Learning How to Argue: An Interview with Ran Yunfei

Ran Yunfei.jpg

Ian Johnson

Ran Yunfei

One of China’s most outspoken public intellectuals, Ran Yunfei was detained last year after calls went out for China to emulate the “Jasmine Revolution” protests sweeping North Africa. He was held without trial for six months until last August. Interestingly, prosecutors turned down police requests for Ran to be formally charged, sending the case back to police with requests for more evidence. When police failed to come up with more evidence, he was then held under house arrest until early February.

Ran works for the government-run Sichuan Literature, where he writes often about classical Chinese. He is also the author of over a dozen scholarly books, including a meticulous history of a local temple, The Lungs of Old Sichuan: The Temple of Great Charity, which was released after he was detained last year. But
it was his blogging—where he sometimes goes for the jugular, mixing humor and exaggeration—that got him into trouble. After anonymous calls were made on overseas exile Chinese websites for a Jasmine Revolution in China, Ran wrote China needed reform or would end up like the North African states that were then in turmoil. (He also has an account on Twitter (@ranyunfei) with 57,000 followers—viewable in China only with a VPN or proxy—and another blog on a permitted Chinese microblog, Sina Weibo with 70,000 followers.)

Most recently, Ran, who is 47, has been concerned with freedom of expression and what he sees as a need for a change in the country’s moral education. Born in a rural county that is now part of the city-state of Chongqing, he is a member of the Tujia ethnic group, one of China’s 55 recognized minorities. I talked to him at his house in Chengdu, in the southwestern province of Sichuan, where he has lived since going there to study literature in the early 1980s.

Ian Johnson: Since you were detained last year, the word on the street has been that police thought you were involved in the Jasmine Revolution here in China. Of course there was no revolution here—not even really a protest movement inspired by North Africa. So what were they worried about?

Ran Yunfei: They’re worried about networks. But the thing is, I’m not someone who’s often in touch with others. They asked if I was in touch with Wang Juntao (the famous Tiananmen uprising leader) and other (leading dissidents). I said: none. I really am not in contact with anyone. I’m just me with my views. I think the guobao (State Security agents) eventually believed me but at first they couldn’t. They think everyone is linked up.

What did you do in jail?

Mostly I read. Books like the Bible are banned because they think it’s against the government. But they allowed me to read all the classical Chinese literature I wanted. What they didn’t realize is that classical Chinese also has some (subversive) ideas. But they can’t understand classical Chinese so they let me read what I wanted.

It’s interesting that despite all these troubles you still have a job with a government-run publication. How can that be? Do the authorities see it, in effect, as a way of paying you off?

No, the money is almost nothing and I rarely go to work. It’s a management technique. If something happens, then they don’t have to deal with you directly; they let your relationships and obligations put pressure on you. Let’s say you have a good boss, you like him and then he’s under pressure. They ask him to deal with you and then he asks you…well, what do you do? So they say, “Hey, what’s up with Ran?” Then they ask you and then chat with you about how [whatever you are doing] is going to hurt your boss and then you feel, well, do I want to hurt him?

Can’t you just quit?

No! They keep sending you your salary and saying you’re part of the system.

I saw a statistic somewhere that apart from Beijing, Sichuan has more political dissidents than any region in China. Sichuan doesn’t have the largest population of a Chinese province and it’s not the poorest; nor is it, like Guangdong, near Hong Kong and the freer media there. So why is there so much going on here?

It’s a lot of things. There is this teahouse culture here—you have these places where you can meet publicly. Not a lot of Chinese cities have these. Everywhere there are tea houses and people meet and talk. There are signs not to talk about national affairs but everyone does.

And then there’s the paoge culture (the mafia-type associations that used to regulate daily life rather than official laws and rules). People are accustomed to thinking independently of the government. Also, we’re just far away from Beijing, separated by rivers and mountains. Even the guobao are different. They sometimes say, “I’m just doing this to have my rice to eat.”


You’ve just written a book about a temple down the street, Dacisi (大慈寺) that has a vibrant tea house. Was it hard to get that book published?

The Lungs of Old Sichuan.jpg

The Lungs of Old Sichuan: The Temple of Great Charity by Ran Yunfei

I finished it last year before being detained and it was printed. But then after I was detained the publisher refused to release it. So I told this to the guobao and they said, “You are detained but you haven’t been convicted so you can publish. You’re not yet a criminal and you have the right to publish.” I said, “Hey, can’t you tell the publisher that?” They said, “No way, we can’t call up the publisher like we’re your agent or something. Anyway, we’ll frighten them to death! But you can tell them our views.” So I did and they published it but it’s not available on any online service. We had a press run of 5,000 and I’ve sold about 2,000. They sell it at the temple but only if you ask for it. It can be bought but it’s unavailable.

It’s a beautifully produced book on the temple’s history, including what happened over the last few decades.

Yes, I show how the monks were attacked after Liberation and declared Rightists. A monk as a Rightist! What nonsense. But that’s how it was. It’s all in there but I don’t go out of my way to rub the government’s nose in it. It’s just stated factually. That’s how I like to write books: factually and clearly.

Why did you pick a Buddhist temple to write about? Are you a believer? Buddhism? Christianity?

No, no, no. but I do have ties with Christianity. My wife is a Christian. I’ve been influenced by Christian thought through her and a friend who is a pastor of a local church. I’m not a believer but nor am I an atheist; I know the value of spirituality. I don’t deny the value. The communists really destroyed religion. They don’t understand it at all. Look at Tibet. I told the guobao that, “you guys have gone too far. You don’t allow them to hang pictures of the Dalai Lama. You don’t have faith so you don’t understand. So the Tibetans get very angry and depressed. And then you go into temples and instead hang pictures of Mao and Jiang (Zemin) or Hu (Jintao). You’ve gone overboard! This isn’t right. Think about it. No wonder they set themselves on fire.”

So you’re not a person of faith but you seem to have a high view of religion.

If this country wants to develop well it needs faith. It also needs NGOs. I’ve said that Chinese intellectuals don’t get NGOs. They think it’s “good people doing good work.” But this is wrong. NGOs are necessary in the same way that Churches are. The unregistered churches are public spaces. They’re maybe the only real public space in China right now.

You’re working on a new book about education in China. What’s the link between belief and education?

You have a society where the educational materials are all about loving the party—of course it leads to a spiritual crisis.


Everything they teach you to admire is jiade (fake). Right now they’re pushing Lei Feng (the Communist hero who was a model of selflessness) again. But everyone knows that Lei Feng is made up. All of their model heroes are false: Wang Jie, Liu Wenxue, Lai Ning: fake fake fake. So when they teach morality their teaching tools are fake. Completely fake. After a while the students learn that Lei Feng is a fake. He existed but all the stories are made up. It’s destructive—it destroys everything you’ve been taught. You feel that nothing is real. How can they teach virtues? It’s impossible. The problem is they don’t have a bottom line. There is no bottom line in society. You find out that the things you’re supposed to admire the most are untrue. So it seems nothing is real. So the only way the party can succeed is by cheating you. That becomes their biggest success. That’s who you’re ruled by.

How do you combat that?

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.


Like Ai Weiwei?

Old Ai reacts excessively. Like that guy from Global Times (a nationalistic newspaper that criticized the famous artist). The editor called Ai names, but then Ai put a recording of his telephone conversation online. That’s just not right. You can call me names but it doesn’t give me the right to disclose private conversations. This country makes you angry but you should be angry at the government or the system. Don’t destroy your own standards. To defend freedom you can’t use methods that destroy freedom. The main point of most discussions in China is to make someone so angry: “Hahaha, I’ve got you, take that!” “[I] Tweak your nose, spit in your face. Na na na na na!” That’s an argument? No.

So how does your new book fit into this?

I’m collecting material for a book on education in China. Those two black wooden cabinets are filled with teaching material. There’s stuff from the Qing, from the Republican era, from after 1949. I have materials from universities, elementary schools, the military, Buddhist schools, prisons, peasant literacy campaigns—a lot, a lot. I’m going to write a two-volume book. You can see how (approaches to education) changed from the KMT to the CCP and how they didn’t change. My research is based on statistics and qualitative analysis—for example, how much one word changes versus another in teaching materials.

What are some things you’ve noticed?

Let me give you an example of the problem first: the discussion about the Nanjing Massacre. Right now the government says 300,000 (were killed) and the Japanese say the number is much lower. Some Japanese even claim it wasn’t a massacre. They say, “Okay, if it was a massacre show us the list of the dead. Where’s your list of 300,000?” The government can’t provide this, not even 10 percent of it. Why? Because Chinese governments don’t value an individual life. It’s true. After 70 years they’ve only accounted for 10,000. That’s because they don’t care about individuals.

Just the other day the Ministry of Foreign Affairs issued a statement. It said the Nanjing Massacre can’t be discussed; it happened. You can’t discuss it! That’s ridiculous. They could say, “According to the Tokyo War Crimes Tribunal, the Nanjing Massacre was declared to have been a crime. Legally it’s been discussed and exists. So you can’t deny its existence. You can discuss it on an academic level but legally it’s a fact.” That’s how they should counter these Japanese deniers. They should say, “Your officials shouldn’t be denying facts that are legally established by international forum.” That would be the way to handle it. It would be restrained but firm. Instead they say: don’t discuss it. It’s forbidden to discuss it. But you should be able to discuss how many died. They don’t care.

And how does this relate to teaching?

So in the teaching materials you see this. You can see how the Communists tried to use history for its own purposes. The Kuomintang did this too. Both are in favor of aggrandizing the role of the state. Neither talked about individuals or rights. Everyone was instrumentalized for the state. Over the past century, most textbooks pushed nationalism. But of the two, the Communist Party has twisted history more. They push on the one hand patriotism and on the other how foreigners damaged and invaded China. The idea is to create a sense of anger and shame that only can be solved by the party.

People are saying that this year might be a year of reform. The leadership will change in the autumn and there seems to be more recognition about the need for reform in official thinking. There was a widely read People’s Daily editorial last week calling for more reform.

I saw it but you have to understand that People’s Daily always has some articles like this to give intellectuals false hope. They are talking about reform. Even Global Times talks about it. They see there are problems but I’m doubtful it will lead to political reforms. Maybe some more economic reforms.

The good news is that blogging and the Internet have damaged the CCP’s monopoly on information. So change is happening slowly, from the grassroots. But the damage of years of living under this system is profound. You, as a foreigner, can live here and learn to use chopsticks and learn Chinese perfectly but you might not know how Chinese people think, especially in sensitive areas. If you ask ordinary people about a sensitive thing, how they react is different than how you’ll react. It’s hard for you to imagine their sense of fear. You might be expelled but it’s not like being here. The system of language has to be analyzed. The CCP created a parallel language system (of untruth) that is on an equal basis with the language of truth. You have to analyze what it’s like to grow up in this kind of an unfree country. This is the only way to really know this country.

Can education fix these problems?

If I could change two things it would be freedom of expression and to make education more neutral. If we could have those two, China would have a huge change. Before 1949 there was considerable freedom of expression and much better education. There were private universities and religious universities. That’s because the Kuomintang was much less controlling than the Communist Party. Academics in the Republican period were much better—both specialists and public intellectuals. Nowadays the specialist academics publish rubbish and the public intellectuals aren’t public.

This is why academics are so looked down upon by ordinary people. That’s why they’re called “barbarian teachers” (教兽 ). You think about it. The Japanese can still deny the Nanjing Massacre because intellectuals in China just work for the government. They’re political. The truth is that the standard work on the Nanjing Massacre was done by a Japanese intellectual, Kasahara Tokushi, not a Chinese. What Chinese has published anything of value on the Nanjing Massacre? I said this yesterday on (the microblog) Weibo: “Hey you intellectuals, the Japanese have done the only worthwhile work on the Nanjing Massacre and you still dare to call yourself patriotic?”

And everyone cursed you?

Yeah! They say I’m a running dog of the Americans. But I’m just my own running dog.

—Ian Johnson previously interviewed Chang Ping, Liao Yiwu and Yang Jisheng for the NYRblog.

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