Minjian. The Rise of China’s Grassroots Intellectuals

9780231191401Book Talks:
Columbia University Weatherhead East Asia Institute, 23 April 2019 12:00-13:30.
Harvard University Fairbank Center, 25 April 2019, 16:00-17:30.
Reid Hall, Columbia Global Center in Paris, 14 May 2019, 19:00-20:30.
The University of Hong Kong, 21 June 2019 16:00-18:00.
The University of Tokyo, Institute for Advanced Studies on Asia, 4 October 2019.
Oxford China Centre, 7 November 2019.
EHESS, séminaire du GEHM, 27 janvier 2020.

Roundtable discussion with Pablo Blitstein, Isabelle Thireau, Antoine Lilti, in Passés futurs no. 8, December 2020.
Jean-Philippe Béja in The China Review, December 2020.
Yi Guolin in The Chinese Historical Review, August 2020.
Peter Zarrow in Twentieth Century China, May 2020.
David Ownby in Journal of Chinese History, July 2020.
Ian Johnson in the New York Review of books, 26 March 2020.
Eddy U in Journal of Asian Studies, Feb 2020.
Timothy Cheek in China Quarterly, Dec 2019.
Els van Dongen in Modern Chinese Literature and Culture, Dec 2019 (free access).
Andrew Nathan in Foreign Affairs, Nov-Dec 2019.
David Ownby in PRC History Review, July 2019 (free access).
Ian Johnson’s discussion in the New York Times, 3 June 2019.

Publisher’s blurb:
Who are the new Chinese intellectuals? In the wake of the crackdown on the 1989 democracy movement and the rapid marketization of the 1990s, a novel type of grassroots intellectual emerged. Instead of harking back to the traditional role of the literati or pronouncing on democracy and modernity like 1980s public intellectuals, they derive legitimacy from their work with the vulnerable and the marginalized, often proclaiming their independence with a heavy dose of anti-elitist rhetoric. They are proudly minjian—unofficial, unaffiliated, and among the people.
In this book, Sebastian Veg explores the rise of minjian intellectuals and how they have profoundly transformed China’s public culture. An intellectual history of contemporary China, Minjian documents how, amid deep structural shifts, grassroots thinker-activists began to work outside academia or policy institutions in an embryonic public sphere. Veg explores the work of amateur historians who question official accounts, independent documentarians who let ordinary people speak for themselves, and grassroots lawyers and NGO workers who spread practical knowledge. Their interventions are specific rather than universal, with a focus on concrete problems among disenfranchised populations such as victims of Maoism, migrant workers and others without residence permits, and petitioners. Drawing on careful analysis of public texts by grassroots intellectuals and the networks and publics among which they circulate, Minjian is a groundbreaking transdisciplinary exploration of crucial trends developing under the surface of contemporary Chinese society.

Columbia University Press page: https://cup.columbia.edu/book/minjian/9780231191401

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Sunflowers and Umbrellas: Music in the Umbrella Movement

Finally published in December!

Thomas Gold and Sebastian Veg, eds., Sunflowers and Umbrellas. Social Movements, Expressive Practices, and Political Culture in Taiwan and Hong Kong, Berkeley: Institute of East Asian Studies (China Research Monographs 76), 2020, 264 pp.

My chapter:
Music in the Umbrella Movement: From Expressive Form to New Political Culture.
[abstract] Music typically plays an important role in social movements, in particular in shaping a movement culture and collective memory. Protests end but protest songs endure, and Hong Kong’s Umbrella Movement was no exception. The Umbrella Movement had a strongly expressive dimension, and music played an important role in the outpour of creativity that far surpassed the movement’s strictly political demands. In addition to the “theme songs” of the movement (“Raise the Umbrella” and “Do you hear the people sing”), many indie performers joined the occupation, and lyrics spilled over onto posters and into slogans. But music was also useful in framing the political claims of the movement, by referencing the musical culture of previous protest movements, like the June Fourth Vigil and the July First march. Finally, there was some circulation of musical elements from the Sunflower to the Umbrella movements.
Music sums up many of the tensions or contradictions of the Umbrella Movement: between cosmopolitan and local culture, consumerist and anti-capitalist practices, traditional protest and the new generation. This chapter argues that the music of the Umbrella Movement expresses a change in political culture, in particular a turn away from pan-Chinese themes and the commercial Cantopop that first expressed Hong Kong identity in the 1970s, and towards a local, though cosmopolitan, culture that is in the process of emerging. The controversy around the National Anthem law has recently suggested the resistance in Hong Kong to musical expression of national identity.

Since the book format is not entirely conducive to clicking on links, and the real feeling of the music is probably best conveyed by listening rather than academic pontificating, here is a collection of clips to accompany my chapter. I’ve arranged them into three parts: (1) June Fourth Vigils (2) Umbrella Occupation Songs (3) Musical expressions of Hong Kong’s multiple identities.

1) June 4th vigils and pre-Umbrella social movements
The vigils left a deep imprint on the musical culture of Hong Kong’s protest movement (for more background, see a great essay by Elson Tong on the musical legacy of June 4); the Umbrella Movement both gestured toward this influence and more often than not introduced ironic distance.
“Homage to the martyrs” (祭英烈), to the tune of “A true man must be strong” 男兒當自強, the theme song of Tsui Hark’s film Once Upon a Time in China (Wong Fei-hung), written by the famous Cantopop lyricist and comic James Wong 黃霑 (1941-2004), infuses the hieratic nationalist style of the original music that inevitably calls to mind the soldiers executing martial arts movements in the film trailer with the theme of the dead martyrs of June Fourth.
“Blood-stained glory” 血染的風采, generally the only song sung in Mandarin at the vigil, originated as a PLA song of the Sino-Vietnamese war; it was sung by students in the square and remains strongly associated with 1989 (sung by Anita Mui).
“For freedom” (為自由) was specially composed by Lowell Lo for Hong Kong’s Concert for Democracy in China held on 27 May 1989 in Happy Valley, sung by all artists present. It was reportedly the first song to be performed in Cantonese on Tiananmen Square and became the anthem of the Hong Kong Alliance.
“Flower of Freedom” (自由花) uses the melody of Taiwanese composer Zheng Zhi-hua’s 鄭智化 song “The Seaman” (水手, 1992). When the dissident Wang Xizhe was released from prison in 1993, he reportedly hummed the tune during his first press conference; the Hong Kong Alliance subsequently decided to adopt it, asked Chow Lai-mau to write new lyrics for it, and included it in June Fourth vigils. The line “No matter how hard the rain beats down, freedom will still blossom” (無論雨怎麼打,自由仍是會開花) was often seen on Umbrella Movement posters.
The band Beyond’s song “Boundless Seas, Vast Skies” (海闊天空, 1993) is an anthem of Hong Kong’s protest movements. It became famous after the singer Wong Ka-kui’s tragic death just weeks after its release and was sung during the 2010 anti-High Speed Rail protest, the 2012 anti-National Education movement, and again during the Umbrella Movement.
“Democracy will prevail” 民主會戰勝歸來, written by the band VIIV, appeared on the internet in 2012, quickly caught on and was incorporated into the vigil. Written by a young indie band, it epitomized the reappropriation of June Fourth by the Anti-National Education generation. It was later spoofed by a “localist version” of the lyrics titled “The City-State will prevail” 城邦會戰勝歸來 inspired by Chin Wan’s iconoclastic theories about the “altar of demons” (i.e. the June Fourth vigil), and presenting him as the savior of the Hong Kong city-state as well as Chinese civilization (華夏) from “communist reds,” invading “locusts,” American imperialists, out-of-touch middle classes and naïve leftists (known as “left plastics”).

2) Umbrella Occupation
“Do you Hear the People Sing,” originally composed as “La Volonté du Peuple” for the 1980 French musical Les Misérables, adapted as a West-End musical in 1985, then as a Broadway production that enjoyed a 16-year run from 1987 to 2003, seems to have become an international protest song after the release of the film derived from the musical around Christmas 2012. It appeared in Gezi Park in Istanbul in May 2013, on Maidan square in Ukraine in February 2014, in Taiwan’s Sunflower Movement in March 2014, in Hong Kong’s Occupy Central with Love and Peace movement in late spring and early summer of 2014, in the Umbrella movement, and again in South Korea in 2016. A Mandarin version also exists, and the English version was sung in an incident in Shanghai reported in 2018.
The Cantonese version ubiquitous in the Umbrella Movement “Who has not yet spoken out?” 試問誰還未發聲, (sometimes “Who has not yet awoken?” 試問誰還未覺醒) was performed in multiple versions, including by Oxford students and by a group of artists gathered in the Hong Kong Arts Centre at the initiative of the actor Anthony Wong Chau-sang after a performance of the musical Equus (which Wong had brought to Hong Kong) on 2 June 2014, in protest against the mainstream singers who refused to associate with Occupy Central with Love and Peace. A similar appropriation is John Lennon’s “Imagine,” which was performed in Cantonese and quoted in slogans (“You may say I’m a dreamer”) during the movement; Lennon also gave his name to the post-it wall at Admiralty inspired by the Lennon Wall in Prague.
Denise Ho and Anthony Wong’s main musical contribution to the movement was the song “Raise the Umbrella.” The music and lyrics were reportedly first written by local songwriter Pan (Lo Hiu-pan), after the teargas events of September 28: he sent them to Denise Ho, who asked Lin Xi (Albert Leung, who had worked with Leslie Cheung, Faye Wong, Andy Lau, as well as written the lyrics to the Beijing Olympics theme song “Beijing Welcomes You”) to revise the wording.
A song borrowed from Taiwan was “Stubborn” (倔強 Juejiang, 2004) by the Taiwanese rock band Mayday (Wuyuetian 五月天). Mayday, a group of five singers born in the 1970s, set up as a group in the late 1990s, and became an initially edgy, later increasingly mainstream, rock group in Taiwan, singing almost exclusively in Mandarin. After initially supporting the Sunflower Movement, they came under pressure from their mainland fans and scaled down their public support.
But the Umbrella Movement was also full of indie voices. My Little Airport (MLA), founded by Ah P and Nicole Au when they were still college students in journalism, released its first album in 2004, and become involved in the cultural activism that developed around the heritage protection movement (incidentally, the indie group Fan Hung A 粉紅A – also devoted a beautiful song to the demolition of the Star Ferry Pier in 2006, named “Goodbye” 再見 – the clip is edited by Anson Mak).  For the 60th anniversary of the PRC, MLA released “Love the Country, but not the party” 我愛郊野,但不愛派對 (sung in English). Taking part in the occupation in a relatively low-profile manner, they released a song dealing directly with the movement itself. In “Tonight Let’s go sleep together in Connaught Road Central” (今夜到干諾道中一起瞓), they strike a playful pose, planning to sleep together in different streets every night (“extra-low rent”) and wondering where the nearest toilet might be, although they also allude to mafia interference, and tensions between Mongkok (Dundas Street) and Admiralty (Connaught Rd), and complain about the noise coming from the “big stage.”
New Youth Barbershop 新青年理髮廳, a group that appeared at the time of the protests against redevelopment of the North East New Territories and continued during Occupy Central with Love and Peace, with one band member being arrested on 1 July 2014. During the Umbrella Movement, they released the song “What the world fears most is not absurdity” 世界最怕唔係荒謬 which satirizes the discourse of the government and pro-establishment groups. The name of the band connects both with the wave of cultural heritage activism (it is the name of a real old-style barber shop in Hung Hom) and with the longer history of student movements in 20th century China.
Some other indies include Michael Lai’s song “I promise you an umbrella” 撐著 for which Chow Yiu-fai wrote the lyrics. The song “Umbrella” (雨遮) is an example of participative creation, originating in a poem posted in Admiralty, to which a student wrote a tune, and which was performed by a group of students who later formed a band. The high school group Boyz Reborn composed a mock-rap song called Teargas 催淚彈, to “commemorate 928” (the day on which the teargas was fired).

3) Music and Hong Kong identity
You could tell the story of Hongkongers’ complicated feelings of belonging through a series of songs.
In the early days of the Sino-British negotiations, Zhang Mingmin’s “My Chinese heart” (1982), expressed delight at the coming return to the motherland. Since no Hong Kong professional singer would sing in Mandarin, the producer found Zhang, an amateur singer with a left-wing Trade Union, and brought him to Beijing to be showcased in the 1984 Lunar New Year’s Gala on CCTV, preparing the public for the signature of the Joint Declaration and the beginning of the countdown to 1997. It was an early coproduction of Hong Kong show business and Beijing propaganda.
In the 1980s, “Descendants of the Dragon,” written in Taiwan by Hou Dejian when he was a university student protesting the de-recognition of the Republic of China by the US in 1978, became a hit in China as well as Hong Kong. After he defected to China, Hou performed it at the New Year’s Gala of 1988 and, of course, on Tiananmen square.
At the famous concert held in Happy Valley on 27 May 1989 (at which Hou also performed), Teresa Teng sang “My home is on the other side of the mountain” 家在山那邊, giving new meaning to the words originally composed in Taiwan.
During the Umbrella Movement, an old favorite “Under the Lion Rock” (獅子山下), was sung by actress Deanie Ip, Anthony Wong Yiu-ming and Denise Ho in Admiralty on the first month after the tear gas day. It originated as the theme song of the television series Below the Lion Rock that was first broadcast on RTHK from 1972 to 1979, and is often considered the “unofficial anthem” of Hong Kong. Composed by Joseph Koo, with lyrics by James Wong, it was originally sung by Roman Tam 羅文 (1944-2002).
It contrasts with another song performed by Roman Tam and which was also sung at the Happy Valley Gala and later at June Fourth vigils up to the Umbrella Movement (including at the 25th anniversary in 2014): “China Dream” (中國夢, 1984, lyrics also by James Wong), which enumerates a series of tropes related to China’s majestic geography (the Yellow River as the source of all Chinese dreams), long history (5000 years, Han and Tang dynasties), and potent symbolism (awakening dragon, roaring lion).
It is certainly significant that “Under the Lion Rock” experienced a kind of rebirth after the Umbrella Movement. Eventually, however, it too was eclipsed by the music of the 2019 anti-ELAB movement…

Further Listening and Reading:
HRIC has compiled a playlist of five important songs of the Umbrella Movement.
Victoria Hui has compiled a vast set of links on the music of the Movement.
An excellent roundup of artwork and music in Chinese.
Alec Ash’s essay (with links to clips) on protest music in Hong Kong
France Culture (radio) show Juke Box on 100 years of Hong Kong history through pop music.
On the 2019 protests: F For: Hong Kong Protest Music 香港抗爭音樂誌 Volume 1 (of 3 planned).

Hannah Arendt’s notion of responsibility and preserving agency under coercion – thoughts on Xu Zhangrun

In late 2019, I was asked whether I might contribute a short introduction to the Thai translation of Hannah Arendt’s essay “Personal Responsibility under Dictatorship” explaining why law professor Xu Zhangrun had quoted this essay as an inspiration. Since the Thai translation has now been published, I am thankful for the editors’ permission to publish my introductory reflection here.

What does Hannah Arendt’s “Personal Responsibility under Dictatorship,” written in 1964, shortly after the Eichmann trial, have to tell us more than half a century later? Arendt uses this short text to argue that it is possible and meaningful to make moral judgments on past events. Whether in dictatorships, where crimes are still to some degree exceptions, or in totalitarian states, where crimes become the rule and non-criminal acts are exceptional, individuals are reduced to being cogs in the machine of the state. However, in both situations, they are still called upon to answer for their decision to become or to remain a cog, as a matter of personal responsibility. In what way were those who did not serve the criminal Nazi state different?, Arendt asks. She argues that the “non-participants” were those who dared to make judgments by themselves. What set them apart was not so much the fact that they embraced an older or different set of moral values, but rather that they were willing to question what others took for granted. “Much more reliable will be the doubters and skeptics…because they are used to examine things and make up their own minds.”

Historians, just like social scientists and other scholars, often struggle with overly normative analysis of past or present societies. Sweeping moral pronouncements sometimes serve to obscure the details of how a political regime operates or how societies are structured. So moral judgments certainly cannot serve as a substitute for understanding social and historical mechanisms. However, sometimes ignoring normative considerations also prevents us from understanding social or historical phenomena. For example, the notions of civil society or the public sphere have been criticized for making singular historical experiences, usually situated in Western Europe, into normative benchmarks or universal ideal-types, in a teleological view of global history. It is clear that the historical experience of the bourgeois public sphere described by Jürgen Habermas may not adequately capture the diversity of historical trajectories. However, if, reversely, the public sphere is considered in a purely descriptive manner, and no meaningful distinction is made between publications in state-owned media under an authoritarian dictatorship and in a context where freedom of expression is guaranteed by law, then it may be impossible to adequately capture the nature of public discussion or civil society.

When studying present-day Chinese society, for example, outsiders are often reminded that our gaze can be overly judgmental. On the other hand, some of the judgments we make, whether positive or negative, also reflect the views of our colleagues or interviewees in China. When considering a society in which political conformism can be rewarded very generously, Arendt’s reflections can help us better to understand certain types of behavior that otherwise seem incomprehensible. Why would a middle-aged law professor at one of China’s top universities suddenly decide to publish an essay, elegantly composed in classical Chinese, enumerating “eight fears and eight hopes” and calling to stave off a return to totalitarianism and relaunch political reforms?[1] Two years later, under university investigation and suspended from teaching, why should the same professor compose yet another essay calling on the National People’s Congress to conduct an open investigation into the Coronavirus epidemic and to uphold constitutional guarantees for free speech?[2] It is difficult to explain this type of intervention relying only on strategic cost-benefit calculations. Writings like these have brought professor Xu no advantage, rather they have made his daily life miserable and kept him away from his cherished pursuit of teaching. They can therefore only be explained as the expression of a deep-felt responsibility and accountability.

Contemporary Chinese society is often described by its critics as hollow and superficial, obsessed with material success and social conformity. By stepping up electronic surveillance and preemptive punishments, the state has considerably raised the price to pay for living a life outside the mainstream. This was the starting point of the New Citizen’s Movement, in which Xu Zhiyong played a central role. The “Citizens’ Commitment Pledge” campaign in 2010 called on all signatories to uphold legal and moral standards of integrity and professionalism in everyday life, both at work and privately. Drawing on China’s long tradition of self-cultivation, the idea was to “start from oneself” in trying to change society.[3] Although many people from all around China joined the campaign, there was of course no palpable improvement in ethical and professional standards. Just like Xu Zhangrun’s “remonstrance,” pledging to act as a citizen was not motivated by the expectation of an outcome, but rather by the need to assert agency and take responsibility.

For all these reasons, Arendt’s reflection on responsibility not only helps us to understand why certain individuals remain “doubters and skeptics,” but also how, in any type of society, agency can be preserved in the small acts of everyday life. Reflecting on agency and responsibility is important in any type of political context, and especially when society feels persecuted and powerless. This Thai translation of Arendt’s essay is therefore particularly timely and meaningful and I have no doubt it will find many avid readers.

Sebastian Veg

[1] See Xu Zhangrun, “Imminent Fears, Immediate Hopes,” July 2018, trans. Geremie Barmé http://chinaheritage.net/journal/imminent-fears-immediate-hopes-a-beijing-jeremiad/

[2] See Xu Zhangrun, “Twelve things you should do – Advice to China’s National People’s Congress,” 21 May 2020, trans. G. Barmé. http://chinaheritage.net/journal/remonstrating-with-beijing-xu-zhangruns-advice-to-chinas-national-peoples-congress-21-may-2020/

[3] See the translation: https://chinageeksarchive.wordpress.com/2010/06/20/xu-zhiyong-et-al-the-chinese-citizens-pledge/

Hong Kong’s Liquid Protesters and Beijing’s Strategy of Corrosion

“Hard as ice, flow like water, disappear like smoke. Be Water”  Source; © KitDaSketch,

[An edited and shortened version of this essay was published on the Guardian website on 14 August 2019].

As Hong Kong’s anti-Extradition Law Amendment Bill (ELAB) movement enters its third month, a resolution or simply a de-escalation dynamic still seems far off. However, the past week brought some clarification of the Beijing and Hong Kong governments’ strategy in dealing with the protests.

The movement achieved early success with the suspension of the bill by Chief Executive Carrie Lam on June 15, further to unprecedented peaceful demonstrations that brought out up to 2 million people, and police violence on June 12. After a small group of protesters broke in to Hong Kong’s Legislative Council on July 1, inflicting targeted material damage to the chamber, the five demands voiced by the occupiers (withdrawing the bill, withdrawing the government’s characterization of the protests as a riot, ordering an independent investigation of police violence, granting an amnesty to the arrested protesters, and implementing universal suffrage) continued to enjoy widespread support in society. The movement’s innovative “be water” technique, moving occupations, “Lennon Walls,” outreach to mainland tourists via “airdropped” flyers, and leaderless coordination through Telegram groups and the LIHKG Forum were all seen as lessons learned by the protesters to avoid the pitfalls of the Umbrella Movement of 2014. Beijing authorities, having distanced themselves from the bill, seemed to be lying low.

But after protesters were attacked by suspected triad members on July 21, the same evening as protesters spray-painted the Central Government Liaison Office in Hong Kong, police authority was questioned and the Hong Kong government practically disappeared from public view for two weeks. People’s Daily, the mouthpiece of the Communist Party, published a first page commentary on Hong Kong on July 22, followed by a first-page editorial on August 5, in which it comprehensively reaffirmed its strategy. The gist of the editorial was repeated in press briefings by the Hong Kong Chief Executive, the Hong Kong and Macao Affairs Office in Beijing, and its director, Zhang Xiaoming, in a meeting with 300 members of Hong Kong’s pro-Beijing elite in Shenzhen on August 7. The editorial drew a distinction between violent extremists who have used the bill as a pretext for other goals and the vast majority of the HK public, called upon to unite against the violent elements.

Zhang Xiaoming further pointed out that Beijing cannot rely on compromising with the opposition and should make no concession to the five demands. In particular Zhang was quoted as saying that “full withdrawal of the bill would imply that the stated intention of preventing Hong Kong from becoming a haven for fugitives was wrong” and that an inquiry could only take place after the unrest had ended. Instead, Zhang argued, Beijing should rely first and foremost on the Chief Executive, the Hong Kong government, and One Country Two Systems, second on the Hong Kong police and judiciary, third on patriotic forces in Hong Kong, and fourth on the overwhelming majority of HK people who desire peace and stability. Zhang’s statement lays out a multi-pronged strategy. The Hong Kong police have been tasked with suppressing demonstrations at any cost. A previous commander was brought back out of retirement, in an implicit acknowledgment of previous missteps, but presumably to enforce even harsher methods. On August 12, police were forced to recognize that plainclothes offices had infiltrated protesters. Similarly, the judiciary will come under further pressure from the prosecution, using politicized charges and expedited procedures.

Next, patriotic forces will be mobilized to reunify the extremely disunited pro-establishment camp: businesses will face disproportionate retaliation or boycott if they do not actively oppose the protests; universities and public institutions in Hong Kong will be brought back under control through internal discipline. This will raise the cost of sympathizing and participating for ordinary protesters. Indeed, pro-establishment politicians immediately lined up behind Beijing’s wording, putting an end to calls for Lam’s resignation or an independent inquiry. Finally, Beijing has engaged in a battle to turn public opinion in Hong Kong against the movement and isolate the “violent extremists” from the “patriotic silent majority,” especially by highlighting the economic impact of protests. Depictions of the protests as instigated by “foreign forces” were stepped up.

This “strategy of attrition” served Beijing quite well in the 2014 Umbrella Movement. At the same time, Beijing also continues to “breathe fire” and release videos hinting at the possibility of a military crackdown. Beijing’s position is no doubt driven by fear of contagion to the mainland and geopolitical anxiety about Hong Kong’s loyalty, at the same time as by the need to maintain Hong Kong’s “stability and prosperity” and mainland influence in Taiwan. The protesters’ challenge will therefore be to avoid responding to police provocations with violence, and to keep public opinion on their side, even as surveys show the public’s concern about the level of violence. Support for at least two of the claims remains above 95%, as another recent survey points out. However, the leaderless “be water” strategy has also emerged as liability of the movement, as there is no forum to coordinate a return to non-violent tactics or possible negotiations. Finding an exit strategy is almost always the most difficult part of a mobilization and it remains unclear how the spiral of escalating violence can be halted.

Just published: The Rise of China’s Statist Intellectuals: Law, Sovereignty, and “Repoliticization”

81h8-4ftfnl._ac_ul436_Citation: The Rise of China’s Statist Intellectuals: Law, Sovereignty, and “Repoliticization”The China Journal 82 (July 2019), pp. 23-45.

Beginning in the 1990s, a number of elite Chinese intellectuals developed new critiques of liberalism. Within the orbit of Marxism, a group often called the “new left” mainly concentrated on economic liberalism and inequalities of wealth. Some of them also showed an affinity with the views of intellectuals referred to as statists. The statists’ three main ideas can be summarized as the superiority of political sovereignty over the rule of law, a critique of the “judicialization” of politics and the need to “repoliticize” the state, and a critique of universalism and an assertion of Chinese exceptionalism. Some of the legal scholars who developed these ideas are directly influenced by Carl Schmitt (1888–1985), an authoritarian German legal scholar and political theorist. Important texts by the current Chinese group of statist thinkers provide an intellectual background to the recent evolution in Party ideology.

Just published: The Three Crises of 1989

This is a piece I wrote for the thirtieth anniversary of the 1989 democracy movement, in which I try to take a look at the historiography and draw some conclusions for understanding China today. I argue that 1989 crystallized three crises, none of which has been truly solved by the Party today. It was a crisis of succession which entailed a paralysis of top Party-state institutions. Since 2018, succession has once again become a problem as the Party rolls back institutional norms that had become widely accepted. It was impulsed by intellectuals, who were at the time derided for their elitism. In the last decade, we have seen the rise of grassroots intellectuals who are better able to connect with broad sectors of society. After the students’ hunger strike began on May 13, the protests turned into a vast popular movement in which an incipient identity as citizens or shimin was articulated and claimed. Today, as social inequalities have only further deepened, citizenship remains conditional and continues to be demanded by the many groups and individuals who are disenfranchised or treated unfairly by the state.
See the article in French on the Esprit website.

Civil disobedience and the rollback of Hong Kong’s judiciary

(clockwise) Benny Tai, Chan Kinman, Raphaël Wong, Shiu Ka-chun being taken away after the verdict.

The series of judgments and sentences by Hong Kong courts in the aftermath of the Umbrella Movement have suggested a durable undermining of the autonomy of Hong Kong’s judiciary. The sentence in the “OC9” trial on 9 April highlighted the new norm of imposing custodial sentences in freedom of expression and association cases, which represents a break with the practices of the 1990s and 2000s. To get a better idea of the extent of custodial sentences, Kong Tsung-gan’s regularly updated tally of legal proceedings is an excellent resource.
In this piece I recently wrote for Tocqueville 21, I tried to dissect the court’s views of civil disobedience in order to get a better understanding of how and why the judiciary’s approach has changed.
While I believe it is unlikely that judges are being given specific instructions or approached directly by politicians in Hong Kong or Beijing, a series of developments have put judges under huge pressure to deliver the “correct” verdicts.
The first and foremost of these factors is the agressive political prosecution and systematic appeal of all non-custodial sentences by the Hong Kong Department of Justice, which can be seen as a form of weaponization of the legal process.
Second, the background pressure from Beijing: since the White Paper on One Country Two Systems (2014), Beijing’s spokespeople have insisted that the judiciary is part of the “governing team” of Hong Kong and must contribute to “upholding” national priorities like sovereignty and state security.
Finally, the conflation in official but also media discourse of civil disobedience with public disorder has consolidated the preference among parts of Hong Kong society for law and order.
However, the recent mass protests among pro-democracy groups, the judiciary, but also in society at large against the amendment to the Fugitive Ordinance that would allow for extradition of suspects to China, suggests that the government has overplayed its hand and may yet have to reconsider red lines among Hong Kong civil society on freedom of expression and judiciary process.
Read the full piece “The Limits of Civil Disobedience in Hong Kong” on Tocqueville 21.

May Fourth: Academic Freedom and Democratic Legitimacy

Arrested students of BNU return to school on May 7th, 1919. (Wikimedia Commons)

In this essay, published by The Diplomat for the centenary of China’s foundational political moment in 1919, I attempt to “scrape away” the many commemorative layers that have obscured the meaning of the movement, and to bring out its original connection with academic freedom and democratic procedure.
Since it’s paywalled, I’m summarizing some of the ideas here. I begin by looking back at some recent events, in particular how, in March 2019, some students at Peking University leaked a questionnaire they were asked to fill out, in which they are prompted to identify May Fourth with patriotism (“the most important part of personal dignity is knowing how to be patriotic”) and the need to actively practice it (“patriotism should not be limited to slogans”). I argue that this selective form of commemoration is particularly ironic at a time when two central aspects of new culture – the defense of academic freedom and the cosmopolitan enthusiasm for ideas and knowledge from around the world – are being repressed in China. Xu Zhangrun, a professor at the Law School of Tsinghua university was suspended from duty and placed under investigation by the university in March 2019 for no other reason than a series of editorials criticizing the current government (see Geremie Barmé’s Xu Zhangrun Archive). More broadly, following the publication of a State Council “Opinion” in January 2015 (see original and English translation by Rogier Creemers), the minister of Education issued a call to minimize the use of “foreign content” in textbooks and other class material at all levels of the educational system, leading to a gradual phasing out in all but some top tier institutions of the cosmopolitan spirit that has imbued China’s universities for the last decades.
In the conclusion, I make a few other points that in my view are sometimes unfortunately overlooked:
– The movement marked the emergence of universities as autonomous institutions, based on freedom of thought and expression, where students were both socialized in the ethos of new citizens and from where they organized the movement, establishing groups to awaken and mobilize society. In particular, the protests of 1919 were also a struggle over the control of PKU.
– Similarly, the movement marked the emergence of “peer journals” as spheres for elite discussions on culture and politics, predicated on the broad social endorsement of freedom of the press. The press was both used as a means to spread information and mobilize the masses (for example when students were arrested on May 5), while at the same time the letters to the editor sections provided a public platform for open discussion. The expression of student “patriotism” is therefore inseparable from the claims of freedom of expression and political participation.
– Finally, the issue of patriotism itself is worth revisiting. Much of the public outrage stemmed from the fact that the Beiyang government (like the Yuan Shikai regime before it) not only eschewed normal diplomatic protocol by signing secret agreements, and accepted foreign loans as funding for party campaigns or as personal bribes, but was also perceived as lacking the democratic legitimacy to represent the nation in the first place. The Peking government remained strongly contested, seen by many as de facto rather than de jure. Many members of the first Assembly elected in 1912 had regrouped in Canton and peace negotiations between the Peking and Canton governments were ongoing, even as representatives from both camps were included in the delegation sent to Versailles. It is against this background of lack of both democratic procedure and democratic legitimacy that the patriotic demonstrations should be understood, not unlike Hong Kong’s Umbrella Movement.
For this reason, I conclude by arguing that, while Western politicians would do well to remember the broad resonance of the movement’s critique of Western double standards, Chinese politicians would be well inspired to pay heed to the ideals of academic freedom and democratic process that were at the heart of the student activism of 1919.

Just published: Popular Memories of the Mao Era

This edited volume provides an overview of the many forms of critical popular memories of the Mao era that have recently developed in China. While the state has attempted to limit critical memories to the private realm, they have increasingly appeared online and in the media, in cultural productions and in the publications of amateur historians, despite the crackdown in the last few years. These popular memories challenge the officical historiography and have begun to modify the dominant narratives of the Mao era. For example, public debates have taken place over the last decade about some key episodes in PRC history: the Anti-Rightist Movement, the Great Famine of 1959-1961 and the Cultural Revolution. While trauma and nostalgia dominated earlier expressions of memories of the Mao era, the new narratives, which appear in semi-official or unofficial journals, in independent documentary films, in private museums, or in oral history and archival projects by amateur historians, seek to open a space for a critical debate about China’s recent past.

Contributions by Jean-Philippe Béja, Wu Si, Jun Liu, Kirk Denton, Sebastian Veg, Judith Pernin, Aihe Wang, Frank Dikötter, Michel Bonnin, and Daniel Leese.
See: https://hkupress.hku.hk/pro/1690.php
The Editor’s Introduction and Michel Bonnin’s chapter on the Rustication Movement are freely available through the publishers website: https://hkupress.hku.hk/pro/con/1690.pdf

Denise Ho in The China Quarterly, June 2019.
Laurence Coderre in the Journal of Asian Studies, December 2019.
Vera Schwarcz in PRC History Review, December 2019.
Els Van Dongen in China Perspectives, September 2020. 
Frances An in Asian Cha, no. 46, February 2021.
Kimberley Ens Manning in The China Journal, vol. 85, January 2021.

Wang Bing’s Dead Souls and the Memory of Prison Camp survivors

A few weeks ago, Wang Bing’s newest 9-hour documentary Dead Souls got a small-scale arthouse release in Paris. In conjunction with the release, EHESS organized public screenings of some of his earlier films and invited Wang Bing to give a masterclass on October 31 [link added on 19/5/2020 to original video of masterclass – in Mandarin with French consecutive translation, length 140′].

Dead Souls is a project Wang Bing has been working on for over a decade. When Yang Xianhui’s book Chronicles of Jiabiangou (a collection of lightly fictionalized oral history accounts of former victims of the Anti-Rightist movement in Gansu who survived the deadly famine in the Jiabiangou Reeducation Through Labor Camp in 1960), which I wrote about in China Quarterly, was first published in 2003, Wang Bing contacted Yang. Wang Bing is from rural Shaanxi, which borders Gansu and, as he has mentioned in interviews, two of his uncles on his father’s side were persecuted as rightists, which may have sparked his interest in the book. After buying the film rights to Yang’s book, Wang Bing proceeded to start seeking out the people Yang had talked to, conducting his own interviews with them. One of these interviews with He Fengming, who had written a book explaining how her husband Wang Jingchao died of famine in Jiabiangou, became a stand-alone film, Fengming (2007). These interviews were preparations for a fiction film project, which was finally completed in 2010 under the title The Ditch. Shot in harrowing conditions more or less on location, it uses what I argued was a form of highly theatrical acting to create a sense of distance between the viewer and the story. Since that time, Wang Bing has mentioned that he had plans to use the footage of the 120 preparatory interviews to make a kind of compendium documentary on the Anti-Rightist movement. This is the project that has now partially come to fruition (Dead Souls is supposed to be the first part of a several-part project). Wang Bing struggled for many years with this material to the point of mental anguish and only managed to overcome the difficulties after going back to Lanzhou in 2014 and re-interviewing those of the survivors who were still alive. He has stated that observing the speed at which their ranks were thinning gave him a sense of urgency that helped him finish the film.

Before discussing the film itself, I want to mention another unique work (it also happens to be showing today, November 25, at the Tate Modern): Traces (遺址, 2014). As Wang Bing has explained, this 29-minute documentary was shot during his first visit to the site of Jiabiangou, using old 35 mm film that he had collected for some years. During most of the film the camera points straight down to the sandy desert ground, occasionally showing the director’s boots. In the first section “Mingshui,” wherever the camera turns, it finds human bones, loosely scattered among the sand, and even several skulls, as well as some more recent remains of bottles, gourds and clothes left by vagrants. In the second section “Jiabiangou,” the camera enters some of the caves where the inmates lived in 1959-1960. Just like in The Ditch, the contrast is striking between the bright light of the desert and the pitch black inside the caves. This contrast draws the camera’s attention to two characters carved into the stone wall: 自由 or freedom.

The film has a strong self-reflexive dimension. Some of the old 35 mm film is corrupt, so that geometrical shapes appear on the image. The human body behind the hand-held camera manifests itself in the jerky movements. In addition to the wind and the heavy breathing of the director, the sound is saturated by the noise of the camera motor, drawing attention to the equipment itself. Wang Bing reportedly returned to the venue on the second day to record the sound separately from the image. All of these intrusions remind the viewer that the history being excavated is mediated through the director’s gaze.

Dead Souls is divided into three parts (it was shown in Cannes in two parts). Of course, the main challenge in organizing the massive amount of footage (600 hours) was how to structure the film. The excellent press kit contains an interview in which Wang Bing explains that, rather than a chronological organization, he chose to give each surviving witness a block of roughly 30 minutes. Of course, this time represents only a fraction of the full interview, and Wang Bing uses exaggeratedly rough jump cuts to draw the viewers’ attention to what he is leaving out, almost like ellipsis marks in a quotation. All together, there are a dozen of these long testimonials in the film. Just like in Yang Xianhui’s book, almost all of the interviewees underscore that they had no political divergence with the communist party, they were not “rightists,” but were usually targeted for extremely minor and mundane offenses. While there is some repetition in content between them, the overall effect is particularly powerful because the viewer can enter the world of each of the interviewees and gain some understanding not only of the facts that they are trying hard to remember, but also of their personalities and how the trauma of a close brush with death in their 20s or 30s has left traces in their psychology.

While I can’t provide a full discussion of the film here, I’d like to mention two episodes that stand out very strongly. In the first part, a long sequence is devoted to the funeral of one of the survivors whom Wang Bing has briefly interviewed on his sickbed, Zhou Zhinan. A traditional burial with instruments and ritual lamentations, in the remote hilly countryside of Shaanxi (whereas the government aggressively promotes cremation as the only “modern” type of burial) in December 2005, it shows the abiding sadness and resentment of Zhou’s son who tries to lay his father to rest while honoring the memory of his persecution.

Another outstanding episode appears in the third part of the film, with the only interview of a camp guard, Zhu Zhaonan. Wang Bing notes that guards were often older and many have already died, while others are not willing to speak out. It is also the only interview in which the director is visible. Zhu was a cook in Jiabinagou, who was sent ahead to set up the annex at Mingshui, where the greatest number of inmates ended up dying. Listening to Zhu’s narrative, suddenly all the parts of the camp’s geography and organization fall into place, as we realize how fragmented the vision of each survivor is, and how little they understood about the camp as a whole. Zhu provides fascinating details, such as the fact that in the main camp they provided halal food for Muslim rightists. He quantifies the deeply felt inequalities in treatment between cadres and inmates: cadres were given about 450g of grain per day, while the inmates’ ration was 250g. Mingshui was organized around three ditches in which the inmates lived. As everything broke down in Mingshui during the massive famine, deaths were still generally logged in the record books but the dead could no longer be buried because the ground was frozen at least one meter deep. Death was everywhere and became completely normal. The authorities wanted the rightists dead: “要他們的命.” Sympathizing with the rightists was out of the question because of “class consciousness,” even though many of the guards knew that they had been falsely accused or deported on trumped-up charges. Zhu prides himself on having at least tried not to mishandle anyone. The interview ends with the only known surviving photo of Jiabiangou, which Zhu gave to Wang Bing when they met again. It shows him riding a bicycle smiling amid a bunch of bedraggled inmates, and is a truly chilling testimonial to what in effect became a death camp, reminiscent of controversies surrounding photos of Nazi concentration camps. This is underscored in the ending of the film, which concludes with the footage of the camera nosing among the bones scattered in the sand.

Wang Bing’s film covers some of the same ground as Ai Xiaoming’s 5-hour Jiabiangou Elegy (夾邊溝祭事, 2016) but the structuring principle is opposite. While Ai cuts the interviews into short slices and reorganizes them by theme, Wang Bing structures his film around the individuals, not the information. Hence, Ai’s film is richer in historical facts, she covers a broader range of different administrative categories. But Wang Bing’s film provides the viewer with unique insights into the mental world of each individual, whether they are communists, dissidents or Christians, whether they are urban intellectuals or rural laborers. This is part of Wang Bing’s broad investigation of how human beings maintain a form of agency in the most harrowing circumstances. It is also part of the many current efforts in China by historians like Yang Kuisong (e.g. Chronicles of Marginals) to rewrite the history of the Mao era based on the lives of ordinary people, and on understanding the mental frames of individuals rather than only looking at collectives.

This is my 3rd end-of-month post this year after August and September. Apologies that my October post fell victim to schedule overload. It’s an interesting though somewhat stressful exercise to post on a regular timetable.