blog posts, YouTube, forums and boards in an escalating people-to-people brawl that continues to this day. They fight over a litany of issues: Tibet, Taiwan, Tiananmen, trade, Internet censorship, religious freedom, Myanmar, Darfur, sanctions on Iran, carbon emissions, and so on. The first real people-to-people encounter between the world’s reigning and rising superpowers did not bode well.

“Many Chinese come away from these encounters more certain than ever that America, its government, its media, and even its people simply ‘have it in’ for China, that Americans are fearful of its rising power.… Americans, meanwhile, see confirmation of Chinese people locked in a dogmatic, nationalistic world view, perhaps the result of government-fanned flames of jingoism.

“You can see the irony, here, right? Each side seems well prepared to believe the worst about the other. But this is the Internet we’re talking about, which many of us believed would bring down barriers and usher in the death of distance, the good times of a global village.  Instead, it has made us more fractured and tribal…. It’s also true within America, where nowadays you only read the political blogs and viewpoints of those who happen to be on your side of the political aisle.

“Listen only to those who are shouting the loudest on each side and one could very easily conclude that this is a war between Red Guards and rednecks.”

I do not think it helps for me to facilitate this kind of exchange between "Red Guards versus Rednecks" (or “Chinese Fenqing (angry youth) PK Foreign Fenqing (angry youth)").  I may want to communicate some information to people, but I am likely to encounter the kind of situation as described by Leung Man-tao (梁文道) in Southern Weekend:

在一篇一萬字的文章堿搢ㄓ@句令我不滿的話,忘記剩下那部分吧,我要寫一篇兩萬字的回應來批判它。我為什麼要耐著性子看完 那篇東西呢?我為什麼要深入甚至同情地理會它的真正含義呢?它只不過是我用來表達自己的機會和藉口罷了。

In a 10,000 word essay, I came across one sentence that displeased me.  I forgot about the rest of that essay and I wrote a 20,000 word essay to criticize it.  Why should I bother to read the whole essay?  Why should I bother to delve into it or try to comprehend its true meaning?  It is merely an excuse and opportunity for me to express myself.

Indeed, I have come across someone who wrote: “I am not interested in the facts about what happened in Tibet, because I already know how to define the event.”  What is the point for providing information to people like that?  They are not interested in any information.  My own utility to them would be to provide the excuse and/or platform to rave and rant about their pre-established and immovable positions.

Many English-language Chinese-themed blogs are currently inaccessible inside China, but not EastSouthWestNorth.  This may seem strange since I carry more politically sensitive materials than they do.  One of those blocked bloggers gave me an answer in personal conversation, “That’s because you don’t have comments.  Your opinions, when you care to express them, are fair and reasonable.  We have open comments and we get some very weird people who seemed to be ratcheting up to the most extreme comments in order to destroy the website.”  I don't know if this is true or false, and I don't care.  I write to satisfy myself and I do not speculate on the desires of some faceless persons sitting somewhere in the shadows.

I am sometimes criticized for holding up communication and exchange because I have a very popular blog that consumes people's time but I won't allow those people to communicate through comments.  I say “Nonsense.”  Again to paraphrase Leung Man-tao, if you want to comment on something from my blog, start your own blog!  If you are ‘right,’ you will find and keep your audience through hard and patient work.  Why do you expect me to hand everything over to you for free?  If you feel like an outcast crying out in the wilderness, then it is because you are lazy or you are 'wrong.'  In either case, please reflect on your own.

This explains where I come from.  So where am I heading?  Where is the world heading?  Where would I like to see the world heading?

Today, I am speaking from Hong Kong (HKbloggercon) to Lianzhou (CNbloggercon).  In a way, it can be said that I am representing Hong Kong .  I ask, “Has there be much in the way of dialogue, exchange and interaction between the Hong Kong and mainland blogospheres hitherto?”

Unfortunately, I have to say, “Virtually none.”

Hong Kong bloggers look inwards.  What are they interested in recently?  'Bowtie' and energy-saving light bulbs; are apartment prices really affordable to regular people?; Michael Rowse’s book; etc.  Interestingly, a possible victim of Internet bullying named A Xuan is on the front page of the newspaper Ming Pao today.  Amazingly, more than 30,000 people have signed up for the Facebook page against this person.  Mainland bloggers are unlikely to be aware of these stories; even if they know, they wouldn’t care much because these matters are far removed from their own daily lives.

Conversely, Hong Kong bloggers are not very knowledgeable about mainland China.  How can there be any dialogue, exchange or interaction when their understanding of mainland China is based upon reading Apple Daily every day or frozen back in time circa 1989?  No mainland person would refer to any Hong Kong blog to find out about what is happening in China.  [Note:  But Hong Kong publishers are doing a great business with publishing books about the secret China (such as the lives of Mao Zedong, Zhou Enlai, their associates and the princelings; what really happened on June 4th; etc).  You can take a look at the shelves of the bookstores in the Hong Kong International Airport and you can see these titles are there to cater to mainland reader needs.  The question here is why are Hong Kong bloggers not influencing mainland Chinese readers like Hong Kong publishers are?]

Yesterday at the HKbloggerCon dinner, I met Professor Benjamin Ng Wai-ming (吴伟明) in person for the first time.  He writes a very interesting blog on Japan (知日部屋) with the motto: “哈日反日不如知日.”  Here I say: “哈中反中不如知中.”    “哈中” is to say that everything about China is good and great.  “反中” is to say that everything about China is bad and awful.  “知中” is to know China.  Thus, the translation of the full sentence is: It is better to know China than to just always love or hate it without knowing anything.

Knowledge is the first step.  You cannot talk about something meaningfully or convincingly unless you are knowledgeable about it.  Why do you want to talk about that something?  Because you think that the knowledge has enhanced or changed your position.  And that knowledge may also change your readers, especially those who form the subject of the discussion.

So the next step is to influence mainland China.

This seems very hard.  How can tiny Hong Kong change mainland China?  But it is not impossible.  The Hong Kong citizen Leung Man-tao is knowledgeable and influential in mainland China, although he is not a blogger per se.  If he can do it, so can Hong Kong bloggers.   It is easier for a Hong Kong blogger than a mainlander to do so, because he/she has two inherent advantages:  He/she has unrestricted access to information on the Internet and/or public libraries, and he/she has the freedom of speech/press in Hong Kong.  So far, that has not happened to any significant degree.  I cannot name any Hong Kong blogger who influences mainland Chinese public opinion.

But I am not here to condemn Hong Kong for not achieving its potential.  This is a supposed to be a Hong Kong-Mainland dialogue and not an intra-Hong Kong monologue today.  What I really want to say is this: Everything that I just said about Hong Kong is actually true for China as a whole.

Mainland Chinese bloggers look inward.  What are they currently interested in?  The story of Yan Xiaoling and the trials of the arrested netizens who made Internet posts; the hoax about AIDS girl Yan Deli; the three heroic Jingzhou University students who drowned while trying to save others; the systemic entrapment of Shanghai drivers for operating 'illegal taxis'; the bald-headed police officer who mistreated a suspected prostitute in Zhengzhou; etc.  Foreign bloggers don’t know these esoteric stories; even if they did know, they wouldn’t care much.

Should these stories matter?  To the Chinese netizens, they matter a great deal because they represent the tiny steps in the gradual emergence of a civic society that adheres to the rule of law which is imbued with human compassion.  This change has to be of interest to foreigners too.

Conversely, mainland Chinese bloggers are not very knowledgeable about the outside world.  I list as a notable exception Yang Hengjun who is on the Lianzhou panel.  Mr. Yang has devoted numerous blog posts to comparative analyses of the political, social, economic and cultural systems of China and the rest of the world.  China needs many more people like Mr. Yang.  In any case, China will have to look outwards some day if it is going to be a superpower.  There is no such thing as an inward-looking superpower in this world.

Unlike the mainland China-Hong Kong relationship, there is an additional difference due to languages.  You cannot reach the rest of the world right now with Chinese-language blog posts.  Either you make the rest of the world learn Chinese or else you write in a foreign language.  The first option will take many more years to accomplish, if ever.  The second option is up to individuals such as myself.  I hope to see more Chinese people writing in foreign languages to foreign audiences.

But are such efforts worthwhile given my earlier concerns over whether this is only a “Chinese Fenqing PK Foreigner Fenqing” farce?  I am optimistic.  My own experience is that I provide knowledge first.  When that knowledge proves to be interesting and useful, has greater depth and is consistently reliable, the influence will come automatically.

[Postscript: For me, "influence" does not mean making you think the way that I want you to.  No, far from it.  It would be unbearable if the whole world thinks the same way as I do.  Rather, "influence" means presenting you with some more information, making you think through things and reaching your own conclusion.  Different people will reach different conclusions.  If you decide that you don't need to know anything because you have already made your conclusion, that's alright with me too.]

(11/16/2009)  A person present at the Blogfest Asia/First Annual HKbloggerCon has made a request me to reconstruct my response to Professor Zhu Dake's prepared remarks.  So here is what I draw from notes (and they may not accurately represent what Professor Zhu meant):

Zhu Dake began with remarks about how he first encountered the Internet.  However, the excitement and anticipation of that first generation of users were displaced in later generations by verbal violence.  He listed three possible reasons:

(1) In China, there does not exist any consensus about the bottom lines of human values that must not be transgressed.  Instead, we have the appearance of all-out war all the time.

(2) Any dialogue requires trust.  Instead, we have a credibility crisis.  Anything that anyone says/does is suspected of carrying ulterior motives.

(3) The social and education systems also make dialogue impossible.  From a very young age, the Chinese person (from a one-child family) learns to manipulate the relationship among the six persons in his/her life: the parents, the paternal grandparents and the maternal grandparents.  If you can't get a toy from your father, you try to get it from your paternal grandmother by throwing a fit, etc.  In elementary/middle school, you manipulate your teachers to give you privileges and good grades.  By the time you reach university, you actually find yourself totally unskilled in holding dialogues with your peers.  You don't know what to say to them, and you don't how to hold a dialogue with them.  You begin to use your childhood techniques to manipulate and/or bully them, and you find that they don't work at all.  So you throw a fit ...

Thus, the Habermas model for a public platform for rational discourse does not exist in China today.

Zhu Dake also pointed out that the Chinese has a major mental problem of split personality in their private and public lives.  He admitted that he suffers from the problem himself.  By day, a person has one set of behavioral norms in the presence of the superiors, peers and underlings.  By night, that person may become a totally different personality through the anonymity of the Internet.  It is as if the Internet is the outlet of stress relief, where all the worst possible behaviors can be observed.

Zhu Dake does not believe that the solution is a real-name registration system.  He believes that Internet anonymity at least allows these opinions and emotions to be expressed instead of being channeled to more destructive ways.  Overall, he is pessimistic about the possibility of dialogue on the Internet.

I was asked to respond those remarks.  Here is a summary of my response:

I said that I agree with the professor's assessment.  Of course, the Chinese Internet does have the appearance of all-out war at times, requiring the intervention of the omnipotent 'referee' to call a stop in play.  Of course, people don't trust each other.  Of course, all these problems are deeply rooted in the social and education systems.

So what can I do about these problems?  Nothing much.  Did you expect that I was going to tell you how to change the social and education system?  Of course not.

Instead, I said that I only want to use my own blog as an example.

I cannot define the bottom lines of human values for anyone, in China or elsewhere.  I can only show you what mine are.  I quoted the (oft-misused ironically) phase "打不還手,罵不還口" -- When attacked, I will not counter-attack; when scolded, I will not scold back.  Thus, when someone launches personal attacks against me (such as me being a "50 cent gang member" or "paid Chinese Communist Party commentator), I will not respond in kind (such as accusing them of being paid CIA saboteurs).  I bear in my mind the saying, "Do not wrestle with pigs -- you get muddied and they enjoy it."  To my mind, the shame is on them and not on me.

I cannot demand trust from anyone.  Instead, I can only continue to be faithful to myself.  I cannot write in a way that I believe will please some unseen person in the shadows.  I believe that if my writings can continue to be interesting, useful and reliable, that trust will come in time.  I cannot worry about anything else.

I cannot change the social and education systems in China as a single individual living in Hong Kong.

Instead, I can show you how I approach certain major issues in China.  I look up the latest news reports from all sides, and I research the background materials.  Generally, I only present the information and let you form your opinion.  On the rare occasions when I tell you my own opinion, I make it clear what information I found and how I sieved through it to reach that conclusion.  I accept that other people can reach different conclusions, but I will have at least communicated how this one person did it.

Beyond that, I don't know how much more I can do as a lone individual.