Sunday, May 1, 2016, 8:23 AM CST – China


Put the debate back into politics

The issue of the increasingly polarized and puerile conduct of would-be political thinkers cannot be solved by the judiciary

With the rapid uptake of social media, Mainland Chinese are becoming increasingly outspoken when it comes to politics, at least online. Engagement between diverse political viewpoints can enrich the debate on public policy, helping China in its search for the right reform agenda. Unfortunately, along with legitimate and reasonable debate, we have witnessed a rising tide of radical political viewpoints, expressed often in little more than verbal abuse. These kinds of “activists,” when faced with a well-informed opponent, even resort to physical violence.

In the latest example, Mao Yushi, an economist well known for his critical view of Mao Zedong (no relation), was verbally abused when giving a speech in Shenyang on April 25. At a separate speech in Changsha, also by Mao Yushi, a group of protectors occupied the venue, forcing the organizer to abandon the event.

Earlier in January, Li Chengpeng, a famous writer known for his criticism of the government, was slapped in public by a protester during a book signing.

This is just a glimpse of a radicalization of political engagement. Instead of debate, the clash between ideologies has become emotionally driven. On the Internet, detractors of the government become “traitors” who should be “prosecuted,” while its supporters are mocked as “patriotraitors” or “running dogs of the government.”

Without the ability to listen to other viewpoints, there is no room for debate. In such an atmosphere, one’s “side” becomes more important than the issue under scrutiny. As each camp claims to be right, they refute the right of their opponents to exist.

This is a worryingly familiar trend to those who survived the Cultural Revolution, when “class struggle” dominated daily life, and political differences were settled through intimidation, abuse and violence. Indeed, many buzzwords visible in today’s online battles of ideas are borrowed directly from the Red Guards.

As extreme comments tend to attract more attention, some of China’s intellectuals are now paying lip service to the trend of abuse in order to increase their influence. As a result, the word “public intellectual” itself has become a pejorative.

In a recent case, Kong Qingdong, a political conservative and a professor from Peking University, called student Guan Gaiyuan a “treacherous dog” for pointing out a technical error in one of Kong’s poems published on his microblog. Guan later sued Kong in a Beijing court, which on May 7 ruled, controversially, that Kong should apologize and compensate Guan 1,200 yuan (US$193) for causing mental distress.

The issue of the increasingly polarized and puerile conduct of would-be political thinkers cannot be solved by the judiciary.

As a participant in public debate, one must be aware that only when interaction between different opinions results in greater understanding can it be of use to society. Verbal abuse and the expression of personal hatred only serve to alienate political moderates, making it very difficult to foster a political climate that allows for nuanced perspectives.

Only in such a political climate, will China be able to deliver peaceful and meaningful political reform.


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