“Promoting democracy means more than exposing darkness”

Yang Hengjun in CMP:

In the eyes of some Chinese, democracy is like a roundabout. The best thing is not to talk directly about democracy, but rather to work one’s way around to it.

I’ve had young readers pipe up in conversation and lump me together with various contemporary writers or rights defense heroes. “Those of you who pursue democracy . . . ,” they begin. And I head them off by interjecting: “Look, the way I see it, this character you’ve just mentioned isn’t really someone who pursues democracy!”

At the risk of sounding curt, I’ve had enough of this blurring of lines. In China today, one of the biggest errors we fall into constantly is to assume that someone who opposes social injustice, or advocates for common livelihood issues [like education and healthcare access], or someone who opposes autocracy and the over-concentration of power must necessarily be a champion of democracy.

Over the years I’ve come across many people who oppose autocracy but haven’t in fact the least notion of democracy. In many cases they actually uphold autocracy in order to oppose it.

It would be a challenge these days to find anyone who says they can stomach corruption. The vast majority of people loathe unchecked power. But few people actually understand that democracy is the means by which such scourges can actually be removed.

A great number of academics and experts in China, including quite a few opinion leaders, are first-rate at exposing the dark corners of our society and ferreting out corruption. But deep in their bones they have little notion of democracy. Some think that we simply need to change out emperors. Some think we would be better off if they themselves were promoted to the top. Some believe we should return to the Qing Dynasty. Some believe we should turn the clock back to 1949. Others believe we should back-step to 1965 . . .

There is a clique of cynicism now emerging in China that wants to drag our people back to some beautiful past. For various reasons (for example, not wanting to be branded as traitors or slaves of the West), they refuse to move forward. They refuse to stride into the future.

I’ve said before that my favorite essay writer is Lu Xun (鲁迅). His laying bare of Chinese nature and his lampooning of rulers are unmatched to this day. But in terms of his thinking on democracy and his conception of the future Lu Xun has little to offer, whether one sets his work against his Western contemporaries or against Chinese writers and thinkers of his day.

Lu Xun’s satire cut to the quick of the Chinese character. And his vision begs the question: if the Chinese people are nothing more than a handful of Lu Xun characters, how can such a people possibly be suited to life in a democratic society? Lu Xun’s answer in the end is to hope that a master much stronger than the ineffectual Kuomintang can take the stage, a master that can help the Chinese people stand on their own two feet.

In time, China’s new master would take Lu Xun and elevate him as one of humankind’s intellectual greats. But Lu Xun is ultimately no more than a great man of letters. He is not so different from any of those many writers in Chinese history who exposed China’s darker corners and the wickedness of human nature.

I don’t mean to gainsay my own love and admiration for Lu Xun. I simply want to drive home the point that while we do need people like Lu Xun to go and expose the darkness, we also need people who can point the way to the light. The problem in China today is that so many people see the darkness even as they are absorbed by it. They are unable to see the light and step beyond the darkness.

In China today, we can choose to carry out rights defense actions, we can work to expose corruption and oppose injustice. But if we fail to see beyond this to democracy, none of these actions will carry us very far. Believe me when I say that our only advantage today over the ancients lies in our modern values and democratic institutions.


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