Home > Opinion, politics > Throwing the baby out with the bath water

Throwing the baby out with the bath water

I have mentioned in previous blogs that I believe people around the world value much of the same basic things such as freedom to express themselves (their opinions, religion, etc) and some control of the political climate of their society. There may be plenty of other freedoms people value to varying degrees over the world. Some groups may value these more than others due to the contingencies of culture and so forth but most people around the world do value them at some level in my opinion and the voices that contribute to the development and application of these concepts ought not be relegated to those strictly from the west. We ignore their development at our own peril.

Our site here depends on our ability to freely express how we feel even if it may be different from what the US government or most of the public thinks. We all value our freedom to express our views in blogs. I take that as implicit acknowledgement of the value of free expression by all of us.

This is why it comes off as quite surprising to me why some Chinese Americans or in other parts of the west who are supportive of China’s perspective in general tend to have such antagonistic attitudes towards basic rights such as the freedom of expression. I think that many Chinese people inside China are fighting hard like people in the west to protect many of these basic freedoms from encrouchment.

There are legit criticisms of the west from the Chinese people. However, one should not think that all concepts from the west are mistaken or wrong for China. They should be evaluated on a case by case manner. There should also be a questioning of whether certain concepts are distinctly western or maybe the basic intuitions behind them are common to all peoples. How well these concepts will be applicable need to be evaluated carefully but in order for that to happen, an accurate assessment of what they actually are need to take place. That is why it is important for Chinese people to study western cultural and philosophical history to see how and why these concepts were articulated by western people in the past and to think carefully to see if they are indeed applicable to China in the future. Ideas may have to be modified or they may not be applicable at all for practical or theoretical reasons. But it serves no good to dismiss a strawman version of such concepts (as I believe that Eric X. Li does. See here).

I  believe that China has much to offer the west but there is also cross cultural dialogue. In order for the west to take China seriously, we need to demand that people in the west listen to us and for them to do that we may have to reciprocate and listen carefully to what if anything the other side is offering. Serious study of the history of ideas both Chinese and western, past and modern can be achieved only through commitment to studying them with open-minded and dedicated effort. This is why I am quite pleased that the Chinese government has not decreased its spending on philosophy departments inside China’s university’s and in fact, increased funding and interest.

Interest in philosophy is now huge in China. A recent article in the NYTs claimed that the political philosopher Michael Sandel (see some of his lectures on justice online) has “rock star” like status in China’s institutions of higher education (Sandel taught lectures at Tsinhua and fulltime at Harvard). Sandel has said that his Chinese students are very well informed on philosophical matters. The reason for this interest by the Chinese students and the government seems to be the realization that a vital aspect of building a successful society is its philosophical foundations. They also must realize that philosophical discussions between Chinese side and the western side can improve understanding and societies built on firmer foundations all over the world (see a good case for this made by a Chinese philosopher here in the chinadaily).

Many of the ideas developed by past and modern western ethicists, legal scholars, and intellectuals may be very helpful in developing a successful, modern Chinese society. Even when they are not helpful directly, they may help Chinese to better understand themselves, their own history and culture.

So in the spirit of mutual understanding, I am suggesting that we not dismiss, without serious thinking, any tradition “from” the west (indeed, there may be analogous developments that mirror them in China’s history as Ray and I have talked about). The tone westerners have used in lecturing to China is often an insincere, haughty, condescending one but we need to realize that these people are not interested in dialogue but have ulterior motives (such as one from cultural centrism, paternalism, or worse, racism). It is a shame that many ideas that may be important for Chinese people to think about may be dismissed because it is lumped in as western Trojan Horses with cultural hegemony or an unfit idea on the inside because of the experience from dealing with those westerners that are not concerned with dialogue. This is why I think so many Chinese nationalists dismiss human rights and democracy without seriously studying them first as I believe Eric X. Li has done.

But I also understand that the mere mention of certain concepts that has had a history of being used disingenuously by westerners as a tool to make China bend to the will of westerners has been associated and may be sullied by that association in the minds of many Chinese people. Perhaps we can take things like human rights and democracy and change the names to something distinctly our own so that the association is not apparent, we don’t see them as something distinctly western but see them as something that all people has a role in contributing towards. In that way, we become participants to the continual dialogue to improve and refine those concepts and to make them relevant for China’s future development. But what should be call them? Perhaps we should simply stop all talk of human rights and democracy and should replace those broad, vague monikers with more nuanced terms (there may be many kinds of democracy and many kinds of human rights)?

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  1. tc
    March 17th, 2012 at 19:24 | #1

    “The tone westerners have used in lecturing to China is often an insincere, haughty, condescending one but we need to realize that these people are not interested in dialogue but have ulterior motives (such as one from cultural centrism, paternalism, or worse, racism)”

    Very insightful. Love reading your posts and comments.

  2. pug_ster
    March 17th, 2012 at 21:07 | #2

    The problem is that Western Propaganda instills the White Man’s Burden mentality to this very day. You see this everyday. American politicians telling us that they must help out the Syrians, Libyans, Iranians, people of Afghanistan, North Koreans, etc…

    What’s worse than these people who wants to ‘help’ these people who don’t want any help, are the people who actually profit from it, whether financially, politically, and/or by notoriety. One person who came up in the news was Mike Daisey. He earned so much money being interviewed in the News and his playwright show, came on the backs on the people who have truly suffered as the result of people who worked in apple. Jason Russell profiting off from the people suffering in Uganda in its “Kony 2012″ campaign.

  3. Don Knotts
    March 17th, 2012 at 21:15 | #3

    This kind of “white man burden” mentality sounds remarkably similar to the “PRC Han man’s burden” one comes across so often in minority areas of China.
    How many times have I head comments like “we have given them so much, yet they refuse to be grateful”?

    Countless

  4. pug_ster
    March 17th, 2012 at 21:28 | #4

    @Don Knotts

    You have a point. However, there’s a difference between helping someone who don’t want help and helping ungrateful people. At least they accepted the help.

  5. Don Knotts
    March 17th, 2012 at 21:38 | #5

    Possibly Pug, but I’m not convinced those that “accepted” help actually have any choice in the matter. I guess it depends what one considers acceptance to be. Not easy to measure, especially in places where there is a very limited or perverted/ subverted feedback loop.

  6. March 17th, 2012 at 22:40 | #6

    @pug_ster
    What on earth are you talking about? Chinese territories are derived through history. Chinese viewing its territories are no different than American viewing her territories – you try your best to improve across them all.

    White Man’s burden is pretext to pillage from non-Whites and foreign people around the globe. There is no basis for comparison.

  7. March 17th, 2012 at 22:56 | #7

    @Melektaus

    I understand what you are saying.

    In answering your concluding questions, this is what I think.

    If the European Enlightenment borrowed a lot of ideas from Chinese philosophers and usurped what the Chinese have come up with as their own, then what is there to stop the future Chinese from doing the same?

    Indeed, I don’t believe the ideals of true democracy, human rights, and freedom would be lost. What future human beings will truly value will be the more relevant for the then conditions. Version 2.0 of those ideals could have very different brand and moniker.

    If the West is willing to so idly allow those ‘values’ to be warped for selfish gains and often at other people’s expense, then let those ‘values’ continue to erode.

    That’s creating space for version 2.0, and let’s embrace 2.0.

  8. LOLZ
    March 18th, 2012 at 02:01 | #8

    The way I see it, there is a difference between arguing against freedom of expression, liberty, etc., and arguing against forcing these concepts on people. I have argued for more press freedom in China here before because I think it would instill more integrity and accountability in the Chinese system. However at the same I am against say, Radio Free Asia, because it represents foreign interests masquerading as genuine Chinese grassroots.

    That said, not all of the things the Western media says about China are untrue. China needs serious reforms. This is why concepts like human rights need to be debated on an open platform, with talks of pros and cons of the “Chinese version” as well as the “Western versions”. Without freedom of expression this will not happen.

  9. March 18th, 2012 at 02:33 | #9

    I am not trying to throw cold water on everybody. I believe it is when only company like Foxconn can afford to pay $2000/month (in today’s money) to the average factory workers, talks of freedom and democracy can proved to be meaningful.

    If one can find solution to paying that salary, the other problem would solve itself. It won’t be meaningful if we can’t solve “simple” problem like paying a good living wage to the average workers.

  10. March 19th, 2012 at 10:02 | #10

    @Don Knotts

    I have never really seen this Han chauvinism but would’t doubt it exists in parts of China and that it is partially to blame for much of the ethnic tensions. I do however, see plenty of chauvinism from the west and I know that it causes lots of harm in the world.

  11. silentchinese
    March 19th, 2012 at 10:43 | #11

    Han chauvinism exists only in the internet of know-nothing youths and “ah-ha”s of under-observed western observers.

  12. March 19th, 2012 at 11:49 | #12

    @silentchinese

    Han chauvinism may very well be a made-up problem much like the many other made-up narratives against the Chinese. I see a lot more chauvinism from Tibetans, westerners and other people at least in the west against Chinese people. Unless there’s good evidence of consistent incidents of so called Han chauvinism, I will remain skeptical.

  13. Truuth from Facts
    March 20th, 2012 at 00:45 | #13


    In some places the relations between nationalities are far from normal. For Communists this is an intolerable situation. We must go to the root and criticize the Han chauvinist ideas which exist to a serious degree among many Party members and cadres, namely, the reactionary ideas of the landlord class and the bourgeoisie, or the ideas characteristic of the Kuomintang, which are manifested in the relations between nationalities. Mistakes in this respect must be corrected at once. Delegations led by comrades who are familiar with our nationality policy and full of sympathy for our minority nationality compatriots still suffering from discrimination should be sent to visit the areas where there are minority nationalities, make a serious effort at investigation and study and help Party and government organizations in the localities discover and solve problems. The visits should not be those of “looking at flowers on horseback”.

    Judging from the mass of information on hand, the Central Committee holds that wherever there are minority nationalities the general rule is that there are problems calling for solution, and in some cases very serious ones. On the surface all is quiet, but actually there are some very serious problems. What has come to light in various places in the last two or three years shows that Han chauvinism exists almost everywhere. It will be very dangerous if we fail now to give timely education and resolutely overcome Han chauvinism in the Party and among the people. The problem in the relations between nationalities which reveals itself in the Party and among the people in many places is the existence of Han chauvinism to a serious degree and not just a matter of its vestiges. In other words, bourgeois ideas dominate the minds of those comrades and people who have had no Marxist education and have not grasped the nationality policy of the Central Committee. Therefore, education must be assiduously carried out so that this problem can be solved step by step. Moreover, the newspapers should publish more articles based on specific facts to criticize Han chauvinism openly and educate the Party members and the people.”

    Mao ZeDong March 16 1953

  14. March 20th, 2012 at 11:08 | #14

    1953=/=2012. And besides, Mao isn’t exactly the best source of information…

    Testimony from Mao does not seem to be what anyone would consider credible evidence.

    I still see far more chauvinism from Tibetans and other groups against the Chinese than I see from Chinese to other groups. Far more.

  15. March 20th, 2012 at 14:58 | #15

    I am a little late to the party. But I agree with most of what’s written here. I see myself foremost as a musician. And I can say that learning about Western music, Chinese music, even Incas music only makes me a better musician. There is nothing wrong about studying or even embracing all types of music – as long as it furthers my journey as a human being. Same is true for China studying, embracing, or even adopting elements as she sees fit – as long as it furthers her journey as a civilization.

    What is wrong however is when one claims one particular school of music to be universal – that all other music must be measured to that one tradition.

    I will point out these two paragraphs:

    This is why it comes off as quite surprising to me why some Chinese Americans or in other parts of the west who are supportive of China’s perspective in general tend to have such antagonistic attitudes towards basic rights such as the freedom of expression. I think that many Chinese people inside China are fighting hard like people in the west to protect many of these basic freedoms from encrouchment.

    There are legit criticisms of the west from the Chinese people. However, one should not think that all concepts from the west are mistaken or wrong for China. They should be evaluated on a case by case manner. There should also be a questioning of whether certain concepts are distinctly western or maybe the basic intuitions behind them are common to all peoples. How well these concepts will be applicable need to be evaluated carefully but in order for that to happen, an accurate assessment of what they actually are need to take place. That is why it is important for Chinese people to study western cultural and philosophical history to see how and why these concepts were articulated by western people in the past and to think carefully to see if they are indeed applicable to China in the future. Ideas may have to be modified or they may not be applicable at all for practical or theoretical reasons. But it serves no good to dismiss a strawman version of such concepts (as I believe that Eric X. Li does. See here).

    Why is freedom of expression a basic right? Have you presupposed certain things?

    I might also ask, what is a “basic right”?

    In the Western liberal tradition, it’s something you don’t trust to the people to regulate, not a government, not even a people’s government to regulate. In that sphere of area, we demand anarchy – total lack of government interference.

    I don’t think that’s necessarily a universal value.

    In any case, I certainly think that freedom of expression of some sorts deserve protection. But I need justify it – and you can take it or leave it. I should never conclusively call it a universal value (that’s so presumptuous). This is true especially when most people (even in the West, not just of people around the world) can’t say for sure what that means.

    Truth to be told, the practices of freedom of expression have vacillated with changing values, politics, security of nations / societies. Any such “right” is embedded in the circumstances of a society – it’s for a society to define and develop, in accordance with each societies’ traditions and values. The West, being first to develop in the advent of the industrial revolution, had a choice to define its path. That does not mean the rest of other peoples need to have that experience imposed on them – voluntarily (through some sort of fetish for the West) or involuntarily (through western force).

    In China’s situation, people can sure argue about how much “freedom of expression” its society ought to have. A good starting point might be that of a prosperous society – of getting people to participate, of getting people to participate in a marketplace of ideas where good ideas are developed and nurtured and bad ideas weeded out- through the million voices of the people – together as a people.

    It’s crazy to start, well because John Stuart Mills of the 1850′s in England said it was a natural right, basic right, or universal right…. The notion of tolerance and dynamism in a society might be better notions for China than legalistic terms such as “freedom of expression” or “freedom of speech.” The Western of “freedom” (more rhetoric than anything else for much of its history) can help, but that was developed at a certain time for a certain society, so we shouldn’t assume something is a basic right because Mills said it…

    Why do I have such a strong opinion on this? (see e.g. comments made in this thread and this thread)

    Because I believe it’s important to have multiple traditions develop fully around the world. There are many ways to build a prosperous society (assuming we want that; I think we do, but I will not call it “universal”). One should not feel the need to conform – to fit one’s history, values, development squarely into someone’s else round hole.

    I don’t believe in universalism. There are many ways to chisel a sculpture, draw a painting, write a song. We must embrace the full dynamic dimension of the human experience.

    To refrain from calling another tradition as universal is not to resort painting “strawman versions,” it merely to say, let beauty really rest in the eye of the beholder. Let each be his own judge. Let’s have real self determination around the world.

    To do that in good faith, one must reject universalism, even if it turns out to be the case that some universal truths may exist. If there is any universal truth – let that come from one thousand blooms around the world. Let that come from the result of multiple peoples’ journeys, not from any one particular journey.

    The history of liberalism as we currently define it is only at a beginning. The “liberalism” as we know today in the West didn’t really develop until the 1960′s. Whether they are sustainable in all societies or only flicker a momentary existence in nations that benefited disproportionately from apportioning the world’s resources – through military, economic, and political means – is a great unknown. It’s too premature to discuss any values / ideas as “universal”.

    People should continue to search – by applying their own reason and observing their own world. Some truths may be confirmed by looking to philosophers of the past, but just as many of the enlightenment philosophers did not find much interesting to adopt directly from medieval church practices – most of what we will need for most of the world today I believe we have to invent anew ourselves.

    They say that there are more scientists alive and practicing today than in all the previous periods of history combined. So can be the case for philosophers. We have more power today than any society previously had. Let’s unleash that and make today the real era of human enlightenment – not live in a shadow of a foregone and discredited era of human history.

  16. raventhorn
    March 20th, 2012 at 19:24 | #16

    melektaus :
    1953=/=2012. And besides, Mao isn’t exactly the best source of information…
    Testimony from Mao does not seem to be what anyone would consider credible evidence.
    I still see far more chauvinism from Tibetans and other groups against the Chinese than I see from Chinese to other groups. Far more.

    Mao’s quote is completely taken out of context, principally by the TGIE supporters in US.

    Within the quote, Mao stated, “In other words, bourgeois ideas dominate the minds of those comrades and people who have had no Marxist education and have not grasped the nationality policy of the Central Committee.”

    Mao clearly explained what he meant as “Han Chauvinism” is the old way in China when “bourgeois ideas” dominated the political system and essentially left a “segregated China” where Hans do not mix with the minorities, do not help develop the sparse remote provinces.

    Mao wrote this in 1953!!! before even the DL’s “peaceful uprising”.

    It is ridiculous to imply that Mao was talking about the supposed “Han Chauvinism” that happened later, when the Han Chinese were sent by Mao into Tibet to do “Marxist education”, which he was suggesting in his own writing in 1953!!

    to the Troll moron: read the DATE!!

  17. March 21st, 2012 at 12:47 | #17

    Thanks for the background information, RV. Yes, taking things out of context is what the haters do. They just hate China and the Chinese people so much that they will do anything to make their case including misquotations.

  18. March 23rd, 2012 at 12:51 | #18

    Allen :

    Why is freedom of expression a basic right? Have you presupposed certain things?
    I might also ask, what is a “basic right”?

    I’m basing my views on that of what I hear from Chinese citizens and the Chinese government. The Chinese government values freedom of expression to a degree. that degree is less than the US perhaps but IMO roughly equal to European standards. I also think that the Chinese people wish for more of these freedoms (such as internet expression and access to information). Are these professed values insincere? I don’t think so. I see no reason the Chinese people and government would want to profess these values if they didn’t really value then. i also think that these values are universal.

    In any case, I certainly think that freedom of expression of some sorts deserve protection. But I need justify it – and you can take it or leave it. I should never conclusively call it a universal value (that’s so presumptuous). This is true especially when most people (even in the West, not just of people around the world) can’t say for sure what that means.

    It needs no completely precise definition. the definition should be a working definition. It should be guided by people’s inputs from around the world including the Chinese people/ To completely leave out that discussion is to the detriment of the Chinese people. I’m not even sure there is such a thing as a completely precis, complete definition of anything. Even concepts in physics and mathematics are forever at some level imprecise. But the project of science is worthwhile because it is a living tradition that involves constant refining, tweaking, refinements, precifications, etc.

    Truth to be told, the practices of freedom of expression have vacillated with changing values, politics, security of nations / societies. Any such “right” is embedded in the circumstances of a society – it’s for a society to define and develop, in accordance with each societies’ traditions and values.

    I have no problems with that. i see no problems with that and developing any right framework.

    The West, being first to develop in the advent of the industrial revolution, had a choice to define its path. That does not mean the rest of other peoples need to have that experience imposed on them – voluntarily (through some sort of fetish for the West) or involuntarily (through western force).

    Correct, which is why I believe that the Chinese people need to venture on their own to develop their own notion and to develop their own discourse on why their notion is justified. But to throw the baby out with the bath water and abandon the whole notion of human rights is a mistake and it is to the detriment of what the Chinese people want and undermine what the Chinese nation as a whole is working towards.

    In China’s situation, people can sure argue about how much “freedom of expression” its society ought to have. A good starting point might be that of a prosperous society – of getting people to participate, of getting people to participate in a marketplace of ideas where good ideas are developed and nurtured and bad ideas weeded out- through the million voices of the people – together as a people.

    This is not unique to China’s situation. All nations must find that balance.

    I don’t believe in universalism. There are many ways to chisel a sculpture, draw a painting, write a song. We must embrace the full dynamic dimension of the human experience.

    But this assumes that it is a western tradition. All societies have valued and developed to some degree a system that tries to find a balance between the desire of people to express their views and the desire for things like development and harmony. I find the view that it is a western viewpoint very offensive to the non western traditions.

  19. Hong Konger
    March 25th, 2012 at 09:20 | #19

    I agree with melektaus. Let’s not presume that freedom of expression is only Western.
    There are places in the east where people are free to speak, whether it’s India or Taiwan or Japan.
    There are places in the west where there are restrictions, like parts of Latin America.

    I also agree that there are no absolutes. Free speech doesn’t mean a lawless society. Countries have to impose laws based on their own particular needs, whether it’s to stop neo-Nazi groups or plagarism or stalking or whatever.

    However, China has taken this too far. On paper, free speech is protected by the constitution. But in reality, it uses laws to silence people the government simply doesn’t like. And it’s ridiculous that the average person can’t use Facebook or Twitter openly, even though most of that content is apolitical.

    I don’t agree that China has the same level of free speech in Europe. In Europe, you can basically do what you want on the Internet and you can criticize your government openly. You can’t do that on the mainland.

    I think that, loosely, free speech is a universal human desire. It’s natural to want to express your views.

  20. pug_ster
    March 25th, 2012 at 10:01 | #20

    @Hong Konger

    Errr. I don’t agree with you on that one. I think China is probably better than the West in terms of allowing people to protest and have people to openly criticize the government. You never see people getting pepper sprayed or boxed in and arrested in China like in the OWS protests. You never see encampments disbanded at 5am in the morning. Apparently, now it is illegal to protest in these kind of OWS protests using the HR 347 passed by the corrupt US legislators. It is not illegal for people in China to openly protest against the government or write stuff in the internet openly criticizing the government, but it is illegal to try to overthrow it, which is what many Western backed ‘NGO’s are trying to do.

  21. Charles Liu
    March 25th, 2012 at 10:05 | #21

    @Hong Konger

    Rights like free speech has to be balanced with other competing priorities, such as more fundamental rights that faciliate free speech. I am by no means an expoert, but state rights such as functioning society, national security, sovereign independence, for the greater good of all citizens come to mind.

    We have seen many examples of freedom and chaos becomong out of balance in middle east, in pursuit of rights. Would the US allow Egyptian style occupation in DC where major traffic was blocked for months on? In New York OWA protest hunderds of protesters were arrested immediately for blocking traffic. Would US government willingly subject itself to regime change, based on tiny % of citizen protesting? Our media mislead us by reporting large crowd of Egyptians protesting, but the reality is vast majority of Egypt’s 83 million citizens had their fundamental rights revoked by few protests orchestrated by “civil society” funded by foreign paymaster.

    Even more obvious case would be Libya. The humanitarian fiasco caused by NATO if clear in retrospect. Now the Libyans suffer statelessness with nearly 1% of population decimated, ironically in the name of humanitarian intervention & responsibility to protect. Libyan’s collective oil wealth now belongs to someone else.

    I would not wish this on anyone, including China. By no means is China perfect, some things may even be very imperfect. But let’s not throw out the baby with the bathwater.

  22. March 25th, 2012 at 15:06 | #22

    Hong Konger :

    I don’t agree that China has the same level of free speech in Europe. In Europe, you can basically do what you want on the Internet and you can criticize your government openly.

    This is false. Even in the United States, which is far more tolerant than Europe in protection of freedom of expression, you cannot do whatever you want on the internet. People (US citizens) have been assassinated by the government for posting youtube videos on the internet (e.g. Al Alwaki and Samir Khan). People have also been sent to long prison terms for selling cable subscriptions in recent US history.

    In Europe it is far worse. You cannot post whatever you want on the internet. There are lots of restrictions. I already made a post on this.

    http://blog.hiddenharmonies.org/2011/10/freedom-of-expression/

    In fact, I think China is more tolerant towards expression than many European countries.

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