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A question of civility: an open letter to Hu Jintao

About the author
Lung Ying-tai is a scholar, essayist, and cultural critic. She was born in Taiwan in 1952, and studied there and in the United States, where she earned her doctorate in 1982. Her writings are widely published across "greater China" (Taiwan, Hong Kong, Indonesia, Singapore, as well as the People's Republic of China). She has published more than fifteen books in Chinese, including novels (Fallen in Love in Heidelberg, 1995), a short-story collection, and critical works (The Right to Be Beautiful, 1994). She lives in Hong Kong.

Dear Mr Hu Jintao,

In January 2006, the chairman of the Kuomingtang party in Taiwan, Ma Ying-jeou, gave a speech to encourage his Kuomintang Youth League members and told this joke: "I hope that the Kuomintang Youth League can produce a Hu Jintao some day."

I believe that this is the most ill-considered joke that he had ever made in his entire political career.

Ma Ying-jeou may have thought simply that "Hu Jintao" is a national leader who came through the China Youth League system. But for him to say something like that showed that he has not thought carefully about just what kind of system the "China Youth League" is. Just what is the principle by which the country led by this leader is run? What is the basis of his power? What is the legitimacy of his power? What is exactly the meaning represented by the name "Hu Jintao" who holds political power in China at the start of the 21st century?

It definitely represents a high economic growth figure that astonishes the world and makes many Chinese people proud. At the same time, in a rating of media freedom, China was ranked in 177th place. You may argue that this standard was set up by "western rightists" and therefore does not fit the "Chinese conditions".

Fine, let us use a socialist standard then. In my understanding, pursuing equal distribution of resources – be it equal in poverty or equal in wealth – should be a core value in the leftist thinking. Yet in terms of equal distribution of resources, the Gini index for China is approaching a figure considered the benchmark for social chaos. Underneath this figure, we can only imagine how many grab as they will and how many have to die in ditches.

That is to say, the name "Hu Jintao" is still a countercurrent in the contemporary history of the 21st century: in the global trend to seek democracy, it stands firm as an unshakable dictatorship; in the effort to pursue equality, it has egregious inequality in wealth distribution.

When you first assumed office, people had great expectations of you. As a "statesman" of the new century, people hoped that your mind would be finer and your vision broader than your predecessors, and that the spirit of combat and ruthlessness embedded in the communist revolution would finally be replaced by a humanistic gentleness and sophisticated civility.

Two years have passed by. What have we observed so far?

The Chinese version of Lung Ying-tai's open letter was published simultaneously on 26 January 2006 in the China Times (Taipei), Mingpao (Hong Kong), Xing-zhou Daily (Malaysia), the World Journal (United States).

The editor of Bingdian (Freezing Point), Li Datong, also wrote an open letter protesting the weekly supplement's closure; read it on EastWestSouthNorth here

The cut throat

My decision to write this letter to you is spurred by an event that occurred on 23 January 2006. Bingdian (Freezing Point) – the weekly supplement of China Youth Daily – which belongs to the Communist Youth League of China – was ordered to shut down.

Before this occurrence, the Southern Weekend, the "voice of the people" which had been considered the most outspoken paper of China, had become a tame paper after its editor-in-chief was removed. The editor-in-chief of yet another courageous paper, the Southern Metropolis Daily, was removed and indicted of corruption, which stirred up great protest because hardly anyone believed the accusation was true. The relatively bold New Beijing News was suddenly "reorganised" without any explanations given.

Since you took office, media outlets which were not satisfied simply to serve as organ of the party have been silenced one after another. As a veteran member of the China Youth League, you must be aware of the position of Freezing Point before yesterday: amongst ten thousand silenced horses, "it was the only live horse left, with a feeble voice".

24 January 2006 thus marks the day when this one remaining throat has been cut. And before the editors and staff of Freezing Point were informed of the execution of the "throat-cutting", all words and phrases connected to Freezing Point were already erased from the internet. Not one trace left.

Under your leadership, the efficiency of the internet police is astonishing.

The reason why the "execution" was carried out three days before the Chinese new year is clear and known to everyone: most people have left or are preparing to leave their workplaces, and getting ready to go home for the festival. The newspapers nationwide have begun to report almost exclusively entertainment stories in an effort to produce the ambience of homeliness. All TV channels are swamped by gala performances carefully orchestrated to create the atmosphere of national solidarity and happiness.

To choose this day to cut the lone surviving throat in China means that the sound of the dripping blood would be overwhelmed by the universal clank of celebration and festivity. And then the executioner sneaks away. After the new year, there won't be any traces left. The efficiency of the internet police and the manipulation of modern media are the foundations of your 21st-century style of ruling.

The internet police moved fast because they were afraid of letting their own people know about what happened. The precise and cunning timing is chosen to avoid too loud and too immediate outcries from the international community. All this conniving points to one thing: that this regime is very insecure and fearful. But would you kindly tell this perplexed Taiwanese citizen why is this growing superpower of the 21st century so insecure and fearful? What is it afraid of?

The shutdown of Freezing Point came as no surprise to anyone. People have been waiting for this day, just as a fatalist is always waiting for the midnight knocks on the door. I made the observation that having experienced so many disasters and so much oppression for so long, very few people on the mainland believe that good things last, that dreams come true or that justice can be rendered. When my article The Taiwan That You May Not Know was published, there were already rampant speculations everywhere about Freezing Point being shut down. Today, the knock on the door has come. So how "outrageous" was Freezing Point that your party decided to punish it with such a low measure?

A xenophobic nation-building myth

The official reason eventually named for closing down Freezing Point is an essay written by the famous historian, Professor Yuan Weishi from Sun Yat-sen University of Guangzhou, about the question of history textbooks taught in high-school. The accusation is that the historical views expressed in this particular essay do not fit "the mainstream ideology... [they] attacked socialism and the leadership by the party."

Just what did Yuan Weishi write?

I read this essay thoroughly. Yuan Weishi used detailed historical evidences to point out numerous factual errors in the current textbooks, and most of all, he criticised the many ideological assertions in history lessons that are based on distorted information. Take the case of the Boxers. The textbook describes the Boxers as national heroes and glorifies their attacks on foreigners, but does not mention at all the atrocities they committed or their appeal to values that are totally against modern civilisation, nor the huge harm and disservice they did to their own country.

In summary, Yuan said, what the history books teach the younger generation are these:

"1. The Chinese culture is absolutely superior and unmatched by others.
2. Foreign cultures are evil and they corrode the purity of the Chinese spirit.
3. It is permissible to use political power or violent mob to cleanse the evilness in the field of thoughts and culture."

Yuan warned: "unforgivable harms are done to our children when this kind of logic is being taught to them. No objectives can justify this."

Mr Hu, I am well aware that the power-base of the Chinese Communist Party rests upon the justification and glorification of the violent and grandiose Emperor Qin, the great robber Daozhi, the revolutionary Tai'ping kingdom, and the Boxers. I am well aware that every revolutionary, once in power, will try to construct a nation-building myth. For this reason I think you must understand the intent of the Democratic Progressive Party of Taiwan very well. But when the nation-building myth contains elements of xenophobia, then this is a danger that must be dealt with.

After all we are living in the 21st century; borders virtually don't exist anymore and the globe is becoming more of a closely-knit village. Since we depend on each other, we must learn to share our sorrows and worries. Why did China bid so hard for the 2008 Olympics and the 2010 World Expo? You are trying to promote a new image for China, and the loud and clear message is: look, this China is a magnificent country full of growth potential, but at the same time it is a peace-loving nation which gladly takes its share of responsibilities together with the world community.

If this is the image being sold to the outside world, yet behind closed doors you teach your own children "the supremacy of Chinese culture", "the evilness of foreign influences" and the Boxer ideology, could you please tell me which is the real China? Can you, the secretary-general of the Chinese Communist Party, very frankly and without hesitation explain this to the international community?

Yuan Weishi said that textbooks cannot disregard historical facts, cannot praise violence and cannot teach youth to admire themselves and hate foreigners. This view, Mr Hu, is called "commonsense" over where we are. In Beijing, however, this view is being named as a punishable crime against the "mainstream ideology". Can you please tell this Taiwanese citizen just what your "mainstream ideology" is?

Also in openDemocracy about China, the media and freedom:

Weigui Fang, "Reflections on China's internet boom"
(July 2003)

Isabel Hilton, "China and Japan: a textbook argument" (April 2005)

Becky Hogge, "The Great Firewall of China"
(May 2005)

Isabel Hilton, "China's freedom test" (September 2005)

Giovanni Navarria, "The future of dissent: hacking Chinese censorship"
(October 2005)

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Which is your true face?

Let us for a moment put aside how the Chinese intellectuals and ordinary readers think about the Freezing Point affair, but I am quite willing to share with you just what a Taiwanese writer such as myself feels. As to how typical or how influential my views are, you can judge for yourself.

I admit that I do have profound feelings for China – not only because it is my parents' country of origin, but because China is my cultural homeland, where history, tradition, language and literature are woven together into something that may be called "identity". Yet through the experience of being born and growing up in Taiwan, I have also developed something else, a set of values that are parallel to and are equally as important as my "identity".

These values start with respect for life and insistence on humanitarianism. Around this, other core values form: such as my assertion of the importance of intellectual independence and freedom of expression, my intolerance for inequality, my rejection of the abuse of power of the state, my absolute distrust of the government, my respect for knowledge, my empathy for the common people, my tolerance of dissent, and my contempt for lies.

When the emotional line of "identity" clashes with the rational line of my "value set", what would I do? Without hesitation, I will adhere to the latter. When I have to make a choice between China and Taiwan, it really is not as hard as you think: whichever system upholds those values I believe in will be my country; whichever functions against those values I will despise and reject.

In its propaganda, the Chinese Communist Party has called Taiwan a "renegade province" of China and tried to appeal to the "national feelings" of the Taiwanese to "embrace" Mother China. However, looking at today's Freezing Point affair with my humble value structure, what do you think a Taiwanese person like me would see?

I see that this "Mother China" for which I have profound feelings is a country which tramples upon many core values I believe in.

It treats truth as lies and lies as truths, and it has turned this reversal into a system.

It treats independent-spirited intellectuals as slaves, the tame intellectuals as domestic servants, and it lets the most slavish take charge by handing him the whip, the ruler and the keys.

It has one face for the western world, a different face for Japan; one face for Taiwan and yet another face when looking at its own self.

It applies one standard when judging someone else's history, demanding apologies, and it has another standard when facing its own.

It embraces myths, creates fables, and fears truth. What it fears the most is itself.

Would you like me to continue?

Please convince me

What I really want to say, Mr Hu, is that as a Taiwanese, I don't care that much if the cute pandas will come to Taipei or not, even though they are so sweet that they melt your heart. But Taiwanese like me really care about what happens to Freezing Point, just like many Hong Kongers really care about what happens to the jailed journalist Ching Cheong. If the "values" of China are defined and even carried out by a bunch of slavish servants holding whips, rulers and keys, and if independence of mind and freedom of spirit are considered "crimes", dear Mr Hu, kindly enlighten me about one thing: just where is the starting-point for us to talk about unification? I love Mother China with preconditions; there are many Taiwanese whose love for China is unconditional. Please tell me with what are you going to talk about unification without putting these people into a position of being scorned and cursed by others?

What really matters are not all the pandas you want to give to Taiwan, nor the separatists who strive towards the independence of Taiwan. What really matters is a concrete event like the closing down of Freezing Point. Many of us tend to think, Mr Hu, how well you treat your intellectuals, how far you tolerate dissent, with what measure you treat your own people. All point to one thing; that is, civility. We Taiwanese have experienced dictatorship and thus know what barbarity means; therefore, civility is for us an indispensable value.

Please convince me with civility. I shall listen in earnest.

Lung Ying-tai
24 January 2006


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