“Our Biggest Failure is Education”
Although it depends who is speaking.
The Tianjin writer Feng Jicai became famous in the 1980s for his published short stories and novels, including The Tall Woman and Her Short Husband, Italian Violin, and The Engraved Pipe. Feng’s protagonists are all victims of the Cultural Revolution, the darkest time in contemporary Chinese history. Feng belongs to the so-called “scar literature” generation, which tried to get rid of socialist ideologies and begin to recover from the trauma of the devastating decline of the humanity that occurred during the Cultural Revolution. Feng contributed reportage to the collection Ten Years of Madness: Oral Histories of China’s Cultural Revolution (1996), a genuine record of that turbulent decade, a political catastrophe that lasted from 1966 to 1976. In a sense, Feng changed from literary man to a chronicler in order to touch on the pulse of that time. The writer is also a fantastic painter and calligrapher, and promotes the restoration of traditional culture in his hometown of Tianjin. Feng also founded a literary cadre in Tianjin and has been a member of the Political Consultative Conference for decades.
- During the Cultural Revolution, people were sentenced to death or outright murdered because of one wrong sentence. In China today writers do not lose their lives over their poems or articles; however, they are jailed for years. My friend Liu Xiaobo for example will stay in prison til 2020; even winning the Nobel Peace Prize could not help him. In prison those lucky enough not to be sentenced to hard labor play “blind chess” to kill time AND TO TRAIN THE BRAIN NOT TO RUST. Freedom of expression is still a luxury in China. The firewall is everywhere, yet words can fly above it and so can our thoughts. My column, like the blind chess played by prisoners, is an exercise to keep our brains from rusting and the situation in China from indifference.
- Tienchi Martin-Liao is the president of the Independent Chinese PEN Center. Previously she worked at the Institute for Asian Affairs in Hamburg, Germany, and lectured at the Ruhr-University Bochum from 1985 to 1991. She became head of the Richard-Wilhelm Research Center for Translation in 1991 until she took a job in 2001 as director of the Laogai Research Foundation (LRF) to work on human rights issues. She was at LRF until 2009. Martin-Liao has served as deputy director of the affiliated China Information Center and was responsible for updating the Laogai Handbook and working on the Black Series, autobiographies of Chinese political prisoners, and other human rights books. She was elected president of the Independent Chinese PEN Center in October 2009 and has daily contact with online journalists in China.
Recently, one of Feng’s articles was reposted on the newspaper Qilu Zaobao, drawing some attacks from the hired “commentators,” members of the so-called 50 Cent Party. In his speech at the National People’s Congress and Chinese People’s Political Consultative Conference of 2013, Feng criticized the politicized education in China in a bold and public manner: “The failure of China’s education is rooted in its deceiving character. In countries with universal civilization, education is neutral, it makes no partisan advertisement. Our universities, middle, and primary schools are, on the contrary, the billboard of the political parties. Politics lessons as propaganda have their place directly under the board. Through these deceits, the students are brainwashed. When I was in school, we were fooled by these tricks. Today it is still the same.”
The reputable Feng not only condemned Chinese education as a failure, but furthermore, he mentioned several historical scholars and educators from the republic period. These include the principal of Beijing University, Cai Yuanpei, the main figure of the May Fourth Movement, Hu Shih, and the great educator and principal of Qinghua University, Luo Jialun. They all refused to cooperate with the government, and vigorously opposed the involvement of politics in the higher educational institution. Even the rough warlords of the time, like Zhang Zuolin and Han Fuqu, showed respect to academics and knowledge. These historical figures had the decency and courage to protect ethics in their profession.
As a veteran of Cultural Revolution, Feng knows that his fame is not a guarantee for his safety. Therefore, he applied the method of “using the past to satirize the present,” a tactic that was often used in a time when political persecution was so immanent and cast a shadow over daily life.
Feng further criticized the government, saying that “since 1949, the CCP has taken leadership of everything, monopolized everything, and civil society and the gentry class has been destroyed and disappeared. The Party has taken over the country and the whole society. A three man group needs one party member, a ten person group needs a party cell, a bigger organization needs a party branch. In school, there is party cell over party cell, and politics are taught year after year. The students, although not yet a part of society, have no fest Weltanschauung, (philosophy of life). Some have already been recruited into the party organization. The political lessons have the goal of indoctrinating youngsters into loving party and country, and to lift their morale. What is the result? Deng Xiaoping can conclude the situation: ‘our biggest failure is education.’ Here, education means moral education.”
Although what Feng the writer and Deng the politician mean differs with context, Feng’s speech sounded like a general statement about the Party. He used the old Deng as a shield.
The apparent 50 Cent Party commentator, Hou Xiping, tried to attack Feng with a poor argument: “If you defame the Chinese education as deceit, then how are you deceived? In school, teachers taught you that the red scarf was dyed with the blood of the martyr, was that wrong? The teacher said that without the Communist Party there would be no new China, was that wrong?… The Chinese Communist Party sets up political lessons to build up its own successor. This is absolutely necessary. It is logical and unalterable. Communist ideology is like the Gospel, it needs to be disseminated and reach the people in their hearts. The majority of Chinese are supporting (Communism).”
It is logical and unalterable. In a time when the voice of dissent is throttled and people are divided over different opinions, it is not a surprise that now the organized attacks are targeting Feng Jicai, even though he belongs to the political establishment. The government pays commenters 40 yuan for commenting on articles on local websites, and 200 yuan on national sites. Now we know they are not underpaid.
Feng Jicai used his prominence as camouflage to speak his true opinion and criticize the political dominance of the CCP. He risked his freedom and privilege, and yet his colleague, the Nobel Literature prizewinner Mo Yan, who enjoys honor and freedom on an international stage, is clever enough not to speak his mind. Mo Yan received an honorary degree from the City College of New York in November 10, 2014. In his speech and interviews, we see a cautious and sophisticated man, who beats around the bush and tries to avoid the sensitive topics that could cause him trouble with the authoritarian regime at home. Even the (Chinese speaking) journalists became his “accomplices,” and are polite, practicing self-censorship and avoiding questions that could endanger him.
Exaggerated international compliments and honors can only strengthen the ego of an already famous man, but will not awake his conscience if he does not possess a conscience already. Mo Yan remains a celebrity, and a master of literary and political handicraft. He will continue to enjoy applause and flowers from his Western admirers and remain a favorite pet of the party. His colleague, Feng Jicai, is not as good at playing the role of a celebrity, and so he could become involved in mudslinging. So far, no real persecution has been taken against him, as it seems his fame is a shield strong enough to protect him.