The unbearable lightness of cowardice

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Image © Kong Chi LoHong Kong journalism


Marshall Sahlins, a well-known American anthropologist from the University of Chicago, is one of the few scholars who has taken the burden of defending academic freedom in the field on Chinese Studies. Although not a sinologist himself, “it becomes necessary for people like me,” he writes in his pamphlet Confucius Institutes. Academic Malware, “to take up these essentially domestic, US issues of academic integrity” because “there is the reticence of China scholars with ongoing research interests in China to become engaged in criticism of the CI project.” CI is the acronym for Confucius Institutes, an educational organization highly dependent on the government of the People’s Republic of China that uses their language schools and cultural events to promote the agenda of the Chinese Communist Party in political, cultural, and economic issues.

In July 2014 the Director of the Confucius Institutes worldwide, Xu Lin, successfully managed to confiscate the conference program of the 2014 conference of the European Association of Chinese Studies (EACS) in Portugal and to remove a number of pages where references to institutions from Taiwan, an independent country over which China claims sovereignty, were mentioned (since private institutions in Taiwan are not under the supervision of China, their mention was considered a recognition of Taiwan’s independence). At the time, all scholars attending the conference found the incident outrageous and the director of the Taiwan National Central Library was allowed to openly speak against Xu Lin’s actions during the opening ceremony.

But this is not always the case. Recently, a column published in the latest newsletter of the Association of Asian Studies (AAS), signed by its president Timothy Brooks, has addressed the issue of the detention of human rights lawyers in China. As he notes, in 2015 more than 230 lawyers and some of their relatives, including children, haven been rounded up on criminal charges –the most recent case being Pu Zhiqiang, who was put on trial on December 2015. Brooks questions the necessity –or even appropriateness– of AAS to be involved in these issues:

Calling on a government to release imprisoned lawyers, if interpreted as a political gesture, could jeopardize our charitable status, since the tax benefit we enjoy as a charitable association is tied to supporting our members’ professional interests, not their political commitments. Were university professors of Asian studies being targeted rather than lawyers, on the other hand, I would find it easy to argue that infringing on the scholarly autonomy of colleagues within our profession would be our legitimate concern.

Although Brooks does not explicitly speak of self-censorship, one of the main characteristics of associations such as AAS –or EACS– is to provide scholars with the basic tools they may need for their research –no matter the topic. This may include publications, conferences or workshops. What if someone’s main research topic is human rights in modern China? Should he refrain from addressing certain topics, such as the imprisonment of human rights lawyers, because of the harm the institution they belong to may suffer? How about a scholar specialized in Tibetan Studies, or in Xinjiang, the Muslim majority province in north-western China? Should he avoid talking about specific topics such as Tibet or Uighur independence, or about the Dalai Lama, because it may not satisfy a foreign government or even scholars affiliated with the same association who have different ideological points of view? And why are these points of view –to not talk about Tibet, Taiwan, Tian’anmen, human rights, and so on– superior to their opposite points of view? And what are the limits of this self-imposed censorship? I would say these are the legitimate concerns for us, sinologists.

For instance, Confucius Institutes are imposing Simplified Chinese, the modern script used in China, in their Chinese Language courses. This may seem inoffensive, but educated scholars who can only read Simplified Chinese would have trouble trying to read documents published before the foundation of the People’s Republic of China, or books published in Taiwan or Hong Kong –some of them forbidden in China. By doing this, the Chinese government is making sure that future generations of scholars can only read Chinese history and Chinese classics through the censored and manipulated editions published in the People’s Republic of China –just like Chinese students are doing today. To give an example, consider the following twisted version of the Opium Wars (1839-1860), an event that has no relation whatsoever with the current Chinese government (1949-) or the Communist Party (1921-), as published in a 2007 history textbook used in Beijing University:

is the history of the courageous struggle by the good-hearted masses for national survival and to accomplish the great revival of the Chinese race. It is the history of every nationality in the country, under the leadership of the Chinese Communist Party, undertaking a great and painful struggle to win national independence and liberation through the 1949 Revolution […] To gain deep insight into how History and the People came to choose Marxism, came to choose the Chinese Communist Party and came to choose socialism.

Again, should a China-based historian ignore the fact that the Chinese Communist Party was founded in 1921, sixty years after the Opium Wars, just to comply with the ideological points of view of some scholars, institutions, or governments who ignore the facts and promote historical lies? And even if we wash off our hands and claim the right to lie, as libertarian Murray Rothbard does in his The Ethics of Liberty, shouldn’t we also advocate the right to answer lies with truth, or even to speak out “our own lies”?

This past Christmas Ursula Gauthier, a French journalist, was expelled from China because of her coverage of Uighur violence in Xinjiang. She was accused of supporting terrorism because she defied and questioned the orthodox view of the CCP –that there is a relation between global Islamist violence and unrest in Xinjiang. At the same time, the Chinese authorities are becoming worried about Western values and ideas damaging the “integrity” of China’s school system. As the Wall Street Journal puts it, “In Beijing, the government has stopped approving international programs, according to state media reports. In Shanghai, the government ordered some such programs to slash their fees to the level of ordinary schools as part of a process of standardization, making it harder for them to operate.” Most Chinese students will not leave their hard-learned Party ideology when abroad, but some of them actually do –usually the less educated who do not see any of the Chinese dreams enjoyed by their middle-class fellow citizens–. Are these issues unimportant for sinologists who specialize themselves in Chinese journalism, Chinese politics, or Chinese education?

Last month four employees from a bookshop located in Causeway Bay, Hong Kong, went missing. This is a bookshop specializing in titles that have been banned in China for their political or historical content, which is at odds with the interests of the Chinese Communist Party. On January 2 different media, such as BBC or The Guardian, reported that a fifth man from the same company, Lee Bo, 65, has also gone missing. He is not the first. Yiu Man-tin, 73, a Hong Kong publisher who was about to release a book on Xi Jinping, was detained in January 2014 and sentenced to 10 years in jail by a Chinese court. Are these issues unimportant for sinologists who specialize themselves in Chinese publishing issues, Hong Kong, or in any of the topics covered by these “forbidden volumes”?pepper151228-thumb-720xauto

The fact that Hong Kong citizens are being held hostage by the Chinese government or going missing because of their political views or the publication of censored material in Hong Kong is a matter of concern for all of us. Under the Sino-British Joint Declaration, the Chinese government is not allowed to interfere in such matters, and it is the duty of the British government –since it is a JOINT declaration between the two countries– to make sure that the obligations of this “contract” are fulfilled (and, likewise, it would be the duty of the Chinese government to make sure that Britain does not violate the Joint Declaration). If Britain is not willing to protect Hongkongers, as it should do under the Joint Declaration, it may also be just one step away from doing the same to any other citizen from any other country. Under such circumstances, one is left to wonder if international law should not declare the Joint Declaration null and void due to the failure of both parties to fulfill it, making Hong Kong a self-sovereign territory –or a “terra nullius” whose destiny is to be decided by the very hands who worked it. Are these issues unimportant for sinologists who specialize themselves in Chinese history, Chinese law, or Hong Kong-related issues?

Czech-born writer Milan Kundera published in 1984 –a rather meaningful year– his philosophical novel The Unbearable Lightness of Being. Kundera employs one of the most powerful philosophical ideas of our time, Friedrich Nietzsche’s “eternal recurrence,” to present an alternative concept: what if every person has merely one single life to live and that everything which occurs in life occurs only once and never again? Nietzsche’s opposite idea imposes a “heaviness,” because if everything which occurs in life would repeat itself again infinitely in the same way, we ought to live our lives in the most meaningful way possible, so we will not regret any single moment of our existence and would be willing to repeat every moment again. This is a huge burden many people are happy to ignore –and to embrace the “lightness” of having just one single and meaningless life.

All those aforementioned topics are also legitimate concerns for some sinologists. Some may not feel the burden, but some of us do. Some scholars may not study any of the aforementioned topics, but some of us do. And we have the same right to speak out about these issues, and to make use of the same benefits of the international scholar community, as those who are not engaged in such discussions have to be quiet about them. We live in a globalized world, and we enjoy the benefits of an international community. Freedom of speech, among other property-related rights, is one of these benefits, and as long as China has a place in the international community, or in the international scholar community, it should comply with these international interests, not the other way around. Otherwise, we should show them the way out –and be sure about it: they will not dare to take the door.

Unfortunately, we live in a world bereft of a spine which is willing to bear the lightness of cowardice rather than the heaviness of courage and boldness.


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