Sunday, April 4, 2010

"They Produce Lies, We Pretend to Believe"

New Weekly's interview with Wu Si

(Note: The governmental behavior described by Wu Si in this interview seems quite universal. Communism not required.  I think Wu Si has many good insights, though his confidence in democracy seems too high. There's no shortage of lies in America, for instance. — Xujun)

[in translation]

Wu Si has been the executive editor, co-director and chief editor of the Yanhuang Chunqiu magazine. His books, Hidden Rules: the Real Game in Chinese History,  and Blood Remuneration Law: The Survival Game in Chinese History, have widespread influence. He is dubbed "father of the hidden-rule concept." (Interviewer: Hu Jiujiu)

There Is a State System that Makes It Easy to Produce Lies

New Weekly: Lao Tzu said, "With the emergence of intelligence, come big falsehoods." I wonder if it's alright to understand "falsehoods" here as "lies"?

Wu Si: Yes. Either "hypocrites," or "lies," alright.

New Weekly:  This is a question of historical view: what history is true?

Wu Si: The fact is, there is a kind of state system that makes it extremely easy to produce lies, manufacture lies, under which lying becomes legitimate and cost-effective. Look at this system in our history: an emperor, a bunch of bureaucrats under him, facing a country of peasants, peasants with no open information channels. To the person who fights for state power, who rules the country, whether Qin Shihuang, Zhu Yuanzhang, or Liu Bang, the problem he must solve is how to rule the country. The highest ruler has two options: one is using naked violence, compulsion; another is using persuasive power, benevolent governance. The two options also have to be kept in proportion. Ruling by violence alone is fragile, and will not last, or in other words, the long-term gains are not looking good. Thus the partial adaptation of Confucian ways, to convince you, exhort you, let you approve by heart.

New Weekly: Then this becomes a set of lies by the ruler.

Wu Si: This is a set of theories. If the ruler truly follows the theory, then it is not a lie, or at least the proportion of lying is low. If he does not follow the theory, we can say it is a lie.

So, will he follow the theory? He definitely won't, or not completely. On one hand he requires you to follow, on the other hand he himself does not completely follow. For example, "the sovereign be benevolent, the subjects be loyal," "the father be kind, the son be filial," "the husband be righteous, the wife be obedient." My duties are the rights for you to enjoy, and your duties are the rights for me to enjoy. We complement each other.  Even if your rights are bigger than mine, my duties are more than yours, since you are the sovereign and I'm the subject, your responsibility is also bigger. I can accept that. This is the Confucian "three cardinal guides and five constant virtues," and it sounds acceptable.

In reality however, the more powerful side does not want to be restrained, has difficulty obeying, is very easily corrupted, and often is neither benevolent nor kind. Benevolent rulers are rare in history; the proportion is very low. But, lack of benevolence does not permit disloyalty. Therefore [the ruler] can’t rely too heavily on reasoning.  He needs to mix the kingly way with Taoism, Confucian outside Legalist inside. On the outside he is Confucian, talking soundly, persuasive, fastidious about standards in all aspects. What actually happens is that he lets you follow the rules, he doesn't. Further, he doesn’t let you know he’s not benevolent, instead he publicizes his benevolence. If anyone dares to object, no more words, simply destroy him. The ruler carries penal laws and raw power.

Looking at such a state system, persuasive power is very important. It can lower ruling costs, and increase ruling gains. It can form inner constraints in people as the ruled. Not only that, it can bring to the whole system a sacred, magnificent sense.   This persuasive power is so important, naturally it can't be given up.

In particular, how are cost and benefit calculated? The benefit is to have the subjects and people willingly follow rules and norms. The cost is that the ruler himself has to follow the rules, setting an example. Benevolent governing has big benefits, ruling by persuasion, by simply moving lips to make peace in half of the world, such benefits one should completely receive. But the cost of setting an example is very high, one shouldn't pay fully, but should make it look like full payment, even over payment, meanwhile the truth can't be exposed. So the cost of setting an example is transformed into secretly tidying up a few people, sealing the throats of opponents. As to those who lick the ruler's boots, no shortage of them, they come automatically without being called. Under such a state system lying has a high benefit and a low cost. Starting from the top, large scale lying is inevitably going to happen. 

Formation of a Lying Community

New Weekly: The first biggest lie is "the sovereign's authority is bestowed by God." All lies under that come from this root.

Wu Si: That's right. The line "the sovereign's authority is bestowed by God" itself contains a lie. But the lie is a conditional one. It does not mean that God bestows you the power once and for all. The orthodox expression is that God's will falls on a person of virtue. Not everyone can be "God's son." You have the virtues, you get God's will. You don't have the virtues, God's will can change, revolution can happen. So you must pretend to have the virtues. God sees you through your people's eyes, so you must lie to all your people, to display your virtues. Then you'll get God's will; those who covet the power will give up. Where interest lies, where the ultimate trend goes, this decides that the state system inevitably makes lies.

New Weekly: Finally, lies in China form a lying community; from top to bottom everyone has unspeakable secrets. Sometimes, lies are not for hurting others but for protecting oneself.

Wu Si: Don't talk freely. Don't leave evidence that can be turned against you.

New Weekly: We've published an article by Wu Xiaobo titled "Qian Xuesen, Your Greatness Is Short of One Apology". It says the father of [China's] nuclear bomb once wrote an article on the science of how yield-per-mu can "launch a satellite."[1]  Looking back from now, does that count as a lie?

Wu Si: He and Mao Zedong had a more particular conversation. Mao Zedong said, I've read your article. Qian Xuesen said, I wrote that one casually. One datum has yet to be calculated accurately. Mao Zedong immediately said, Ah, you are talking recklessly too. When Mao discussed this with him, he made it slightly ambiguous, taking a step back. Even if he calculated accurately, it may not be a lie theoretically, it still has the room for making a lie: possibility in theory is not equal to possibility in realization using available technology. Anyway, his calculation, that the yield-per-mu could be as high as the solar energy transfer rate dictates, indeed had real impact on Mao Zedong.

Later someone asked Mao, you were born to a peasant family, don’t you know how much one mu could yield? Mao said, I read Qian Xuesen's article, the scientist said so.  — At least Qian played a role of adding fuel to the flames. Thus he indeed owed a great apology. Not great, he owed a proper apology.

New Weekly: Among intellectuals, lets say we can divide them to several kinds, for example one kind are of humanities and social sciences, another kind are of natural sciences and technology, the third are bureaucrat intellectuals. Among the three kinds, which one do you think will most easily produce lies?

Wu Si: Government intellectuals for sure.

New Weekly: His daily needs.

Wu Si: Yes, it is necessary for ruling, but we should also look at particular times. For example, in the Mao era, especially pre-1953, the government intellectuals' subjective feeling was that they had truth in their hand, not lies. They confidently carried out reform on others. At the time intellectuals at large were the subject of reform, many hid their true thoughts and said things against their own will. What is truth, what are lies, the subjective standard is in favor of the government. After the Great Leap Forward, lies were burst, with extremely serious consequences, even by the subjective standard, government intellectuals became the main producer of lies. But intellectuals at large then didn't dare to talk much, the pressure after the anti-rightist movement was too high, so they produced lies in a differently way – by faking belief.

Lying and Split Personality

New Weekly: Ba Jin wrote the book of essays Vagrant Thoughts, claiming to speak the truth, what do you think of it?

Wu Si:  Ba Jin spoke a bit of truth. In a private conversation – I forgot where I read it – he said, I just spoke that little bit of truth, didn't dare to speak the complete truth. According to him, if the measure was a bit wider, if he said a bit more, then it would not be able to get published. Speaking truth is a measurement issue. All truth, three out of ten, or one out of ten?  He could speak five or six out of ten, it's already very good, it's progress compared to one or two out of ten. Not lying is progress.

New Weekly: Why does the state system that easily produces lies last so long in China?

Wu Si: It has low cost, high benefit. The core of the state system are the rulers, to them this is a natural strategy. The lies are nothing but statements of how the ruling system conforms to the public will. If the system changed to one with elections by popular will, becoming a negotiation between the public and public servants, then the system would be a trading system, the elected naturally conform with the popular will, there's no need to make lies. Further, in such a trading system, all sides watch to see if you follow the contract. Hence the system is one that destroys lies. If you violate the contract, if you lie, it generally results in bigger loss than gain.

New Weekly:  Living in a state system of lies, I can even feel a split personality in myself.

Wu Si: A split personality might be like this: you must say something you don't agree with, you know very well you are lying, still you have to say it. In so doing, you must deal with the issue of lying, to rationalize it, to find a spirit strategy. This is easy to split. But there is another state: though being demanded to lie, I don't lie. I only speak truth. When it gets to the point that I can't speak truth, I stop talking. This way avoids splits. I reach whatever point I can, then stop moving.

New Weekly:  What's your personal attitude toward speaking truth? To try your best to not lie, or lie occasionally, or what?

Wu Si: We have to limit this in politics. On domestic politics, I only speak truth. If I can't speak truth, I don't lie. If you are talking about daily life stuff, for example when [your parents] asking whether you are getting better from illness, even if you are still sick, you don't want to make your parents worry, you just say yes. Such so-called white lies are unavoidable.

[1] Qian Xuesen (1911-2009), a leading Chinese physicist in the 20th century, published an article in 1958 in People's Daily claiming that scientific calculation shows crops yield can increase more than tenfold. That article is now viewed by some as a significant contribution to the calamity of the Great Leap Forward. Xujun


tianrui said...

Excellent, thank you so much for this translation XuJun.

David Moser said...

Fascinating interview, I had not heard the anecdote about Qian Xuesen and the supposed yield-per-mu, and Mao's cynical exploitation of the statement. The interview seems rather frank for a mainland magazine. Is this tone typical of Xin Zhou Kan? I'll have to pay more attention to it. Thanks for doing the translation, and I love your blog.

Anonymous said...

You very perceptively point out in your note that Wu Si speaks universally, not just for China. We all deceive and self-deceive and that final example about not wanting to worry your parents is a good one. The more interesting question is about just how close to the surface this behaviour lies. Do we/they know that we're doing it?

It's great that you're reading "Country Driving" (Peter Hessler) because he starts to track those ordinary lives and starts to learn about those habits, just how trapped people are within them and how embedded they are within a wider system.

Xujun said...

@David Moser: I'm actually not that familiar with Xin Zhoukan. This interview caught my attention because Wu Si is the editor of Yanhuang Chunqiu, a magazine I really like. I'd say Yanhuang Chunqiu's tone is often frank. Have you read the magazine?

perspectivehere said...

Thank you Xujun for this translation.

Regarding the "universality" of Wu Si's observations of government behavior, what he describes seems quite similar to Niccolo Machiavelli's observations about lying and political power almost 5 centuries earlier:

"EVERY one admits how praiseworthy it is in a prince to keep faith, and to live with integrity and not with craft. Nevertheless our experience has been that those princes who have done great things have held good faith of little account, and have known how to circumvent the intellect of men by craft, and in the end have overcome those who have relied on their word....

Therefore a wise lord cannot, nor ought he to, keep faith when such observance may be turned against him, and when the reasons that caused him to pledge it exist no longer. If men were entirely good this precept would not hold, but because they are bad, and will not keep faith with you, you too are not bound to observe it with them. ....

But it is necessary to know well how to disguise this characteristic, and to be a great pretender and dissembler; and men are so simple, and so subject to present necessities, that he who seeks to deceive will always find someone who will allow himself to be deceived....

Therefore it is unnecessary for a prince to have all the good qualities I have enumerated, but it is very necessary to appear to have them.

And I shall dare to say this also, that to have them and always to observe them is injurious, and that to appear to have them is useful; to appear merciful, faithful, humane, religious, upright, and to be so, but with a mind so framed that should you require not to be so, you may be able and know how to change to the opposite....

For this reason a prince ought to take care that he never lets anything slip from his lips that is not replete with the above-named five qualities, that he may appear to him who sees and hears him altogether merciful, faithful, humane, upright, and religious.

There is nothing more necessary to appear to have than this last quality, inasmuch as men judge generally more by the eye than by the hand, because it belongs to everybody to see you, to few to come in touch with you. Every one sees what you appear to be, few really know what you are, and those few dare not oppose themselves to the opinion of the many, who have the majesty of the state to defend them; and in the actions of all men, and especially of princes, which it is not prudent to challenge, one judges by the result."