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Is Democracy Chinese? An Interview with Journalist Chang Ping

This is the fourth in an NYRblog series about the fate of democracy in different parts of the world.

Ian Johnson
Chang Ping

Chang Ping is one of China’s best-known commentators on contemporary affairs. Chang, whose real name is Zhang Ping, first established himself in the late 1990s in Guangzhou, where his hard-hitting stories exposed scandals and championed freedom of expression. As censorship has tightened in recent years, Chang’s pleas for openness and accountability have put him under pressure. The 43-year-old is currently living with his wife and daughter in Germany at the former country home of the Nobel Prize winner Heinrich Böll, which has been converted into a refuge for persecuted writers.

Chang’s travails began in 2001, when he was removed as news director of Southern Weekend, then a daring weekly that had won readers across the country. He became deputy editor of Southern Metropolis Weekly, but was removed in 2008, and subsequently banned from print, after publishing an editorial questioning government censorship of that year’s Tibetan uprising. One year ago, he was finally fired by the newspaper, with an editor saying his work was “inappropriate.” Last March, Chang joined a newly launched Hong Kong-based magazine, iSun Affairs, as chief editor but was denied a visa and has not been allowed into the former British colony.


Ian Johnson: You grew up in the 1970s; did you experience anything of the Cultural Revolution?

Chang Ping: My father was a low-level official in our hometown in Xichong County (in rural Sichuan) and got caught up in the factionalism of the Cultural Revolution. When I was young I attended an elementary school that was located on the side of the road. If you entered or left the village you passed it. I remember one day he was standing outside the window looking in at me. That afternoon I went home and said to my mother: “Dad was very strange. Dad was outside the school window staring at me.” My mother started crying and said, “Dad has gone and we don’t know if he’ll ever return again.” He had fled to a neighboring county to escape violence. We couldn’t visit him but we would get letters from him and my mother would read them to us. I was about eight years old.

Soon after this, reform and opening up started. We studied the Four Modernizations (a project to develop the fields of agriculture, industry, defense, and research and development) and were told that they would be realized by 2000. We wrote so many essays about how to achieve the Four Modernizations. I remember very clearly in 1984, at the 35th anniversary of the founding of the People’s Republic, how the students at Peking University said “Hello Xiaoping!” to Deng Xiaoping when he drove by at a rally. It was on the radio and I was really moved. I thought: China has got such hope, such a bright future.

So you thought everything was great. You heard about the developments in Beijing and were excited.

Yes and I was doing well in school too. When you’re personally successful, you tend to think that things are going well. You’re optimistic. I thought things were going well but in some ways I was an angry youth. There’s no contradiction there. You believe, but you want to improve things. During the 1986 student movement, people like Liu Binyan, Fang Lizhi, and Wang Ruowang criticized the party and Deng Xiaoping. I remember hearing about it on the radio and felt in my heart that they were heroes.

At the time I loved literature. In the 1980s, literature was at a peak. I subscribed to a lot of magazines like Harvest and People’s Literature. I remember reading Mo Yan’s Red Sorghum and thinking, Wow, someone can write like that. I remember vividly that I was sitting outside and was so moved by that story. I didn’t quite understand everything but was influenced by it. Also Yu Hua’s short stories, for example. But you know that at that time I was still a complete believer. The books I wanted to read the most were the original works of Marx and Engels. I wanted to learn German to read them.

I went to college in 1987. Until then I’d been reading the classics of world literature, and contemporary Chinese fiction. But then at Sichuan University (in Chengdu) I read a series of books called Moving Toward the Future (走向未来丛书). It was an edited series introducing the great thinkers in other fields. This was a start for me and afterwards I read a lot of western literature, philosophy, and history. The series was really influential in the 1980s and if you look at the editorial staff, they all suffered after June 4 (the 1989 Tiananmen Square massacre). I guess from today’s point of view you’d say they had intellectual property rights problems—they just translated or cribbed from foreign publications. But for us it opened a world of psychology, sociology, and literature. One book I have to mention is A Theory of Justice by John Rawls. We’d just read these books so fast and share them. Everyone was fascinated by Western philosophy especially. It didn’t matter what your major was, you were interested in Western philosophy, like Heidegger or Sartre.

How did you experience June 4? In Chengdu, you were quite far away from Beijing, the center of it.

A lot was going on in Chengdu. We had protests all the time. People came from Beijing with news and we’d put them up in our dorm rooms and share their information. There were dialogues and demands to negotiate with the government. I helped organize protests.

But I didn’t really join the main student protest committee. Ever since high school I made one of Confucius’s sayings my motto: “The superior man is dignified, but does not wrangle. He is sociable but not a partisan.” So I did not want to join any movement. In high school I was in the Communist Youth League and wanted to leave. They said, you can’t leave; there is no mechanism to leave. But I didn’t join the party. I didn’t want to be a member of anything, so in 1989 I wasn’t in the student committees. Still, I organized protests and was seen as a leader. I got arrested after June 4. However, during the protests many students had been on a hunger strike and I had opposed that. For that I think they let me out of jail earlier. I think some students opposed me for opposing the hunger strike but that was my view: a hunger strike was pointless. I thought it was good to propagate democracy in factories and in the countryside.

So you’re a pragmatist?

Actually, many people think I’m more of an idealist. I still think China needs democracy, that it needs to change. I really oppose several arguments [that are commonly made] about why China can’t have democracy, such as the argument that China is unique—that Chinese people need to wait because their “quality” [a Chinese term, suzhi, that implies everything from educational level to manners] isn’t high enough and other ridiculous things like that. Some people said that democracy wasn’t part of Chinese culture, and then Taiwan became democratic. Then they said that Taiwan was a special case. Now look at Wukan. They had their own elections. People say it’s special, but in fact Wukan is really typically Chinese. It’s a Chinese town but they organized everything. So what argument are you left with? If Wukan can have democracy so can other parts of China.

I’m not saying that China should have western-style democracy. In fact, there’s not a single western model. What do they mean? Germany didn’t copy America and America didn’t copy Britain. The issue isn’t copying. It’s do you or don’t you want democracy? Of course democracy has a lot of problems but it’s a way forward.

Since the 1980s, Chinese have been pragmatic. The question since the Cultural Revolution has been: can it work? This was Deng Xiaoping’s biggest influence on Chinese people. They ask if it’ll work or not. Now China has the world’s second-largest economy and could overtake the US. So in terms of market economics it’s been successful and I support this. What we lack is justice. There is no justice in the current system. It’s a practical issue. We need justice. Democracy is a way to bring justice. This is why democracy is necessary.

The government doesn’t discuss rule of law much anymore. It’s become more and more a hooligan way of ruling. They just arrest people and throw them in jail or mental asylums. So the past decade has seen a hooliganization of the political system. Many of the old virtues are destroyed by this. The virtues of humanism, responsibilities of the government—the bottom line is things are disappearing. That’s why we’ve had these terrible events of recent years, like Yue Yue.

Yue Yue is the little girl who was run over by a van and no one stopped to help her. One recourse to this perceived spiritual vacuum has been that people are getting more and more interested in religion.

Many are interested in it. Scholars hope that this will help develop more virtues in society or provide some moral guidelines. There is a spiritual vacuum. I really respect religion, but I believe in the special importance of democracy, civic spirit, and freedom in politics, society, and culture for solving the spiritual crisis.

What about your new magazine?

It’s run by iSun Cable Television from Hong Kong. Right now we’re a new media organization. We offer on iPad, Android and are planning a Kindle version too. You can also get copies as a pdf. But we are going to print too. We have a staff of twenty. We have 6,000 subscribers on iPad, mostly on the mainland. We also have more than 10,000 who get it as an email. We’ve been able to report on taboo topics in China, such as [jailed Nobel Peace Prize winner] Liu Xiaobo, press controls, and the trend of independent candidates running for office.

Obviously the authorities knew about the project before it started. You haven’t been able to get a visa since you applied last March and Reporters Without Borders sent an open letter to Donald Tsang, chief executive of the Hong Kong Special Administrative Region.

According to the Hong Kong authorities’ own rules they should have answered my application within a month, but they haven’t approved or rejected the application. It’s already been nine months, so this is why people are talking about influence from the mainland.

The magazine was one of the first to cover several recent key political events, like the Wukan uprising. You have had by far the most comprehensive coverage of it. But you also have much on culture. Over the past year cultural figures in China have become embroiled in politics. How do you see the role of people like the artist Ai Weiwei?

The original work of the popular and famous artists was all political—many of them were influenced by people like Andy Warhol. They dealt with issues in society. But after a while when they sold so much that they became super rich and didn’t care much for social issues. To be honest, they just repeated themselves a lot. I have respect for Ai Weiwei because he is concerned with society. He is involved and engaged. It’s not his fault that he’s become more and more popular in the West. It’s the same with Liu Xiaobo or Vaclav Havel. This criticism isn’t fair.

What about the writer Han Han’s recent blogposts arguing that democracy may not be well suited to Chinese people? This seems to echo some of the other critics who say that China isn’t read for democracy.

He mentions that people have a “low quality” and that democracy could become a problem because it could lead to violence. This is a view the government has propagated for a long time. It’s like saying you can’t practice swimming until you can swim and you can’t swim because you can’t practice. Also, the arguments aren’t new. Many were made publicly last year, around the time of the centenary of the 1911 revolution.

But he influences a lot of people so his bringing it up is interesting. It shows how restricted China’s political system is. I think that what we’re seeing is the loss of hope by a lot of people in change taking place, so they’re making excuses about why it can’t happen. The decline in morals has lead to an increase in violence—violence against opponents, protesters, and others—not because we’re having a revolution but because we are not.

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