How should we live before democracy?

20091129-guns-roses-democracy-01(Image: Guns N’ Roses’ “Chinese Democracy” album cover, released in November 2008)

When Chinese people write blog articles, their meaning is often subdued and slightly nuanced, they are less willing be to direct and straightforward. Or, even if it seems that they are being direct, they will have hidden meanings embedded in what they say. While some topics are just sensitive no matter what in China, democracy is one of those that might be sensitive or might not, depending on the context. On one hand, for example, Yu Keping, the deputy director of the Central Translation Bureau, wrote an essay (and then a book) entitled “Democracy is a Good Thing” and this article was widely published and praised among Chinese media and officials. On the other hand, Charter 08, a petition advocating democracy in China caused the government to interrogate and threaten many of the petition’s original writers. Hence, most Chinese thinkers choose the more nuanced, indirect route. The following essay is written by a blogger who often discusses democracy:

How should we live before democracy?
by  Yang Hengjun (杨恒均)

I saw this subject heading in an article in Blog China, although that article did not answer this question, it prompted me to think about the topic. Of course, I know that I too cannot answer this question. I have talked about the question of what we can do to make democracy come earlier (i.e. “Using a Harmonious Mindset to Drive Democracy in China”), however, that sort of “pointing fingers” is entirely different from teaching people how to truly live.

“Living” should be above politics; it should be above “democracy.” Democratic governments have only been around for little more than a hundred years, and before this, humanity was still “living.” Hence, even though democracy can change a part of our lives, make life more worthwhile, we still have to know how to live before democracy arrives – and, for most people, it will be “non-democratic living.”

Blog China has a blogger who criticizes promoting democracy, and says that advocates of universal human values (that is to say, Enlightened individuals) must be responsible to Yang Jia of Shanghai (Explanation: Yang Jia broke into a police station at night and used a knife and killed four police officers when he moved to Shanghai because he felt wrongly accused about something very minor). Their logic is, if you don’t excessively advance individualism and human rights and teach the populace to be hostile to the values of the government, would Yang Jia become that angry and resort to killing?

His example is a bit extreme, but still makes some sense. Indeed, if Yang Jia were merely a docile and submissive citizen, he would not have become so angry; he would not have resorted to killing, and also would not have been killed. Further reasoning: Talking about democracy and universal values makes everyone unsettled and misleads teenagers and adolescents. It makes people feel that they are already so-called citizens, even masters, with no respect to their elders, and demanding to put into place rights of citizens that simply don’t exist, wanting to challenge authority, monitor the government, petition, and expose corruption at every turn – would this society really be more “harmonious”? If we did not mention these topics, we would at least not have so many angry people,and even if people decided we were good-for-nothing, we would still laugh and hold our heads high.

According to this blogger’s logic, we can further infer: In the case of rape, we should not pursue the rapist, rather we should sweetly tell the rape victim that when she encounters another instance of rape, she should straighten her posture and make things more bearable…

To explain my viewpoint, I would like to use the example of curing someone’s sickness and saving their life. If you know that someone is sick, and he doesn’t know, should we tell him?

I feel that there are two situation to consider when deciding whether or not to tell him: The first is that we feel that telling him about the sickness will allow him to heal more quickly because his malady is curable, the earlier surgery is performed the earlier he will get better, if we let things drag on, his life will be in danger. The second situation is that this person has contracted a chronic illness that is incurable, regardless of whether I tell him, he will still die. In the second situation, I, like most doctors, will choose not to tell him,otherwise, we will only cause him to be constantly fearing death in the last moments of his life, which is even more horrifying than death itself.

With regards to China’s futre, democracy, freedom, and the rule of law, the situation is largely the same: When it comes down to it, does China have hope? When it comes down to it, can our society enter into a truly modernized civilization – civil society? Can rule of law, freedom, and democracy come to China? If they cannot, then preaching about democracy, rule of law, and freedom, or, things that will never come, and making them wildly exaggerated and unrealistically appealing, riling up young people and making them feel that they are unable to actually live under the current situation, is this just evil?

Of course, I do not believe that China has no hope. I believe that democracy, freedom, and rule of law will surely come. I believe that most readers will read my blog and feel hopeful and inspired, and live earnestly and optimistically. However, I must admit, there will be a group of young people, who will be “misled,” and when they think that they see things very clearly and with understanding, they will become confused and no longer have joy in their lives.

In the two hours before I began to write this blog article, I opened a private message from Hexun Blog and it said: All of my useless thoughts come from your blog. I used to be a person with simple and joyful thoughts, and now I am filled with resentment and anxiety, and it is all because of you. Is this an excuse that I can use to become your friend?

If this was the only message of this kind that I received, I would not be writing this essay. However, this kind of message from young people, I have not received just one, nor just a hundred, but there are more than a thousand in my e-mail and inbox for this blog. Just yesterday when I opened my e-mail, there were two young people wrote a letter that said basically the same thing, “Teacher Yang, I have been reading your essays, will democracy ever come? I feel that it is impossible for me to continue living here, can you tell me how to leave the country? Can you help me?” And there are even more extreme examples: A young adult had been reading my articles for one or two years, finally becoming weary and not able to take it anymore, saying: You let me think about democracy and freedom everyday, but I must live under in the reality of the G8, if you don’t bring democracy and freedom to China soon, I will be ruined! I have already lost joy in living…

To be honest, if we don’t set right our ideals and thoughts in relation to reality, if we don’t moderately separate politics and life, then we will truly have a substantial obstacle. Perhaps there are people who want to blame me, saying I say one thing and do another, or that I am inconsistent. It’s true, I have not careful in dealing with my young readers, and I do have misgivings. I want to say this to my readers: You can think like a great man, you can write like a great thinker, but you best “live” like an ordinary person.

So how does an ordinary Chinese person live? I will give an example. My readers and I are resolutely opposed to corruption, and I used to call for everyone to be against corruption, but at the same time I deeply felt that if we used modern standards of “corruption,” then, this kind of corruption had already thoroughly penetrated every corner of our government, society, and lives, even into your own skin and mind. Under this circumstance, if I were to really convince my readers to expose the corruption in their workplace, to set an example, and not to be involved in any type of corruption and malpractice, to be honest, from my understanding of China, these readers will come to my door and request that I feed them. This is the reality of China, this is the life of ordinary people.

Of course, I can’t tell young people to choose a certain kind of lifestyle, even more, I can’t tell them not to live a life that they did not choose to live. If you really want to live as a “citizen” in a society that is far from being a civil society, live as the master in another person’s home, I will not oppose you, I will even respect you, applaud you, and be moved by your actions. But do you know how difficult that road is? Do you know what price you will pay?

I know how it is, especially the guilty conscience for loved ones, these are things you will never clear up for your whole life. So, no matter when, when young people ask me how they should live, I will tell them to live as they should, to live life as a Chinese person would. I really don’t want to mislead young people, and let them sacrifice the life they have now for a more glorious life, and let them live an extreme life that is alien to society. Although, I know that it is our society that is extreme, and not them.

Today’s topic is a bit heavy, I don’t really want to continue, so let’s talk about something more light-hearted.

Before democracy comes, I know how to live, besides working for my three meals a day, I will seek democracy for China in my free time, and I will not rely on others, only have expectations for myself, and as much as possible, allow my “writing to mirror the writer.”

I really enjoy my life now, but I am a bit worried – after democracy comes, how will I live? At that time, what can I write? What can a promoter of democracy still promote?

I have been thinking, if I have money, I will open a small shop, maybe a bookstore; if I don’t have money, I will go to the roadside and open a little stand – I hope that when that day comes, I will still be young enough to have the strength to set up the stand. I also hope that when that day comes, if you pass me on the road, you will stop for a moment and reminisce with me back to the time when I blogged…

  1. Ok, so this guy is making the apology of burying one’s head in the sand, basically. Well, nothing new here, this is story of this country… that blog sure was a waste of time. Clearly only black & white with no shades whatsoever.

  2. Can you offer any examples or citations to support your claims? What part of his writing do you consider black white with no shades? What part is the apology? Apology for what?

    I think he does a good job of explaining the complications behind ‘democracy.’ Do you even know what democracy is? and no, america is not a true democracy. It is a democratic repulic. A perversion at that but that is another topic.

    The purest form of democracy is ‘mob rule’. We all vote for what we want, and the majority wins. Thats the purest form. So lets us chinese people all vote to ethnically clense anyone who has no han blood. Is this the kind of policies that you want for the world?

    I agree with the authors idea that democracy must be carefully implemented. It is a new form of governance, and is by no way perfect, or I argue even that much better than communism. In the US, it is the corporate elites that rule the nation. The people can choose between donkeys and elephants, MAC or PC, two wings of the same bird. In china, that bird is the communist party, but its still a bird. The american example is some ways is even more insidious that the Chinese example. At least in China, the people know the govt is corrupt to the bone, and everything is propaganda and lies. They only do a slightly better job than north korea at keeping it tight. The chinese people are not in anyway deluded into thinking that their government serves the people. However in the US, many people still arent aware that their government was hijacked long ago. They are deluded into thinking that their govt is the greatest and most free in the world. This is despite the fact that someone can arbitrarily call you a terrorist for wearing a hijab and throw you in gitmo without a trial in the name of nation security. How about the fact that there is executive power to shut down the internet in case of a ‘national emergency.’ Free my butt.

    Freedom is dangerous. It can be good as easily as it can be bad. It takes highly educated individuals who closely follow the policies of their government, and are willing to take to the streets in protest in the face of guns and tear gas if their government attempts any funny business. It takes informed individuals to make good decisions, despite the constant flow of crap comming out of mainstream media. NO country on this earth has an educated majority that can behave in this manner. If they did, they would be labeled as ‘threats to national security’ or ‘terrorists.’ Cointel ops would be utilized to infiltrate these organized bodies to infect and dismantle them from within. Its much cleaner that way.

    BV, maybe one day people will be educated and motivated enough to be able to handle a democracy effectively for an extended period of time. But until then, I hope you don’t have any kids.

    1. “We all vote for what we want, and the majority wins…So lets us chinese people all vote to ethnically clense anyone who has no han blood. Is this the kind of policies that you want for the world?”

      Are you suggesting that if the Chinese were allowed to do what they wanted, they would kill all non-Han people?

      That’s a bit scary.

      1. Well yesterday the Swiss voted in a referendum to ban the building of new minarets for mosks, basicly the majority voted to take away the right of some people to use their property how they like. I think there are cases posible where the majority would vote to kill a minority.

        I live in the “democracy” the Netherlands, I don’t have anything to complain about on the material side of life, but I do wory about the growth of our “public sector”. My government already taxes between 50 – 60 % of our income away to fund hundreds of pet projects favoring small groups in our society (most outrages example the banksters) at the expense of the masses. Very slowly but surely this democracy is growing to tiranic proportions, sucking the society’s wealth away like a parasite, regulating everything they can think of, completly ignoring the unseen effects of they’re policy’s.

        I don’t see a way for democracy to change it, you need start with a informed public for that.

        1. Nowhere in the world can you do whatever you damn well please so don’t try to portray the muslim community of Switzerland as a victim. The islamization of Europe is a real phenomenon and the swiss should be commended for their bravery in acting against it – just look at the UK and the awful state it’s in right now; they should just rename the capital to Londonistan. The muslims weren’t banned from building mosques or practicing their religion, they just banned the construction of any new minarets which can very well be used as political symbols.

          I do agree with you on the fact that the west will crash in the near future, the EU and the recent actions taken by it are living proof of that. And unfortunately an informed public will never exist – for obvious reasons.

          1. Religion should be regarded as a form of cultural expression and therefore as a human right. Any freedom has its limits, yet prohibiting the building of minarets all together because they could be mistaken for a ‘political symbol’ by those who are ignorant, biased or clearly misinformed is just plain ridiculous. Measures as such are only supported by the scared and narrow-minded; usually istigated by popolism and extremely conservative right wing parties with hidden agenda’s, based on the exploitation of fear. A mosk, a churge, a synagogue: just buildings, made by men. If you don’t like it, don’t enter. Just walk on by.

            1. Yes, you are obviously right. And the evidence for that can, of course, be gathered from all the libertarian arab states which prize freedom of expression and religious tolerance so much. Fools are the swiss for rejecting such a symbol of cultural advancement from a people far more evolved spiritually, intellectually and physically than them. Never in a million years have such symbols been used for the purpose of advancing a specific agenda of certain groups. Never!
              Hey, you know what, I say let The Führerbunker get decorated with swastika flags by all those skinheads; only ignorant, biased and CLEARLY misinformed people would mistake it for a political symbol. It’s obviously just a cultural place for young, aggressive and frustrated boys with a bit of an antisemitism problem! Just buildings, just objects, if you don’t like it just walk on by.
              Let’s not stop at inanimate things, oh no, let’s allow debauchery on the streets for they are just giving in to their primordial needs… don’t like it? walk on by, you prude, you are obviously from the XVIII-th century if you can’t stand it.
              Hell yeah, freedom baby, FREEDOM!

  3. In the future, I hope to visit China one day. I will look for a small shop, maybe a bookstore. And I will stop for a moment to have a chat with its owner, and reminisce back to the time when we blogged in the days before democracy…

  4. Well, while i agree with the final conclusions of Jay, i think that depicting US democracy as completely flawed means you’re doing the same error as those who think that any form of communism is completely wrong. There’s big cultural difference between chinese and americans, and i have the feeling that being democratic because you believe in certain values, makes quite a big difference from being communist because you have to or because you got accustomed to it. Of course corruption and corporative greed are part of human history but it doesn’t have much to share with wich way the government are formally structured. We could find these two issues even in medieval times, when every nation was far from even figuring out any democratic principles. So you have to deal with that, as you have to deal with violence: it’s just part of human nature. Democracy it’s a way of thinking and i believe is far from being the final answer, but still it’s a step forward.
    I would approach this thing from another side: i agree that democracy in the US has failed but i would add:has it failed just because like any other democratic government on earth it turned into a “corporative” democracy? is it a new story that power and money corrupt those who crave them? bear it in mind. None ever change this.

    So this isn’t about bringing to China the paradise on earth or the promised land. Is just about giving to people different (wich doesn’t necessarily means better) choices or expectations. Wich it’s always better than don’t have any choice at all.
    It doesn’t really matter if your government, wich ultimately just means someone else, will betray your ideals. Because what you believe is so much more important than what you have, because what you believe make people change their habits and way of thinking.
    What you believe makes you evolve. What you have, makes you just…progress. And there’s a huge too often understimated difference between progressing and evolving.

    Yes, as said in the original post people was living anyway even before democracy. So where’s the big deal? This is kind of nonsensical..i don’t think this justify anything at all. It’s like saying that since you ignore something, then you’re fine with anything. Sorry, i don’t buy it. I never did, i’ll never do.
    If you don’t know something, to me, simply means that you’re never experienced it. It’s something less not something more. And even in the best of cirmumstances this can only make you ignorant, not happy or fulfilled by any means.

    1. Ashitaka, I think in the background of the article, there is a big HOPE hanging there. The theme of the article, to me, is how we live before the hoped thing comes true. And the reply by jay, I think, is not to tell (Chinese) people to be content with the reality (“because corruption is everywhere, even in U.S.” sort of thing), but the contrary: to be aware of what the reality is, to have a sense of ‘long-termness’, live a calm but hope-filled life, and to change the political world (regime) bit by bit. On my reading, even a revolution needs such a kind of firm and steady mind. Otherwise, it would either be the overzelous French 1789 or the premature and ultimately failed 1989 Tian’an Men.

      1. Wa!
        I didn’t expect that such a good point as DM made on HOPE finally shows up ! Just to add one thing that “People get the government that they deserve” ,which also implies that it is very hard to truly understand a different regime.
        By the way, is it truth that “At least in China, the people know the govt is corrupt to the bone, and everything is propaganda and lies.”? My personal experience does not support such claim, and I also doubt whether is there anyone know how much corrupted the govt is, no matter it’s Mr. Hu or JAY.

  5. “Evolution itself is the product of two opposing forces: processes that constantly introduce variation, and processes that make variants either become more common or rare.”

  6. The author asks what will he do if China actually achieves democracy. My answer: promote GOOD democracy. Promote a culture of reasoned deliberation and compassion rather than a culture of name-calling, partisanship, nationalism, selfishness and rush to judgment, all of which can still exist in a “democracy.”

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