Thoughts on Ian Johnson’s Interview with Chinese Academic Ai Xiaoming

This excellent Ian Johnson interview  with Chinese academic, documentary filmmaker and activist Ai Xiaoming “The People in Retreat: An Interview with Ai Xiaoming” 
   in the New York Review of Books website NYR Daily gives a good example of how foreign travel and contact can help open minds and bring change:
 
 ” I’m curious about how you became politically active. During the 1989 protests you were not involved with the student movement.

People like me who went through the Cultural Revolution, we are often skeptical of politics. I was a teacher and I watched the students but didn’t participate directly. I went to Tiananmen Square twice but mainly watched this from a distance.

What changed?

In 1999 I spent a year abroad at the University of the South in Tennessee. It had a huge impact on me. I saw how people discussed social problems. I remember participating in commemorations for Martin Luther King, Jr. on his holiday. I thought: this is how a university ought to be; I want to bring this back to China.”

There was some heavy pessimism in the interview too. I remember how writer Liao Yiwu told me in Chengdu one time that he wonders if the Communist Party continues to rule China, will public morals be so corrupted that even if China becomes more democratic it will not in the end succeed because of widespread corruption. 
 
Liao Yiwu:
 
“Many Chinese people, from top officials down, basically have these same self-interested concerns… So with that reality, it’s hard to see how China will be moving forward to democracy. There are just so few people who are interested. Then there’s the environmental devastation, misuse and poor management of resources, and the toll taken on the human soul by this system of government and thought control. Imagine that in maybe 20 years, with the environment so badly messed up, with people so disastrously educated, that even if China could become democratic, there might not be the cultural basis for real democracy. The land would be too polluted, and the people will have polluted themselves as well.”
 

The full Liao Yiwu interview with Brian Awehali  

DANGEROUS WORDS: A Profile of Chinese Poet and People’s Historian Liao Yiwu (廖亦武) ” is available on Brian’s website Loud Canary

Full disclosure:  Brian Awehali is my son-in-law.  I was his interpreter for this interview with Liao Yiwu.

 I hope that Liao Yiwu is wrong about that, but Ai Xiaoming does say something quite similar 
 
“When did you lose that initial idealism?
 
At the start, the Hu-Wen administration [of Hu Jintao and Wen Jiabao, which came to power in 2002] brought some illusions of hope, but especially after 2008 this weiwen [stability maintenance] system gradually took shape. It concentrates power in the government’s hand…
 
Another thing is that in the past perhaps I believed in the goodness of human nature. I believe this is naïve. Actually, human nature in this totalitarian society has become very vile. This power has changed Chinese people’s psychological makeup. Most people, very many people, are really terrible; they’re afraid of losing things. I don’t mean ordinary people. In fact, ordinary people are often quite clear about the system. I mean, a lot of people in universities, a lot of intellectuals, they know. But the pressure is so great. A lot of people don’t want to sacrifice because being inside the system has a lot of advantages. Why would they want to give up such a comfortable life?
 
Where will change come from?
 
I don’t have an easy answer. I just think we shouldn’t underestimate this barbaric totalitarianism. We shouldn’t underestimate how it has corroded people’s hearts. Because this people’s character, having lived under this system for so long, has become weak, and become powerless.”
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