China and the Quest for Dignity

March 1, 1999 Topic: Society Regions: Asia Tags: AcademiaCold WarMutual Assured Destruction

China and the Quest for Dignity

Mini Teaser: Dignity is an essential concept that connects two objectives usually regarded as conflicting in contemporary China--individual rights and self-determination within its discourse on national rights.

by Author(s): John Fitzgerald

Life Itself Plays the Master

In Fukuyama's terms, the popular protests of 1989 were staged to achieve "universal recognition" - that is, to assert the value of the individual citizen before that of the state. Since 1989, state repression has had the effect of redirecting this quest back onto the old and more familiar track of national recognition. This redirection has been effected partly through brute force, partly through censorship and misinformation, but chiefly through the state playing upon a feeling of the inevitability of things that seems to be widely shared by people in China today. The idealism of 1989 has yielded to "realism" today. "Unrealistic hopes of 'universalism' [tianxia zhuyi] are no more than wishful thinking", writes the team headed by Song Qiang. The day for cosmopolitanism might dawn in a hundred years, although by Song Qiang's reckoning this, too, may be unduly sanguine. Mao's timetable was more like one thousand years. The Chinese people have a long wait ahead of them before they can realistically expect to enjoy the freedoms that are theirs by right.

Impotence in the face of history means, in Fukuyama's words, that people cannot live up to their own sense of worth. China's naysayers seem simultaneously resigned to their fate and frustrated by the circumstances that compel their acquiescence. One way or another, the outcome is a feeling of shame. But nay-sayers are compelled to acquiesce to the "realistic" conditions governing life in their own sovereign state. The Chinese nation may have stood up long ago, we are told, but the Chinese people remain slaves to this day. They have become "slaves of life", inescapably tied to their families and their children, and bound to their country for want of a passport. Much as they might like to "mount political resistance in Hyde Park" (an indirect reference to Tiananmen), or join the Greens and "save the whales", China's people are for the moment prevented from becoming "citizens of the world." Their servile condition has not been forced on them by the state, nor can it be attributed to foreigners. In this particular master-slave relationship, life itself plays the master. There is no escaping it.

Such admissions hint at the shame of growing up in a society and a state that offer no hope of realizing the simple aspirations of the common citizen. Worse, they hold out no hope of liberation. For "slaves of life", bondage is a condition of existence and not a consequence of the particular arrangements or policies of a given regime. The rhetoric of shame and indignation running through the Say No literature suggests that the quest for individual dignity on the part of ordinary citizens is still far from reconciled with the quest for national dignity. What little respect people can muster is found by "saying no" to foreigners, in the belief that foreign critics fail to appreciate and make little allowance for the particular conditions that apply in China.

But the claims of national dignity and individual dignity cannot be reconciled by saying no to foreigners alone. National liberation offers no way out for "slaves of life." The path to liberation entails challenging the conditions that threaten personal dignity. This path leads inevitably to challenging head-on existing constraints on thought, speech and assembly.

The "Irrationality" of Wei Jingsheng

Fukuyama identifies the passion that drives a people to "stand up" in the world with the longing that drives them to "stand up" for civil rights and democracy. This longing is the desire for recognition, and it is not a rational longing in the standard instrumental or utilitarian sense of the term. In pursuit of recognition, people set aside their better judgment and risk their lives and livelihoods to fight for a nation, for a creed or for the right to be counted the equals of their masters. Developments in the economy and society may enable these sacrifices and struggles to take place, but in the absence of human desire and human agency there is no struggle at all. It takes irrational nationalists to make nations, and irrational democrats to make democracies.

Wei Jingsheng is a democrat in Fukuyama's mold, a "thymotic man", a "man of anger who is jealous of his own dignity and the dignity of his fellow citizens." Wei's critics in China and abroad (and he has many) complain that he is out of touch with the mood of his country. They are right. His routine insistence on maintaining personal dignity before his political leaders, his jailers and his family presents a model of behavior not widely practiced in China today. What is more, he refuses to share the feeling of political impotence that afflicts many of his compatriots, and has avoided the shame that comes of failing to live up to his own expectations.

Fukuyama insists that "there is no democracy without democrats." The case of Wei Jingsheng asks us to carry Fukuyama's line of reasoning a little further, to ask whether there can be nationalism without democrats in China today. Is it possible for the people of China to recover national self-regard without first recovering their individual self-esteem through recognition of their universal rights? In other words, is it possible for the Chinese people really to take pride in their nation while they still remain ashamed of themselves?

Wei is proud of his country because he can look himself in the eye. One source of his self-esteem is his refusal to concede a point on which his critics have long yielded: that the people of China deserve less than others. His critics generally concede that democracy is a universal aspiration of people in all societies, including China's, yet for now they place democracy beyond realistic expectations. Democracy is not something to struggle for, his critics assume, but something history delivers to the door when the order is ready. Again, Wei demurs: "Which country has acquired democracy, freedom, and human rights without hard struggle, without shedding sweat and blood? You could not possibly wait for someone to present you with democracy."

Wei Jingsheng is just one of many Chinese citizens who have spent time in jail for speaking their minds. Some have endured considerably longer terms in jail; some have held equally fast to their views. He stands out in this company, however, not simply on account of his international status, but because he has attempted to reconcile the claims of national and universal recognition in an old and familiar language that was forged in the country's struggle for national recognition. He is the first to acknowledge the power of national dignity in the armory of his enemies. Indeed, national dignity is a source of inspiration for him as well. He wrote and posted his major essay on democracy, "The Fifth Modernization", to demonstrate to his fellow countrymen that not all Chinese were spineless weaklings. His subject was democracy; his muse was thymotic nationalism.

By his own account, Wei had thought long and hard about the condition of his country and people for many years before the advent of the Democracy Wall Movement. Still, he had no intention of posting anything on these subjects until he overheard bystanders complain that Democracy Wall activists would probably pack up their pens and go home once Deng Xiaoping had issued a veiled warning, which he did on November 27, 1978. Wei took this complaint as a slight on his country and his people, and it stirred him to action:

As soon as [Deng's] notice was posted, citizens all over Beijing were critical: 'The Chinese are simply inept, and spineless. Look at it, having the freedom only for a couple of days, being able to speak out, now with a little directive from someone, they want to retreat. A bunch of spineless weaklings. (Sigh) There is no hope for China.'

After I heard such commentaries, I was particularly saddened. I felt that not all Chinese were spineless. Certainly my thoughts and my ideas, with years of deliberation, had long been stored in my mind. I decided to utter them, do something, with the primary motivation to prove to everyone that not all Chinese were spineless. So I posted 'The Fifth Modernization' there. It was written one night, and posted there the next day.

Wei thrilled to see people queuing ten deep to read his new poster, and felt reassured when they nodded in agreement. What moved him most was public acknowledgment that the people of China could stand up for their rights. He alludes to this nationalist motive in the opening paragraph of the second section of "The Fifth Modernization", which was pasted up shortly after another writer had urged Wei to stop criticizing the regime. "Our young men are not the 'sick men of the East'", Wei began. "They have sufficient courage to put up and to read posters, and to discuss different views even though some of them are taboo." Everyone, he later recalled, could now acknowledge that "the Chinese were brave and fearless people after all." The language through which he has conveyed this conviction is the same language employed by Mao Zedong in his speech to the CPPCC, when he proclaimed, "Our nation will never again be a nation despised by others. We have stood up." Now, however, the nation was asked to stiffen its spine against Mao's Communist Party itself.

Essay Types: Essay