China is complicated

Source:Global Times Published: 2011-6-29 21:23:00

Editor’s Note:

In a surprisingly frank interview the Global Times Editor-in-Chief, Hu Xijin, talks about the politicization of democracy, Ai Weiwei and what it means to be born in China.

Hu, 51, has worked for the Global Times (GT) since 1993. As a reporter he covered the Bosian and Iraq wars. He has been the Global Times Editor-in-Chief since 2005. 

The interview was published by Southern People Weekly on June 27. Part of the translated transcript follows. 

Q: You got more than 5,000 followers on weibo (China’s twitter) the first day you started microblogging, and most of the followers seem to be critical of you and your newspaper. You said on your microblog that you were surprised. Did you not know about all those critical voices? 

I respect the voices on weibo, but I don’t think the voices on weibo represent the whole of China. Weibo only gathers people of the same mind. These people are active but they are not the mainstream. If the majority of Chinese society thought I was wrong, then I would think carefully if I should change. The Global Times is doing better and better, and its influence is getting bigger and bigger. People are still buying it even at 1.2 yuan. The circulation is huge. It means people are reading our newspaper, they agree with our position. Most people are still on my side. 

Your newspaper’s editorial on artist Ai Weiwei triggered lots of controversy. 

Hu: Through our coverage, people knew about this incident, and we’ve expressed our opinions. This is progress, compared with not having a voice at all. We didn’t keep silent when we should speak up. This takes courage. We have been touching sensitive topics in recent years, which laid the groundwork for our prompt comment on the Ai Weiwei case.

There are diverse public opinions in China. Some people try to label everything and everyone. This is not healthy. I think GT has been trying to take an impartial position on sensitive issues. But I have to admit, it’s difficult. Take Ai’s case for example. 

We wrote four editorials about Ai in a row. Maybe not every word was accurate, but the overall message was not wrong. If you have to pick a particular sentence and ask me what it means, then it’s like punishing people for their words. We can’t take things out of context. Any article would be problematic if taken out of context. 

We wrote those editorials out of China’s interest. The articles reflect our overall understanding of the world. I don’t think we should single out the government. The Chinese government is part of China. Under most circumstances, the interest of the government is the same as the interest of the people and the nation. I don’t believe the US government cares more about the well being of the Chinese people than the Chinese government does. I don’t believe that. 

Q: Your views on China have greatly influenced your view of the world. What do you think of the idea of the “rise of China.”

Hu: It’s a simple way of putting things. The key is to understand the word “rise.” The authorities do not like this word; they prefer “development.” The foreign media like to say “China rise” and many Chinese people followed suit and grew used to it. It’s a reality for China. There are good things, such as rapid economic development, but there are weaknesses and problems too, such as the income gap. And we haven’t completely solved the theoretical questions; such as how do we connect the superiority of socialism with economic development and the fruits of a market economy. These haven’t yet been solved. The rise of China is complicated.

Q: Some say that the past 30 years of development is a new “China way.” Some call it the “China model” or the “China consensus.” Do you agree?

Hu: The China consensus is not mature, neither is the China model. At least we haven’t figured it out ourselves.
But we do walk on a different path than the West. I know a mixed-blood child who’s about 5 or 6 years old and when I take him out Chinese people say he looks like a foreigner, while the foreigners say he looks Chinese. So what is the China model? We are in it. Therefore we can’t see it clearly. We need some distance. When we look back, we’ll see it more clearly. 

Q: Some scholars believe that China’s development is still connected to the development of a market economy and equal rights of the people. They say these are universal and not unique to China. 

Hu: We shouldn’t be obsessed with the question of whether this path is unique to China or not. That’s meaningless. No society develops completely isolated from the rest of the world. It’s impossible. In this age of globalization, we most definitely have been influenced by the West. We can’t develop without the West. Our opening up, to a large extent, has been toward the US. All kinds of Western thoughts and good things have had a positive impact on us. China can’t develop in isolation. No doubt about it. 

Yet China can’t simply copy the US or the UK. That can’t be done. China takes all the good things from different countries, puts them together, remixes them in China, and moves on from there. That’s a fact. And that’s the way it should be. What’s the population of most Western countries, tens of millions? That’s just a small province or a city in China. China is a huge truck, and the West is a go-cart. If you put someone who’s used to driving a go-cart behind the wheels of a big truck, they will feel completely different. 

Q: I agree with some of your views, but some I don’t. For example, you believe that sovereignty is above human rights. You said that setting sovereignty and human rights against each other is an attack by the Western world on the developing world. Don’t you agree there are some values that are universal?

Hu: I agree that there are common universal values; human rights, freedom and democracy. Call them universal values and I agree. But the West has made these words political. The meaning of those words have gone far beyond their original concept. The situation changes when the West uses them as diplomatic tools to pressure China. In fact most Chinese people have the same understanding about whether we should have democracy and freedom. It’s just that we don’t have a consensus on how to get there. 

China is moving forward. You’d be a fool to deny it. But we can’t equate democracy with votes, one person one vote. That’s too narrow an understanding of democracy, and that’s a path designed by the West. Chinese people aren’t that stupid. We should call a spade a spade, and continue to promote democracy. 

I think human rights and sovereignty are consistent. Separating the two is the Western discourse. How can human rights in China be separated from sovereignty? Hasn’t China suffered enough throughout history over issues of sovereignty? How many people were killed by foreigners? In the past, when sovereignty was weak, the country had little say in the world. Today every country is competing to develop. The stronger their sovereignty, the bigger say the country will have. This is directly connected to human rights. Why do we set them up against each other? That’s Western discourse and Chinese intellectuals who believe it are either not thinking for themselves and following the West, or doing so deliberately out of personal interest. 

Q: There’s a fable about a family. The gambling, degenerate husband beats his wife and children. When neighbors criticized him, he claims sovereignty over his family which allows him to ignore the critics.

Are they alluding to China? This is very low-level metaphor. A country is much more complex than this story of a family with several people. How many people are there in a country, and how much more complicated is the national interest than a family? Whoever believes this metaphor is out of his mind or has ulterior motives. How can these two be the same?

China’s national strength is still weak when compared to the West, so stressing no interference in the country’s domestic affairs is in line with China’s national interest. It’s also against China’s interest to intrude on other country’s domestic affairs.

There is only one China, there is nothing wrong with loving the country and doing one’s best to help push it forward. A friend of mine told me another story. One of his friends was rich and wanted to go to the US, so my friend said, “You will always be Chinese even in America, and you will always rely on China. If China gets better your status will rise, if not, you will be more miserable, as you won’t be accepted in that society. It’s better for you to stay in China than to go abroad because you are destined to always be Chinese. If the China boat starts to leak, we can repair it and keep sailing to a destination before it sinks.” Every one of us should take this attitude.

The country may not be perfect but why belittle it?

This is how I feel. The US doesn’t need us to defend its interest as other people do. China has finally grabbed the chance to develop and is very likely to succeed. There are people saying online that China is messy, I agree and I have said so in an editorial. Sometimes we don’t know whether to love or hate the country seeing all the problems, but once I see hope and the progress that’s been made, I choose to love it and protect it.

Have you ever had yearnings for the US?

Hu:  I think the US is a good place. If I could choose where to be born, I’d very likely choose the US. The US has many advantages, and life there is peaceful and there’s a lot of freedom to enjoy. To be born in the US is a good thing, but I’ve been given my life in China, which makes me work hard and struggle to change this country and make life meaningful.

People of my generation were poor, and we witnessed how the country changed little by little. In 1984, my wife and I – she was my girlfriend at the time – met a Taiwan veteran when we were walking near Xuanwumen. He rushed over to say hello to us and said he was from Taiwan. He told us he came to visit his hometown in Henan Province, and it was the first time he had seen young people holding hands in the mainland. My girlfriend was only 24 years old, guess how she reacted? She was so scared that she hid behind me and almost started crying. She had never seen a Taiwanese. At that time I was a serviceman, so when we parted I shook his hand and said, “Please convey my wishes to the young people of Taiwan.” How silly I was, especially considering we were both college graduates. Is there anyone today who would say such silly words?

So you can see what great changes have been made and what people like me have been through. We know we must keep progressing. There is no society that is born perfect, and we are never that lucky. It’s not bad being born in China and getting to experience all these changes. How about being born in Libya? 

Q: Are you concerned about society?

Hu: Of course I am. Generally speaking, the government is changing, so is the power structure. The government is now capable of introspection and correction. It is able and willing to make progress, such as self-checks over administrative power. They are also improving their listening and maintaining the authority of the law. Progress has been made although it’s not perfect. Lawyers are becoming more important, as we can see. They are rich now.
This shows that laws are more important now.

The globalized world environment has strained China. People see the world and realize that our democracy is different from the West. It’s true that Western democracy is not bad, but it can’t be applied to China. There are two streams of pressure, from the West and domestic liberals regarding Western democracy, and both streams will accompany China for a long time. The government must be careful. If we handle it right, Western democracy will serve as experience and help us improve, otherwise it will cause unrest. It’s not reasonable to change the design of a 100-storey building when 30 stories  have been built. Once there is revolution and the power structure changes dramatically and social interests are rearranged without forethought, the revolutionary will turn into a disaster.

How different are the values of Chinese people from Westerners? Some are the same and some are not. Universal values are the same for both. The problem is these universal values has been highly politicized. It’s as if belief in  universal value is a political stance, otherwise it’s an opposite stance. This is terribly wrong. China doesn’t have an environment to rationally discuss these problems, you just take a side and agree or not. This period will pass.

Q: What would an ideal China look like in your mind?

Hu: I’ve never seriously thought about this question. An ideal China is not something that can be achieved through thinking. It needs hard work.

The entire world is assimilating, and China and the US will find more things in common. China should learn from the US, but I don’t think China will become another America. China in the future will be a democratic country, but it needs time-consuming exploration for us to figure out what form of democracy is suited to China. The U.S. system also followed its own path, it wasn’t predesigned. Chinese people’s political wisdom will be needed throughout the process..

China must show integrity and solidarity, which are pre-conditions to ensure sustainable development. If we can secure this, China will keep progressing, and many problems will be resolved in the process.

Translated by Xuyang Jingjing and Li Qian

Posted in: In-Depth

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