Down with the Nihilists!

Cairo

Multiple Choice Question: Who brought victory to the Sino-Japanese War 70 years ago? A. Kuomintang, B. The Chinese Communists, C. The United States, D. The Soviet Union.

If your answer does not in some way include B, then BAM! You are a historical nihilist, even though you might not have read a single word by Nietzsche, the German philosopher who elaborated on this important concept in the 19th century. He declared nihilism as a characteristic of the modern age and “a moment of the deepest self-reflection for humanity”. The “death of God” and the dissolution of Christianity as a singular source of truth deprive the world of meaning, intrinsic value and destiny.

But what has nihilism to do with the Kuomintang? This obviously perplexed a few serious philosophy scholars and historians who took pains to organize a seminar at Tongji University in Shanghai earlier this month. The seminar was titled “Nihilism and the End of History: a Dialogue between Philosophy and History”. A consensus coming of it was that “recent criticism on ‘historical nihilism’ has nothing to do with the academic sense of the word.”

The academicians were responding to a tide of attacks on “historical nihilism” largely waged by party publications and leftist opinion leaders. Their targets are very simple: anything that challenges the historical orthodox that depicts the Party as the decisive force in the Chinese people’s struggle for independence and liberation from suppression. It is basically a move against what they consider to be revisionist views of contemporary Chinese history, but for some curious reasons they adopt “nihilism” as the label for their target, probably just for the forcefulness of the word in Chinese (“xuwu“). In the past year, a few controversies surrounding the veracity of communist war-time heroism hammered the term into modern Chinese vocabulary. For instance, in April this year, a beverage company got harangued by conservative commentators for associating itself publicly with a Weibo personality who once compared a Korean War hero to “barbecue” (as party propaganda maintained that he endured being burned alive by an incendiary bomb in complete silence in order not to expose his comrades). The Communist Youth League’s official mouthpiece triumphantly declared at the time that “the consistent condemnation (of the company) from the netizens shows that the public is no longer swayed by the historical nihilism that uses the excuse of ‘freedom of speech’ to smear heroes.” But reality was far from “consistent condemnation.” Actually, the questioning of the “physiological feasibility” of that heroic act was so strong that official media even had to use the example of the 1963 self-immolation of the Vietnamese monk to establish its validity.

The crusade against “historical nihilism” met with a major setback this month when the cause suffered from unexpected friendly fire. A film commemorating the 70th anniversary of the end of World War II that sets its scene at the Cairo Conference of 1943 induced widespread astonishment by highlighting Chairman Mao in its publicity campaign. To be clear, the film itself does not put Mao in Cairo, as that would have been outright fabrication (It was Generalissimo Chiang Kai-shek who represented China at the conference). But in its posters, the film’s PR team gave Mao an equal treatment as Roosevelt and Churchill, overshadowing Chiang. Criticism immediately ensued, some even from across the Taiwan Strait. Put on defense, the filmmaker responded by saying that the Cairo Conference was the result of the sacrifice of the entire Chinese population, and the Chinese Communists were surely an important part of it. Spurred by the unapologetic tone in the response, netizens made fun of it by photoshopping unrelated public figures onto the poster, claiming that they could all have legitimately been at the conference, the climax being the Kim Jong-un version of the poster.

Some left-leaning online commentators took a confrontational stance. One of them even declared that Mao’s blown-up role in the posters was a place he “deserved”. And if anyone had a problem with it, he should “win a war to make his point”. The winner-writes-history cynicism was blaring in this instance. Compared with their online comrades, commentators at the Global Times were much more worried that the backlash might give opponents of the anti-nihilism campaign excuse to discredit it entirely. They regarded the posters “inappropriate” and argued that it was unnecessary to arbitrarily link the Party with every episode of that war, even if its role in it should not be denied. They even suggested last minute modifications to the film if it contained undue elevation of Mao.

The campaign against historical nihilism and the anxiety about its undone both betray a sense of insecurity. The Party is deeply disturbed by the risk of losing its righteous place in history. It might have a point though, as its war-time record, like its currency now, is being depreciated not only by domestic liberals but also international observers. The Economist, in a recent editorial, just gave the credit of resisting the Japanese invasion completely to the Kuomintang.

The Chinese theater of World War II was messy and intricate. At any given point, the Kuomintang, the Communists, the Kuomintang traitors and the Japanese were all fighting each other. The Soviet Union was involved from the very early stage, supporting the Kuomintang government (not the Communists) for a substantial period of the eight-year war. When the Pacific War broke out, the United States upped its ante in China by subjecting its China-Burma-India theater commander, General Stilwell, under Chiang Kai-shek as his chief of staff. In this intertwined situation, any attempt to claim full credit for the victory against Japan would be challenging if not outright impossible. The Kuomintang enjoys an advantage in this race as it was the “legitimate” government at the time of the war. That’s why it was Chiang Kai-shek who appeared in Cairo, and the reason why most of the international aid of that time (including that from the Soviet Union) went to Kuomintang during the war. And truth be told that as the government, Kuomintang organized the country’s major defense against the Japanese, and its soldiers suffered epic sacrifices.

But nominal legitimacy can only get you so far. As a corrupt, crude and incompetent dictatorship, the Kuomintang regime was not without its fierce criticizers for its humiliating military defeats, its startling mismanagement of the economy, and the brutal ways it treated its own people. The horrifying conscription programs that brought as much death and fear as the war itself was widely noted even by biographers sympathetic of Chiang. The tragic famine of 1942, in Henan province, became a whole chapter in Theodore White and Annalee Jacoby’s influential book about that war (both were Time magazine’s China correspondents at that time), which showed to the American public the cold-blooded indifference  of the Kuomintang government to the unbelievable suffering of the Chinese peasants. The book was written in 1946, when there was already widespread disillusion and discontent with the Kuomintang regime among US elites. But White and Jacoby’s account of the famine, which was based on first-hand personal experience, should still be read as an overall reflection of Kuomintang’s stage of decay at that time.

Within this context, where the Kuomintang’s real legitimacy was being contested, the Chinese Communists advanced their argument that they played a pivotal role in the fight against Japan. For one thing, their status as a partner against the Japanese invader was formally recognized by their 1937 “United Front” agreement with the Kuomintang, whereby they agreed to subject the Red Army under governmental line of command. That “partnership” proved to be fragile and unstable. Skirmishes (some of them quite bloody) between Kuomintang and Communist forces abounded in the years between 1937 and 1940, after which a new agreement had to be drawn which demarcated where both parties should operate (but mainly for the Communists). After that the Communists, and the millions of Chinese people living in the areas north of the Yellow River, were basically left on their own to bear the weight of Japanese savagery in that part of China. And in those years the Communists were the only protection that the people of North China could have. White and Jacoby estimated that at the peak of Japanese activity, forty percent of the Japanese military force in China was battling Communists. The estimation could have been influenced by both Communist and Kuomintang propaganda, but it is probably fair to say that Communist resistance to the Japanese invasion was not as trivial as some would perceive.

It is clear that the “nihilist” challenge that the Party faces today is partly fueled by dissatisfaction of its current rule. It is both a backfire of its own propaganda overkill (things such as the Cairo Declaration blunder) and an over-correction by romanticizing the China under Kuomintang’s reign. Lately, the “ROC Fever” (“ROC” stands for the Republic of China as opposed to the People’s Republic), which refers to a general nostalgia of the pre-communist China in some circles of the Chinese society, has become a cultural phenomenon. Part of it can also be attributed to the complete re-invention of the Kuomintang in Taiwan after the 1980s. Today’s Kuomintang is no longer the collection of reactionary warlords and capitalists that Chiang Kai-shek presided over 70 years ago. It has turned into a modern political party firmly committed to basic democratic values. One author even went so far as suggesting that the Kuomintang’s record in Taiwan proved Chiang to be the ultimate winner over Mao for his more superior political philosophy of Confucianism (“Mao won the battle, Chiang won the war.”) A relatively more positive light over today’s Kuomintang reinforces the feeling that the Communists “stole” the fruit of the WWII. In such an environment, the Party finds itself mired in an endless battle to defend once well-recognized historical “positions”.

George Orwell once famously said that “He who controls the past controls the future; He who controls the present controls the past.” A present with treacherous deep currents is making the past ever more slippery for the Party to hold on to. Much of the pain has been self-inflicted. In an article published last year, a PLA Major General explicitly criticizes past party propaganda about the Sino-Japanese War:

“In the past, our account of the War was often shaped by immediate political needs, which led to biases and exaggeration. Because of our post-war hostility towards the United States, and in order to highlight the power of ‘people’s war’, American victory in the Pacific was downplayed, while land mines and tunnels were depicted as the major weapons defeating the Japanese. After the Reform and Opening, mainland China proactively upheld Kuomintang’s role in the War. However, in the process some media outlets went too far by exaggerating the overall importance of the China theater in World War II. Even if this could somehow elevate the public’s spirit and pride, in the long run this would create distrust in such propaganda in general.”

So the real enemy is not so much “historical nihilism” but rather historical cynicism. Indeed, the victor CAN write history if he chooses to. But now he’s concerned that nobody gives a damn about what he has written.

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China’s Ideological Spectrum and Why Those Behind It Are True Visionaries

ideology

Polling is a tricky business in China. For something that pollsters in a Western democracy do on a daily (or even hourly) basis, Chinese researchers and survey companies either cannot touch at all or need to get their questionnaires scrutinized by the statistical authority for approval. So you don’t just pick up the phone and start asking people questions like “on a scale from 1 to 5, how do you rate the President’s performance so far?” You can ask them about what toothpastes they use, but not on those questions. A few years ago, some group got into big trouble for doing “illegal surveys” in China. So you get the picture.

That’s why the dataset accumulated by the Chinese Political Compass project over the course of 8 years (2007-2014) becomes so unique. For those who don’t read Chinese, you may just go to the original Political Compass to get a general idea. Basically, it is an online test that locates a person’s ideological stance based on their reaction to 50 statements. A sample statement looks like this:

Indiscriminately imitating (systems of) western style freedom of speech will lead to social disorder in China.

A test taker chooses from “Strongly Disagree”, “Disagree”, “Agree” and “Strongly Agree” before s/he moves on to the next statement. After completing the whole survey, the test taker gets scores to indicate how liberal/conservative he or she is politically, economically and culturally. All 50 statements are tailor-made to capture the actual divides in the Chinese society that can be quite idiosyncratic. For instance, as the above sample statement shows, freedom of speech is still up for debate in China while in most Western democracies it is taken as a shared foundation of the society no matter whether you are liberal or conservative.

This brings us to the very unique situation where the Chinese labelling of “liberal” and “conservative” could be confusing for a Western audience. Part of the reason, as explained by Chinese scholar Qin Hui, is the fact that Western liberals and conservatives all operate above a certain bottom line that does not exist in China. With this bottom line as a basic constraint, “ideological options” are roughly defined by where the line of the state/individual boundary is drawn: those on the left advocate for more state intervention and responsibility (Welfare state), while those on the right stand for more individual liberty and less welfare. The constraint is a social contract that power matches responsibility. In such a society it would be very difficult for politicians to bargain for more state power (social control) and less responsibility (welfare) at the same time. That’s why you seldom see democracies with high tax and low welfare. Yet this is exactly the bottom line that is absent in a country like China, where you start to see ideas that could be unfathomable to a mind so accustomed to the basic social contract. A statist position that calls for an omnipresent state while simultaneously asking the people to make “sacrifices” on their welfare is deemed “leftist” in a Chinese context, but I’m sure Elizabeth Warren would find it horrendous. Much of the ideological split in China is actually along the lines that no longer divide Western societies (things like freedom of speech and constitutional democracy).  That’s why the Chinese left/right debates can be so perplexing. (Below is a table that summarizes the divides in the Chinese context).

left-right

From “China’s Ideological Spectrum

It is with those considerations that creators of the Chinese Political Compass came up with their original test back in 2007. It has been thence forth operating in a very low-profile way, with personal reference as its major way of spreading. I took the test back in 2008, when a friend of mine sent me the link on MSN messenger as if passing along banned books back in high school (disclosure: I’m a political 1, economic 0.5 and cultural 0.4). But apparently the test collected momentum even in such a discreet manner, with over one million people taking it in total. This approach of course does not generate a representative sample. The self-selected nature of the test takers fills the cohort with politically curious, male, college students. But this is probably as far as you can get in the current circumstances.

Early this year, the test website unfortunately caught the attention of the Great Firewall of China. People inside the country can no longer access the site unless they use a VPN to bypass that firewall. This deals a heavy blow to the site no just in the sense of lower traffic but, probably more damaging, of further strengthening the self-selection process of test takers (now only those who grasp how to handle a VPN can take it). After making the decision that future data will not be meaningful any more, the creator of the test made the raw data from previous years available for download.

As you can imagine, this dataset is a treasure island. Within less than ten days of its disclosue, a joint research paper by two Chinese students from Harvard and MIT emerged on the internet, which is titled “China’s Ideological Spectrum“. By analyzing the more than 170,000 answers from the test’s 2014 dataset, they come to a set of conclusions that shed light on a part of the Chinese national psyche that few have examined before. Probably the most important insight from this analysis is the finding that the ideological spectrum in China is really uni-dimensional (even though the survey is designed in three dimensions). In other words, those who are politically conservative are also likely to be economically and socially conservative, and the same applies to the liberals. In a sense, this shows that ideologically speaking, China is still not as diverse as advanced democracies where, for example, social and economic issues often constitute two separate dimensions. It will be difficult to find someone like Rand Paul in contemporary China, who is conservative on social issues but libertarian on the economics. The authors claim that this conclusion is likely to hold true even if they use a more representative sample. This I’ll leave to statistically savvier minds to judge.

Other findings from the paper are more expected. For example, liberalism in China is highly related with modernization, education and income. Those who are well educated and with a higher income are more likely to embrace free trade, government transparency and gay rights.

The very fact that the existence of an ideological spectrum in China (though uni-dimensional in nature) is being supported by empirical data is ground-breaking. It shows how far the country has moved away from a monolithic state of mind. And it is probably not going to be reversed. With diversity comes balance and equilibrium, as the left can be checked by the right, the fanatics checked by the moderate. That’s also partly why I started this blog: to show that there is diversity in the lively and noisy world of ideas in this country. And that, in itself, is empowering.

But the creators of Chinese Political Compass have done much more. As a bunch of college students back in 2007, they acted on an idea, held on to it and turned it into a great source of political self-awareness for a generation of Chinese and a treasure box of insights for the whole world. It is this kind of progressive volunteerism that is truly changing the spectrum of China. To quote one of the creators, who released a public statement on Apr 1 about his decision to offer the raw data for download:

We need to better understand our country and its people. This is not easy, and sometimes unpleasant. But this is our responsibility.

What “Under the Dome” tells us about where China stands on air pollution

ChaiJing

Three days ago something very unusual happened on the internet in this country. Almost overnight, hundreds of millions of smart phone screens here were occupied by just one person and one thing: Chai Jing’s nearly-2-hour documentary on air pollution, called “Under the Dome.”

Who’s Chai Jing? She is a former reporter of CCTV’s prime-time news program “News Investigation,” which is sort of China’s 60 Minutes. So roughly speaking she can also be considered China’s Katie Couric, only more famous. A while ago she quit her enviable job and gave birth to a daughter. After being away from the spotlight for over a year, she came back with this documentary that adopts the format of a long TED talk, or (if you still remember) Al Gore’s award-winning documentary on climate change, An Inconvenient Truth. What she did was standing in front of a studio audience, narrated a fascinating personal story about trying to figure out the smog problem for the sake of her little child who was born with a benign tumor, with the help of state-of-the-art visual aid technologies. To answer three basic questions (What is smog? Where does it come from? What shall we do about it?), she interviewed dozens of top experts and officials in China, visited LA and London to learn from their experience, and consulted tons of scientific literature, all in the capacity of an individual citizen. She claimed that she spent 1 million Chinese yuan (about 160,000 USD) out of her own pocket to make this documentary. And the Chinese public responded to her initiative with absolute enthusiasm: One estimate puts it at more than 175 million clicks within merely 48 hours, a jaw-dropping performance for a serious, lengthy piece of hardcore journalism.

No compliment would be too flattering for such a tremendous public service that Chai Jing has done. And the viewership of her documentary probably has already surpassed that of An Inconvenient Truth, which won Al Gore an Oscar and a Nobel Peace Prize. And just like An Inconvenient Truth, Under the Dome has a very clear intention of influencing public opinion on an issue that is so crucial to this country now. So appreciation and admiration aside, a critical question arises: what kind of impact does the documentary has on Chinese public opinion about air pollution? What does it tell us about where the country stands on this issue?

What we should all be painfully aware of is the tragic irony that Al Gore’s award-winning documentary, no matter how “critically acclaimed” it was, seemed to have ZERO impact on widespread public opinion about climate change. What’s worse, some claim that “(its impact on) public opinion was to increase public skepticism about climate science and polarize public support for both climate and clean energy action,” largely due to Gore’s messaging of “sacrifice” which made him a partisan target (and climate change a collateral damage). This should be a dire warning to anyone who believes that you can sway public opinion just by presenting “solid facts.” It’s the frame, stupid!

Apparently Chai Jing entered the venture with an assumption that there had already been a strong consensus within the Chinese society about tackling air pollution, all she needs to do is to build on this consensus and give the country a little nudge towards action:

“Easily put, everybody wants to breathe clean air. No consensus is stronger in this society than this one. That’s the source of my confidence,” she told People’s Daily’s official website which arranged an exclusive interview with her PRIOR to the release of her documentary.

Even though it is probably too early to make a conclusive analysis of its impact, so far the public response to the documentary shows that the consensus is there, but with certain tensions that may threaten to tear it apart.

What becomes immediately very clear after the release of the show is the official backing it enjoys. And that constitutes a major component of Chai’s “consensus.” The fact that People’s Daily’s official website was one of the first on-line channels to distribute the documentary speaks to the unprecedented level of official support. Other social media channels run by the People’s Daily, such as Xiake Island (a WeChat account), also did not hold back their endorsement, proclaiming that the country’s decision makers should “get used to” this mode of agenda setting. The Global Times’ official Weibo account even criticized those who questioned Chai’s motives as “not genuinely patriotic.” Official endorsement of the documentary was so strong that some observers started to wonder about the true intention underneath. One of them ruminates openly about whether it is the top leadership’s strategy to claim an alternative source of legitimacy by attributing the slowing economy to a noble “war against pollution.”

If the authority’s support was unprecedented, the general public’s reaction was by no means surprising. Chai Jing is a household name in this country and the personal touch of her documentary only makes it more powerful and appealing. A browse of comments under her documentary on Tencent shows overwhelmingly positive reaction to her effort. Many commentators were deeply touched by her account of a personal journey from an indifferent citizen to a deeply concerned mother. A widely read post on Zhihu.com expressed another mother’s strong determination to follow Chai’s lead in taking personal actions to protect her own child. The CEO of one of China’s largest portal websites, Sohu.com, immediately heeded Chai’s call to refrain from driving cars for short-distance errands. And such a sense of agency is a refreshingly new element that she introduced to the public mentality.

Strong official endorsement plus wide public support, this is what assures us that an anti-smog consensus is still “sound”. But is it sound enough to carry tough, unpopular, drastic measures? The documentary actually helps us to run a “stress test” of this precious consensus and disturbing cracks did emerge.

If accusations of hypocrisy (that Chai Jing is a smoker) can be readily dismissed as cheap excuses to continue doing nothing about pollution, there are challenges which should be taken more seriously. Some reactions to the documentary suggest that air pollution may get caught in the entrenched fight between the “liberals (Chinese right)” and “conservatives (Chinese left)” in China’s net space due to Chai’s long time (perceived) affiliation with the former. This may have the effect of alienating or even agitating a still powerful faction in online opinion. For example, the Left’s major criticism of Chai is her advocacy of loosening up the monopoly of state-owned energy companies and allowing more competition so that cleaner energy sources could gain more ground. This triggered guarded reactions from those conservative Leftists who emphasize China’s energy security and state control. A more extreme reaction that got many nods today branded Chai Jing as an agent of a “sinister Green agenda” that intended to undermine China’s industrial strength. This illustrates the real possibility (albeit small at this moment) of an opposition to the entire environmental agenda based on ideology, which is different from the kind of interest-driven opposition from industries that might be affected (see the oil industry’s reaction to the documentary). In a country without partisan politics, how far an ideology-based, sweepingly anti-environmental opposition can go is something interesting to watch.

Class is another potent element that has the potential to rift the existing consensus. Some criticizes the documentary for “completely representing the perspective of an urban middle class,” for them “smog is an enemy that has nothing positive associated with it. But if you interview a steel worker, he may say ‘I would rather have this smog than losing my job.’” None of these oppositions at this moment shakes the consensus that air pollution is a problem. However, they might have a larger impact on how the society chooses to tackle it. Actually a debate is already happening around whether Chai’s documentary prescribes the right medicine to China’s smog problem, with coal industry representatives arguing that existing measures, if fully implemented, are sufficient to render the air breathable, and environmentalists arguing that Chai did not go far enough in advocating for renewables.

When Al Gore made An Inconvenient Truth, his biggest challenge was to overcome that self-denial which was paralyzing climate politics in the United States. Chai Jing faced a completely different public opinion landscape. And her challenge (and responsibility) is how to steer that consensus, which is at the same time strong and vulnerable.