Ian Johnson’s continuing series of interviews with intellectuals, activists, and artists in China
Ian Johnson: You’ve written both fiction and nonfiction. What would be the best way to approach Wuhan?
Yuan Ling: The virus causes isolation and shutdown, which mirrors the isolation and shutdown in Chinese society, and also because it was directly the result of controlling speech and clamping down on “rumors.” This is symbolic. During normal times, people aren’t free but they don’t feel it, but now everyone feels their unfreedom.
Ian Johnson: You got your PhD in law from China University of Political Science and Law in Beijing. You could have kept teaching in the capital but you chose to come to Xi’an. Why did you do that?
Chen Hongguo: You don’t realize how pitiful the students are here. The quality of teaching isn’t that good and they don’t get to hear good speakers. So I began to invite prominent intellectuals… I set up reading clubs to interact more closely with the students… We met in the stairway. People called it the “stairway lectures.”
Ian Johnson: Haven’t some people given up on civil society?
Jiang Xue: It was our hope. Now, a lot of people have lost hope. The way society has developed under the Communist Party, it’s impossible to develop civil society. Public media has been killed. Public institutions have been closed. Teachers who dare to speak up have been driven off. It seems that civil society has no force.
But I don’t agree with this view. Civil society is something we have to struggle for. It’s something we can fight for bit by bit.
Ian Johnson: Where does it come from, this sense of justice—your experiences in the Cultural Revolution?
Zhang Shihe: Mao ordered young people to the countryside. I was sent to work on the Xi’an to Qinghai railway, with some 26,000 others. Most were broken when they came home. Today, they have children and grandchildren, but thousands died prematurely after coming back—it ruined so many people’s health. These old guys don’t want that forgotten.
Ian Johnson: When did you start commenting on daily life?
Guo Yuhua: In about 2010. In this society, everything that seems impossible or completely weird actually does happen, so how can you not comment on it? It’s intolerable. You feel you can’t help people who are suffering in another way, so at least you can try to publicize it and get a public reaction. In fact, you aren’t really helping them, but you feel you have to speak.
You don’t feel that things are harsher or tighter now?
Qiu Zhijie: It’s like this: because the anticorruption crackdown was so harsh, officials don’t dare act or do anything. Everyone speaks in formulaic language, and reads the Party’s documents. That kind of atmosphere isn’t good. Actual measures are few, but you do feel a kind of authoritarianism that’s worse than before.
Ke Yunlu was one of the most popular authors in China in the 1980s and 1990s. Though none of his books have been translated, he is well-known in China for his politically prescient novels, including one that is widely seen as having predicted Xi Jinping’s rise. He is a sharp critic of the Mao period, and believes that China’s traumas can only be resolved through spiritualism.
“I’d kept asking one question: Had any one of the 9,000 people killed in the region been planning a counterrevolutionary event or said something unlawful? In the end the answer was: No.”
“I do not take as much direct action as some. Ever since being a sent-down youth in the Cultural Revolution, I’ve feared hardship and fatigue. But in important actions, if I feel I should express myself, then I try to pick up my courage.”
“I believed in the goodness of human nature. I believe this is naïve. Actually, human nature in this totalitarian society has become very vile. This power has changed Chinese people’s psychological makeup. Most people, very many people, are really terrible; they’re afraid of losing things.”
“I am interested in telling stories about human nature. The Communists are so against human nature….I’m going to demythify Chinese culture. My example is Alan Moore’s graphic novel V for Vendetta. Our next book will be like that—a graphic non-fiction book on the Lin Biao incident [the probable attempted coup and flight by Mao’s most trusted aide in 1971, ending in his death in a plane crash].”
“My feelings are, actually are…how can I describe this situation? It’s like I was on arid land and thrown into water. I’ve been running for so many years and now have reached the shore. It’s that kind of feeling. Because I never felt I belonged in water. That kind of control. That kind of pressure. And every kind of threat. I was living under constant threats. And suddenly this thing, suddenly it vanishes, and everything returns to normal.”
“Back then, you couldn’t even find a book on how to make documentary films. I felt that the problems in society were so serious, but the media was just broadcasting propaganda. There was such a gap. I thought then: Why don’t those journalists tell the truth? Then I thought: Why don’t you try yourself, try to say something true?”
“I think you Americans, your political agenda has become taken over by these differences between the Republicans and the Democrats. Every day, you fight about issues like taxation or abortion. But perhaps you have forgotten that the things the Republicans and Democrats share are much larger than what separates them.”
You’ve said that Xi Jinping is trying to bring China back to a totalitarian kind of system.
Teng Biao: He is not able to achieve totalitarianism, but he wants to. The problem for him is the civil society in China is stronger than he thinks.
Why was Ilham Tohti arrested?
Wang Lixiong: The only conclusion is dark: they don’t want moderate Uighurs. Because if you have moderate Uighurs, then why aren’t you talking to them? So they wanted to get rid of him and then you can say there are no moderates and we’re fighting terrorists.
Li Yinhe: During the first thirty years of its rule, the Communist Party was anti-sex. So studying sex is controversial. Even in my current book, the section on laws about sex was eliminated. You can’t publish it.
Why has the Chinese government relied so much on suppression in Tibet and Xinjiang?
Wang Lixiong: Simply put, it’s due to their politics, but they can’t say that. They say it’s due to hostile foreign forces. After troubles started in Tibet they said it was the “Dalai Clique.” You can see the situation getting worse year by year, so it’s only possible to say that it’s their policy.
You have spoken about how the Dalai Lama has had successes, but that his policy is at a dead end.
Wang Lixiong: I believe the Dalai Lama has fulfilled his historical role. His basic strategy is to get Western people and Western governments to put pressure on the Chinese government. But it doesn’t solve the problem.
Why are these protests happening now?
Perry Link: Hong Kong’s people have 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.'”
Are people in China happy?
Richard Madsen: The happiness level is diminishing. The pace of economic growth is not continuing like it was. You still have people becoming fabulously wealthy and crassly displaying it, but that also feeds into a deteriorating moral climate.
“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.”