From the Bottom of a Dead Volcano? Public Vehicle Petitions and Open Letters

The following article was published on China Value last Friday, nearly a week ago. It seems to date back to about 2008, but I can’t tell for sure. And maybe the reason for (re)publishing it now can be found in the current news.

An age of open letters has been going on in China ever since, say, 1895, suggests Fu Guoyong (傅国涌), a mainland Chinese journalist. Naval defeat against Japan, then considered a small neighbor, led to the Gongche Shangshu movement (公车上书, literally: public-vehicle movement), a movement that never fully achieved, and at the end of which Kang Youwei began to publish his thoughts about modernization. (Kang actually led the movement.)

Entering the Republic of China, from Hu Shi, Cai Yuanpei and a total of sixteen renowned intellectuals who wrote “Our Political Position” in 1922 to the 1940s, intellectuals wrote one joint declaration or manifesto after another – the open letters of their times. The traditional open letter was reborn in the late 1980s, including authors like Shi Yafeng, Xu Liangying, Mr. Liu Liao, and others from the quarters of science, and including Mr. Wu Zuguang and other gentlemen from the circles of literature and art, writing open letters expressing their political views and conscience. This reached its peak in the peaceful protest movement of 1989 – a great number of open letters emerged, more than people could usually read, including Qian Zhongshu, Ba Jin and other signatories.

And after 1989, open letters were almost the only way to express views, writes Fu. A number of open letters, among them one in 1995, written by Xu Liangying, and one by a medical doctor, Jiang Yanyong, to the NPC and the Chinese People’s Political Consultative Conference in 2004 – the latter with a request to re-evaluate 1989 – were relatively influential.
“Open letters in large numbers bear testimony to the vitality of a nation, proving that an old nation hasn’t died”, writes Fu. “Under a dead volcano, there are still unusual voices.”

But open letters also showed that society was lacking effective legal channels and protection by the law, which led to the need to making appeals by such open letters: “a huge tragedy”. Simply said, open letters were one-way, with one side speaking, and the other mostly brushing the appeal aside, acting as if it hadn’t heard the voices, not being used to listen to peaceful voices. Only thunderbolts would shed light. A move from the era of open letters to dialog was contemporary China’s major issue which couldn’t be easily ignored or delayed anymore.

In my view, the “game” is about stating prices and making concessions, by mutually transparent and fair principles, each side giving in a step at a time, with standoffs, compromises, inching forward, giving in and backtracking, and if one sight is dominant and belongs to the side of the exclusively powerful interest groups, and the other interest group is weak, there is no great likelihood for a fair game, and the weaker are mostly at the mercy of the stronger.

The game, concludes Fu, needs clear rules. And it doesn’t work when the stronger side alone determines the rules.
Dialog had once been a hot word, in the CCP’s 13th national congress political report. But it had long since become absent. But dialog had been useful in the more recent past, in critical moments of history. Negotiators for Yuan Shikai‘s side and Sun Yat-sen‘s negotiators had their “South-North Peace talks” and came to the conclusion to send the Qing Dynasty into the museum of history. Another dialog approach, although not successful, was tried to overcome the Chinese north-south divide in 1919, to address the issue of warlordism. 1945 brought the Chongqing talks, and in 1946, a consultative conference came together in Chongqing, too.

Fu also addresses “politicization”. This is a term that is often used in an accusing fashion by the powers that be, against those they think of as their “challengers”. Fu doesn’t say that, either because he doesn’t actually address this context, or because it should go without saying among his readers.
The Chongqing talks and conference were “politicized”, he writes, and successfully so, in a peaceful, rational way, by solving problems and contradictions through dialog, with all sides representing their interests and negotiating them. It was China’s pain that dialog was destroyed by violence, with the complexities of Chinese history behind the violence. But more than once, Chinese people had chosen dialog and negotiations between different interest groups over violence.

I’m taking a short break from Fu’s article here.

The official term, concerning the 13th national congress of the CCP, was – probably – social consultation and dialog (社会协商对话, that’s how Fu puts it), or social system of consultation and dialogue / system of social consultation and dialog (社会协商对话制度). You have to turn to books rather than to websites to find clues about those times.

Back to Fu.

But the weaker weren’t completely bereft of dialog opportunities,he writes. There were (smaller) opportunities, and there was always room for reflection – even though the stronger side had decided to keep its powers, at the cost of dialog. “At the time”, civil representatives’ anger, overboard emotions, childishness, naivete and immaturity had shown that there was still a long way to go to the “era of dialog”, and that the tribulations for the Chinese nation hadn’t been over.

But “no matter how long it will take, I believe that the ‘era of open letters’ will be replaced by an ‘era of dialog’ in the end”, writes Fu. Discussing this transition was an urgent task.

The article also refers to Vaclav Havel‘s and other Czech intellectuals’ Civic Forum and its Eight Dialog Principles (as described/translated by Fu):

– the goal of dialog is to seek truth, not to compete
– no personal attacks
– stick to the topic
– use evidence when debating
– do not insist on your errors
– mind the difference between dialog and only allowing yourself to talk
– keep records of dialog
– do your best to understand the other side.

Fu had read the “code” about ten years before writing his article, and it had been a “new, rocking” experience, in its simplicity and practicality. To learn dialog, he believes, means parting from just talking to oneself, from a winner-take-all mentality, oppression of the weak, lame arguments camouflaged by strong words, but also from a mentality of hate, hostility, an absolutized feeling of superiority, and a place for people from different social classes, with different positions and values to talk with each other.

The main field of China Value, the website who published this article last Friday, isn’t politics, but finance. It addresses professionals. But according to their “about” page, they participate in shaping legislation, and cooperates with Chinese Central Television (CCTV).

Fu Yongguo, born in 1967, writes for a number of literary magazines, and for Southern Weekly (南方周末, aka Southern Weekend).

The rich and the talentend are turning their back on China’s political system as long as there was no legal certainty, Johnny Erling, correspondent for German daily Die Welt in China, (indirectly) quotes CASS scientists. Systematic reform, a reliable social-security network and emancipated participation by the people were needed. For the first time, writes Erling, the CASS blue book mentions China’s brain drain, in the context of China’s economic slowdown. More than 150,000 rich or well-qualified Chinese nationals had acquired resident permits abroad, in 2011.


» Scholars petition CCP, South China Morning Post, Dec 27, 2012
» Between Negotiation and Affirmation, March 25, 2012
» Scudding Clouds of Modern Thought, October 18, 2011


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