The “sunken voices” of China

In the past month, the People’s Daily has run a series of five editorials from the “editorial desk” dealing with so-called “social mentality” or shehui xintai (社会心态) in China. Against the backdrop of tightening controls on the press and a more aggressive attitude toward prominent academics and dissidents — to say nothing of the paper’s typical stiffness — the editorials have puzzled some with their more broad-minded positions. Others have dismissed them as propaganda smoke screens, affecting candor to throw observers for a loop.

Even relative insiders who generally know how to read the signs have scratched their heads. After reading the fifth and final editorial in the series today, the Chinese user “freemoren” wrote on Twitter: “People’s Daily editorial desk: Leaders Must Listen Attentively to Those ‘Sunken Voices’ . . . Doesn’t the People’s Daily seem not to be itself lately? What’s up with Comrade Li Changchun?”

Li Changchun (李长春), of course, is the fifth-ranking member of the politburo standing committee and China’s de facto propaganda chief. He’s the man who steers China’s message, so the implication by “freemoren” is that these unorthodox editorials somehow suggest the propaganda regime itself is in turmoil.

That’s unlikely. But in tomorrow’s post, time permitting, I’ll get into some of the reasons why we see such markedly different voices appearing in a publication generally thought to reflect the broader consensus of the Party leadership.

For now, though, let’s finish out this series at the People’s Daily with the final editorial, “Leaders Must Listen Attentively to Those ‘Sunken Voices’” (执政者要倾听那些“沉没的声音”).

This piece argues that “prolonged social and political stability” can only be established in China if proper mechanisms ensure that all Chinese can make their voices heard. It suggests that China is entering a “golden age” of expression, but that “there are still many voices that have not been heard.”

In keeping with official-speak, the editorial does not invoke the term “freedom of expression” (言论自由), which is slightly more sensitive and has liberal Western associations, but uses instead “right to express,” or biaodaquan (表达权), which hearkens back to Hu Jintao’s 2007 formulation of the so-called “four rights” (四个权利) — the right to know (知情权), right to participate (参与权), right to express (表达权) and right to monitor (监督权).

That’s to be expected. But there are points that genuinely surprise, as when the editorial argues that, from a more enlightened vantage point, “rights defense” (维权), which generally refers to citizen actions to oppose unfair government actions, is “stability preservation” (维稳), a term that generally refers to the mobilization of a huge (and expensive) police and security apparatus to deal with internal unrest arising from social tensions. This view seems much closer to that of liberal Chinese Academy of Social Sciences scholar Yu Jianrong (于建嵘), a proponent of constitutionalism, than it does to the dominant Party view on social management.

For those of you who haven’t followed it, this series began on April 28 with a piece called “Dealing With ‘Differing Ideas’ With an Attitude of Tolerance” (以包容心对待“异质思维”), which called for a tolerant attitude toward new and different ideas. The editorial called intolerance “a sign of weakness and narrow-mindedness” and said “diversity is the secret to prosperity.”

Where Do We Begin in Our Pursuit of Reason?” (追求理性从哪里起步), published on May 19, argued that only by creating effective mechanisms for dealing with underlying problems — such as the deepening gap between rich and poor, the inaccessibility of housing and other crucial social services, the destruction of homes in the face of property development, etcetera — can China move truly and steadily toward the so-called “building of rationality” (理性建设).

Here is our translation of editorial number five of the People’s Daily series on “social mentality”.

Leaders Must Listen Attentively to Those “Sunken Voices” (执政者要倾听那些“沉没的声音”)
People’s Daily
May 26, 2011
From the Editorial Desk of the People’s Daily (人民日报评论部)

In China today, you can hear all sorts of voices. During sessions of the National People’s Congress and Chinese People’s Political Consultative Congress [this year], delegates and committee members spoke freely about matters of state. In our newspapers and magazines, different ideas were exchanged and explored. User comments on the news [at websites] often ran into the thousands, and close to 200 million internet users wrote 140-character microblogs as they pleased . . . Track upon track of voices, rising into an ensemble, revealing the complicated picture, and the vigor and vitality, of multiplicity and diversity in this age of ours..

We are ushering in a “golden age” of expression, but there are still many voices that have not been heard. On the one hand, some voices have been submerged in the vastness of the field of voices (声场), so that it is difficult for them to find the surface. On the other hand, there are some voices that only “speak, but in vain” (说也白说), that make their wishes known but find their problems unresolved. These can all be thought of as null expression (无效表达), and some have called them “sunken voices” (沉没的声音).

Null expression is not a lack of expression, nor is it an unwillingness to express. When city leaders in Guangzhou announced that they would meet personally with petitioners, city residents turned out with their bedrolls, waiting in lines for three days, all hoping for an opportunity to “say something” to leaders. When Hu Xiaoyan (胡小燕), the first migrant worker to serve as a delegate to the National People’s Congress, made his private mobile phone number public, he was forced to shut his phone off because he was bombarded with thousands of calls and thousands of text messages. Those hot-button incidents (热点事件) arising from internet attention that become a focus for the media, they are just the “tip of the iceberg.” Beneath the surface of the sea is a much bigger body of ice, and this is the massive foundation that is pushing the crest of ice up out of the water. This is also the “subconscious mind” (潜意识) and “core layer” (核心层) that determines the mentality of our society.

To a large extent, those who are disadvantaged in terms of expression [ie, those who are voiceless] are also those who are disadvantaged in real terms. In society, they lack the resources to influence public opinion, they seldom have channels to participate in government decision-making, or have no way of obtaining information most directly concerning themselves. Therefore, while their numbers are not small, their voices find it difficult to be heard within society.

To hear and to be heard, this is a fundamental appeal for social persons (社会人). To speak and to hear others speak is even more a basic consensus of modern civilization. When the right to expression (表达权) becomes a basic political right, valuing these voices is the starting off point for coordinating interests and rationalizing social mentalities. In a country with a population of 1.3 billion, now undergoing dramatic social change, it is all the more important that the voices of the broad masses are heard and valued.

Behind most sunken voices are demands left unmet, and repressed antipathies that await easing. After his son is disabled in an automobile accident, a father from Yunnan province “detonates himself” outside a courthouse, taking the most extreme course of rights defense [NOTE: This seems to be a case that was not reported in China's media]. A daughter suffers from an incurable disease, and the a mother from Hubei province takes part in an online publicity stunt in which she “crawls on her knees” [across the city of Guangzhou] . . . The incidents that cause a great public clamor all originate with voices that have been neglected. [Voices that] cannot be heard, are not heard, cannot be resolved — if we do not take action to “salvage” (打捞) them, too many voices will be submerged, and we will find it difficult to avoid the choking up of our social mentality, leading to a sharpening of tensions.

Speaking is the foundation of asserting our interests. Only with the expression of interests can there be relative balancing of interests, and only with the relative balancing of interests can there be long-term social stability. The facts tell us that behind many cases of tension and conflict lies the deprivation of mechanisms to express one’s interests. Seen from this perspective, rights defense is stability preservation (维权就是维稳). Listening as much as possible to voices from various circles of society has major benefit for stability preservation (维稳).

In the midst of cacophony, salvaging as much as possible those sunken voices (沉没的声音) is a bounden duty of social administrators (社会管理者). Applying the power of the government toward protecting the right to expression (表达权) of the most vulnerable, so that their interests can be expressed normally through systematized and standardized channels, is inherent to common construction and sharing (共建共享) [of prosperity, etc.], and is crucial to the building of a harmonious society. Only in this way can we ensure that “speaking” (说话) and “making one’s voice heard” (发声) are not only the most basic means of making appeals, but even more become an important link in fostering a healthy social mentality, and become a firm foundation for prolonged social and political stability.

(Thus ends this series of editorials — the editors)

2 Comments to “The “sunken voices” of China”

  1. ltlee says:

    I find it odd that CMP chose to translate a more specific “执政者” into a less specific “leader.”
    I also notice the dichotomy between “duty of social administrators” and “power of the government.” In addition, sunken meant originally there. In contrast, the voice of dissidents was not originally there. And they are by no means weak or disadvantaged.

    My take, the government should be pro-active, not reactive. Worry before all under heaven, including the western presses, have worried.

  2. Ethan says:

    I seem to remember getting a Xinhua news text about an explosion at a courthouse semi-recently… if there are news text records online, that might be worth looking into if you’re interested in this particular story. I could be mistaken, though – there have been far too many explosions in the news of late.

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