Thursday, June 15, 2017

China's Great Wall of Silence: The Psychology of it.

I was going through my Drafts folder just now and saw this post, with that lede, from sometime in 2007. So, I had thought of something similar to the "anthropology" of the Cultural Revolution pretty early on. I had remembered "Anthropology" coming to me fully formed as Athena out of the head of Zeus one Saturday.  It had not. Athena was partially formed in 2007. Nor was the post below fully formed as you can see from the matters at bottom I had intended to include. I believe that the reason I did not finish the post, or publish it non-fully formed as I am now doing, was because I was concerned that anonymizing Jung Chang as a man (I routinely reversed genders), "a prominent Chinese scholar" who  I "spoke to on the telephone"--that was a transparent fig leaf that revealed more than it concealed. But I have long since given name to the prominent Chinese scholar. And so, keeping in mind that I routinely reversed genders, this is "China's Great Wall of Silence: The Psychology of it," the half-formed fetus that became "The Anthropology of the Cultural Revolution."

China's Great Wall of Silence has been harder to understand than actually to breach. As can be seen on this blog people have begun to talk to me and at least one* of those who beat Bian Zhongyun has been revealed to me and I know of at least one other's involvement. But people do not talk or write freely about it. To clear the ground of some of the obvious reasons: the perpetrators are not going to talk for fear of prosecution, some innocent eyewitnesses are not going to talk because of fear of the perpetrators, others do not want to rat on friends or acquaintances. Those are all common obstacles in homicide investigation. They don't come close to explaining all here.

Below are some of the reactions that I've gotten, out of which I hope to make a statement of understanding at the end of this post, a statement I am unable to make as I begin to write it.

Last summer in Beijing I talked to a Chinese physician. His father, a professor, had been sent to the countryside during the C.R. and it was twelve years before he saw him again. After a little more talking, the pain on his face translating perfectly across the linguistic and cultural divide, the doctor waved his hand in an indication of "no more" and said "everybody was crazy back then." Pain is clearly one reason for the silence and perhaps he was implying that collective guilt is too.

Earlier this year I spoke on the telephone with a prominent Chinese scholar. The call had been arranged through an intermediary who told the scholar of my purpose and who agreed to talk to me. The scholar also sent me an email to the same effect. We arranged a specific time for the call so that it would be convenient for both of us given the vast time difference.

It was with great anticipation that I dialed at the appointed time. He greeted me warmly and addressed me by my first name. Seeing no reason for an ice breaker I told him I'd get right to the point, "who were those who you say told you they saw the beating of Bian?"

"Oh Ben I will not tell you that nor will I put them in contact with you." He said that with politeness and self-evidence. Why had he agreed to talk to me if he intended to say nothing? This was not a cold call. He knew exactly my purpose.

Later as I did more reading his manner reminded me of that reported by Westerners in dealing with the imperial court during the Boxer crisis. Unfailingly polite they nonetheless remained obdurate. So there may have been a cultural explanation for the way he refused to give information but that is different from why he didn't. What he said was obvious, to him.

But those were not my first thoughts. I didn't have any first thoughts, I was speechless for a few seconds. My initial excitement was buried by disappointment which was replaced by bewilderment and then, typically of me, with exasperation. I told him that I was sure that he could hear the anger in my voice, not at having wasted my time but at his unwillingness to name names.

My brief flash of anger was then replaced with curiosity and we talked about the why. I said that it struck me that to write about the atrocities of the Cultural Revolution as he did but not to mention the perpetrators was to tell the story of the Six Million without mentioning the Nazis. With the same self-evidence he said "No, it is not like the Nazis because the Jews were outsiders." He paused and said "Even though they were Germans they were still outsiders."

So part of it was as the M.D. had said, "everyone was crazy back then" and neither the doctor nor the scholar meant that they individually had participated in any of the violence but that those who had were part of their own. There is more complexity to the situation where the perpetrators are one's own rather than some easily demonized other but complexity does not mean blockage.

It has occurred to me since that another reason for the silence is that the two groups, those who know but did not participate and those who did are still in each others lives. For example so many of them are in academia and academia is a very incestuous field.

We talked about justice and society's need to hold those responsible for wrong-doing, not just as collective vengeance but as an instantiation of principles: that thou shalt not kill, that no man is above the law, that every life is sacred. He did not respond to that philosophically, that is he did not say that those principles do not apply in China or that they mean something completely different but fell back on a "practical" point. He said that he not think that my pursuit of those responsible was a "productive way of going," that naming names would not help China heal.

This was exactly the same thing that Dr. Youqin Wang had told me in a series of emails. Dr. Wang has a website devoted to the "Chinese Holocaust" a clear link to the Jewish holocaust. I had read her articles on violence against the teachers in 1966 and 1968 and she even had a section devoted to "those responsible." However, maddeningly she identified those responsible only at the group level, not the individual. She sourced conversations with specific individuals but didn't reveal the names in their articles nor to me personally. Something in what she wrote to me led me to suspect that

weili-no names
would not be productive

greater tolerance for cruelty
wang: didn't ask who did it

Another analogy, to South Africa's Truth and Reconciliation Commission, did resonate with him.

"white" people.

*See Liu Tingting below.