Thursday, January 28, 2010

Past and Present Significance of the Cultural Revolution

by Michael Geracie  

[Introduction: I am very impressed and touched by this essay, written by a college senior in Physics. Not only is it well-written, but it demonstrates the discerning eyes of a thoughtful reader.  It gives me hope for the young generation. In addition to Michael's carefully laid-out analysis of the stories and characters, which is very interesting, please pay special attention to his conclusion, which catches the nuance of one of the book's main themes. Posted with permission. -- Xujun]

In Apologies Forthcoming, Xujun Eberlein presents a number of perspectives on the Cultural Revolution. In “Disciple of the Masses,” the reader observes the changing personal meaning of the Cultural Revolution in Shanzi as she realizes a more sophisticated view of her place in China’s political and economic framework. Belatedly, “She saw a reality that would never be taught in school. Sorrow overtook her, and she whispered to no one, ‘I’m sorry…’”. In “Disciple,” this new insight is lost forever, but in “Second Encounter,” the reader is shown how this realization of shame creates both tentative hope and enduring difficulties for all who live with its memory. The author explores the Cultural Revolution’s significance not only across social and gender boundaries, but also across time, illustrating a dynamic picture of meaning that helps the reader understand the Cultural Revolution both as an immediate experience, and as a shared historical tragedy with current and future implications.
In the closing of the book, Wei Dong notes “only those who survive the waste can understand”, and indeed, in “Disciple of the Masses,” Eberlein presents a detailed and messy picture of understanding in transformation, catalyzed by an environment of unremitting tragedy. In the course of the chapter, Shanzi’s confident commitment to revolution develops into a more sophisticated appreciation of the social, political, and economic conflicts within China. However, her story is also characterized by a singular resistance to this change, as Shanzi becomes an unwitting perpetrator of tragedy before recognizing it in the lives of those around her.
Interestingly, Shanzi is portrayed as a highly observant individual. She repeatedly notes the telling details of life in Lily Village, the evidence of suffering. However, her capacity for observation is neutralized by her inability or unwillingness to analyze her environment. When Shanzi first encounters Secretary Xia, she can immediately tell he “had never worked in the fields”. Yet, late into the chapter, she’s still hesitant to view his treatment of the villagers as unfair. Even after nearly a year of observation, “she needed more time to think” before accepting the existence of the social conflict she’s beginning to see.
This superficial nature is immediately apparent in the reader’s introduction to Shanzi. When Mr. Tan asks her why she is being sent to the countryside, he effectively probes her understanding of her role in current events. Again, Shanzi’s interpretation is shallow; she doesn’t even understand the point of asking, as the movement is “mandatory”. While certainly aware of her situation, she does not question or analyze, simply accepting what she’s told to do. Once in Lily Village, her initial ignorance, though understandable, is highly reluctant to give way. Eberlein’s division of the chapter into “seasons” reminds the reader of the sheer amount of time passed, and Shanzi’s delay comes across as even more striking. As soon as the “Summer” marker passes, the reader is aware Shanzi has spent at least two full seasons immersed in peasant life, yet is asking for expensive delicacies and wildly inappropriate questions such as, “do you always have watery gruel?” When Zhou Sixth mentions “public rice eaters” affinity for lotus root, Shanzi’s response “I like them too” shows she does not yet view herself as part of the crisis of want surrounding her.

"Youth" (oil paining by my friend He Duoling)

Shanzi’s eventual realization of the social and economic conflicts surrounding her is thus accompanied by the shock that she’s been a part of them all along. When “the caveman” begins to breach Shanzi’s carefully constructed worldview, she initially refers to an enemy “they,” responsible for China’s deterioration. The correction to “us” profoundly disturbs Shanzi. For her, as with many of the characters in Apologies Forthcoming, the lessons of the Cultural Revolution do not only change their view of the times, or of China, but bear deep personal significance and abiding pain. In the end, “I’m sorry” apologizes not only for informing Secretary Xia of Lily Village’s grain production, but for being part of oppression she didn’t understand.
In “Disciple of the Masses,” Shanzi’s experience is a tragic example of not only loss of potential, symbolized by the unsolved Goldbach’s Conjecture, but loss of memory and learning. However, Wei Dong carries a similar realization to the present, giving him the opportunity to consider the meaning of the Cultural Revolution to both himself and future generations with no direct memory of it. In particular, Wei Dong’s experience in “Second Encounter” shows the enduring difficulties of those that survived the Cultural Revolution. Even before Wei Dong encounters Zhang, he expresses fear of a “mainlander who would not hesitate to lay ambush for a fellow Chinese”. Though Wei Dong seems a model of forgiveness and change, his memory of the Cultural Revolution haunts him with anxiety and mistrust.
In light of Wei Dong’s concerns over future generations repeating the catastrophe of the Cultural Revolution, his difficulty in discussing the past is quite threatening. In his final ruminations, Wei Dong mentions how passing through the Cultural Revolution may have been necessary to understand his own ignorance. However, shortly thereafter, he decides to stop thinking about it. Though he recognizes the necessity of remembering his shame, he is nonetheless quite resistant to actually doing so. This is more powerfully demonstrated throughout his discussions with Zhang. Despite Zhang’s openness, Wei Dong is reluctant to share any information, or even partake in the meal. When Zhang asks Wei Dong for his motivation in freeing him, Wei Dong deflects the question.
Thus, though Apologies Forthcoming shows hope for the future, that hope is portrayed dubiously, as the understanding requisite for future progress is necessarily accompanied by shame. While the shame itself may be a positive influence, the magnitude of the crimes of the Cultural Revolution enhances it to such an extent so as to choke Wei Dong’s attempts to discuss it. When current events remind Wei Dong of his own crimes, “his hands sweat cold”. As distant as the Cultural Revolution may be in place and time, its memory still bears acute significance, enough so to elicit a physical reaction.
At the same time, Wei Dong possesses a remarkable ability to examine his experience. When Zhang recounts the armed fight ‘8.31’, Wei Dong is clearly tense, checking nearby tables, goosebumps rising from the details. Though his emotions are heightened, his thoughts and questions show him approaching the situation with outward detachment. He patiently waits out Zhang’s dramatic presentation of events, carefully confirming the details. Repeatedly, Wei Dong nonverbally verifies Zhang’s account: his superstition, his numerical accuracy. In a number of instances, Wei Dong assesses the motivations of himself and his team. He also attempts to reevaluate the story’s personal significance, asking Zhang if his team killed others after he was freed. Eberlein takes care to note that through all this, Wei Dong holds his cup steadily.
Both “Second Encounter” and “Disciple of the Masses” are stories about realizing the painful realities of the Cultural Revolution. The opening quote connects the stories in this way. Between the two, Eberlein presents the Cultural Revolution as a continuing learning process, viewed from two different times. One story is looking back on the Cultural Revolution while the other lives in it, but both reflect on it. For Shanzi, her newfound awareness is a personal shock,not only upending her scholastic paradigm but elucidating her involvement in the structure of social and economic oppression surrounding her. Even as the surrounding catastrophe enables this realization, it consumes her. However, Wei Dong’s story explores the unique opportunity survivors of the Cultural Revolution have to put these lessons to use. His recognition of his own learning and of the necessity of its continuance show how the Cultural Revolution will and should remain a part of the public consciousness. However, the difficulty with which he endures it exposes lasting challenges to present and future generations. By considering the Cultural Revolution from both perspectives, Eberlein shows its lasting significance and more completely probes its complex meaning to a variety of audiences.

Friday, January 22, 2010

The Oct. 15 "Counter-Revolution" Incident in Chongqing

This is rather bizarre news to me: on October 15, 2009, a "national conference" was held in Wansheng, Chongqing, by the "Chinese Communist Party (Maoist)," or "中国共产党(毛泽东主义)"(简称"毛共"). All (34) attendees were arrested by police. 

I read this in the latest issue of Remembrance, or <记忆>, a Chinese newsletter dedicated to Cultural Revolution (CR) research in China. The above news appeared in a brief report titled "Ten Things in 2009 Related to the CR," because "many of the participants in 'CCP (Maoist)' were Rebellion members during the CR." The CCP (Maoist) "only recognizes CCP's 9th and 10th Congresses that were held during the CR; they were arranging the so-called '11th CCP Congress'."

For the record, the actual CCP's latest Congress was the 17th, held in October 2007.

I searched the Chinese internet for media coverage, but found only the following two blog posts:

1. "Ten things in 2009 related to CR"  (2009年与文革有关的十件事)
2. "Chongqing's Oct. 15 counter-revolution incident" (重庆1015反革命事件)

The first one is the same report I saw in Remembrance, but the blogger's name, Bai Lei, is different from the byline ("Bian Du") printed in the newsletter. It could be a pen name, I guess.

The second post appeared on a leftist website, which gives some details of the incident: the participants were "old comrades" and the leader's name was Ma Houzhi; more than 150 armed police suddenly attacked and shots were fired; 24 of the arrested participants were detained for 10 days, and the remaining ten were still in jail waiting to be sentenced. But you have to muddle through its overwhelming CR language to get the details. It's not a pleasant read, I tell you.

Note the term "counter-revolution incident" in the post's title: it does not refer to the conference; it refers to the police raid of the conference. The words sent a shiver through me, as if the Cultural Revolution was coming back all over again.

Who are those people? What are they up to?

When I asked, a Chongqing friend who knew about this told me that the "CCP (Maoist)" has developed two "party groups" (党小组) in Chongqing. All are old factory workers in their 60s- 70s, who had played small roles as Rebellion members during the CR. "You know how muddled those people's minds are?" My friend wrote, "They couldn't even say who 'Teacher Ma' was after being inducted by him into his party, and they just followed him to 'do revolution'! Truly laughable, yet sigh-worthy. On the other hand, it goes to show that Mao's way still has its places at the lower level of society."

Having spent my childhood and part of my youth during the CR, my first reaction to the news was that those people were insane. What for? But I really shouldn't be so surprised. A few years ago when I interviewed ex-Red Guard leaders, one of them, now in his 60s, told me that if he could make enough money he'd build a dissident party truly Marxist-Leninist. The unsaid words: the CCP today aren't really that. I couldn't tell if he was serious or it was just words to impress his audience (me). I'd thought it might be a reflection of nostalgia for his Red Guard youth, a sentiment many other ex-Red Guards displayed during my interviews. Now apparently someone else – some Teacher Ma – was carrying out the idea he was unable to.

Huaxi Village

It was during those interviews in 2006 that I heard, for the first time, of a place called Huaxi Village. The ex-Red Guard who wanted to build a dissident party told me Huaxi Village is an example of true Communism and people there are having a great life. "You must go see it to know what I'm saying," he urged. He got me really curious, and I thought about making the trip. It turned out my younger sister, Maple, an avid traveler, had already visited Huaxi Village at the time. If your purpose is to talk to the villagers, Maple told me, then forget about it. They are not allowed to talk to any outsiders. (That did sound like "true Communism" to me.) Though it was a bit far, I didn't completely give up on the idea of visiting until one day I saw a big photo of the Huaxi Village, in which every house, relatively upscale as they all are, looks exactly the same.

In any case, as a writer I'm still interested in exploring the mentality and motivation of those "CCP (Maoist)" members. Meanwhile, another curious question comes to mind: don't those leftist people have the same human rights as the democratic dissidents do? If so, why haven't I seen any protests against their arrests from human rights groups?

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Saturday, January 16, 2010

Communist Spies at Google China?

Have fun and read this amusing version of the Google predicament story.  Clicking on the Chinese link results in a message "only the author can read this post." Predictably though, a Google search with the Chinese title "google事件真相(ZT)" finds copies on the internet. This time, the copies I saw were on a few Taiwan-based sites.

Did a CCP mole among's Chinese employees caused the whole crisis? It sounds plausible. I was almost convinced when I read the English translation last night. However reading the Chinese version today I saw the term "tg" (="土共") in it, and that tells me the post was written by a Taiwanese. A mainland Chinese almost certainly would not use such a term, no matter how strongly he opposes the CCP. This probably also explains why copies of the post have appeared on Taiwan-based websites so far.

In any case, the author could be a good fiction writer. It is an intriging story. To have the original post disappear is also a good way to whet the readers' appitite.

Tuesday, January 12, 2010

The People vs. Li Zhuang (2009)

The most unusual thing about the Li Zhuang case might be the sharp disparity between local people's reaction and that of the elites around the world.  By now major English media outlets have all reported on Li's sentence of 2.5 years, and almost without exception, questioned the justice of it.

But not the public of Chongqing. Yesterday I got an email from my older sister, a retired clerk living in Chongqing with a teenage son. She wrote, "Lawyer Li Zhuang practices law and breaks the law intentionally, his sentence is too light!" Coincidentally, just that morning I had spoken to a Chongqing friend on the phone. The friend, a senior physician, said that no one he knew had any sympathy whatsoever for Li Zhuang.  "So how do people feel about the crackdown on gangsters?" "All support it of course," he said. He went on to say public security and social order have improved since the crackdown began. As an example, he mentioned a friend's private clinic that he helped to set up. Before the crackdown, the clinic was extorted by gangsters for "protection fees," but those gangsters have disappeared now. He expressed surprise when I mentioned broad sympathy for Li Zhuang outside of Chongqing. "People here don't have good impressions of lawyers in general," he said. "Lawyers care only about money. Who pays more, is who they help."

Personally, I didn't think Li Zhuang's trial and sentence made a lot of sense. The arrest was too hurried and the evidence was weak. It does not bode well for Bo Xilai's image. Realistically, given the lack of judicial independence in China, I did not expect a fair trial. A judge "within the system," no matter how good he is, can't turn the system around overnight. But limiting the harm to society is still possible. Before Li's sentencing on Jan. 8th, I'd thought there might be a practical way out for the local court, that is, it could deliver a guilty verdict without jail time. I was disappointed, and I thought the judge missed the chance to become a "hero" of some sort.

Now in light of the local people's reaction opposite to what we read in media outside of Chongqing, I realized that the judge might not have merely chosen to be the government's gun. He might have felt that he was indeed doing the right thing for his people.

All this tells me that there is still a long, long way to go for China to become a truly "law-governed society," using the ironical title of the section in China Youth Daily where the first (and biased) report on the Li Zhuang case appeared.

Tuesday, January 5, 2010

Lawyer's Trial in Chongqing Rivets Public and Tests Chinese Courts

New America Media, news analysis, Xujun Eberlein, Published: Jan. 5, 2010

China's eventful 2009 ended with another controversial episode: a record-length trial in the widely observed case of Li Zhuang, a prominent criminal defense lawyer from Beijing. Li is accused of  fabricating evidence for his gangster client. The trial opened at 9:10 a.m. on December 30 at a local court in the city of Chongqing, with a heated argument between prosecutors and the defense team that lasted for 16 hours. The session adjourned at 1:03a.m. on Dec. 31. No verdict has yet been delivered, and a tense debate between news media, legal circles, and Internet commentators continues.

The Li case might seem minor, but taking place during Chongqing's powerful campaign to crackdown on organized crime, it could set an important precedent. While the prosecution has been criticized by legal experts, there is great local, popular support for a guilty verdict, and the trial’s outcome could affect progress in China toward judicial independence.

The case developed surprisingly fast. On November 22, Li was hired by the wife of alleged organized crime leader, Gong Gangmo, who faced accusations of murder, illegal weapons trade, drug dealing, and running a criminal organization. Li flew from Beijing to Chongqing and met his client three times on Nov. 24, 26, and Dec. 4. According to Li, each time he had arguments with the police who insisted on being present during the interviews.

Eighteen days after Li took on his client, on Dec. 10, Gong reported to the police that his lawyer was trying to fake evidence that he had been tortured. (Gong's action was later commented upon by legal experts as being "extremely unusual." Gong claimed that he did it in order to gain sufficient credit to avoid the death penalty.) Two days later, on Dec. 12, Chongqing police flew to Beijing and arrested Li, where he was visiting Gong’s wife in the hospital. According to reports, he was informing Gong’s wife that he was dropping the case. The next day, Li's arrest was formally approved by Chongqing's Procuratorate.

On Dec. 14, a major national newspaper, China Youth Daily, published the first news report on Li's arrest, written by the chief editor of the paper's "law-governed society" section. The article detailed Gong Gangmo's motivation for reporting on his own lawyer, and how Li obtained high legal fees from Gong – 1.5 million yuan (U.S. $220,000). The report portrayed Li as a greedy and malevolent lawyer. It stated that, on an investigation initiated by the "Chongqing crackdown leadership group," his crime of fabricating evidence and blocking justice had been clearly established by the collaborative work of the police, procuratorate, court, and Judicial Bureau.

The report caused such strong controversial reactions from supporters and contenders alike that the editor was stunned. She was quoted as saying it was, by far, the strongest response "in the 15 years of my journalist career."

Support for the partial report – and Li's arrest – came mainly from Chongqing netizens. To date, the crackdown on gangsters and government corruption has gained the city government and its leader, Bo Xilai, strong popular approval. The overwhelming majority of internet comments from Chongqing expressed anger at Li for "rescuing" a heinous criminal and making big money so doing. They believed that Li acted to impede justice and that he should be punished for it.

On the other hand, the chief voices in Beijing's legal circles, including many law offices and universities' law schools, strongly questioned the legitimacy of the reported evidence and article 306 of criminal law, which provided the basis for Li's arrest. They viewed his conversations with his client as nothing beyond a defense lawyer's standard practice and duty. They criticized the China Youth Daily article for partiality and fanning public sentiment against a man who has not been proved guilty.

In media circles, Chongqing's newspapers and web portals uniformly condemned Li, with most of their arguments based on the justice of the crackdown on gangsters. In contrast, more independent newspapers, such as those of the Nangfang Daily network and The Beijing News, tended to be more neutral,  and occasionally displayed sympathy for Li. After Li’s trial, the aforementioned reporter of China Youth Daily published another story. Perhaps having learned a lesson from readers' criticism, this time the article exercised caution in using derogatory language. However its biases against Li were not completely hidden.

Also worth noting is that several well-known Chinese dissidents used their Twitter posts to publicly support Li Zhuang, and criticize the Chongqing government.

All this made Li Zhuang's trial on Dec. 30 widely watched. Still, no clear conclusion could be drawn from it. From an neutral point of view, the prosecutors' case seems to be weakened by the fact that no single witness was present at the trial, and written statements against Li came from suspected criminals under detention.

The question remains whether the Chongqing court is capable of an independent trial uninfluenced by either the government or the public. During the trial, Li said an interrogator told him that his arrest was a joint decision by "three big heads," --the heads of Chongqing's Court, Procuratorate, and Police Bureau. If this is true, given the lack of judicial independence in China, one certainly has reasons to doubt whether a fair trial for such a case is possible. This said, the thoroughly argued trial that was open to the public did show signs of improvement in Chongqing's court system and raises hope for more.

One main issue the court debated was whether Gong Gangmo had, in fact, been tortured. Judging from various news reports, neither the defense nor prosecution convincingly established their claims. Consequently, whether Li Zhuang had attempted to fabricate evidence of Gong's torture remains unclear.

Legal conclusions aside, the Chongqing public's suspicion that a criminal lawyer like Li Zhuang is capable of doing anything in order to make big money needs no empirical support. Compared to the human-rights defense lawyers, who often work pro bono to help those at the bottom of the society, rich criminal defense lawyers are not as popular. Li's reported arrogance and disrespectful attitude toward the local court during his trial cast him in an even less sympathetic light in the locals' eyes.

On the other hand, the case practically puts the Chongqing government, and the Chinese legal system more broadly, on the defensive. The hurried arrest of Li raises concerns outside of Chongqing that legal process (however imperfect they are) was trampled to achieve political goals and that the broadly supported crackdown may not be as righteous as has been propagandized. Apparently, Chinese people have not totally forgotten the Cultural Revolution of four decades ago, a disastrous time when political righteousness was above everything else.

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