What’s common between Mohatma Gandhi and Martin Luther King Jr? Henry David Thoreau. That’s because Gandhi’s successful non-violent struggle for Indian independence from the British and King’s successful non-violent civil rights struggle to free African Americans were deeply influenced by Thoreau, especially his essay, “Civil Disobedience.”
(How does this relate to China? Don’t worry. I’ll get to it soon enough.)
“Civil Disobedience,” published in 1849, “argues that people should not permit governments to overrule or atrophy their consciences, and that people have a duty to avoid allowing such acquiescence to enable the government to make them the agents of injustice. Thoreau was motivated in part by his disgust with slavery and the Mexican-American War.” (Wikipedia.org)
Mahatma Gandhi to American reporter Webb Miller, on Henry David Thoreau:
Mahatma Gandhi first read Walden in 1906 while working as a civil rights activist in Johannesburg, South Africa. He told American reporter Webb Miller, “[Thoreau’s] ideas influenced me greatly. I adopted some of them and recommended the study of Thoreau to all of my friends who were helping me in the cause of Indian Independence. Why I actually took the name of my movement from Thoreau’s essay ‘On the Duty of Civil Disobedience,’ written about 80 years ago. (Wikipedia.org)
Martin Luther King Jr. autobiography talking about his inspiration from Henry David Thoreau:
Here, in this courageous New Englander’s refusal to pay his taxes and his choice of jail rather than support a war that would spread slavery’s territory into Mexico, I made my first contact with the theory of nonviolent resistance. Fascinated by the idea of refusing to cooperate with an evil system, I was so deeply moved that I reread the work several times.
I became convinced that noncooperation with evil is as much a moral obligation as is cooperation with good. No other person has been more eloquent and passionate in getting this idea across than Henry David Thoreau. As a result of his writings and personal witness, we are the heirs of a legacy of creative protest. The teachings of Thoreau came alive in our civil rights movement; indeed, they are more alive than ever before. Whether expressed in a sit-in at lunch counters, a freedom ride into Mississippi, a peaceful protest in Albany, Georgia, a bus boycott in Montgomery, Alabama, these are outgrowths of Thoreau’s insistence that evil must be resisted and that no moral man can patiently adjust to injustice. (Wikipedia.org)
In fact, many influential figures were greatly influenced by Thoreau’s philosophy. U.S. President John F. Kennedy, U.S. Supreme Court Justice William O. Douglas, and Russian author Leo Tolstoy all spoke of being strongly affected by Thoreau’s work, particularly “Civil Disobedience.” (Wikipedia.org)
How does this relate to China?
Allow me to digress a bit more. I recently visited Walden Pond, which during Thoreau’s time was just outside the then town of Concord in Massachusetts where he lived. Thoreau had actually lived for two years at the pond hoping to isolate himself from society a bit more (away from Concord) to gain a better understanding of society itself. While living in isolation, Thoreau wrote “Walden” – published in 1854 – which Gandhi referred to above. Below are some pictures I took while at Walden Pond. Here is a passage from the book and currently marks the cabin site where he lived the two years:
Walden emphasizes the importance of solitude, contemplation, and closeness to nature in transcending the “desperate” existence that, he argues, is the lot of most people. The book is . . . a social critique of contemporary Western culture’s consumerist and materialist attitudes and its distance from and destruction of nature. (Wikipedia.org)
True to Thoreau’s thoughts on preserving nature, the town of Concord today has kept Walden Pond and the surrounding areas pristine.
(Above and below are pictures of people enjoying themselves in the Walden Pond.)
How does this relate to China? Few years ago, I was in 杭州 (Hangzhou) and was deeply disappointed by the murky waters in 西湖 (Xi Hu), known in English as West Lake. West Lake has a lot of history and is of great cultural significance to China; arguably lot more so than Walden Pond is to the U.S. in those respects. While at Walden Pond, I thought to myself, West Lake’s water should one day be just as pristine.
More importantly, people in China should understand the works of Western philosophers like Thoreau. For one, it will help them understand the motivation behind a certain segment of the Western population. “Civil Disobedience” was motivated by Thoreau’s disgust against slavery and the unjust American war against Mexico. It became popular when Gandhi applied it against British colonialism. Martin Luther King Jr. also applied it to gain freedom for African Americans.
I recently had a conversation with Noam Chomsky (professor of linguistic at MIT and perhaps the most well known dissident critic of U.S.’s foreign policy) where I posed this question: “when and under what conditions do you expect our world to shift from “power” based to true “morality” based?” He replied:
It’s the present world order and its past world orders too. Thucydides pointed out centuries ago that the powerful do as they wish, and the weak suffer as they must.
When will it change? There have been some changes for the better, and more can come. Depends on the actions that the public is willing to take.
The world has been becoming more complex and diverse for some time.
Wasteful consumption, US-style, is likely to destroy the possibility for decent survival.
When Chomsky talks about “actions that the public is willing to take,” he is referring to the same philosophy Thoreau espoused in “Civil Disobedience.” While the American public failed to stop the 2003 Iraq invasion, a record number of Americans did take to the streets to protest. Chomsky is referring to this fact as “changes for the better.” (More here and a snippet below:)
And the same with opposition to aggression. I mean, after all, the Iraq war is the first war in hundreds of years of Western history, at least the first one I can think of, which was massively protested before it was officially launched. And it actually was underway, we have since learned, but it wasn’t officially underway. But it was huge, millions of people protesting it all over the world, so much so that The New York Times lamented that there’s a second superpower: the population. Well, you know, that’s significant and, I think, gives good reason for hope.
My question to Chomsky was motivated by what the Tsinghua University Professor, Yan Xuetong has said of the Western powers in the last couple of centuries – that they have established a culture of “power” in international relations. Implicitly, he is also saying for a better world, we have to have a culture of international relations that is more “moral” based. (Tsinghua University Professor, Yan Xuetong: “The Rise of China in Chinese Eyes”)
The linchpin of Chomsky’s answer to that question is “Civil Disobedience” and reliance on the right (as in “moral”) “actions that the public is willing to take.” In some ways, Chomsky is embodiment of Thoreau and more. But I am a little bit disappointed in my subsequent exchanges with Chomsky; he has not yet offer me a more “hopeful” answer. In 1988, he co-authored the book, “Manufacturing Consent: The Political Economy of the Mass Media” where he made the case that essentially the Western public is subject to brain-washing by their media. In other words, the public cannot be relied on to do the “right” thing, because their consent is manufactured.
Coming back to China – the attitude of some Westerners, their apparent “contempt” for Chinese law or their seemingly subversive attitudes towards the Chinese government are partly rooted in Thoreau’s “Civil Disobedience.” Of course, I don’t mean to condone such contemptuous and subversive attitudes. With the Western media’s bias against issues relating to China, the combination makes them much more antagonistic.
The Chinese experience is one of invasion and exploitation by foreign powers for the last few centuries because the Chinese were not able to muster up a strong enough government to defend themselves. This experience is polar opposites to the European experience – where strong governments tyrannized the people. So, the Western priority is one of “check and balances” for their governments. In China today, the people want, foremost, a government that can protect them from outsiders.
I suspect “Civil Disobedience” is probably not a “new” concept in China, and if I dig into the history of this idea, I am pretty sure I’d find it some time in China’s past.
Here is an interesting conversation between Ai Weiwei and Tom Lasseter, Beijing bureau chief of McClatchy Newspapers. Ai Weiwei is most widely known in the West for co-designing the iconic Bird’s Nest Olympic Stadium and now is one of the most outspoken critic of the Chinese government. (The Western media generally is trying to “ride” Ai Weiwei and position him in the West as someone who is defiant and anti Chinese government. That is lame and is an entirely different topic.)
Tom Lasseter: Your public presence is a very transparent one in many ways – your constant Twitter feeds, interviews, videos, etc. Beyond the content of those things, is the transparency itself a message?
Ai Weiwei: “Very much so … To deal with this power, or this authoritarian society, the strongest tool is to be transparent, to (be) very open, to try to start a conversation or a discussion or just throw out something which can generate this kind of motion. Transparency itself is the tool but also it’s the purpose (that) this tool is trying to achieve. So-called justice or fairness will never come if there’s no transparency.”
Tom Lasseter: How do you answer when government representatives ask why you do what you do?
Ai Weiwei: “They realize I’m not hired by any foreign agency. I come from a family which started longer (ago) in the revolution than them, most of them. They’re influenced by my father’s poetry in the early time, in the 1930s, he also was in a nationalist jail, was also a Communist exile. So they couldn’t find why I’m doing it, they couldn’t find why I am identifying myself with somebody on the street. You know, this is just simply beyond their understanding – ‘Why do you care about this guy who’s mistreated, I mean there’s really no association between you and him.’
So I try to explain to them we are all related, you know, if one is not free then none of us are free, this kind of very basic values. But still it seems (for) people hard to understand it, in China in general … I try to explain to them my ideas about freedom of speech, I think that’s good for everybody, for the state, for anybody.”
… “Secondly, you have to have a judicial system which is independent. And set up a rule, no matter how wrong the rule is, but we all have to follow the same rule. Otherwise you cannot start a game: you are a dealer, you are dealing the cards but you steal the cards, you change the rules all the time depend(ing) on what is in your hands. So nobody is going to play with you, then you lost your authority, then the whole situation becomes deteriorated and corrupt … that’s what (situation) today China is in.”
For those familiar with China’s reforms, transparency is a very active goal the government is working towards. Ideologically, Ai Weiwei is not at odds with the government over it.
His father’s prominence in China certainly helps, and perhaps the most important of all reasons explaining why Ai is able to continue his activism is what he said about “not hired by foreign agency.” Compared to some other “activists”, Ai seem to understand the importance of not breaking Chinese law.
So, yes, “Civil Disobedience” happens in China too.