China Has a Long History of Dissent and Political Debate

A commentary by Yu Ying-shih
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Chinese President Xi Jinping (C front) greets military officers at a meeting in Beijing, Jan. 29, 2015.
Chinese President Xi Jinping (C front) greets military officers at a meeting in Beijing, Jan. 29, 2015.

Let's think about whether it's reasonable to stop ordinary people from speaking out, and about whether press freedom is a Western invention that isn't right for China. I think a lot of people are very mixed up about these ideas.

Start with President Xi Jinping's warning during his Feb. 19 visit to CCTV, the People's Daily, and Xinhua news agency, that the media has the same surname as the [ruling Chinese Communist] Party, and mustn't ever speak for anything or anybody else.

This was a very sudden and very strong message. What he meant was, if you're not going to express the will of the party, or of Xi Jinping as the leader of the party, then you mustn't say anything at all in public.

In reality, the party has no will. That is the creation of Xi Jinping in his role as general secretary of the party. What he really meant was, you have to say the same thing as does. No differing opinions or any criticism of the party will be tolerated. That's what "the media takes the surname of the party" really means.

After he said those thing, Xi Jinping also went on to talk about a thing called "making rash comments about the party line," which is about the most ridiculous thing I have ever heard. Let's not forget that the will of the party is really the will of Xi Jinping.

Basically, nobody is allowed to say anything, if it's not the same as what he says, or they will be considered to be making rash comments.

Anyone who wants to criticize the government needs to put it on the record.

A history of dissent

In the Zhou dynasty [1100-256 BC], they had a special form of poetry they used, which was sung by ordinary people as songs. They were already criticizing the government back then, telling people what made them angry or dissatisfied.

A lot of people put their thoughts into poetry, to form part of the official record. It was clear that public anger against the government was regarded as a reasonable thing.

Fast forward to the 17th century, and there is a poem in "Record of a Ming barbarian waiting for a visitor" that talks about schools, which the poet thinks should be gathering places for intellectuals to hold debates. The idea was that the emperor shouldn't get too big for his boots, nor should his word be law, because the conclusions drawn by people of learning who had researched the matter at hand were more reliable.

That's why academies played the role of critics of the emperor. It was to prevent him from going ahead with the worst of his policies. So we see that there was a tradition of criticizing the emperor in the Ming Dynasty [1368–1644] as well.

There's another story from the Tang dynasty [618-907], about a man called Li Hua, who lived in the reign of the Xuanzong emperor. He wrote about the Hall of Government, which was a place where all the Tang era ministers and high-ranking mandarins gathered to discuss current events and to stop the emperor from doing anything stupid, like bringing chaos to the land and offending heaven and earth.

In particular, the emperor wasn't allowed to deal unreasonably with the people by subjecting them to oppression and persecution.

So we can see that there is a long and unbroken tradition in China of political debate.

A good ruler is somebody who speaks for the people. Somebody who goes against the will of the people can't be called a good ruler.

Translated and edited by Luisetta Mudie.

Yu Ying-shih is a Chinese-American historian and Sinologist, who broadcast a longer version of this essay on RFA's Mandarin Service to mark World Press Freedom Day 2016.





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