A Dream for our Time

A Dream for our Time

(Image Credit: Alper Orus, Flickr)

I was neither surprised nor worried to hear that the renowned activist Xu Zhiyong had been arrested, as activists are often subjected to this kind of treatment. Now nearly half a year has passed since he was detained, and my anxiety and concern can no longer be suppressed. I am particularly startled because Beijing prosecutors have formally charged Xu recently due to his efforts to pursue equality of education and to publicize details regarding the private assets of officials.

I can still clearly remember the first time I met Xu, who wore a grey shirt and black trousers. This intellectual, who earned a Juris Doctorate at Peking University, could easily have settled for a comfortable life, but decided to choose a thornier path for himself. I first asked him a range of questions to get a sense of his background and achievements. Afterwards, he allowed me some time to discuss contemporary social problems from both legal and historical perspectives. “When I was your age, I became aware of the real importance of social harmony and the need for freedom.” To be honest, I have never agreed entirely with his views, but this does not prevent me from having a great deal for him and for his career.

If you desire to be trailblazer, you must first ensure that you are prepared to face down all manner of challenges, obstacles, and dangers. Obviously, striving to exercise your rights as a citizen has nothing to with your age or status. What is important is having passion, persistence and belief. Even if one holds these characteristics, our attention can easily be diverted by a series of signs and symbols with may lead us astray, forgetting the structure and interactions of our society. So there is a need for us to adhere to cultural codes if we are to achieve social solidarity. Although it may seem that micro transformations in a limited timeframe cannot bring perfection, more and more democratic choices and notions are reaching an ever wider audience.

Sun Hanhui, one of Xu’s closest allies said of his own family: “At the start, my wife is often uneasy with my work. But now, her own views have changed.” During the interview, I was aware of Sun’s wife looking at me in silent vigilance while her son, a smart boy of about 10 years, was quietly occupied by his cake and drink. But sometimes his patience waned and he begged his parents to hurry up. After we had finished our interview, I was struck by something that Sun’s wife, also a prominent lawyer, said to me: “I worry greatly about him. Not only is he my husband, he is our son’s father. Nothing is worse than when his is “invited for tea” by government officials. As I bade them farewell after leaving the cafe on the campus of Renmin University, I found myself missing my mother, aged 50.

When the Snowden affair was brought to light by the South China Morning Post and the Guardian, China Current correspondents took on the task of writing a report about this topic. People from all over the world were having their say about boundary between ethics and freedom of speech. At the same time as this, the United States, which along has proudly referred to itself as the freest and most democratic country in the word, frantically began to look for Snowden. But the irony did not stop here: China, which for a long time and particularly on the issue of freedom of speech has taken the West as its enemy, was unwilling to grant Snowden asylum in Hong Kong.

Recently, as reported by the New York Times, Bloomberg suspended Mike Forsythe, one of their China correspondents, due to his investigations into the assets of Wang Jianlin, an influential business figure with ties to the political establishment. The press unexpectedly turned to a pioneering role in bending the power of the state. A friend of mine from the New York Times commented, “It is doubtful that the world’s second largest economy is going to kowtow before these journalists. On the one hand, extrapolating from past economic reforms, the road to the future could go in any direction.” On the other hand, any progress towards political reform is as unclear as the smog shrouding Beijing and Shanghai. All in all, we are united in disgrace, as the editor-in-chief of the Guardian was called before Parliament in London to answer MP’s questions regarding national security.

I was fortunate enough to meet Gill Phillips, director of editorial legal service at the Guardian at a conference on “Media Law and Policy in the Internet Age” at Hong Kong University in October. She spoke about current issues facing the newspaper. “It’s not the Guardian’s content that presents the biggest challenge for the legal department. Because of our reputation for publishing controversial public interest stories, it’s the number of constituencies, escalating worldwide suspicions about the press and those who leak information to the press.” With regards to political rights, people should focus on the right to free speech. Just as Yale University Professor of Sociology Jeffrey C. Alexander said, the critical difference between ancient and modern societies is transparency, and modern society should cultivate its comparative clarity.

On the other hand, social movements can become irrational and emotional, and due to the extraordinary rate at which they are organised, the impact of each movement is tragically shrinking. Before I went to interview Laurence Tang, President of Hong Kong University Student Union, I was surprised to learn that he and other people I was due to speak with are as young as me. The vast majority of students I met at Hong Kong University spoke negatively of their student union. This reminded me of an interview I conducted with a powerful female political serving on the Legislative Council. “The Students’ Union is hive in which students gather to mindlessly whip up political fever and social conflict.” Nevertheless, until I met with Laurence in the Students’ Union, it appeared that we would have a happy conversation rather than an interview.” He said, “Society definitely has high expectations for us, but we should spare no effort in making these movements and activities more rational and comprehensive. As part of a research university, we have an obligation to promote well-reasoned and effective activities.” Particularly for the younger leaders who face misunderstandings from within and without, their hope of organising effective and sound social movements is very difficult. During organisational activities, they must consider the demands of the social groups and organisations with which they cooperate. If they don’t handle things well, their radical ideas will come up on the ballot paper in the new future. But regardless, it is only by sticking to their objective and level-headed basic principles that they will be able to confront hidden dangers and threats. So, on the face of things, Laurence is very rash and impulsive. But in reality, he is using all the power available to him to guarantee the neutrality of social movements.

All over the world, people are encountering unprecedented difficulty in realizing their freedom. But, as ever, we can say that the best times are still to come. Hopefully, in spite of many critical issues that must still be resolved, intelligent and courageous young people will be able to confront the challenges that are facing us head on. The new civic spirit demonstrated by student unions will take an ever more important role in the future. If backward social hierarchies are not torn down, it will be impossible to build a fair society and a sound civil sphere. In the China Independent Media Conference, a senior war reporter named Zhang Cuirong asked a pointed question: “How can we define or describe the word, “free”?” Only the future knows.

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President of China Current Network - China Current Chinese, China Current International, China Current Idea Centre - Research Service