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Who worked for the public good in 2008?

Window of the South
December 17 2008

For its final issue of 2008, Window of the South (南风窗) rounds up its picks for the year's top newsmakers. There's also an interesting book review (see below).

This is the magazine's sixth year honoring individuals and groups who have worked "For The Public Good" (after the magazine's motto). Here's how the editor, Liu Yang, introduces this issue:

Reviewing six years of work, we can't help but ask: does pure, unadultrated public good (公共利益) exist? And if it does, how is it different from an expression of the interests of the people (人民利益)? If it doesn't, then what has this magazine been upholding in a corner of China all these years? What are its selection criteria?

The criteria Liu develops through the article involves Isaiah Berlin's concept of positive and negative liberty and how it plays out in the development of Chinese civil society. Liu concludes with the observation, "What the world is like constantly reminds us of what the world should be like."

The list is divided into three separate categories:

Special Groups of the Year

  • Netizens: "Political participation in new clothing," exemplified by Hu Jintao's June 20 online chat with People Online netizens.
  • Volunteers: "The 'Bird's Nest Generation' and the 'Wenchuan Generation'." Similar to Esquire's top pick for its person of the year.
  • Collective Rights Protectors: "Waiting for a New Handshake." In particular, the taxi drivers that went on strike in Chongqing and elsewhere during what the magazine calls the "November revolution."

People of the Year

  • Li Jinhua (李金华): Auditor-General who retired in March of this year after 23 years in the National Audit Office. He was a tough fighter against government corruption and was selected "person of the year" by Southern Weekly in 2004 following the first public presentation of the annual audit report (SW source).
  • Geng Qingguo (耿庆国): The seismologist who may have predicted the Wenchuan earthquake.
  • Liu Xiaolin (刘晓琳): The Anhui pediatrician who first reported the EV71 virus that struck the country in April and led to the deaths of more than twenty children. In 2004, when babies in Anhui had large heads from malnourishment, Liu traced the cause to fake milk powder and informed the media.
  • Jet Li (李连杰): For philanthropic work done through his One Foundation.
  • Julian Wu Junliang (吴君亮): CEO of a consulting company in Shenzhen who took advantage of the Government Information Disclosure Bill that went into effect this May to request and make public the budgets of various branches of government (Budget of China).
  • Sun Chunlong, Jian Guangzhou and Dai Xiaojun (孙春龙,简光洲,戴骁军): Investigative journalists who exposed corruption. Oriental Outlook reporter Sun Chunlong exposed the "Linfen Incident" on his blog, Oriental Morning Post reporter Jian Guangzhou was the first to mention Sanlu Dairy by name in the melamine scandal, and Western Times Dai Xiaojun posted photos of other journalists accepting hush money from a coal mine boss.
  • Thirty-Five Beijing Lawyers: Lawyers who signed a petition in June calling for direct elections to the bar association. Some of the signers later lost their jobs after pressure from the government.

Organizations of the Year

  • Airborne Special Force (空降兵特遣队): Fifteen soldiers parachuted in to the Wenchuan earthquake zone to facilitate later rescue efforts.
  • Taiwan Action Alliance (台灣支援四川災後重建行動聯盟): an organization set up to aid Sichuan's post-earthquake rebuilding efforts (512Rebuild.org).
  • 512 Center (四川512中心): A clearinghouse for earthquake information and a platform for coordinating the efforts of NGOs working in the earthquake zone (512NGO).
  • Pan-Pass, Orient Anti-Forgery, CSDN Alliance, and Hengxin Digital (北京兆信,东方惠科,中社网盟,恒信数码): In August, four companies sued China's General Administration of Quality Supervision for forcing businesses in certain industries join a network run by a private company of which it owns 30%. The lawsuit relies on the new anti-monopoly law (Beijing Review article).
  • Home of Buddhist Light (佛光之家): A faith-based organization in Xishuangbanna, Yunnan Province, that provides AIDS education to Dai villagers (homepage).

This issue's book review column look at Tombstone (墓碑), a book by retired Xinhua journalist Yang Jisheng that investigates the three years of famine in 1959-61.

In a recent interview with the International Herald Tribune, Yang explained his reasons for writing the book:

"Deceiving children is a sin," he said. "But they have deceived two, three generations of people already, so this generation cannot lie to the next generation again."

He said for many young Chinese today, events like the famine, the Cultural Revolution and the Tiananmen crackdown hardly register. So he feels it imperative that he write down what he knows and has seen.

Not everyone is eager for the young to read what Yang has to say, however. Education authorities in Wuhan, the capital of Yang's home province of Hubei, mentioned Tombstone by name in a section on campus contraband:

4. Standardize the management of commercial outlets in the area around the school, and resolutely clamp down on illegal commercial activity involving reactionary, obscene, pornographic, and violent content. In particular, material such as lottery tickets and unheathly publications and toys that could influence students' normal study life and healthy development must be barred from entering school grounds. Search for and seize the book Tombstone according to the law; if found, make an immediate report.

The author of the review in Window on the South was born in the 1980s, making him part of Yang's target audience.

Revere the truth, resist forgetting

by Zhou Hua / NFC

Tombstone is the work of Yang Jisheng, an elder statesman in the journalism world, so I read this book with a sense of respect and admiration. Not because I'm a neophyte in the field; rather, it was out of reverence for the truth this book tells about the great famine in the 1960s.

Yang Jisheng says that the book was originally titled "The Road to Heaven," and only later changed to "Tombstone," which carries four meanings: the first is a tombstone erected for his father, who died of starvation in 1959. The second is tombstone for all the Chinese people who died of starvation during the famine. The third is a tombstone for the systemic problems that created the famine. And fourth, it is a tombstone for his own uncertain future. Drawing on an individual experience of hardship and a collective reflection on hardship, he offers up a dark and heavy tombstone through which we are able to explore a truth that is actually not all that distant.

A little while ago I read Yang Xianhui's Chronicles of Dingxi Orphange (定西孤儿院纪事), which dealt with the same period of history. I couldn't sleep for several nights because of Yang's unrelenting depictions. Born in the 1980s, I have absolutely no memory of famine, nor do I have any way of imagining what it's like to stave off hunger by eating egret droppings and Guanyin clay and manure maggots. I have only vague memories from early childhood of hearing my elders tell scraps of stories about how they were beset by famine. For the storytellers, these were painful ruminations, and they were simply saddening to the listeners as well. Most people chose selective amnesia and neglect, at least until the arrival of Tombstone with its thirty-page bibliography of references.

It would be difficult for someone not tainted by prejudice or bound by a particular interest to doubt the truth of the personal experiences the author relates in the book and the material he obtained through interviews, although that truth may be devastating and gruesome. In the first fourteen chapters, Yi looks at more than ten provinces and cities to gain a sense of the people's conditions during the so-called "three years of natural disasters" from 1959 to 1961. No one, whether in Sichuan's land of abundance or the breadbasket of Jilin, or in Hebei or Shandong, was free from the immense calamity of starved corpses strewn about. Particularly horrifying is his description of the numbers of the dead and the ways in which they died. In the second fourteen chapters, Yang synthesizes a wide range of historical materials to analyze the causes of the famine, which he believes does not lie in natural disaster or the Soviet split. Instead, it had its own cause: a man-made catastrophe.

"The General Line, the Great Leap Forward, and the People's Communes were called the 'three red banners.' These political banners that whipped the Chinese people into a frenzy in 1958 were a direct cause of the three years of famine, the trouble at the root of the disastrous famine," Yang said. So many people dying in such a short time surpasses the toll of any previous natural disaster throughout history, and is beyond any world war. When we read this book today, we revisit the truth of that history and refuse to voluntarily or passively forget it. We do this not entirely to settle old scores or to condemn historical figures, for our more important reason is to ensure that the tragedy will be neither reenacted nor played out again in a different guise.

But this still presents a degree of difficulty. In the years surrounding his retirement, the veteran Xinhua Agency journalist painstakingly sought ways to obtain precious reference material. There was no shortage of obstacles, and some forty- and fifty-year-old materials remain in files that are undiscovered or unobtainable. He said, "As a news reporter, I strive to publish factual reports and statements. As a scholar, I have a responsibility to restore the original face of history and to tell the truth about that history to the many people who have been tricked." Such a statement may be a breath of fresh air for today's readers and reporters who are used to sensationalism and gossip.

We've made great strides today, compared to that era. Over the three decades of the reform era, particularly as the Internet has flourished, there are many more channels through which we can learn the truth. But forty or fifty years ago, the dead and the survivors had no way to know the truth about why they were starving and why they were dying. A fog enshrouded everything. We must thank this old Xinhua journalist, yet at the same time, we see Yang Jisheng ask a colleague who was stationed in a town hardest-hit by the famine: "As a Xinhua journalist, you had a responsibility to report the situation to the central government. Why didn't you write 'internal reference' articles?" His colleagues answered, "After I personally witnessed the ruin that awaited people who spoke the truth, how could I risk writing an 'internal reference' article?"

This is not only an issue of cowardly journalists. So many once towering heroes were silent, and that it is the great tragedy of that age. They were in fear of power, and every collectivized citizen had lost the source of their livelihood and had to cling to a power known as "the people," at the apex of which was only a romantic poet.

Apart from not daring to speak, in this book we also see starving people dying outside of full storehouses, commune members who would rather starve to death than divide up the grain stores of the production brigade. We may marvel at their rigorous discipline, but we ought to see that behind this lies a fear of power that is greater than the fear of death. Not eating meant death, but eating meant torment and torture much more painful than starving to death. Laozi said, "If the people do not fear death, how can death be used to frighten them?" That was in ancient times. In the modern world, however, there are some things to which death itself pales in comparison.

After reading this book, I can conjure up the image of a mother and child struggling to chew stalks, stripping barks from trees, and catching locusts to ease their hunger, or the picture of a rail-thin middle-aged man who dropped dead at a struggle session, but I cannot hear their voices, nor can I hear our own voices. There is only this heavy, black tombstone standing silently in my heart. Like Yang, I am inclined to believe that this tombstone of the heart will not be trampled or torn down.

Links and Sources

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