Monday, April 25, 2011

A Result of Oppression: Social Violence in China

David Bandurski has a new piece (see here) posted on the China Media Project web site about a debate around the scholar Xiong Peiyun.  A recent lecture by Xiong at a university in China was "canceled" at the last moment and he received a rebuke from the deputy director of the university's own Student Affairs Division for expressing ideas that were not "mainstream".

The article is worth reading in its full to appreciate some of the debate that is currently underway in China.  There are a few issues raised by the contents of the pieces that I'd like to specifically discuss because of their importance in understanding China.

The first is that in criticizing the deputy director in an open letter, one university student referenced the various viewpoints in China and the need for people to be able to express themselves freely, even if through alternative channels:
"Must an individuals views represent the mainstream and basic essence? Personal viewpoints have a right to be in line with the mainstream, and of course they have a right to not be in line with the mainstream. Moreover, from the history of the rule of our dear Party one can see that the non-mainstream views at any given time tend to become the mainstream views in the space of one or two decades . . . I don’t oppose the fact that you represent those people who seek to use public institutions [such as media] to advance their own mainstream values, but I firmly believe under the principle of substantiating [arguments] with facts that every viewpoint should have a channel for expression within the framework of our laws and regulations."
While not everyone feels free to share their thoughts so freely, and while some who have done so have been detained or imprisoned, here is a sign yet still more people remain to both offer a different viewpoint from the "mainstream" and to insist they be able to do so.  A debate by Chinese, for Chinese.

A second issue appearing in the article is the one of "violence" in China.  In speaking to many Chinese students across China, one common theme that has come up is the concern, in their own words, of the Chinese people being "emotional".  There can be a willingness to support the censorship applied by the Chinese Government because of the belief that if many Chinese people knew the uncensored truth the resulting emotions could lead to violence and upheaval.  The biggest concern I've heard regarding possible turbulence isn't the potential of destruction, loss of lives, etc.  It is that foreign countries will take advantage of China during a moment of weakness, as many Chinese believe occurred in past centuries.

I've seen Chinese students who were not constrained by the limits of China's censored internet be brought to tears when exposed to what had been hidden from them.  Often, you don't know what you're missing until you specifically look for it.  While in none of these cases did I notice any signs of violence, it heightened my awareness the impact lifting the veil of censorship can have even on people who are far more educated and exposed to the outside world than most in China.

Xiong Peiyun referenced the issue of Chinese reacting in an emotional and violent manner in his lecture.  What is most fascinating is how he in part tied the behavior of Chinese people to "violent" acts such as the oppression of free speech and people being forced to move from their homes (an issue I discussed here) - both issues related to polices of the Chinese Government.  He even goes as far as to label such acts as torture after addressing the "canceling" (sudden relocation to a much smaller venue) of his lecture:
"Now too we see many violent things occurring, like the way today’s lecture was suddenly cancelled, partly cancelled, and they say someone made trouble. This sort of riot [against the lecture itself] is a kind of violence. I’ve discovered over the past few days that a number of extreme websites have dubbed myself, old [economist] Mr. Mao Yushi (茅于轼) and others as “slaves of the West” (西奴) and said we must be hung. . .

I think this is an awful phenomenon. This sort of violence, this omnipresent violence, there is so much of this violence. It is online too, and from our major boulevards to our villages you can witness violence at any time. Aside from the cases of violent demolition and removal led by the government, there are many other cases arising from our society. I’m talking not just about government violence but about social violence. Social violence always has a profound impact on us. Some suffers a personal collapse, for example, everything goes wrong in their life, and they drive out on the streets and mow down life after life. In case after case, men brandish knives and murder children. . .

I think, if we ask whether this society of ours is healthy, give us the first part of the answer, that this society is a mess and that we constantly see these heinous acts of depriving others of their lives, or what we could call torture. This is the dark side of our society."
Finally, Xiong Peiyun make an intriguing claim that even relatively minor common behaviors in China that could be interpreted as showing disregard for others can be tied to an "air of oppressiveness":
"The other thing is that our whole society has an air of oppressiveness about it. I remember the time when I was living overseas [in France]. I’m not saying things overseas are necessarily great. But I believe the people are extremely courteous and mild in attitude. Let’s say, for example, that you’re walking through a building and come to a [glass] door and someone else is coming through the other way. Perhaps five or ten meters before the door, they will wait for you to pass. When people meet they often embrace. But I think that the distance between people in China is extremely vast . . . If you’re on a bus and someone steps on your foot, according to your understanding this person should apologize, but this person won’t apologize. I’ve seen it happen before where the first person will confront the second person about not apologizing and the other will say, look, why don’t I just inflict more harm on you? In the end, they’ll bring each other down fighting. We should recognize how this society [of ours] is brimming with this sort of air of oppressiveness, this unexplainable hatred. There is no shortage of things like this."
An example to provide context for some the above can be found at elevators all over China.  It is common for people outside the elevator to push inwards past people before those inside have had any chance to exit.  While an explanation for such behavior is certainly debatable, its existence is readily apparent.  It is such behavior that Xiong appears to reference as indicating a lack of courtesy.  Xiong connects oppression to a lack of regard for other people to escalating violence.  He seems to be saying that a tempest is building in China, and the policies of the Chinese Government are at least partly at fault.  Regardless of the merits of the claim, the mere suggestion of it in a public forum in China is striking.  One can not but help to wonder if Xiong will soon be among the many others who have been recently detained in China.

Regardless of detentions and censorship there remains a degree of vigorous debate in China - something that many outsiders in particular would view as positive.  However, I think the above issues raise a very difficult question.  There may be an immense amount of emotion bottled up in China and more yet to be realized.  If consensus grows in China on the merits of uncensored and open debate, as increasing information reaches the Chinese people will there be a way for the resulting emotion to slowly dissipate, or is it inevitable that there will be a significant level of disruption in China?

This is an open question that should help foreigners appreciate why many Chinese may be hesitant for immediate change.  What foreign countries can best offer is not outward support in the debates themselves.  Those are best served by voices in China, as seen above, and foreign "meddling" would only allow suspicions to be raised to serve as a distraction.  What is most needed are signs that if the Chinese people demand open debate and the freedom to make their own decisions for the future of their country that foreign powers will not take advantage of any potential turmoil but instead will show respect as the Chinese people face the challenge of building their country as they want it.

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