Ian Johnson’s continuing series of interviews with intellectuals, activists, and artists in China
Why are these protests happening now?
Hong Kong’s people been striving for democracy for over two decades, and the desire is now so strong that if Beijing breaches its promise and fails to deliver democracy in 2017, Hong Kong will likely become ungovernable.
Hu Jia is one of China’s best-known political activists. He participated in the 1989 Tiananmen protests as a fifteen-year-old and is currently under house arrest for having launched a commemoration of the June Fourth massacre in January. But on his way back from a rare unsupervised hospital visit, I met up with him for a talk about his work and the twenty-fifth anniversary of Tiananmen.
“The reform movement in the US is led by a bunch of Ivy League people obsessed with data. They want to bring ‘accountability’ to the American school system. That means testing. They use China as the Yellow Peril. ‘If our kids can’t do math, China is going to kick our ass.’”
“The first thing is we have to get the information out. You have to understand that the public security and government agencies are monitoring our site. They read it. News services too. After we publish, it’ll get the attention of the relevant authorities. So we have to send it out and then people can learn about it. That’s how we do it.”
“What China lacks the most is faith or a spiritual support. Look at Bo Xilai. He tried to use Mao’s idea to create a spiritual support for people in Chongqing by having them sing old communist songs. He recognized that people lacked a sense of community and wanted to create a model in Chongqing for all of China. But he made a mistake in that Mao isn’t a God.”
“Over the past hundred years, China has studied a lot from the West: from France, the French Revolution, and from Germany, of course Marx and nationalism, which came to us via Japan. And from Russia we learned Leninism. But we haven’t learned much from this British-American tradition.”
“Chinese police and prosecutors, do you think they don’t understand Chinese law? They definitely understand. But these people illegally kept me under detention. So you can see that once you enter the system, you need to become bad. If you don’t become bad, you can’t survive.”
“In America, if you’re corrupt you have to resign. Look at Nixon. In China does that happen? No. Why? Because everyone is in one boat. If that boat turns over, everyone ends up in the water. When I say ‘everyone’ of course I mean the people in power. In China everyone helps each other out.”
“The problem is that modernization and protecting heritage are at odds with each other. It’s like driving a car and then you tell someone to look back. You can’t do it. You say, for example, to a Miao woman, ‘Your clothes are beautiful,’ but she says, ‘No, I want to wear jeans.’”
“You have to learn how to argue. Too few public intellectuals in China have learned to argue logically. They don’t know how and end up cursing each other all the time.”
“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 [the village of] 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?”
“The 1980s were a golden age for Chinese thought and literature. Then came 1989. Then came the reforms and the economic growth. No one thought the Communists would be so tough and strong. Now there’s a new wave of people leaving, even though the economy is so good. At least among many artistic people it’s like this: You can’t do anything meaningful in China.”
“Traditional historians face restrictions. First of all, they censor themselves. Their thoughts limit them. They don’t even dare to write the facts. And even if they wrote it, they can’t publish it. But there are many unofficial historians like me.”