A young activist and inventor shares his vision of the historic mission of the generation born after 1980.
My generation of Chinese has grown up in a new era and witnessed the tremendous economic success that our country has achieved. We have benefited from the fast flow of news and information in the Internet age and are bathing in the sunshine of life. News on radio, television, and in newspapers makes us long for the future—and makes us wonder if there could be even better places in the world. From the song and dance in celebration of prosperity to entertainment and gossip, to American, Japanese, and Korean soap operas, and to the uninterrupted flow of text messages and the use of Facebook and Twitter, we seem to be the most fortunate generation. Spoiled as we are, we seldom show interest in the development of our country and society. For this reason our elders consider us the “selfish, indifferent, and irresponsible” generation.
As we, befuddled and ignorant, begin searching for the meaning of life and a path forward, we encounter a cruel reality where all types of laws and civilized standards are violated. We are forced to adapt, to use the hollowness of escapism to stow away the failure of our education, or to work extra hard to ease our despair over the injustice of life. We endure months of unpaid internships to secure jobs that only pay 1,000 yuan (about $150) a month. Plain food, expensive fruit, coarse skin, chapped lips—none compare to the perplexity we feel when we consider our futures and the problems of love, marriage, housing, and caring for our aging parents while being crammed inside our few square meters of living space.
This is our reality. We may look fashionable and stylish, but when we realize that the money we have earned from a whole month of sweat and toil is only enough to buy a rich person’s key chain, our vague pondering of our country’s development is instinctively overtaken by the pressures and struggles of daily life. The collective failure of the generation before us has created an environment devoid of security and justice. Those who failed have also stuck the “indifference, selfishness, and irresponsibility” label on us—on those who have been deprived of the right to have our say.
How should we face this world?
Whose indifference is it that watches us struggle on the strayed path of destiny? Whose silence is it that has led to the piercing cries of those infants who developed kidney stones from drinking poisoned milk powder? And whose cowardice is it that forces us to use gun smoke and fury to redeem the dead? Where can we find our futures? What kind of wisdom can guide us in our uncertainties as we face these realities? What kind of efforts can help forge the prosperity of our country again?
And what hopes could justify our dreary quest for a meaningful future?
We who are “uninterested in current events” share and enjoy all kinds of Internet news and commentaries about the Nobel Peace Prize while playing games of cut and paste with the official censors. In the eyes of his critics, Liu Xiaobo is no more than an ornament that moves his computer mouse and does no real deeds. His moderate and unrealistic theories have not only failed to win any support from the state but also landed him in jail. For this reason his detractors use Cultural Revolution–style vilification and attack him for his conviction when he says “I have no enemies.” Is Liu Xiaobo a big joke or just opium that numbs people?
First, judging from the course of global democratization, the brutality of suppression by authorities prior to transformation does not mean there is no opportunity for a peaceful change in the future. There are people from more than 70 countries on six continents who were arrested in recent decades prior to democratic transformation. The veteran Polish dissident Adam Michnik, who recently visited China, was arrested many times and, like Liu Xiaobo, sentenced to a long prison term. If we believe in universal values, and understand that there are models of peaceful transformation, we can see from the example of the Third Wave of Democratization1 that following another path is unrealistic—and Liu Xiaobo has nothing to do with idealism.
Second, are there rational and moderate leaders among civil society opposition parties who will directly influence the ongoing heated debates among the ruling elites on how to conduct political reform? From the former Soviet Union and communist Eastern Europe, to Indonesia and South Korea, governments and armies all went through dramatic transformations in their attitudes when common people rose up in unison. This is because, in the face of tremendous changes, all kinds of social forces will, with the deepening of problems and changing conditions, reevaluate their previous stances and strategies. And large interest groups will alter their views in accordance with the new developments; out of this will emerge a new interactive structure. Political leader Premier Wen Jiabao, People’s Liberation Army General Liu Yazhou, and others have expressed views consistent with Liu Xiaobo’s Charter 08, and there is no reason for them not to interact in the future. Although Premier Wen, General Liu, and other liberal-minded officials have no means to bring about political change at this time, Liu Xiaobo’s present setback does not preclude his views from future responses and affirmations from the powers-that-be.
Finally, good intention is the prerequisite of conscience and righteousness. It is also the indispensable foundation upon which to establish a new order. This does not assure that the saintly stance of “having no enemies” will easily pardon all violence. Heroes in history who advocate peace are often misunderstood, and even killed, by their own people. But this is not necessarily the result of innocence or naiveté. While bearing the burden of persecution they are painfully aware of the existence of persecution. At the same time, they know that if good intention does not exist as a foundation, society will never be able to establish a just and peaceful order. Liu Xiaobo uses nonviolent means in his attempts to obtain fair and righteous objectives. He believes that the government should support this, and he hopes to use the legal system under the democratic process of a constitutional government as described in Charter 08 to punish crime and win justice. In his mind, he has no private enemies. He does not resent those who handled his case or put him in prison. In creating a fair process of investigating the responsibility of persecutors and law violators, this kind of tolerance is precisely the hope and guarantee of justice. For what reason are his critics unable to see this?
Every individual’s actions are guided by their upbringing, life experience, education, interactions with others, reading, etc. This helps explain the indignation of Liu Xiaobo’s detractors but also permits us to understand his firm belief in the significance and value of his Charter 08 in the era after the Third Wave of Democratization.
Those who hold absolute power are prone to immense errors in action. In rejecting the people’s right to choose to change erroneous policies, they bring disaster to the nation. In accordance with history’s development until today, no educated person can deny the following basic reality: to maximize the people’s interest, those who exercise power need to explain their actions and plans to the people in order to secure their support and trust. Also, to maximize their own interest, the people, under circumstances of relatively sufficient information, need to participate in selecting those who exercise decision-making power and in deciding when to replace those who are poorly qualified.
In China our previous several generations, in madness and in struggle, destroyed social order, preventing the development of innovation in art and literature. And from the end of the 1970s, economic development at the price of low human rights and environmental wreckage has proven irresponsibly shortsighted. Today, as the people are unable to replace failed leaders, the degree of corruption and the trampling of law increases madly by the day. This kind of development model has resulted in the plunder of the common people’s wealth by an aristocratic elite. Bloody demolitions without compensation, a profiteering medical system, chaotic fee charging by educational institutions, a corrupt judicial system in which money buys verdicts—all these are used by the new aristocracy to hijack state power and undermine the development of a civil society.
Today’s situation is not only the result of the failures of the policy makers. It is also the collective failure of the people of the preceding generation. Their failure has deeply hindered our generation’s healthy growth and development (I am specifically referring to the post-1980s generation, those born between 1980 and 1995, young people ages 15 to 30). Those critics who call us “indifferent, selfish, and irresponsible” have not recognized the fact that from this point on it is us who will have to bear the consequences of their failures. As today’s muddled reality negates the value of philosophy in summarizing the past and guiding the future, only by practicing what they preach—striving to improve reality—can those intellectuals who play a role in inheriting past legacies and passing them on spread and validate the significance of these values. Practice what one preaches? We at least need to be able to see some wise and forward-looking work instead of listening to the self-aggrandizement of those who failed, or to the complaints and criticisms of the mediocre.
Every generation has a mission to revitalize China. The essence of this is through innovation to let China put into practice and pass on its classical cultural values in order to ultimately revitalize the East Asian civilization that radiates from China to the world. However, over the course of the development of the historical environment, the mission of each generation did not remain completely the same.
The state of mind of our previous generation is conflicted: some people blindly delight in China’s rapid rise; others, misguided, busy themselves in doing nothing; still others draw lessons from painful experiences and mutter their faith in Westernization as a prerequisite of prosperity and strength. But today’s China is not rising—the warped economic development model of low human rights and environmental ravage will have the same failed outcome as that of the former Soviet Union’s single-minded arms buildup. Whether the future will be forged in the uprising of China’s underprivileged masses or government-initiated reform, democratic transformation is inevitable. In this process, even with just the intensification of the problems of ethnic minorities to the point of the balkanization of Tibet and Xinjiang, what our generation faces is perhaps the heavy burden of rebuilding our country. The challenge we young people face is no more promising than that faced by Hu Shi2 and his colleagues a century ago.
With today’s developed civilization, if the power of all of those around the world who cherish peace can strive to establish a stable order in China over the next two decades, then by the time we are in our forties and fifties, when we become the pillars of society, perhaps the country’s rise and revitalization will have been realized. In surveying history, whether it’s in fifth century B.C. ancient Greece, fifteenth-century Renaissance Italy, or the United States over the past century, a prerequisite of a comprehensive renaissance is the masses’ exploration and pursuit of truth and conscience in a healthy social order. A precondition of China’s genuine rise as a mature nation is to re-explore, from a perspective that transcends time and space, and critically reexamine and put into practice our spiritual values and cultural traditions. Only a culturally confident China can become a China with a truly innovative vitality. While we young people are still worshipping Korean and Japanese culture, and yearning for an American standard of living, a China that is setting up Confucius Institutes around the world cannot rebuild our moral standards or bring about a comprehensive renaissance of ideas, art, and literature.
The madness of previous generations has left us with an extraordinary challenge. How can our generation use great wisdom to achieve a new order in two decades? How can we solve the host of problems in our society and the even more terrifying dissipation of the will of the people, both a result of the struggles of the preceding generations? How can we exercise the highest degree of magnanimity, faith, and sincerity in ameliorating our country’s trauma and, in the context of globalization, reestablish a peaceful order that emanates classical values and creative vitality? Believing that democracy can cure our society’s chronic disease is shortsighted, and even somewhat lazy thinking, because it is only one of the most basic preconditions of revitalization.
After China’s past century of suffering and great changes, we need a generation that dares to explore and pursue truth to carry on the original Dao spirit of the East and the virtue of rationality of the West. Only by our deep involvement in different communities and sincerely serving their just complaints and demands can kindness and nobility mitigate our nation’s trauma and enable us to bring everyone into the process of rebuilding a civil society that promotes classical values and is full of creative vitality. To restore social order and revitalize China’s civilization are our generation’s historic missions.
1. Phrase coined by Harvard professor Samuel Huntington to describe the trend that has seen more than 60 countries undergo some form of democratic transition in the past several decades, spanning Portugal’s Carnation Revolution in 1974 to the color revolutions in the former Soviet and Baltic states in the early 2000s. ^
2. Hu Shi was a Chinese scholar and philosopher (1891–1962) and a leader of the May Fourth New Culture Movement that began in 1919, at the end of the First World War. ^