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/