“At 105, Chinese Linguist Now A Government Critic”

Zhou Youguang, whose involvement in developing pinyin took Chinese romanization methods into the modern era, is in the news again. Now the man who put a stop to linguistic madness like saying ‘Peking’ for a city roughly pronounced ‘bay-jing’ is in trouble, though. From NPR:

Zhou has published an amazing 10 books since he turned 100, some of which have been banned in China. These, along with outspoken views on the Communist Party and the need for democracy in China, have made him a “sensitive person” — a euphemism for a political dissident.

When Zhou was born in 1906, Chinese men still wore their hair in a long pigtail, the Qing dynasty still ruled China, and Theodore Roosevelt was in the White House. That someone from that era is alive — and blogging as the “Centenarian Scholar” — seems unbelievable.

In the late 1960s, he was branded a reactionary and sent to a labor camp for two years. In 1985, he translated the Encyclopaedia Britannica into Chinese and then worked on the second edition — placing him in a position to notice the U-turns in China’s official line.

At 105, Zhou calls it as he sees it without fear or favor. He’s outspoken about what he believes is the need for democracy in China. And he says he hopes to live long enough to see China change its position on the Tiananmen Square killings in 1989.

“June 4th made Deng Xiaoping ruin his own reputation,” he says. “Because of reform and opening up, he was a truly outstanding politician. But June 4th ruined his political reputation.”

Far from shying from controversy, Zhou appears to relish it, chuckling as he admits, “I really like people cursing me.”

That fortitude is fortunate, since his son, Zhou Xiaoping, who monitors online reaction to his father’s blog posts, has noted that censors quickly delete any praise, leaving only criticism. The elder Zhou believes China needs political reform, and soon.

“Ordinary people no longer believe in the Communist Party any more,” he says. “The vast majority of Chinese intellectuals advocate democracy. Look at the Arab Spring. People ask me if there’s hope for China. I’m an optimist. I didn’t even lose hope during the Japanese occupation and World War II. China cannot not get closer to the rest of the world.”

The elderly economist is scathing about China’s economic miracle, denying that it is a miracle at all: “If you talk about GDP per capita, ours is one-tenth of Taiwan’s. We’re very poor.”

Instead, he points out that decades of high-speed growth have exacted a high price from China’s people: “Wages couldn’t be lower, the environment is also ruined, so the cost is very high.”

Zhou’s century as a witness to China’s changes, and a participant in them, has led him to believe that China has become “a cultural wasteland.” He’s critical of the Communist Party for attacking traditional Chinese culture when it came into power in 1949, but leaving nothing in the void.

Someone really should compile a list of old men who terrify Beijing.

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Filed under democracy, history, inequality, political reform

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