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« Confucian Institute Does the Confucian Thing | Main | Sunday Modern Love: A Taoist Moment »

July 14, 2007


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I was a little bit confused about this. My understanding was that public executions were banned some time in the late 1990s or early 2000s. I did hear vague and very apocryphal rumours of public executions during my first year in China in 1999/2000. And looking at the photos, the regular PSB police uniforms are modern, dating the photos sometime from Spring Festival 2001, but the vehicle livery seems a little out of date. And yet the dates on that bbs thread all seem to be within the last week. Then I tried to follow China Digital Times' link to the BBC article about the Strike Hard campaign, but somehow Nanny's tentacles had even managed to reach inside my proxy and I couldn't open it. So I googled "strike hard campaign" and the first result was a People's Daily article dated Tuesday, March 19 2002. The rest of the first page of results, apart from China Digital Times' piece, were all of the clearly counter-revolutionary variety, so I didn't even bother opening them. Too much hassle and I seemed to have gotten my answer about the probable approximate dates of these photos. So if I'm right and these photos really are roughly five years old, is China still legalist? I suspect the answer is still "yes", but for different reasons.

You are mistaken. It is definetely NOT a public execution.

== QUOTE ==
2,500 people, including several hundred schoolchildren, were taken to watch six men being sentenced to death at a public sentencing rally in a gymnasium in Changsha, Hunan Province on September 27, as part of a “celebration” for the Mid-Autumn Festival and National Day. After the sentencing, the six men were taken to an execution ground and shot. (Amnesty International)

I am looking frankly for a bit of enlightenment here. Why's parading criminals before their before shot, wrong? Now, whether the death penalty is fair, is a wholly different argument altogether. But if we assume that the laws are justly applied (which are not often the case in China), why not parade them around to show:
1. What government is doing something about the problem
2. Deterrence; kills the chicken to warn the monkeys, so to speak.

Something about ruling by law and punishment only creating good citizens for as long as there are police around, but if the government rules by legitimate means, people will respect it and behave correctly though police aren't around?

Killing people publicly creates a culture of fear that will temporarily aid the government, after all, no one is in a hurry to experience the equality of death. However, what sort of a person does this system attract? Who would want to gain power in a country that performs public execution? Not a virtuous man, that is certain. So, in attempting to reform the common people, the leaders of the government slowly grow more and more distanced and depraved. Naturally, the people will sense this, so stricter laws and harsher punishments will have to be put in place as people respect the government less and less. That, in turn, will attract worse people to positions of power. And so on and so on and so on.

This cycle isn't unique to China. America is having its fair share of problems in that area too. We either have moral degenerates in control or people who enjoy power too much to use it, for fear of losing it. Bad stuff all around.

JustSomeGuy has outlined an argument for why parading a condemned person before the public is wrong. I would just add that a Confucian perspective - or, at least, one derived from the Analects - would agree that an ostentatious display of killing is not a good way to rule. Instead of making examples of the worst kinds of human behavior, we should make examples of the best: that is what Confucius would say...

Hi JustSomeGuy,

Notice the article says that the convicts were being paraded around. They were executed elsewhere. I wasn't arguing for having convicts executed publicly. Try rereading the article.

But going back to your first point. I agree that legitimate government makes for more law-abiding citizens. However, I'd like to provocatively reverse that into a question: do not people deserve the government they've got?

Lastly, for argument's sake, let's assume a government perceived legitimate by the citizenry --let's take the corrupt chinese regime out of the way -- and ask:
Is parading -- is the shaming -- of convicts in a community-oriented society like China, a bad idea? For any convict, not just ones convicts headed for execution.

I suppose in the U.S., a parade isn't necesary -- a free press already does that. But I would like your views on this.

The distinction between publicly parading individuals who are about to be executed and publicly executing people is slight. It reminds me of the whole Tiananmen Square situation where people can argue that no massacre happened because most of the people who died weren't at Tiananmen Square. It all makes sense, right? Well, I for one, hope not!

So, do people deserve the government that they have? I would ask whether people deserve the self that they have. That people have lost sight of their original nature shouldn't surprise us terribly, it is a terribly difficult thing to hold onto (I certainly can only grasp the faintest shadow of a reflection of my own true self) but, if we just look at the original nature of people, they clearly deserve the best government possible! Because people lose sight of their original mind, we can expect governments to likewise deviate from perfect unity and action.

Wang Bi said that to be utterly free of self-interest means to make no conscious effort for one's own sake. But he also argued that such a person will always find himself in front and his self preserved -- he quotes the Daodejing saying, "He can achieve self-fulfillment". I think that this hearkens to the notion of the microcosm in the macrocosm and the macrocosm in the microcosm, at least socially speaking. Now, I'm a raging structuralists, so my bias is always going to be towards the whole-society end of thing, but I believe that by recognizing that we are all a part of society first and individuals second, that we should all strive towards benefiting that society and thereby attaining benefit for ourselves indirectly rather than striving for direct benefit. The government that people have is nothing more than an extension of the self that they have. And we all have a fundamentally glorious self, we just have lost sight of it. Likewise, we all deserve a fundamentally good government, we just need to make it so.

So why do I object to the sacrifice of a few individuals at that particular altar? Because I feel that doing so is a slight-of-hand trick that governments perform to take attention away from the rot that lies within. You want to take the corruption out of a government that would do such a thing, but I cannot reconcile the corruption of such an act with anything other than a corrupt government.


While I find your reply enlightening -- I have no idea who Wang Bi is, and perhaps with his name in chinese provided, I can look it up -- I do take issue with the following points

1. Your first paragraph analogy is off-based. The crowd -- spectators if you will -- watching a public sentencing and parade is under no delusion as to what will happen to the convicts.

2. "The distinction between publicly parading individuals who are about to be executed and publicly executing people is slight" -- As slight as the difference between hearing someone's sentence in court and watching his execution in prison in a western judicial system.

I am no reader of DaoDeJing, but it seems to me that the "self", or "self-nature" you spoke of, is hard to determine or define. Indeed it's an article of faith that human nature is benign, even though I believe in it. 人之初,性本善, I would hear often as a kid. Yet it seems to me that the more ruthless, are the young. Who make the best soldiers in ethnic wars in Africa and in the Pol Pot years in Cambodia? Young kids and teens, I dare guess. Indeed it seems to me that Confucian ideals such as 善, 仁, are all cultivated with time. But I don't want to get into the whole argument of nature versus nurture. My point is just that, to pre-suppose a certain human nature might not be consistent with the Tao(**note1); to further envision an appropriate government based on that is to invite building on quick sand.

Moving on. I don't know what a structuralist is, but your notion that the Macro is found in the Micro and vice versa, appeals to me(Of course it assumes a homogenous system on the level we evaluate the notion at.) And so I find myself revisiting the question: do people deserve the government they've got? Is the micro found in the macro?

Whether we find the Macro distasteful, is another matter.

As I write here, it occurs to me that perhaps we are asking different questions here. It feels to me that you are the smart academic type and daring to assume such, your question might be: "what is the best form of government?". My question is a bit more qualified: "What is the best form of government for these people, at this time?"

In any case, it seems to me we are deviating from (my take of) the original question: "Are public sentencing in China cruel and unconstructive in building a better society?"

**Note1: As I had said, I have never read DaoDeJing, or indeed very little chinese philosophical text. My understanding of Tao, crudely put, is that it's the philosophycal equivalent of Heisenberg's Uncertainty Principal

JustSomeGuy, I missed your last paragraph in my haste:

"So why do I object to the sacrifice of a few individuals at that particular altar? Because I feel that doing so is a slight-of-hand trick that governments perform to take attention away from the rot that lies within. You want to take the corruption out of a government that would do such a thing, but I cannot reconcile the corruption of such an act with anything other than a corrupt government."

I completely agree with you that most times public sentencing is associated with corrupt regimes. However I still contend that there's value in its utility. I propose we de-couple the two. For example, is it better to lock someone up for a few monthes for some minor crime or parade him or her around for a bit as punishment, in a society like China?

A couple of things:
1) The answer to your basic question about whether public execution, or merely parading, is cruel depends upon the prior philosophical assumptions one brings to it. JustSomeGuy seems, to me, to be Mencian. While you are closer to a Legalist, in the sense that you emphasize the social-political utility of harsh punishments. At the end of the day, these positions are irreconcilable, based as they are on fundamentally different notions of human nature and social action.
2) What kind of society is China now? I am assuming you mean a "still economically underdeveloped society that is experiencing very rapid economic and social change and deep cultural confusion so that authoritarian government is really the only viable political form at present..." but I don't want to be presumptuous.

If I want to be fresh 王弼, or, if I were to be more respectful, 辅嗣. I would recommend you check him out, if you had read the DDJ (which you ought have), you would have pretty much read an interpretation that is contingent upon Want Bi's. The reason why I take issue with the interpretation offered by individuals like Sam Crane or Bryan Van Norden is that they seek to divorce current scholarly (dare I invoke a euro-thing and say scholastic or would that be neo-Huism?) advances from the larger tradition as a whole. Don't get me wrong, Han-learning is cool and all, but any attempt to go back further is pretty difficult. I mean, I for one like the idea of setting my heart on learning when I was 15 and taking my stand when I was 30. Likewise, I love the idea of just saying "screw it" and rocking it at a lake with some buddies rather than aspiring to some dousche-baggy post. I don't mean this in an "Original/My-raging-biases Analects"-type way, but come on. When you read the Analects, or the Mencius (or the Xunzi -- On Heaven, tell me that isn't a passage from the Zhuangzi!) there are clearly passages that don't belong, I mean, they just aren't the same, can you tell which one just doesn't belong?

I don't have a problem with that, because I can point to damned near 3000 years of tradition and say "yeah, we might not be right . . ." but having not only survived but *mastered* things like Daoism-Legalism, Buddhism, and Westernism, I think it is OK to hold one's head up high. Sure, the best of us got tortured and eventually decided that Maoism was the way to go (who can blame him? I mean, even if I had managed to regain sight of my true nature [as I do suggest he may have had -- let no one say that English doesn't have some very cool grammatical forms] a de-humanizing condition like torture would make me lose sight of it pretty damned quickly!) but from his ashes we get luminaries like Tu Weiming.

Alright, maybe the virtue-ethicists have a point. I mean, it is a Saturday night and I'm pretty confused right now . . . But I will say that as far as utility is concerned, I just fed my cat. I know, it should be a dog, but I'm allergic.

You are right, I am "divorc[ing] current scholarly...advances from the larger tradition as a whole." But I probably would not refer to what I am doing as "scholarly advances" and I would not compare myself to Van Norden or other specialists in this field. I am merely a popularizer (and I know how bad a word that is in academe), taking some elements of the current scholarly debate, combining them with my own interpretations, and putting forth modern applications of ancient thought. I know this is a fraught exercise, and I appreciate your knowledgeable posts here. But I do not mean to deny the "tradition as a whole." Indeed, there is no escaping it. But, if the point is to offer modern applications (which will be accepted or rejected on a variety of grounds), then obviously some of the tradition must be declared anachronistic. You know the problem: every time "Confucianism" is mentioned, some in the audience want to immediately reject all of the tradition because of its deep implication with patriarchy. I contend that we can recognize the historical fact of Confucianism as a tool of male power but, at the same time, agree that this facet of the tradition must be left behind to make other facets relevant for contemporary questions. Otherwise, the tradition becomes a static museum piece, something interesting to look at but clearly of and for another time. Call me crazy: I want to bring some of the old ideas into modern debates....

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