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The Curse of the Man Who Could See the Little Fish at the Bottom of the Ocean

For Hanfang

Since the Beijing massacres, the question has already been put bluntly to me several times: “Why were most of our pundits so constantly wrong on the subject of China? What enabled you and a tiny minority of critics to see things as they really were, and why did hardly anyone ever listen to you?”

At first I declined the invitations to write on this theme. The idea of sitting atop a heap of dead Chinese bodies to cackle triumphantly: “I told you so! I told you so!” like a hen that has just laid an egg, is not particularly appealing. Furthermore, for the first time in many decades, there is a remarkable and truly moving unanimity on the issue of China; this should be a cause for some comfort—actually it is the only heartening aspect that can be found in the present nightmare. With such unanimity, it should even become possible to exert some useful influence on public opinion, and then also on our politicians. Thus, this is certainly not the time to settle old accounts, or to revive ancient polemics. In fact, there never should be a time for such a mean and destructive exercise; when it is a matter of finally arriving at the truth, there can be no late-comers, and we know from the Gospel that the workers who come only at the end of the afternoon are entitled to the same reward as those who have been laboring in the vineyard since daybreak.

If we consider it from a more universal and philosophical angle, however, one question might be of real interest: How and why do we usually endeavor to protect ourselves against the truth?

It would be grossly unfair to ask, for instance: “Why did Shirley MacLaine or Professor Fairbank make their notorious statements about China?” (One will remember, for example, that at a time when China had sunk into an abyss of misery, oppression, and terror, the distinguished historian from Harvard wrote: “The Maoist revolution is, on the whole, the best thing that has happened to the Chinese people in many centuries.”) A more pertinent question would be: “Why are we forever willing to vest Shirley MacLaine and Professor Fairbank with so much intellectual and moral authority? For, in the end, the only authority they can ever possess is the one we are giving them.

What people believe is essentially what they wish to believe. They cultivate illusions out of idealism—and also out of cynicism. They follow their own visions because doing so satisfies their religious cravings, and also because it is expedient. They seek beliefs that can exalt their souls, and that can fill their bellies. They believe out of generosity, and also because it serves their interests. They believe because they are stupid, and also because they are clever. Simply, they believe in order to survive. And because they need to survive, sometimes they could gladly kill whoever has the insensitivity, cruelty, and inhumanity to deny them their life-supporting lies.

When I am told that I was dead right all along on the subject of Communist China, such a compliment (for it is generally intended as a compliment) can hardly flatter my vanity; indeed, forcing me as it does to reexamine the reasons for which I had to adopt my rather lonely stand, the results of such an examination give me little cause for self-satisfaction, and even less reason to be sanguine about the future. As far as I am concerned, I could already foresee my fate many years ago; the writing is on the wall (and ironically, it may not be in Chinese).

Let us not kid ourselves. The facts which I have been describing during these last twenty years may have been distasteful and unpalatable—they were also public knowledge. They were all too easy to collect—there was no need to search for them, they kept coming at you; their evidence was as plain and direct as a punch on the nose. My first encounter with Communist political practice was in 1967 in Hong Kong, when I found on my doorstep the dying body of a courageous Chinese journalist—seconds after he had been horribly mutilated by Communist thugs. After that first elementary introduction to Communist politics, the rest was clear sailing. For the next few years, I merely listened to the conversations of a few Chinese friends and every day I read a couple of Chinese newspapers over breakfast. This modest intellectual equipment eventually enabled me to write four books on Chinese current affairs, which apparently were quite sound and reliable, since their contents have been confirmed by the subsequent developments of history and by countless testimonies of unimpeachable Chinese witnesses.

Yet I dare affirm that, in these four books—even though they passed for a while as shocking, scandalous, and heretical—it would be impossible to find a single revelation, a single original view or personal idea. From beginning to end, I merely translated and transcribed what would have appeared at the time, to any reasonably informed Chinese intellectual, as mere common sense and common knowledge—tragic, yes, but also utterly banal. The only technical competence required for this task—an expertise that could hardly be deemed exceptional, since it is shared by more than one billion people on earth—was a good knowledge of the Chinese language. In a way, with my modest transcriptions, I was turned into the ultimate Bouvard and Pécuchet of Chinese politics.

It seems rather apposite to evoke here the image of Flaubert’s diligent and earnest imbéciles. If indeed a man of middling intelligence (whose courage is, alas, well below average) could perform a task which most of his equally well-informed and much brighter colleagues would never have contemplated touching, it is quite obvious that, in order to do this, besides the basic prerequisite of language which I have just mentioned, only one qualification was necessary: an uncommon degree of foolishness.

Among primitive tribes, idiots and madmen are the objects of particular respect and enjoy certain privileges; since their condition frees them from the normal constraints of prudence and wisdom, they alone can be forgiven for speaking the truth—an activity that would naturally not be tolerated from any sane person. For Truth, by its very nature, is ugly, savage, and cruel; it disturbs, it frightens, it hurts, and it kills. If, in some extreme situations, it is to be used at all, it must be taken only in small doses, in strict isolation, and with the most rigorous prophylactic precautions. Whoever would be willing to spread it wildly, or to unload it in large quantities, just as it comes, is a dangerous and irresponsible person who should be restrained in the interest of his own safety, as well as for the protection of social harmony.

Ancient Chinese wisdom already expounded this notion; there is in the book of Lie Zi (third century BC) a parable about a man whose particular talent enabled him to identify thieves at first sight: he only needed to look at a certain spot between the eye and the brow, and he could recognize instantly whether a person was a thief. The king naturally decided to give him a position in the Ministry of Justice, but before the man could take up his appointment, the thieves of the kingdom banded together and had him assassinated. For this reason, clearsighted people were generally considered cripples, bound to come to a bad end; this was also known proverbially in Chinese as “the curse of the man who can see the little fish at the bottom of the ocean.”

Yet sometimes—as we have just witnessed in Beijing—truth breaks free. Like a river that ruptures its dams, it over-whelms all our defenses, violently erupts into our lives, floods our cozy homes, and leaves high and dry in the middle of the street, for all to see, the fish that used to dwell in the deep.

Such tidal waves can be very frightening; fortunately, they are relatively rare and do not last long. Sooner or later, the waters recede. Usually, brave engineers set to work at once and start rebuilding the dykes. The latest attempts by the Communist propaganda organs to explain that “no one actually died on Tiananmen Square” may betray a slightly excessive zeal (one is reminded of the good souls who, probably wishing to restore our faith in human nature, insisted that, in Auschwitz, gas was used only to kill lice), but if we give them enough time, in due course their ministrations will certainly succeed in healing the wounds that the brutal dumping of raw and untreated truth inflicted upon our sensitivities.

Whenever a minute of silence is being observed in a ceremony, don’t we all soon begin to throw discreet glances at our watches? Exactly how long should a “decent interval” last before we can resume business-as-usual with the butchers of Beijing? The senile and ferocious despots who decided to slaughter the youth, the hope and the intelligence of China, may have made many miscalculations—still, on one count, they were not mistaken: they shrewdly assessed that our capacity to sustain our indignation would be very limited indeed.

The businessmen, the politicians, the academic tourists who are already packing their suitcases for their next trip to Beijing are not necessarily cynical—though some of them have just announced that, this time, the main purpose of their visit will be to go to Tiananmen Square to mourn for the martrys!—and they may even have a point when they insist that, in agreeing once more to sit at the banquet of the murderers, they are actively strengthening the reformist trends in China. I only wish they had weaker stomachs.

Ah humanity!—the pity of us all!…

June 22, 1989

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