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China’s Invisible History: An Interview with Filmmaker and Artist Hu Jie

Ian Johnson
Sim Chi Yin/VII Hu Jie in his studio in Nanjing, 2015

Though none of his works have been publicly shown in China, Hu Jie is one of his country’s most noteworthy filmmakers. He is best known for his trilogy of documentaries about Maoist China, which includes Searching for Lin Zhao’s Soul (2004), telling the now-legendary story of a young Christian woman who died in prison for refusing to recant her criticisms of the Party during the Anti-Rightist Campaign of 1957; Though I Am Gone (2007), about a teacher who was beaten to death by her own students at the outset of the Cultural Revolution in 1966; and Spark (2013), describing a doomed underground publication in 1960 that tried to expose the Great Leap famine, which killed upward of 30 million people.

Most recently, Hu, who is fifty-seven, has produced a remarkable series of woodblock prints about the famine, based on drawings he made during his interviews for Spark. They were scheduled to be shown in Tianjin last year, but they were deemed too controversial and the exhibition was cancelled.

When HSBC was looking for a ‘highly interesting and unusual speaker’ for their annual conference, Shaun Rein, a highly-regarded business consultant as well as experienced speaker, kindly recommended me. So last night, I delivered the speech at Grand Hyatt in Shanghai. I was instructed to talk about social changes since the reforms and the opening up and my own story is part of it. It had to be ‘informative, entertaining, insightful and original – not the sort of things that one can read in newspapers’. I tried hard to meet the requirement. I am pleased to report that it went well. People in the audience – a mixture of HSBC staff and their clients around the globe – came to congratulate me.

Afterwards, I went with a few conference goers to the bar Cloud 9 on the 88th floor for a drink. I felt high indeed, even though I didn’t consume anything alcoholic!

Please see below a piece in Aljazeera about the literature festival and gender issue in China, in which I am featured.

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What it Means to Be ‘Liberal’ or ‘Conservative’ in China

Putting the country’s most significant political divide in context.

By Taisu Zhang

April 24, 2015 – 2:17 pmWhat it Means to Be ‘Liberal’ or ‘Conservative’ in China

When Harvard researcher Jennifer Pan and MIT researcher Yiqing Xu posted a widely cited new paper, “China’s Ideological Spectrum” on April 12, it marked the first time that anyone has provided large-scale empirical data on the ideological shifts and trends within the Chinese population. China scholars have, of course, lavished attention on these issues for years — one cannot build a coherent argument about Chinese political and social change without grappling with them — but their arguments were largely based on personal experiences and anecdotes. The Pan and Xu paper therefore did academic and policy circles a significant service by providing a firmer foundation for such discussion.

The paper is not intended as an accurate temperature reading of the Chinese population’s ideological leanings. A voluntary online survey, with its inherent selection biases, cannot do that. What it can do, however, is measure a number of relative and relational factors: which beliefs correlate positively or negatively with each other, whether different regions lean in different directions, and whether exogenous factors such as income or education affect those relative leanings. (The excerpted image above this article shows unweighted data for provincial ideological rank; the most liberal provinces are blue, the most conservative are red, and those in the middle are purple. Grey areas indicate insufficient data.)

Many of the findings (which have not yet been peer reviewed, and are subject to change) are intuitive to those who have some basic familiarity with Chinese ideological trends: Respondents who are more nationalist also tend to support both the current “Chinese Socialist” political system — along with the limitations it places on civil rights and liberties — and state control over the economy. In contrast, those who view Western ideals more favorably tend to support constitutional democracy, human rights, and free market reforms. In Chinese political terminology, the former are commonly called “leftists,” and the latter “liberals.” These terms are more than mere descriptive labels; they represent fairly coherent intellectual and political factions that are consciously antagonistic towards each other. Pan and Xu find that leftists enjoy greater popular support in lower-income, inland regions, compared to wealthier coastal provinces, whereas the opposite is true for “liberals.”

Other findings require more effort to digest: The paper finds a strong correlation between leftist beliefs and what it terms “cultural conservatism” — defined as those who support “traditional, Confucian values,” or at least are favorably disposed towards traditional, somewhat Confucian, bodies of knowledge. For example, those who agree that “modern Chinese society needs Confucianism,” or that “the … Book of Changes (Zhouyi) can explain many things well,” also tend to believe in maintaining state control over sectors important “to the national economy and people’s livelihoods.”

A quick survey of the current Chinese intellectual landscape tends to reinforce these correlations. With some noticeable exceptions, China’s most visible Neo-Confucian advocates have, in recent years, often displayed a fairly strong affinity for leftist socioeconomic positions. Correspondingly, a number of prominent leftist intellectuals have argued for ideological continuity between Confucianism and Chinese Socialism, or, to quote the prominent Sun Yat-sen University scholar Gan Yang, “tong san tong” (“connecting the three canons”). It is hard to escape the impression that there has been a budding relationship between cultural conservatism — or, at least, the Confucianism-oriented version discussed in the Pan and Xu paper — and the Chinese Left.

This is a curious development indeed. Historically, the relationship between the left and cultural conservatism has been predominantly antagonistic, to put it lightly. For most of the 20th century, leftists led the charge against what they routinely condemned as China’s inhumane and counterproductive traditional culture. Confucianism, in particular, was the target of multiple political and intellectual campaigns, ranging from the May 4th Movement to the “Criticize Lin Biao, Criticize Confucius” campaign during the Cultural Revolution.

Moreover, the ideological incompatibilities between the mainstream political views of early modern Confucian literati and the contemporary Chinese left are serious. Many, arguably most, Qing dynasty (1644 to 1911) elites believed strongly in limited government, lineage self-regulation, and economic decentralization. Correspondingly, the Qing state apparatus was extraordinarily small even by early modern standards, pulling in only a fraction of the annual revenue (relative to estimated GDP) that the early modern Japanese and English states collected. Most contemporary Chinese leftists champion the opposite position: They press for more robust state intervention into socioeconomic life, and perhaps for a partial return to a state-planned economy. All in all, the recent convergence between cultural conservatism and leftism represents a dramatic reversal of some longstanding and deeply entrenched ideological positions.

Ideologies do, of course, transform over time. An ideology that has experienced as much turbulence as Confucianism is bound to evolve, perhaps radically, to appeal to modern populations. Nonetheless, one still has to wonder why the modern transformation of Mainland Chinese cultural conservatism took a predominantly leftist-friendly turn, as opposed to a more liberal one. A precursor movement in Taiwan and Hong Kong during the 1950s and ’60s, for example, produced a version of Neo-Confucianism that emphasized its compatibility with Western democratic and free market ideals. Why did Mainland cultural conservatism turn in a different direction, and, equally importantly, why were Mainland leftists willing to embrace — or at least tolerate — such a turn?

One could potentially answer this question by rehashing the old argument that Confucianism is inherently pro-government or pro-authority, and therefore naturally inclined to lean left, rather than right, on the current Chinese political spectrum. This relies, however, on a flawed conception of Confucian political ideology: As noted above, many late-Qing Confucian elites were more likely to ideologically support a decentralized socioeconomic and political system than a state-controlled one. Alternative perspectives certainly existed, but it is nonetheless difficult to argue that Confucianism is inherently pro-government in the contemporary leftist sense.

A better explanation is that supporters of beleaguered ideological traditions such as Confucianism seek sociopolitical acceptance, and therefore do so by aligning themselves with mainstream ideologies. Hong Kong and Taiwanese versions of Neo-Confucianism emerged in societies that had significant affinity for Western political ideals, whereas Mainland cultural conservatism reemerged after the Cultural Revolution in a society that remained substantially “Chinese Socialist.”

Compelling as it may seem, this argument, too, has some empirical difficulties: Until the past few years, the dominant socioeconomic or political positions in the Chinese intellectual world were clearly liberal ones: most intellectuals argued for greater institutional restraints on state activity, free market reforms, and stronger protection of civil and political rights. Even today, Pan and Xu’s paper finds that highly educated individuals are generally more liberal than less educated ones.When cultural conservatism reemerged as a somewhat influential ideological position during the later 1990s, its proponents could arguably reap greater social benefits by developing a liberal affinity, rather than a leftist one. For the most part, this did not happen.

Why not? Reading the early work of prominent contemporary Neo-Confucian intellectuals such as Jiang Qing or Chen Ming, one feels that this was a carefully considered — even principled — decision: They saw themselves as defending Chinese traditions against a distinctly hostile Western liberal intellectual mainstream. The “other” they defined themselves against was not some version of socialism or leftism, which at this time was clearly a minority position, but rather a supposedly intolerant liberalism that had dominated Chinese sociopolitical thought since the 1980s.

Whatever one thinks of this position, there is probably some truth to the claim that the Chinese intellectual world of the 1980s and 1990s was both predominantly liberal on political and economic issues, and distinctly hostile to traditional culture. The enormously influential documentary series River Elegy, which combined express attacks on Confucianism with thinly veiled criticisms of the party-state apparatus, is but one example of this. Chinese liberalism was indeed often critical of traditional family structures, social hierarchies, and what it perceived as backwards elements of Confucian political and economic thought. In the intellectual world, at least, Chinese cultural conservatism and leftism did share two important commonalities: Both were minority positions facing a perceived liberal majority, and both encountered significant hostility from this perceived majority.

This may, in fact, be the missing explanatory element. Ideologies regularly define themselves against a perceived “other,” and in this case there was quite plausibly a common and powerful “other” that both cultural conservatism and political leftism defined themselves against. This also explains why leftists have, since the 1990s, become considerably more tolerant, even accepting, of cultural conservatism than they were for virtually the entire 20th century. The need to accumulate additional ideological resources to combat a perceived Western liberal “other” is a powerful one, and it seems perfectly possible that this could have overridden whatever historical antagonism, or even substantive disagreement, existed between the two positions.

If this is true, then one of the most important takeaways from Pan and Xu’s paper is that the educated Chinese population continues to formulate its ideological positions either against or in support of some perception of the West. In some fundamental way, we continue to define ourselves in relation to the Western other. This is, in fact, how the Chinese intellectual and political world has operated since the late Qing, when the influx of Western technology, institutions, and thought forced Confucian elites to fundamentally reorient their ideological commitments. Perhaps more than any flawed conception of Confucian culture, this is what we should be grappling with when considering the influence of historical tradition on contemporary Chinese society.

Ian Johnson on Pete Hessler

Posted: April 21, 2015 in Uncategorized

An American Hero in China by Ian Johnson _ The New York Review of Books.pdf

Teaching ‘Western Values’ in China



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BEIJING — Nobody is surprised that the Chinese government curbs “Western-style” civil and political liberties. But it may be news to some people that the government has recently called for the strengthening of Marxist ideology in universities and a ban on “teaching materials that disseminate Western values in our classrooms.” On the face of it, such regulations are absurd. It would mean banning not just the ideas of John Stuart Mill and John Rawls, but also those of such thinkers as Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels.

Pronouncements against the influence of Western values contradict what’s really happening in higher education in China. There have been recurrent campaigns against foreign interference since the 1980s, and yet the trend has been consistent: more international links with Western universities, more meritocracy and less political ideology in the selection and promotion of professors, and experimentation with different modes of liberal arts education.

Of course, the government could reverse these trends, but the nation’s leaders know full well that a modern educational system needs to learn as much as it can from abroad.

In my case, I’ve been teaching political theory at Tsinghua University — one of the country’s top universities — for more than a decade, and I continue to be pleasantly surprised by the amount of freedom in the classroom.

I routinely discuss politically sensitive topics and much of what I teach would fall in the “prohibited” category if official warnings were enforced to the letter. This term we’re reading Francis Fukuyama’s works, starting with his famous 1989 article that declared the debates about political ideology ended with the triumph of liberal democracy. Students say what’s on their minds, as they would in any Western university.

I try to present the ideas of great political theorists in the best possible light, and let students debate their merits among themselves. If it’s a class on Mill’s “On Liberty,” I’ll try to make the best possible case for the freedom of speech, and in a class on Confucius’s “Analects,” I’ll do the same for the value of harmony. I invite leading thinkers from China and the West to give guest lectures, whatever their political outlooks. The good news is that my classrooms have been almost completely free from political interference.

The one exception happened shortly after I arrived in Beijing in 2004. I wanted to teach a course on Marxism but was told it would not be advisable because my interpretation may differ from official ideology. Human rights and democracy are fine, but not Marxism. I learned to get around that constraint by teaching the material without putting the word “Marxist” in the course title.

Research is more challenging. I can publish books and articles in English without any interference. When my writings are translated into Chinese, however, the censors do their work.

An earlier book on the rise of political Confucianism was due to be published in 2008, but I was told it couldn’t go to press because of the Olympics: Nothing remotely critical about contemporary politics in China could be published when the whole world was watching the country. In 2009, the 60th anniversary of the founding of modern China made it another “sensitive” year. In early 2010, the upcoming World Expo in Shanghai provided an excuse for delay. To my surprise, my book was indeed published during a brief period of politically “not-so-sensitive” time in the autumn of 2010.

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Lately, the censorship regime has intensified. This time, the main reason is President Xi Jinping’s anticorruption campaign, which produces real enemies with a strong motivation to undermine the current leadership. Hence, even more curbs than usual on political publications, no matter how academic.

I’ve ordered books on Amazon that have been confiscated at the border. I’ve long needed a virtual private network to access The New York Times and Google Scholar, but censors have been disrupting the use of V.P.N.s. My tech-savvy students help me to get around the restrictions, but it’s a cat-and-mouse game and the cat is getting smarter. My mood varies almost directly with the ease of Internet access, and lately I’ve often been in a foul mood.

Ironically, I had a particularly hard time accessing sources for a new book that is a largely positive account of the principles underlying the Chinese political system. I had to leave the country for several months to access works on the Internet and banned books in English and Chinese necessary to make my case.

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It’s worth asking why I continue to work in an academic environment with such constraints. Half of my family is Chinese, and I have special affection for the place. It helps to have great students and colleagues. Mr. Fukuyama’s “end of history” thesis put his finger on another key reason: A world where nobody argues about political ideals may be peaceful, but it’s boring. China is not boring.

Chinese-style democratic meritocracy is the only viable alternative to liberal democracy, and I have front row seats to China’s experiment. What else could a political theorist ask for?

That said, I am in favor of free speech in universities. And my views are widely shared in Chinese academia: Whatever people say in public, I haven’t met a single Chinese intellectual — socialist, liberal or Confucian — who argues in private discussion for censorship of scholarly works. Censorship only serves to alienate intellectuals.

My own students usually say that political reform should take place on the basis of the current political system, not against it. But the more they are prevented from discussing such views, the more disenchanted they will become, and that spells trouble for the long term. Openness, in my view, can only benefit the system.

I am confident that things will loosen up eventually. I confess, however, I was even more confident 10 years ago.

Daniel A. Bell is chair professor of the Schwarzman Scholars program at Tsinghua University in Beijing. His latest book is “The China Model: Political Meritocracy and the Limits of Democracy.”

The Things I Carried Back



John Fischer Burns, senior New York Times correspondent, in Baghdad in 2003. CreditAshley Gilbertson for The New York Times Continue reading the main story

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CAMBRIDGE, England — THE light was fading on the hills above the Arno, and my closest friend in the careworn ranks of foreign correspondents was sitting cross-legged on a canopied Chinese daybed, in a lovely old tree-shaded house in his native village, a brisk walk from the heart of Florence.

His name was Tiziano Terzani, one of Italy’s most celebrated writers, and on that weekend, a decade ago, he was host with his wife, Angela, for the marriage of their daughter in a soaring renaissance basilica in Florence.

At 65, Tiziano was in the final weeks of a terminal cancer, and he used a languid lunch the day after the wedding to offer, from his place on the daybed, a personal farewell, along with some gentle wisdom he’d accrued in 40 years as a roaming reporter for the German newsmagazine Der Spiegel and leading Italian newspapers and as the author of a library of deeply engaging books of adventure and reflection.

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“Never forget,” he told the rapt gathering of musicians, physicians, politicians, entrepreneurs, writers, diplomats and reporters. “It’s not how far you’ve traveled, it’s what you’ve brought back.”

If I have been remembering Tiziano with a special fondness in recent days, it is because I, too, have reached the 40-year milestone in my career at The New York Times, and formally retired last week, six months past my 70th birthday.

Our careers, Tiziano’s and mine, were improbably similar: We spent years shadowing each other in Soviet Russia and the China of Mao Zedong and Deng Xiaoping, and chronicling the wars, assassinations and other disasters of India, Pakistan, North Korea, Afghanistan and a host of countries beyond.

We were both imprisoned in China, on charges officials there later acknowledged to have been false, and we both shared, at the same time in the 1990s, the same cancer — non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma — and the same oncologist in New York.

Now the wheel has turned, and the time has come to begin meeting the challenge Tiziano issued on that Florentine afternoon, after some familiar chatter among his guests: how far each of us had traveled, the wonders and miseries we’d chronicled, and the most fascinating, or cruel, dictators and rulers through whose realms we’d passed.

It was a fine thing, Tiziano said, to have accumulated all those visas and passport stamps, all those exotic datelines, all those Saddam Hussein puppets and Little Red Books of Mao’s wisdom, all those richly seasoned tales of derring-do.

But what, please tell, had we brought back?

In my case, poking from the very top of my traveler’s backpack is something you might expect of a reporter who spent long years in what were then some of the nastiest places in the world, each of them fraudulently dressed up, in their enveloping propaganda, as something entirely different, and benign. What those years bred in me, more than anything else, was an abiding revulsion for ideology, in all its guises.

From Soviet Russia to Mao’s China, from the Afghanistan ruled by the Taliban to the repression of apartheid-era South Africa, I learned that there is no limit to the lunacy, malice and suffering that can plague any society with a ruling ideology, and no perfidy that cannot be justified by manipulating the precepts of a Mao or a Marx, a Prophet Muhammad or a Kim Il-sung.

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As Tiziano surely knew, distilling some semblance of enlightenment from a lifetime’s work is not the easiest of challenges, and not only because it supposes the wit to bring order and sense out of years of jumbled, helter-skelter experience — of repression by forces of the left and right, of man’s propensity for cruelty to man, and of the countervailing strains of humanity that endure wherever the worst kinds of malevolence prevail.

There is the fear, too, of indulging in what reporters of my generation have been disciplined to avoid: abandoning the dictates of objective reporting for the hazardous ground of moral presumption, and with it the dreary vales of self-righteousness.

WHAT a reporter carries out grows, inevitably, from the beliefs and standards carried in. For me, those were set out by the Times editor who first assigned me abroad in 1976, A. M. Rosenthal, and by his successors over the years. Abe called for “keeping the paper straight.”

He issued the dictum before my first foreign assignment: apartheid South Africa, a country justly seen as an open-and-shut case of oppression. But even there the need to keep the paper straight demanded, Abe said, that we tell not only the story of the oppressed, but that of all the other major players in South Africa’s tragedy, including the Afrikaner people who built the fortress of racial prejudice that the country had become. Those stories might surprise us, he said, and give us a more textured sense of the truth.

The commitment to fairness and balance, and to shunning conventional truths when our reporting leads us in unexpected directions, has been our gold standard — and one that I, like other reporters, undoubtedly failed on occasions when my passions, and the passions of those around me, ran at their highest.

Those moments, I fear, might have to include for me the hours after American troops overran Baghdad in April 2003. At the time, I witnessed and shared the wild public rapture at Saddam Hussein’s fall, which gave way almost overnight to grim forebodings about the murderous sectarian chaos that was to ensue, and which continues, with a redoubled vengeance, in Tikrit, Mosul, Ramadi and dozens of other Iraqi cities and towns where the Islamic State has held sway.

My impatience with ideology has carried over in recent years to my encounters with the societies in the West that are my home: to the widespread propensity, as I have sensed it, for people who lack the excuse of brutal duress that is a constant in the totalitarian world to fall sway to the formulaic “isms” of left and right, each of them full of Yeats’s “passionate intensity,” that excuse, and indeed smother, free thinking.

The bankruptcy of the approach that divides the world into camps of left and right was a lesson learned early. An assignment to China in the early 1970s exposed me to the murderous doctrines of Mao Zedong “Thought,” with victims that numbered in the millions; and a posting to Moscow in the early 1980s, 30 years after Stalin’s death, was redolent of the miseries that a perverted form of Marxism-Leninism imposed on Soviet Russia, with its own ghastly toll in the millions.

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My five years in South Africa carried their own lessons. The more I saw of the ugliness of apartheid, the more evident it became that the apparatus of right-wing repression — the twisted ideology, the pervasive role of the secret police, the dehumanization of an entire population — was little different from left-wing dictatorships, save in the sheer number of victims.

If ideology was the scourge of the 20th century, so it has continued to be in many of the worst places of the 21st. Perhaps the most murderous of all states in our time is the North Korea of the Kim family, with millions dead from hunger and the deprivations of vast, hidden prison camps. And the beheadings, mass shootings and burnings-alive committed by the Islamic State have their origins in yet another kind of corrupted, extremist thought.

In all of these places, my experience has been that when it suits the ends of power, ideology can be invoked to prove that 2+2 = 5, or 3, or any other number that suits the state, and to demand that all embrace the madness. It is a truly frightening thing to interview a top-ranked nuclear scientist, or a distinguished brain surgeon, or a concert pianist, as I did in China under the sway of Mao, and to hear them, as ideological outcasts, justify with utter conviction the brutalities inflicted on them by their ideology-crazed persecutors — crushed fingers, smashed heads, broken marriages, vilification by their own families.

Elsewhere, the lunacy was of an order that invited a response of laughing mockery, if that were not potentially fatal to the system’s loyalists, or those pretending to be so. In North Korea, while Kim Il-sung was still alive, there was a brand new, high-tech hospital built in his name in Pyongyang, floor after floor laden with tens of millions of dollars in the latest American, Swiss and German equipment, but no patients to be seen. And why not? “As we have explained,” the most senior comrade-physician responded, “the Korean people’s great leader Comrade Kim Il-sung has taken such care for the health of his beloved people that none of his people gets sick.”

Not ever? “No, never,” was the reply.

My catalog of such moments in the grim dictatorships of the world could fill a book, or three. But coming home to the countries of the West, where nobody dies for a moment’s lapse in fealty to a prime minister or a president, it can be depressing beyond words to hear the loyalists of a given political creed — whether of the left or the right — adopt the unyielding certainties common in totalitarian states. Our rights to think and speak freely have been won at great cost, and we abuse them at our peril.

John F. Burns is a Pulitzer Prize-winning foreign correspondent whose postings over four decades included Bosnia, Afghanistan, Russia, China, Iraq and South Africa.

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