China: after the quake, the debate

Li Datong
20 June 2008

In the aftermath of the Sichuan earthquake on 12 May 2008, many stories of individual acts of heroism have emerged. People have been moved to tears by the bravery of teachers who used their own bodies to protect students, shielding the children as classrooms collapsed around them. But what would the public make of a teacher who abandoned his students and ran for his life? A teacher who then publicly claimed he had done nothing wrong, and that his own life was just as valuable as those of his students?

Li Datong is a Chinese journalist and a former editor of BingdianFreezing Point), a weekly supplement of the China Youth Daily newspaper Among Li Datong's recent articles in openDemocracy:

"Beijing's Olympics, China's politics" (22 August 2007)

"China's media change: talking with Angela Merkel" (6 September 2007)

"Shanghai: new history, old politics" (19 September 2007)

"China's leadership: the next generation" (3 October 2007)

"China's communist princelings" (17 October 2007)

"China's Youth League faction: incubus of power?" (31 October 2007)

"China's age of expression" (14 November 2007)

"China's modernisation: a unique path?" (28 November 2007)

"Taipei and Beijing: attitudes to historical truth" (12 December 2007)

"Xiamen: the triumph of public will" (16 January 2008)

"China's soft-power failure" (16 May 2008)

"China and the earthquake" (2 June 2008 (

This is not a hypothetical situation. It actually happened in a privately run school in Guangya, in the city of Dujiangyan. As the tremors began, teacher Fan Meizhong yelled "earthquake!" and fled from the classroom, leaving his students behind. Fortunately the school was well constructed. None of its buildings collapsed and no student was injured. In all the confusion no one actually noticed what Fan had done, and in fact he was not the only teacher to escape ahead of his students.

But for reasons best known to himself, Fan wrote an account of his experience and posted it on the internet. He made no attempt to hide the facts of his early escape. On the contrary, he made a case for his own defence, saying: "I aim for freedom and justice, but I'm not brave enough to sacrifice myself for others. In a moment like that, with my life hanging in the balance, the only person I would consider sacrificing myself for would be my daughter. Anyone else - even my mother - I would leave behind." Fan's defence stirred up an internet storm, and before long he was drowning in the vitriol of thousands upon thousands of internet users. As people drew comparisons between Fan and those teachers who made heroic sacrifices, it seemed as though Fan had been placed in the stocks, humiliated for all to see.

China's two faces

This short episode is highly symbolic. It is widely acknowledged that since establishing its government in 1949, the efforts of the Chinese Communist Party to instill its morals in the people have been unceasing. The classic method of propagating moral values has been the creation of "heroes", of whom Lei Feng is the most well-known. These heroes all share similar characteristics: they do as the party says, they are selfless, they "serve the people with all their hearts", and in times of crisis they bravely sacrifice their lives for the good of the people. Even during the cultural revolution, when traditional values were completely overturned, these "heroes" were never criticised. But in real life, the vast majority of people cannot live up to such ideals.

This reality, in combination with forceful moral education, has led to Chinese people becoming two-faced. In public people mimic the official line and are full of fine words. Only in private, among friends and family, can people stop pretending to be so noble and just be themselves. This split personality remains one of the defining national characteristics of the Chinese. In some ways this shows their great survival skills.

Within this context, one can see how Fan's behaviour - publicising his self-preservation and then righteously defending his actions - could touch a social nerve. Besides hurling insults and accusations at Fan, netizens demanded that he be dismissed from his job at the school. Indeed, past experience would suggest that Fan's quick and inevitable dismissal would be followed by his being forced to live the rest of his life under a shadow of shame.

This time, however, the process - if not in this case the ultimate outcome - had unexpected twists. Fan has not been cowed and has not disappeared from view. On the contrary, his repeated defences of his actions have been published in great detail and hotly debated. He appeared as a guest on the Hong Kong television station Phoenix, where he came face-to-face with his critics. This programme aroused huge public interest and recordings appeared all over the internet.

People watched as Fan was viciously berated by a man named Guo Songmin. Guo seemed to believe that he had to speak for the whole of China in attacking Fan. With no respect for common decency, Guo called Fan "shameless, an animal, and a mongrel." In response to this, Fan maintained his composure and calmly explained his actions. The moral pressure was ratcheted up when the headmaster of Fan's school joined the debate by telephone. Guo Songmin demanded that the headmaster give his views on Fan, and advised that this man who was "not fit to teach" should be fired on the spot.

The headmaster responded extremely rationally, arguing that Fan's actions were understandable and the result of "an instinctive reaction in the heat of the moment", although he conceded that some of Fan's later comments had been inappropriate. The headmaster said reactions from the school's students had given him no reason to fire Fan. He added that the real focus should be on the quality of schools' construction, and on holding emergency-drills to ensure that that teachers and students would not panic when disaster struck.

The headmaster's rational approach was impressive. Only six years ago a teacher in Hunan was fired merely for telling pupils that the aim of study was "to get rich and marry a beautiful woman" - and then public opinion was not nearly so hostile.

An agenda on the run

After the Phoenix television programme, an internet questionnaire was carried out which asked: "Between Fan Meizhong and Guo Songmin, who would you choose to be your child's teacher?" The results were amazing - most people chose Fan. People thought that Guo Songmin was just a moral enforcer who under the same circumstances might not have reacted any differently to Fan. Although many did not agree with Fan's defence of his actions, they at least believed he was honest. Most people agreed with the headmaster's opinion that it was not right to ask a teacher to be responsible for the lives of his students.

One comment on an internet message-board read, "Fan Meizhong, you got your timing right. If you'd done the same thing during the Tangshan earthquake [in 1976] and made the same comments you would have been executed on the spot." The commenter is right. Although at first the Chinese media took a moral viewpoint, they did not destroy Fan. On the contrary, they gave him the right to express his views.

Among openDemocracy's articles on China in 2008:

Kerry Brown, "Beijing's political tightrope-walk" (12 March 2008)

True, this has not been enough to save Fan Meizhong's career; it was reported on 16 June 2008 that local education authorities have revoked his teaching certificate. Yet out of the discussion over Fan's actions and morals, the public and media views on the events concerned gradually became more rational; a tolerance for minority opinion and for those who go against the grain emerged. This is the advantage of free and fair debate - a debate which demonstrates that Chinese society is indeed changing.

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