Learning to forgive the unthinkable

Learning to forgive the unthinkable
Learning to forgive the unthinkable
Posted on 2011-10-07

It’s one thing to say that you respect the freedom of others to speak their minds. But in real life, this can be quite a difficult thing to do. Even in the context of intellectual debate, where discussion of different ideas is routine, things can sometimes descend to argument and get really nasty, even coming to blows. On the internet, this kind of mud-slinging is extremely common, discussion often sliding directly into fighting, name calling and cursing.

Of course, curses, abuse and slander are intolerable, and once one side has gone to this extreme, the other is justified in cutting off the exchange altogether, or in severe cases taking the matter to court. This sort of behavior, after all, runs afoul of the law in some instances, and trespasses the basic mores of human discourse.

But if neither side is willing to budge in a two-sided exchange, this is often because the smell of gunpowder is already too thick and things are bound to explode. This happens because neither side believes there is any basic merit in the other’s argument. More than that, they find the argument totally unpalatable and preposterous, stepping over the line of all acceptability. This line isn’t a moral one. Rather, it’s about the way many people have a fixed notion of political correctness — and if someone steps over this line they’re immediately all in a froth, worked instantly into a fury. And from that point on there’s no turning back.

Some old men with a surplus of enthusiasm care greatly about the public good, and about helping others. But as soon as they find something “incorrect” in the newspaper, something that doesn’t accord with their own [political] tastes, they immediately phone the editor’s desk or notify relevant government departments, elevating the issue to the point of accusations, demanding the writer or editor be punished.

If they find that a certain book “plays up” some idea that they think is [politically] erroneous they’ll act the same way, insisting the book be banned outright. Even some who describe themselves as open-minded are in the habit of behaving like this, having little tolerance at all for language they consider to be [politically] “incorrect.”

Even when they find articles they think are incorrect in publications they enjoy they’ll take the step of accusing the editors directly. If as they’re going over student papers they find points they object to, they’ll respond with anger and decide not to give them passing marks.

Of course, these impulses aren’t limited to old curmudgeons. We see them among the young and the middle-aged too. We can talk about it. We can argue it out. But we cannot tolerate the absurd. [NOTE: Here the word “absurd” or “preposterous” (荒谬) refers to ideas that are politically incorrect in a Chinese context, by which Zhang Ming means intellectual assumptions that are reinforced by political norms.]

By absurd here we’re talking about things that go against pre-drawn lines of political correctness that are emblazoned on their hearts and minds. In their eyes, so-called freedom of expression and debate applies only within the parameters of their bottom-line. Once that line is breached, you are a public enemy, someone to be denounced by the whole Party, an enemy of the nation. You must be shoved to the ground and then trampled on.

All of us, both those who lived through China’s past and those who did not, are touched to differing degrees by this defect. The persecuted are infected with the persecutor’s complex (迫害病症). Actually, people who behave like this are, like everyone else, unhappy at being kept down by domineering power. They too desire a space allowing for free debate. But as soon as you touch the wrong nerve, they cry out for the intrusion of domineering power. And if domineering power does not intervene, they will vent their displeasure.

Hu Shi (胡适) once said that tolerance is more important than freedom. If we cannot learn to have tolerance, if we cannot stomach that which we find absurd, then freedom will never come to stay.

This is a translated and edited version of an essay appearing in today’s Southern Metropolis Daily.

23 Comments to “Learning to forgive the unthinkable”

  1. ltlee says:


    Concerning court rulings favor the government side, it could very well reflect how careful the government had selected its cases. If a government is handing out charges left and right with or without good reasons simply to jack up the statistics like some police departments in the US had done (http://www.thisamericanlife.org/radio-archives/episode/414/right-to-remain-silent), of course it will have more cases ruled against it.

  2. Andao says:

    ltlee, you still haven’t addressed why the Chinese Constitution is not used, while the American one is. Why bother to write a constitution if you aren’t going to use it? You argue that the American constitution is ancient and therefore somehow lacking, but the newer Chinese one (written in the 1980s I believe) isn’t followed at all.

    In this same vein, how often has a Chinese judge made a court ruling that penalizes the party or government, but adheres to the Chinese constitution? This happens constantly in countries with an independent judiciary.

  3. Hua Qiao says:

    since you like to quote people critical of democracy, how about Churchill too? “Democracy is the worst form of government, except for all those other forms that have been tried from time to time.”

    As to China meeting more citizen’s needs, LOL!

  4. ltlee says:

    I don’t think I know the US constitution enough to trash it. However, other knowledgeable people do see plenty of problems. Americans had written books like “THE FROZEN REPUBLIC: How the Constitution Is Paralyzing Democracy.” The problem of the dead ruling the alive is real.
    In case you do not know how “democracy” works or does not work in the US, here is one description (the blunt version):
    “Elections are reverse slave auctions in that people are permitted a nominal voice in choosing who will exercise ownership rights over them. But once the winner is sworn into office, the candidate’s campaign promises do nothing to curb his power. The moment the bidding ends and a winner is declared, the illusion that the slaves are running the show vanishes.” (Above quote from ATTENTION DEFICIT DEMOCRACY by James Bovard)
    BTW, this thread is getting old. This will be my last response on this thread.
    In comparison, China is currently more democratic in the sense that it meets more citizens’ and needs more times.

  5. Hua Qiao says:

    Ok so I looked up Jefferson on the dead quote, who believed the constitution should be rewritten every generation. But the US Constitution is changeable. The amendments over history show that and so I see no issue. the same is true about the Chinese Constitution, which has been amended from time to time. One recent change I was to add human rights as a protection. Unlike your country, the US Constitution is not ignored by the government.
    Glad to see you admit that China is not an elected republic. BTW, free elections are another thing guaranteed by the Chinese Constittion.
    So it would be nice if you would answer the simple question, is the Chinese Constitution the highest law of the land or is it not? By trashing the US Constitution, you suggest that you hold little regard for what is supposed to be the supreme law. Or perhaps you don’t believe in rule of law, which would be consistent with the attitude and behavior of your government.

  6. ltlee says:

    Since you had mentioned constitution and democracy in yours post, I think you are interested in constitutional matters and its relation to democracy. Looks like I am wrong. To cut to the chase, I mentioned Thomas Jefferson for his (as well as others like minded people’s) idea that each generation should decide its own constitution. Perhaps the following site may help: http://www.conlaw.org/Intergenerational-II-2-9.htm
    Basically, a nation’s constitution is not some document handed over to the people like the Christian God had handed over the Ten Commandment to Moses. Such god given document could be deemed perfect. To the extent that no one can see the future, every constitution will become anachronistic with time. At present, many people in the west choose to see the Chinese government as illegitimate because it was not the result of a general elections. However, if a general election is the criteria to determine legitimacy, the US as well as other western nations’ constitutions are also illegitimate since the people in these countries are not given the opportunity to vote on them periodically. And consequently, governments elected according to such constitution are also illegitimate.

  7. Hua Qiao says:

    I resume you mean Jefferson’s desire for decentralized government versus the Federalist’s desire for centraliztion? It’s kind of like asking have you checked out Mao?

  8. ltlee says:

    On the issue of the dead ruling the alive. Check out Thomas Jefferson. If you don’t agree with him. Come back and explain why you do not agree with him. Anyway, you need to bring something to the table for further discussion. I don’t need to read your post to learn the usual propaganda against China.

  9. Hua Qiao says:

    The dead rulimg the living. Once again you hide words. When you want to have a focused conversation let me know. There are 330 million people inthe US that would affirm the Constitution today. That is not the dead ruling the living. What nonsemse that statement is.

    Meanwhile, you defend (principally by changing the subject) a system that does not represent the people. At best it represents the 7% that are communist party members.

    I’ll take the NYPD backed up by a legitimate court system and open media anytime over the sadistic, heartless actions by the Chemgguang and the pathetic treatment of brave lawyers arguing for the rights of the agrieved.

    You seem to be quite wolrdly and educated. How can you possibly defend such a baseless and illegitimate system?

  10. ltlee says:

    @Hua Qiao
    Concerning the conflict between the right to talk with another person and the right to free passage, the conflict was created by the police force. The square was blocked by metal road blocks such that people could only pass through narrow gaps between the road blocks. The police could remove some of the road blocks as well parking the police vans and cars elsewhere if free passage was a real concern. But then the protesting crowd could grow bigger.
    On the question of political system, I don’t think there is any best or one size fits all political system. Each country and each generation have to decide on which system is more suitable for them. At present, the US constitutional system is a good example of the dead ruling the living.

  11. Hua Qiao says:

    “Minority groups are only protected to the extent that the majority would allowed them to be protected. Protection beyond that is undemocratic. ”

    Great inflammatory statement but please don’t use language to mask real logic.
    In any society of millions, where everyone is pursuing their own interests and desires, you will have inevitable conflicts and encroachments. Indeed, you cite one where the demonstrators right to protest in a small area encroached on other citizens right to free passage on the sidewalk. The police are on the front lines of that basic conflict and at the moment, need to make a decision. This officer decided, apparently, that there were too many people in the park already and it posed a safety risk or an undue blockage of the rest of the public’s right to passage.
    Every society faces such conflicts and it must deal with how to resolve them in the moment and review the result after. I think a constitutional democracy where basic rights are ensured through a constitution and the interpretation of those rights are achieved through laws from an elected body of a majority and interpreted by an independent judiciary and reviewed by a free press is about as good a system as you can accomplish. What is your preferred alternative?

  12. ltlee says:

    Minority groups are only protected to the extent that the majority would allowed them to be protected. Protection beyond that is undemocratic. If you don’t agree, please explain.
    On public space
    I was walking pass the Liberty Square in New York City the other day. The square is actually a small place. So it was crowded with protestors. Part of the square was fenced by metal stands. The place was also full of police officers. 10+ Police cars and vans occupied one side of the road along the square, still more police cars a little further away. Some of the police were inside the square. One of them kept telling passer by who tried to talk to the protestors to move along claiming that they were blocking traffic.
    If a friend was to ask for my opinion elsewhere, I would have no problem saying the police should not do that. However, I was not going to tell the police then and there that they were not supposed to do that. My speaking out could be viewed as obstructing the police from carrying out their duty while it was not my intention to obstruct him. How about you?

  13. Hua Qiao says:

    Sorry clicked too fast.

    What do you mean info in a public place might be abused? Are you saying a person has freedom of speech but only under thebed or in a broom closet? If a tree falls in a forest with no to hear it, it has freedom to speak freely?

  14. Hua Qiao says:

    I would agree with you on the Chinese exclusion acts and the Japanese War Internment both dark periods of US History which the US People and the Federal Government have admitted, apologized and sought to make reparations. I will add slavery to that too. Too bad the CCP can’t admit the same mistakes of violation of rights over the Cultural Revolution, or that certain incident in 1989 that they deny ever happened.
    What do you mean information in a public place might be

  15. ltlee says:

    @Hua Qiao
    I disagree with your previous statement concerning minority protection. The US constitution and amendment can only protect the minority to the extend that the majority want them to be protected. Most hua qiao are familiar with The Chinese Exclusion Act. And then there was the internment of American citizens of Japanese heritage. Both of the above dwarf in scale and scope in comparison to wholesale violation against the Mexican Americans:
    “In the 1930s, as many as two million Mexicans and Mexican-Americans living in California were deported. The reason given was to open up jobs for non-Mexican Americans. A state Senate
    committee is holding hearings on repatriation for the victims and their families. From member station KCRW, Eric Roy reports.” http://www.npr.org/templates/story/story.php?storyId=1429793
    On your questions:
    “Do you believe a Chinese citizen has a right to freely speak their mind in a public forum and have access to thoughts and arguments of others?” I do.
    “And if so, do you think they themselves feel empowered to do so without fear of intimidation from the government or agents of the government?” It depends. I certain would make distinction between public place/space and private place/space. People have to be more careful in public place/space because information distribute in public space could be abused. For myself, I exercise the same restrain in the US.

  16. Hua Qiao says:

    Itlee says
    “Such bottom up people calling for suppression, needless to say, diminishes the attractiveness of democracy”
    I think what you mean is that in a democracy, whatever the majority decides goes and therefore the majority can decide what to dominate and what to surpress. Is that right? If so, then my prior comment is relevant.

    As to the other comments, I presume that you don’t disagree that the Constitution is the highest law of the land and that no one person or association is above it. Yes? From the Peoples Daily website:
    “Article 5. The state upholds the uniformity and dignity of the socialist legal system. No law or administrative or local rules and regulations shall contravene the constitution. All state organs, the armed forces, all political parties and public organizations and all enterprises and undertakings must abide by the Constitution and the law. All acts in violation of the Constitution and the law must be investigated. No organization or individual may enjoy the privilege of being above the Constitution and the law.”

    “Article 34. All citizens of the People’s Republic of China who have reached the age of 18 have the right to vote and stand for election, regardless of nationality, race, sex, occupation, family background, religious belief, education, property status, or length of residence, except persons deprived of political rights according to law.

    Article 35. Citizens of the People’s Republic of China enjoy freedom of speech, of the press, of assembly, of association, of procession and of demonstration.

    Article 36. Citizens of the People’s Republic of China enjoy freedom of religious belief. No state organ, public organization or individual may compel citizens to believe in, or not to believe in, any religion; nor may they discriminate against citizens who believe in, or do not believe in, any religion. The state protects normal religious activities. No one may make use of religion to engage in activities that disrupt public order, impair the health of citizens or interfere with the educational system of the state. Religious bodies and religious affairs are not subject to any foreign domination.

    Article 37. The freedom of person of citizens of the People’s Republic of China is inviolable. No citizen may be arrested except with the approval or by decision of a people’s procuratorate or by decision of a people’s court, and arrests must be made by a public security organ. Unlawful deprivation or restriction of citizens’ freedom of person by detention or other means is prohibited; and unlawful search of the person of citizens is prohibited. Article 38. The personal dignity of citizens of the People’s Republic of China is inviolable. Insult, libel, false charge or frame-up directed against citizens by any means is prohibited.

    Article 39. The home of citizens of the People’s Republic of China is inviolable. Unlawful search of, or intrusion into, a citizen’s home is prohibited.

    Article 40. The freedom and privacy of correspondence of citizens of the People’s Republic of China are protected by law. No organization or individual may, on any ground, infringe upon the freedom and privacy of citizens’ correspondence except in cases where, to meet the needs of state security or of investigation into criminal offences, public security or procuratorial organs are permitted to censor correspondence in accordance with procedures prescribed by law.”

    Would you deny that the rights conferred in these articles are unjustly ignored on a regular basis? I can refer you to many reporting websites that have this but if you are in China they may be blocked by your great firewall.

    On freedom of speech (putting aside these other rights), Do you believe a Chinese citizen has a right to freely speak their mind in a public forum and have access to thoughts and arguments of others? And if so, do you think they themselves feel empowered to do so without fear of intimidation from the government or agents of the government?

  17. ltlee says:

    @Hua Qiao
    “I am not sure I get your point.”
    Feel free to ask for clarification. If you think I am arguing for X, please state X explicitly and explain why you don’t agree. Else I cannot respond to you.
    “But sadly the Chinese Constitution, the highest law of the land, is ignored constantly.”
    I will let the Chinese people to decide whether the above is true. IMO, they can certainly speak for themselves. If you are an outsider as suggested by your screen name. May be you should too. Of course, if you think the Chinese people are incapable to decide and/or to speak out for themselves, feel free to travel to China to enlighten them.

  18. Hua Qiao says:


    I am not sure I get your point. Everyone deserves to enjoy basic human rights: freedom of speech, freedom of religion, freedom of the press, the right to peaceably associate. Merely voting in an election (as some define democracy) does not guarantee these rights.
    The US consitution guarantees these rights exactly to avoid what you seem to be arguing for, what we in the US refer to as the “tyranny of the majority.” Indeed, that is why in the US Constituion, these protections take the form of amendments; because the framers of the Constitution added them in to limit the powers conferred to the government therein, out of fear that individual rights would be trampled over by the majority. I also note that the Chinese Constitution guarantees these rights and indeed, goes so far as to guarantee “human rights.” But sadly the Chinese Constitution, the highest law of the land, is ignored constantly.

  19. Thanks David, this was a good read.

  20. steve says:

    Doesn’t this ‘ommited’ idea in the quote correspond well to the article’s “They [people] too desire a space allowing for free debate. But as soon as you touch the wrong nerve, they cry out for the intrusion of domineering power. And if domineering power does not intervene, they will vent their displeasure.”, given immediately before the quotation? Isn’t it true that Zhangming has chosen this quote because it sums up his closing statement well, and the closing statement & main idea is given in full in the translation?
    You can only get the ‘ommision’ of the first “line-crossing issue” if you’re comfortable translating 强权不是天生的 as “suppression is not intrinsic to the system”, identifying ‘the system’ with天生, but that might be better off as something like ‘nature’, no? Did ‘the system’ as we know it today even exist when Hushi wrote this?
    As an ‘uncut’ version, how about inserting something like: “Domineering power is not an inevitable natural phenomenon. Sometimes, if people do not call for it, domineering power does not arise.” I only ever comment on things when there’s a good chance I’m wrong, like everyone else on the internet, so, suggestions please? Particularly, is ‘inevitable’ unjustifiable overcooking? Is there a nice clean way to get the “下面” in 下面的人in there, and is this distiction important?

    It seems a shame that the CMP translation is so complete… I quite like the alternative universe image of a daring Zhangming provoking the fury of his translator/censors with repeated calls for tolerance and open discussion spaces.

  21. ltlee says:

    The last paragraph of Zhang Ming’s article:
    The last paragraph of David’s Bandurski’s edited version:
    “Hu Shi (胡适) once said that tolerance is more important than freedom. If we cannot learn to have tolerance, if we cannot stomach that which we find absurd, then freedom will never come to stay.”
    Zhang’s last paragraph had triggered western PC red lines:
    1. Domineering power, or suppression, is not intrinsic to the system. Implication: China and its socialistic system is not intrinsically bad.
    2. Domineering power, or suppression, would not come out by itself. It was frequently called out by the people as a mean to suppress the absurd. Such bottom up people calling for suppression, needless to say, diminishes the attractiveness of democracy.

  22. David says:


    Thank you very much for illustrating Zhang Ming’s point so well with yet another baseless and mean-spirited accusation. It provides the perfect footnote.


  23. ltlee says:

    CMP cannot tolerate Mr Zhang’s idea that domineering power is created by the people.
    “强权不是天生的,有的时候,下面的人们不呼唤,强权出不来。” The idea is edited out.

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