“In Danger”


On the morning of Nov 14, I woke up to the bloody massacre in Paris feeling blunted in my head. It’s terrible, it’s huge, it’s immense. But beyond that, there was very little I could say about what had happened there. A state of speechlessness descended upon me more or less like a cold: a part of your sensory capabilities is trapped in your own body by an external condition. It’s uncomfortable.

I spent hours swiping my telephone screen pointlessly, browsing Weibo posts one after another, most of which were about the terrorist act. It’s interesting how fast Chinese online discussion about the incident turned into a collective lamenting about the entire agenda of the European Left, ranging from its foreign policy (supporting Syrian Rebels against Assad), to its moral tendency (the limitation of “tolerance”), to its cultural norms (excessive political correctness). While these could be legitimate shortcomings of the Western liberal camp, it’s still amazing how a part of the Chinese society, which is in no way bound by the moral codes, the cultural taboos and the political constraints of the Western liberal-democracies, can be so worried about a “Europe turning Muslim.” Equally fascinating is how much of that discourse is imported through the Western ultra-right (even Zionist). Two articles that went viral on the Chinese cyberspace last week were translations/summaries of writings from pundits who openly lambast Muslims, one about the “demise of Europe” through population decline and welfare state, the other approvingly describing Japan as “a land without Muslim” by setting up all kinds of restrictions in its society, which is highly dubious. There seems to be an underlying craving for homogeneity manifested by the popularity of the second article, whose subject Japan is probably one of the most homogeneous societies in the world.

The propensity of Chinese online opinion to be carried away by misguided judgment prompts some influential figures on the Internet to openly declare a “shut-up”, claiming that they are not informed enough to comment on such a perplexing issue as the rise and spread of ISIS. There is also a part of me that resists the daunting task of doing a rundown of the clearly misinformed commentaries or the shoddy analyses provided by mainstream media outlets. So I turned to someone who I knew was intellectually more equipped than me to take on the Paris attack and terrorism in general.

Below is a solicited commentary written by my college friend Xymbolic, whose critical mind and erudition I have admired ever since we shared the traumatically cramped dorm room in Beijing fifteen years ago. The views expressed here are all his, but his call for a “planetary response” and a “cosmopolitan order” does invoke in me Philip Allot’s famous critique of the international order as “a glove turned inside out”. While the French Revolution got rid of kings for France, on the international level our world is still essentially ruled by the “princes” (sovereign) who do not respond to an “international society” the same way as they do to the societies within their own arbitrary boundaries. The very chaos of Syria today could be rooted in the fundamental inability of our “princes”, who get so accustomed to dealing only with other sovereigns, to relate to, negotiate with and be held accountable for a part of the human society that has been suffering too profoundly too long.


“In Danger”

by Xymbolic

Perhaps one of the most disturbing, albeit truthful, descriptions of the recent terrorist attacks in Paris is “not unexpected.” Actually, not only the recent attacks, but the Charlie Hebdo attacks, at the time it happened, was described in the same way by many. Though its cruelty is still shocking, and the loss deeply grieved; though the same feeling of powerlessness resulting from the inability to grasp the meaning, or total lack of meaning, of the event, still haunts the public, the strange undertone that the attacks had been somehow vaguely foreseen; and that by now such events even carry an eerie familiarity,  is definitely disconcerting.

November 1, 1975, almost exactly forty years ago, Pier Paolo Pasolini gave what turned out to be the last interview of his life.  During the interview, commenting on the murkiness of the situation of the struggle, Pasolini said: “We’re particularly pleased with conspiracies because they relieve us of the weight of having to deal with the truth head on. Wouldn’t it be wonderful if, while we’re here talking, someone in the basement were making plans to kill us? It’s easy, it’s simple, and it’s the resistance. We might lose a few friends, but then we’ll gather our forces and wipe them out.” However, when asked by the interviewer, Furio Colombo, to give a title for the interview, Pasolini said: “Here is the seed, the sense of everything. You don’t even know who, right at this moment, might be thinking of killing you. Use this as a title, if you like: ‘Because, we are all in danger.’” A couple of hours later, Pasolini was brutally murdered. The details of the murder, even the identity of the perpetrators of the crime, remain a mystery to this day.

Though it is not terrorism in today’s sense that he had in mind, we can still detect the similarity between Posolini’s “prediction of his own death” and the current situation. (Pasolini’s view that consumerism contaminates the working class with middle-class hedonism and thus stifles class struggle in the social life is clearly related to the discussion of the emergence of terrorism in its present form in the context of global capitalism, but we will leave this aside for the moment.) We are aware that we are indeed “in danger,” an impending, gigantic danger, which is at the same time extremely elusive and protean. Efforts at pinning down the source of the danger often deteriorate into various forms of conspiracy theories, e.g. the 9/11 truth movement, the ungrounded belief that Saddam Hussein was harboring al-Qaeda, or even the most banal version of racism and islamophobia from the average person in the street. Though ISIS is perceived to represent the biggest threat at the moment, it only rose to prominence less than two years ago, and it is impossible to tell when the next deadly reincarnation of terror will emerge. And even about this present archenemy, much less than adequate is known. The fact that Obama made the remarks that ISIS had been “contained” just hours before the Paris attacks took place, even if these remarks correctly describe the situation in general, indicates the imprecision and inadequacy of information. There seems to be no measure that can be taken to stop the lurking danger from leaping at the people. As Patrick Cockburn has commented: “Because the potential target is civilian populations as a whole, no amount of increased security checks or surveillance is going to be effective. The bomber will always get through.”

Subtly different from the widespread #jesuircharlie hashtag and the Republican marches in response to the Charlie Hebdo attacks, social media hashtags like #prayforparis and #porteouverte, and also the most prominent spectacle: the world’s landmark buildings lit with the French tricolor, all emanate an air less of outrage than of composure and courage. The impression is almost as if Paris had been struck by a catastrophic natural disaster. But maybe this is indeed how the terrorist attacks could be treated, i.e., as if they were natural disasters.

By no means am I saying that no one should be held responsible for this inhuman cruelty. What I am suggesting is that the inhuman feels inhuman and should be treated as inhuman. First of all, both terrorist attacks and natural disasters are absolutely meaningless in human terms. Oftentimes, when a terrorist attack happens, the perpetrators would release a message saying that the attack is meant to “teach a lesson” to the victims or their country. There is, however, no lesson to be learned from a terrorist attack, which is pure meaningless violence, just as Slavoj Žižek says when commenting on the Charlie Hebdo attacks: “We have to abandon the idea that there is something emancipatory in extreme experiences, that they enable us to open our eyes to the ultimate truth of a situation.” To comprehend is a human intellectual activity. There is nothing human in inhuman violence. It is therefore incomprehensible, and there is in fact nothing to be comprehended in it. In fact, to assume the role of a spectator and attempt to extract or produce certain meaning from grisly scenes of both terrorist carnages and natural catastrophes is in itself obscenely presumptuous.

Perhaps the disconcerting sense of familiarity upon learning that a terrorist attack has happened is not so different from the way we feel when a natural disaster strikes. We experience terrorism much like the residents of an earthquake-prone area experience earthquakes: they are aware that earthquakes may strike any time, try they best to do precise predictions, take all cautionary measures, but are still unable to stop them from happening. Furthermore, terrorism seems to have evolved into a stage where it no longer has a face. (I would argue that this is the reason why the term “terrorism” has remained in use despite constant criticisms.) Even though our daily life is much more saturated with images than a decade ago, the image of Baghdadi is not as instantly recognizable to the average person as those of bin Laden or even Zarqawi, who were “the faces of terror.” However vague the term “terrorism” is, it conveys the feeling that it is an inhuman, nameless, shape-shifting force that constantly displays its horrendous forms in terrible manifestations. Derrida was right when he predicted that the way in which the 9/11 attack took place would one day appear outdated. When we now read news reports about how today’s terrorist groups recruit new members by lurking on the social media and corrupting those susceptible to their propaganda, we cannot help but somehow take the metaphor of terrorism as a contagious disease more seriously than we usually do with a common figure of speech. Thus, we are, as Pasolini has it, “in danger,” a danger that is very much like natural disasters, which we as humans confront equally, and in the face of which we are equally vulnerable.

Recognizing the inhuman, natural-disaster-like aspect of terrorism may provide insights into the necessity of international cooperation in response to terrorism. In a letter written the day after the attacks,  Judith Butler says: “…[P]ublic services are curtailed, and no demonstrations are allowed. Even the “rassemblements” (gatherings) to grieve the dead were technically illegal. I went to one at the Place de la Republique and the police would announce that everyone must disperse, and few people obeyed. That was for me a brief moment of hopefulness.” Such gatherings in defiance of the ban from the police, I believe, exemplify what Walter Benjamin refers to in Thesis 8 of his “Theses on the Philosophy of History” as the “real state of emergency.” Hollande’s declaration of the State of Emergency has been greeted largely with mistrust and scorns from the Left. “The State of Emergency has become a synonym for the government doing as it pleases,” writes Paul Alliès. Echoing Giorgio Agamben, he also points out “a violent paradox: the institutionalization of exceptional powers reduces the scope of public liberties even as it is justified by the need to defend those liberties. ” According to Agamben, Benjamin’s idea of “a real state of emergency” aims at breaking out of the Carl Schmitt’s rigorous constructed “state of emergency” which is an anomic space where law has been suspended, while the force of law remains effective, and which, according to Benjamin, has become the norm. The prolonged “War on Terror” since 9/11 has witnessed such a process where it is no longer possible to differentiate between laws and exceptions to laws enforced by the force of the law. As Alliès oberseves, the State of Emergency “is therefore less a democratic mobilisation of society as it is its demobilisation.” If, however, the violence of terrorism is perceived as akin to that of natural disasters, which poses an equal threat to the life of every individual as a living organism, then this is a violence coming from out of the state of emergency rigorously controlled by the sovereignty. It may not be what Benjamin calls a divine violence, but it is clearly a pure violence that human beings, provided that we want to guarantee our survival as a species, must give a planetary response. When responding to the crisis of 9/11, both Habermas and Derrida proposed that it was necessary to begin a transition from the framework of international laws still based on 19th-century nation-states to  “a cosmopolitan order.” Yet what we have seen since that time was exactly the opposite to this vision. International cooperation has become an oft-mentioned yet empty promise, and the space for such cooperation is torn up by sovereignties operating in their respective states of emergency. So maybe it was too optimistic to expect the international alliances of sovereignties to transition automatically into a cosmopolitan order. Maybe what we need is, like the gatherings Judith Butler has mentioned but probably on a grander scale, self-organized responses to inhuman terrorism by people whose very lives are in danger, which may render the state of emergency declared by sovereignties superfluous.

Though since the attacks took place, given the background of the Syrian refugee crisis, the discussion has been carried out largely within a framework of the relationship between the West and the Middle East. As the ensuing events have demonstrated, however, China will by no means be able to assume the role of the spectator in the current situation. The ideal scenario, however pale its imitation in the real world would turn out to be, is that China will be able to take part without superficially taking sides, i.e., without submitting to the dichotomy of Eurocentrism versus Anti-Eurocentrism, which, according to Derrida, has its possibilities already exhausted; and according to Žižek, is but a trap set by global capitalism to counter that which, in the legacy of the Enlightenment, is still powerful as a resistance, viz. egalitarianism, fundamental rights, freedom of the press, the welfare-state, etc., the values that may ultimately fulfill the promise of a cosmopolitan global order that protects us from inhuman danger.

The Grand Spin: How China Makes Sense of the Syrian Refugee Crisis to Itself


When radio broadcaster and columnist Lu Jin posted her friend’s first-hand account of how Germany coped with the Syrian refugee crisis, she did not expect the vitriolic comments that flooded her Weibo wall. She was dubbed a “Holy Mother Bitch” (shengmubiao), a coinage of Chinese netizens to describe those who occupy moral high grounds through cheap and naive posturing.

Lu’s friend is a Chinese German citizen who lives in Munich. What her post tries to convey is the calmness and dignity with which the German society welcomes the tens of thousands of Syrian refugees trudging their way into Europe’s strongest economy. One particular thing she takes note of is the almost complete absence of national pride in the whole affair: “there is no attack on the refugees, no media singing praise of Germany the country, and no politicians venting emotions.” It seems to her that the whole society is discussing rationally about solutions to the problem, and is ready to give the refugees an equal opportunity to have a life in the country. She claims this experience to be the “most thorough education about humanitarianism” that she has ever received, and marvels about “not seeing a single article in the German media that implies any self-elevation of Germany as a country.”

Germany’s post-war aversion to the collective expression of nationalism should not be too surprising for anyone with a basic understanding of its historical trauma. Its suppression of even the spontaneous surfacing of national pride is a perfect example of how deep-seated that aversion has become. The fact that a Chinese observer highlights this particular aspect of Germany’s response to the refugee situation speaks more about the Chinese mindset than that of Germany. There is a subtle intention of contrast in the blog. For a moderately well-informed Chinese reader, the nationalism innuendo would ring a bell of China’s recent efforts to evacuate its own civilians from conflict stricken countries such as Yemen and Lybia using its navy, an act that came with a considerable amount of national pride.

The intended contrast and the discernible air of admiration in the blog explain why some Chinese readers get stung and agitated. For them, the exaltation of German selflessness is nothing more than a symptom of political naïveté and wishful misrepresentation. They were quick to pull out media reports in Germany that sound alarm of the deteriorating security situation in the streets of German cities, particularly a (dubious) story about a 7 year old girl got raped, as evidence that the German response to the crisis was far less “dignified” than what the author of the blog led people into believing. They went further by questioning the wisdom of the Merkel government’s decision, seeing it as misguided by liberal sentimentality rather than based on rational political calculation. Ironically this line of questioning was itself fueled by not-so-subtle Islamophobia and bigotry, which is no more reasonable than the “liberal sentimentalities” that they derided. In many such comments, the refugees were referred to as future terrorists, lazy idlers and sneaky free riders that would quickly take over the entire Europe.

To be clear, a large part of that anxiety-filled commentary on the Chinese internet comes from the Chinese community living INSIDE Europe, who has as much a stake in the problem as the Europeans themselves. But it is still interesting to note how narratives dominant in a Chinese domestic context are projected onto a crisis that is happening thousands of miles away from home, which in some cases results in bizarre interpretations on the verge of sheer fantasy.

If the nationalism lens adopted by the author of the above mentioned blog is still a legitimate and valuable perspective, other analytical frameworks used by Chinese authors would seem a bit too idiosyncratic. For example, a popular article that popped up in many people’s social network accounts these few days tries to (partially) attribute the refugee crisis to the political insensitivity of the “Syrian middle class” itself. It first states in a matter-of-fact way that the majority of the Syrian refugees are former lawyers, doctors and engineers, who used to be the pillar of the Syrian middle class. Then it launches into an eloquent line of reasoning that those white-collars are partly to be blamed for their own plights because of their cynical acquiesce to Bashar al-Assad’s autocratic rule: “They considered themselves the elites and the future of the Syrian society… Indifferent to the suffering of the lower classes, they believed that as long as they closely followed the ruling Assad regime, their life will get better… Even though they had witnessed the cruelty of the regime and its rampant corruption, they saw them as problems that can be solved through development.” At one point, you can’t tell if the author is writing about the troubles of the Syrian society or an allegory of contemporary China aiming at the Chinese middle class.

On the other end of the spectrum, commentators are spinning the Syrian crisis to a completely opposite direction. Zhanhao (占豪), a prominent left-leaning account on both Weibo and WeChat, prescribes its own medicine to the Syrian refugee crisis: Return the control of Syria to the Assad regime. To achieve that, Western countries should abandon their support to the rebels. The logic can’t be any simpler: it is the West’s continued support of the rebels to overthrow the “legitimate” government of Syria that is the origin of all the mess. To solve the exacerbating problem of the massive exodus of refugees, Syria needs to be returned to a state of “tranquility” maintained by its original government. The simplification in this line of argument is glaring. It refers to all the Syrian rebel groups as “terrorists”, ignoring their highly complicated composition and the fact that some of those groups were formed out of secular protestors. The notion that the Assad regime (“the legitimate government”) can somehow regain control over the country and rule Syria happily ever after as long as the West withdraws its support to the rebels is also close to wishful thinking completely overlooking the sectarian strife that has almost irreversibly torn apart the country politically, ideologically and geographically.

Its anti-West sentiments aside, the article epitomizes the kind of mental framework through which China’s conservative elites view the Syrian situation. In that framework, the state/society dichotomy is the dominant relationship trumping any other relationships. And within that relationship, the non-state forces are viewed with undisguised hostility (rebels equal terrorists), while the state, no matter how flawed it may be, is seen as the proctor of stability, and should be granted legitimacy for the sake of that. The complexity of the entangled Syrian situation, the Sunnis, the Alawites, the Kurds, the secular rebels, together with Iran, Russia, Hezbollah and Turkey, are all reduced to that simple equation with only two variables: the state and the rest of the country which is messy and dangerous.

So when a Foreign Policy commentary rebuts a People’s Daily op-ed for its double standard of accusing U.S. meddling while turning a blind eye to Iran’s deep intervention into that same country, it misses the key point: from a Chinese perspective, shoring up the “legitimate government” of Syria is in itself a politically justifiable thing, while supporting rebels is not.

Following the same logic, a Global Times editorial brings the argument to a new height of absurdity by openly musing about a hypothetical Chinese refugee crisis: “In the past century, most Chinese emigrants to the outside world were of economic nature. Large scale Chinese refugee outflow has almost never happened despite China’s internal turmoil in early 20th century. In the future if any unexpected developments were to occur, the external world would not allow large scale influx of Chinese refugees. This is not surprising, as an exodus of refugees from China would be in the millions or tens of millions. Western countries of course would not stomach that.” The editorial goes on to remind people what a big contribution China has made to “world humanitarianism” by reducing poverty and keeping peace domestically. “Only in a society enjoying a sustained period of peace can TV entertainment shows such as Voice become prosperous. The fact that they are the most talked about shows in today’s China is just awesome.”

It would be interesting to hear how a Syrian refugee at a European train station would respond to her personal tragedy being juxtaposed with a singing competition show as a way to justify a “stable” status quo that probably only exists in certain Chinese elites’ imagination.

More informed Chinese opinions do exist. Prominent Phoenix TV journalist Lvqiu Luwei points her readers to an article written by a researcher from one of China’s leading international relations think tank that provides a decently accurate summary of the current Syrian situation.  One commentator compares the refugee crisis with the annual influx of rural migrant workers into big Chinese cities and considers the current refugee situation in Europe to be much more manageable than many would perceive. He also cautions against the Islamophobic view that sees the refugees as potential extremists, arguing that those who fled from ISIS persecutions are less likely to be jihadist fellow-travelers, and could inject new labor forces into an aging Europe. But lacking the potency of domestic anxiety and imagination, such views are quickly buried by the moving dunes of online opinions that are eager to score points using someone else’s misfortune.