A recent news story reminds us of the essential Legalism - of the Han Fei Tzu lineage - that lies at the heart of the PRC government. But it also shows us how China is no longer a Legalist society. (For those of you familiar with the book banning issue, scroll down to see what I mean by "no longer a Legalist society.")
The Communist Party has recently decided to ban eight new books These books "...mainly have to do with reflections on 20th century history by Chinese intellectuals." Thus, in prohibiting their sale the political elite demonstrate once again its fear of Chinese history. It cannot allow for the free exploration of the past because it refuses to face up politically to the horror of the Great Leap and the chaos of the Cultural Revolution. Destroying books was, of course, a favorite political past time of that avatar of Legalism, the first Qin Emperor.
It would all be a sad replay of standard Leninist-Maoist-Legalist repression if it weren't for the fact that at least one of the writers is fighting back. Zhang Yihe, author of the now banned Past Histories of Peking Opera Stars (sounds like something the Party should really have to fear!), issued a statement in defiance of the prohibition. Roland, as usual, has a translation and links. Here is some of what she has to say:
Let me solemnly me repeat this once more: I will not give up the defense of my basic civil rights, because it affects the dignity and conscience of a person. What Mister Wu did was completely in violation of the constitution! He did not follow the spirit nor the procedure. In officialdom, you can have a "unanimous consent" and you have to "listen carefully to the instruction" from the superiors. At the same time, can you leave a small space for common citizens: leave them a mouth to speak; leave them a pen to write? A harmonious society is constructed not through tightening; it needs precisely relaxation.
She is claiming her rights in the face of authoritarian fiat, something that might shock Emperor Qin and Chairman Mao.
The Party cannot allow someone they have labeled a trouble-maker to stand up and demand equal rights under law - real equal rights, not just the usual Leninist window dressing. So, they strike back with bluster. Here, again thanks to Roland, is what Peking University professor Kong Qingdong, who claims to be a direct descendent of Confucius (whose family name is Kong) but who seems quite comfortable with old-line Communist polemics (is he a Party member? Sure sounds like one):
Kong Qingdong said that "her class was the enemy of our government," "the Communist Party was magnanimous towards them, but they keep dreaming about changing the facts and saying that the anti-rightist campaign was wrong."
Kong Qingdong said: "You (the rightists) think that you are proper heroes, so why are you asking the Communist Party for vindication?" "Your cases have been overturned after the reforms began, but why do the big rightists want to demand hundreds more times in compensation from the people.
But the "big Rightists" - or we might say bourgeois liberals - are not being cowed. Other writers and bloggers are coming to Zhang's defense. Here is a CDT translation of a blog post by Pu Zhiqiang (original Chinese here):
So I want to speak up. Not only for Zhang Yihe, but also for the other seven authors, as well as for myself.
Ms. Zhang Yihe’s three books were banned one after another. She didn’t speak up when her first book was banned, nor did she at the second ban. When her third book was banned, she struck the table and rose to her feet, and finally had to say something!
I hope everybody will speak up. This is our right and our dignity. Otherwise, the next one being locked in concentration camps might be you.
(I can hear Bob Marley in the background: "get up, stand up: stand up for your rights. Get up, stand up: don't give up the fight...")
The China Media Project is wondering if this unfolding affair illustrates the Chinese public's general opposition to censorship.
From my perspective, what all this suggests is that Chinese society is slowly shedding its Legalist qualities. Don't get me wrong: the Party is still very much Legalist in its governing style. They still rely upon selected and focused repression to instill a sense of fear in the general population. People know that if they cross the government, they will pay dearly for it. And it is precisely that sort of psychology of fear that Han Fei Tzu and Qin Shi Huang Di believed was essential to the maintenance of power.
Legalism is thus designed to have a continuing social effect. It is meant to live in the minds of the people, to cause them to avoid confrontation with the state, to press them into compliance with laws and practices that they may not agree with. And that was the effect of the first few decades of Communist Party rule in China. The Great Leap and the Cultural Revolution crushed opposition and engendered political passivity in the population at large. I could sense this when I first lived in China in 1983. People were very conscious of unspoken and unwritten political boundaries. They were wary of the smallest transgressions of government policy. Legalist psychology was at work.
The economic, social and cultural changes of the reform era have underminded the basis of Legalist fear. The government now no longer controls as much of an individual's life as it did in the past. People can find jobs, create meaningful lives, have fun beyond the reach of state power. Of course, the state is still very powerful, but not as powerful, relatively speaking, as in the past. People are thus less afraid.
They are standing up for their rights. The state cannot control the flow of information, or even the production of certain texts (how many of these books will now be published in Chinese in Hong Kong, Taiwan, the US and elsewhere and circulated back into China? How many of them will find their way onto the internet and the screens of PRC readers?). The Legalist state is losing its capacity to instill fear.