China: after the quake, the debate

Published on openDemocracy, by Li Datong, June 19, 2008.

… China’s two faces:

This short episode is highly symbolic. It is widely acknowledged that since establishing its government in 1949, the efforts of the Chinese Communist Party to instill its morals in the people have been unceasing. The classic method of propagating moral values has been the creation of “heroes”, of whom Lei Feng is the most well-known. These heroes all share similar characteristics: they do as the party says, they are selfless, they “serve the people with all their hearts”, and in times of crisis they bravely sacrifice their lives for the good of the people. Even during the cultural revolution, when traditional values were completely overturned, these “heroes” were never criticised. But in real life, the vast majority of people cannot live up to such ideals.

This reality, in combination with forceful moral education, has led to Chinese people becoming two-faced. In public people mimic the official line and are full of fine words. Only in private, among friends and family, can people stop pretending to be so noble and just be themselves. This split personality remains one of the defining national characteristics of the Chinese. In some ways this shows their great survival skills …

… He appeared as a guest on the Hong Kong television station Phoenix, where he came face-to-face with his critics. This programme aroused huge public interest and recordings appeared all over the internet.

People watched as Fan was viciously berated by a man named Guo Songmin. Guo seemed to believe that he had to speak for the whole of China in attacking Fan. With no respect for common decency, Guo called Fan “shameless, an animal, and a mongrel.” In response to this, Fan maintained his composure and calmly explained his actions. The moral pressure was ratcheted up when the headmaster of Fan’s school joined the debate by telephone. Guo Songmin demanded that the headmaster give his views on Fan, and advised that this man who was “not fit to teach” should be fired on the spot.

The headmaster responded extremely rationally, arguing that Fan’s actions were understandable and the result of “an instinctive reaction in the heat of the moment”, although he conceded that some of Fan’s later comments had been inappropriate. The headmaster said reactions from the school’s students had given him no reason to fire Fan. He added that the real focus should be on the quality of schools’ construction, and on holding emergency-drills to ensure that that teachers and students would not panic when disaster struck.

The headmaster’s rational approach was impressive … (full text).

(This article was translated from Chinese by Chris Allen).

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