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

These few references to national dignity stand out in a body of work otherwise devoted to the dignity of the individual. In "The Fifth Modernization", Wei mounted his argument for democracy around the implicitly Hegelian framework of the master-slave relationship. People everywhere wanted democracy in order to become "masters of their own destiny", Wei asserted. In China, however, "it may be more correct to call them slaves." A people that could not maintain its autonomy was forced into servitude.

Wei scorned apologists who argued that the regime had fed and clothed the Chinese people. First, they were plainly wrong: Mao had systematically starved the people in his Great Leap Forward. Impoverished and ill-fed people had every reason to feel angry when they saw their masters gorging on fluffy white rice. What caused gravest offense in Wei's eyes, however, was the servitude that their hunger revealed in their relations with their masters, who denied them the simple right "to lead a normal life." Bowls of white rice represented more than the promise of a full stomach. They whetted the appetite for equality between slave and master. The heroes of the centuries-old epic Water Margin rarely went hungry, Wei observed, but they fought and struggled with their masters all the same. So they should. Their struggle was identical to his own: "exactly the kind of struggle aimed at winning equality of rights for man as a human being." The bravery and bravado of the Water Margin heroes has served as a model for many different kinds of rebellion in China's modern history, not all by any means undertaken in pursuit of human rights. For Wei, however, these heroic tales signified the historical continuity of the political struggle of the Chinese people's desire for recognition.

In his letters from prison, Wei refuses to concede the shameful inevitability of being born into a state that will not grant him recognition as an autonomous human being. Even after it takes away his freedom, he refuses to kneel. The simple audacity of this refusal can be measured by the scale across which Wei pitches his complaints from prison, ranging from self-confident letters to Deng Xiaoping through to the studied naivety of brief notes to his jailers complaining about the fittings and facilities of his prison cell.

To some, such behavior suggests madness, and in fact Wei feigns madness. In his childhood, he recalls, Wei and his sister used to play the roles of legendary "mad geniuses" of folklore, to flaunt local customs and criticize national political figures with impunity. He learned at an early age that the mad enjoy a degree of licence that is denied sane people. He hints at another source of his irrational behavior in one of his asides on the people of China: "The people have great reserves of self-confidence, self-respect, and self-consciousness stored away." The source of both his madness and his confidence is Wei's self-respect.

Individual self-respect is a foundation on which to claim sturdy national respect. This is not, however, how the relationship between democracy and nationalism is generally understood in China today. As Edward Friedman has recently observed, "Recent events have fostered a feeling among many educated Chinese that promoting democracy is virtually synonymous with treason, with splintering China and blocking its rise and return to greatness." It is worth recalling that Wei Jingsheng was initially jailed for selling state secrets, not for democratic activism. Since his release from prison in November 1997, he has again been branded a national traitor for speaking out against continuing civil rights abuses in China. Far from constituting treason, Wei's behavior demonstrates that the fight for individual dignity is a powerful antidote to the shame and self-loathing that converts national pride into parochial chauvinism in China today.

Others among Wei's critics are prepared to concede the inevitability of democracy, although on economistic grounds rather than thymotic ones. There is no place for dignity or democrats in their divinations. Democracy will simply arrive, under its own steam, once the elite responsible for the ship of state finally acknowledge its practical advantages. Wei places little faith in any newly emerging bureaucratic "bourgeoisie." The major beneficiary of market-driven economic reforms, he says, has been a new bureaucratic class "cultivated intentionally and systematically by the Communist Party", one that has no interest in democratic reform. Ordinary people will fight and die for democracy, he maintains, not because they are growing rich but because they no longer wish to be treated as slaves. It follows that democracy can only come to China through an economically irrational and politically naive choice on the part of aggrieved citizens who want the state to recognize their dignity as ordinary human beings.

So the ressentiment that pushed China to "stand up" in 1949 now drives the struggle for liberal democracy. Nationalist ressentiment is of course still alive and well - the ideal of national dignity drives the literature of Saying No. Yet the nay-sayers themselves highlight a growing incongruence between national pride and personal indignation when they boast of China's long and glorious history in an angry and grumpy tone. The incongruence arises in part because the problem lies closer to home than many will concede. Hence, the more indignant they become, the more China's "say no" nationalists are likely to inflame the desire to restore some balance, or symmetry, between individual and national dignity. More importantly, the incongruence arises because personal indignation can no longer be mollified by China "standing up" in the same old fashion. The solution also lies closer to home.

People in China increasingly acknowledge that the world has become reluctant to recognize states that treat their citizens with derision - and there is no dignity without recognition. As Hegel observed, it takes two subjects to turn a slave into a master: one to stand up, and the other to witness and acknowledge the standing up. Even if China manages to "fly up" in the twenty-first century, as the nay-sayers predict, the world is unlikely to extend it full recognition until the Chinese citizen is allowed to stand up as well.

When all is said and done, however, the world is a relatively minor witness to China's predicament. An old and familiar vocabulary of national rights, national self-determination and national equality continues to supply a framework for personal reflection by Chinese themselves on individual rights, individual self-determination and equality before the law - all grounded in the pursuit of recognition. People who can say no to foreigners can, of course, eventually learn to say no to anyone they choose. True, when they resort to thymotic resistance to the state or try to appeal to their formal rights before the state, they risk landing themselves in jail. "Sensible", rational people do not expose themselves to such risks. Unless they do, however, they run the greater risk of surrendering their dignity. Many people in China are acutely aware of this dilemma.

Wei Jingsheng has pressed on, regardless of the risks, because he places dignity first. The fight for democracy is not a fight for comfort, or for happiness, or for profit, as Wei understands it, but a struggle to retain one's sense of self-worth. Asked recently how he managed to survive his seventeen years in prison, he answered, "For your own dignity, you have to endure. . . . For people like us, death was not the outcome we feared most. What we feared most of all was the possibility of developing a mental disorder, of losing our dignity - that would have been the worst outcome."

John Fitzgerald is professor of Asian studies at La Trobe University in Melbourne, Australia. His book, Awakening China: Politics, Culture and Class in the Nationalist Revolution (Stanford University Press, 1996) was awarded the 1998 Joseph Levenson Prize by the Association for Asian Studies.

Essay Types: Essay