Scholarship and education

Yu Quanyu: the man behind the rhetoric

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The most recent issue of Southern People Weekly (the one with Wu Hongfei's cover interview with Wang Shuo) contains a story/interview with Yu Quanyu, the CPPCC member who proposed a law criminalizing seditious speech at this year's congressional sessions.

The article provides some background on Yu's life and ideas, though the reporter seems more than a bit hostile to his proposal.

Yu Quanyu: Words that shocked the world

by An Kulei / SPW

Like a river surging ceaselessly onward, or the deluge of the Yellow River, once let out it cannot be taken back. Face to face with Yu Quanyu, you will find it hard not to connect him to that oft-mocked "classic saying."

He does not always answer your questions directly, but he can respond at length to practically any question.

"I'll tell you another thing," and then he will begin to reminisce about his victories in the days of "human rights arguments" with the US. All in Sichuanese, with "oh" in the third tone. Trying several times to interrupt him with "Mr. Yu..." and ask a question, he'd say "Let me finish," and continue speaking.

This elderly, 72-year-old man looks a bit weary, and his writing bears that tone with which everyone is familiar, but his pronunciation is quite spirited.

During 2007's Two Sessions, Yu Quanyu put forth an earth-shattering proposal for a law against seditious speech, recommending that "apologists for the actions of China's invaders since the Opium War in 1840 be given up to 10 years in prison; apologists for the actions of China's invaders since 1931 (the Sept. 18 Incident) should be given up to 20 years."

Online, someone posted a criticism of his proposal, calling him "a long term resident of the US who has published too many words on Sino-American contrasts." But he says that he has only been to the US once, in 1996. That year was a dangerous period in the Taiwan Strait, and as the secretary general of the International Communication Office of the Central Committee he visited the US. "The Chinese and overseas Chinese in the US had strong opinions; anti-China sentiments are everywhere! Provincial-level cadres hide from the media as soon as they go overseas."

He did not hide, but accepted an interview first from The China Press (侨报), and then from a television program. "Worry about improper topics? I used to be a reporter, so the topics are controlled by us."

Indeed, Sino-US comparison was brought him fame. "Beginning in 1990, the US had an annual attack on China's human rights, and the higher-ups had me create the Chinese Society for the Study of Human Rights. The 'US Human Rights Record' announced in the papers a few days ago was my invention. In 1994, the US sent a major delegation to discuss the human rights issue with China. I gave a talk at that conference, 'Comparison of the Human Rights Situation in China and America,' oh, and that cut them down. Later the CSSHR did the US Human Rights Record. Oh, they were dumbfounded by that stroke - it left them with nothing to say."

The record shows that Yu Quanyu became head of Xinhua's Economic Information Daily in May, 1988, and in September, 1989, he became head of the office of the editor-in-chief at People's Daily. In July, 1991, he added a second title as member of the editorial board. In September, 1993, he became secretary-general of the International Communication Office of the Central Committee of the CPC, and afterward became vice-president of the Chinese Society for the Study of Human Rights.

Limits to free speech in China and the US are identical

He is very familiar with the concept of "freedom," to the point that he has the topic ever at his fingertips - from Montesquieu to before the liberation. He had this reporter recite the First Amendment to the US Constitution - the reporter recited in fits and starts, and Yu corrected him with a flawless recitation.

He supposes that many people have this misunderstanding of "freedom": freedom is doing whatever you please. "I found that in the US some people are very strange, and in China some journalists are very strange in China. Not having read through their own constitution, they read up to the point where citizens are granted freedom of speech, and then do not read the several limits on freedom of speech," he said.

He has not been to college, and says, "before graduating high school I joined the revolution, and my foreign language levels weren't great." However, this did not affect him using his own means to understand the US.

"There are some people who believe that in the US you can promote communism, so it must be very free." He believes that the US is relatively free because "when a country is relatively strong it fears no-one." He compared the US today to China under the reign of Zhenguan and arrived at the following conclusion: the two are similar, the countries have no enemies, so things can be a bit more permissive.

He feels that the US and China have no real differences in the limits that they place on free speech. "Try and organize twenty people to go to the White House and shout "Overthrow Bush" (打倒布什). See if they don't arrest you. US law clearly states that inciting violent overthrow of the government or government officials is against the law; if you "overthrow" then you're being violent."

An American used the words "very very wrong" [English in the original] to evaluate Yu's words. "Of course you can say 'Overthrow Bush.' Only when you say 'I want to murder Bush' do you enter a legal grey area."

Yu Quanyu has one line that is almost a mantra: "We can mimic everything from the US, but we should not mimic the way the US looks at its own history. Americans cover up the scandals in their own history." He believes that the US is still covering up the blackness of the McCarthy era. "Many people in China have signed petitions to set up an Anti-Rightist Museum. I say to you, I was a rightist for twenty-one years, and I disagree. Take a look - does America have a KKK Museum? Does is have a Museum of McCarthyism?"

In 1957, though he opposed "those literati indiscriminately advancing opinions and loudly proclaiming their views," Yu Quanyu, who was a reporter with Xinhua's Sichuan branch at the time, was labeled a rightist because of an "anti-rashness" report, and "expelled from the party, with wages cut in half to 31 yuan (a month) for 21 years."

During that period, he worked during the day and at night read books, "particularly the works of Marx and Lenin." Finally, in 1978, after he returned to his old job as a journalist, he quickly wrote an investigation on the topic "The way out for agriculture is anti-leftism" that brought him instant fame.

China's history texts are basically correct

He believes that unlike the "one-sidedness" of western history textbooks, domestic Chinese history textbooks are "basically correct," because "this is developed out of the pre-liberation arguments with the Nationalist Party."

Perhaps owing to this judgment, he is particularly unaccepting of Sun Yat-sen University professor of philosophy Yuan Weishi's article "Modernization and History Textbooks," and firmly believes it is "seditious speech."

"This is a question of invading or being invaded," "What country would permit another country's navy to enter its interior waterways without its agreement?" "Is not even reversing the verdict on imperialism invading China seditious speech?"

Some people have supported Yu Quanyu's proposal. In the assessment of Zhongnan University of Economics and Law professor Qiao Xinsheng, "Scholarly research should not be ignorant of the common understanding of the constitution. The public's speech cannot violate rules currently in legal force." "Mr. Yu Quanyu's proposal improves the common understanding of the constitution and prevents outrageous viewpoints from reappearing again and again. This is an act to be highly commended."

In regard to Qiao Xinzheng's viewpoint, commentator Yan Lieshan pointed out that the constitution itself is the object of freedom of speech. A "common understanding of the constitution" or "constitutional baseline" that is unable to be criticized does not exist; otherwise, it would be impossible to speak of "amending" (or "correcting") the constitution. Before amending or correcting the constitution, there will most certainly be people who point out holes and errors in the currently active constitution. If criticism of the constitution is not permitted, then this essentially cuts off the road to improving the constitution, and is tantamount to declaring that the constitution currently in force is absolute truth.

Setting up a "constitutional baseline" for free speech - doesn't that cut off the road for China's constitution to keep pace with the times? Does China's great undertaking of reform and opening up come to a halt here? Has the history of the Chinese people come to a close?

A historian who was unwilling to disclose his name used "incredibly absurd" to describe this proposal. "Scholarly investigation can support different viewpoints, and different viewpoints can contend with each other. Slinging around political labels is an abominable relic of the Cultural Revolution, and belittles the intellect of the populace, besides. There should be confidence in the people's own judgment. As for the common understanding of the constitution, I think that interpretation of the constitution should belong to the NPC, not some kind of 'master guardians'."

Yu Quanyu admits that he does not know now whether the proposal will pass, and even if it passes, "it will take several years to draw up a law, and it must be very rigorous." He said that he asked law professors from Peking University, Tsinghua University, and Remmin University about his proposal: "Perhaps they are not very famous, but they are study law."

Yu Quanyu is dissatisfied that "seditious speech may be expressed," but his own speech often cannot be expressed. "This is a true infringement on free speech," he said.

Southern People Weekly: You have spoken much about the limits of free speech. Which do you believe is more important: freedom itself, or the limits?
Yu Quanyu: There is no difference between the two. Montesquieu said that freedom is the right to act within the bounds of the law. But here he has a flaw: if you follow the laws of those autocratic monarchs, including Chiang Kai-shek, what freedom do you have? The French Revolution suggested that freedom was the right to act in any way that did not harm others. If I am speaking here, you can spin your pen, since you are not harming me.

SPW: So if you do especially detest seeing young people spin their pens, is this harming your freedom?
Yu: I'll just not look!

SPW: You don't have to look at that article.
Yu: It's not whether I don't look. This magazine has a circulation of over one million, right? Or if not a million, then at least several hundred thousand? If you send it to a university, the young people in the university have never experienced such circumstances, so they will believe that the second Opium War was instigated by the Chinese government. Isn't that serious? We have a rule in China: nothing is off limits to research, but publicity must be disciplined. If you have a different opinion, then discuss it in an internal publication.

SPW: Do you believe that youth today are not clear about China's history of being subject to imperialist aggression?
Yu: I do not know how your history textbooks today discuss it. His paper is a poison for the youth.

SPW: Will your proposal bring about "punishment for speech"?
Yu: Isn't libel speech that is punished? If you publish seditious speech you ought to be punished! This is stipulated in the constitution.

SPW: The British newspaper The Guardian once ran an opinion piece [perhaps this one] saying that making denial of the Holocaust and open display of Nazi symbols illegal is unwise. What's your view?
Yu: This is part of free speech. The British paper can have its own view.

SPW: This paper also said that in similar issues, schools and the media (rather than the law) should combat the deniers.
Yu: Both methods must be used. A country like ours that has been oppressed for so long must criticize (seditious speech) through public opinion and must punish it through the courts.

SPW: Someone has suggested that there are few supporters in Europe for those Nazi apologists, while here, the speech of those who "fly the flag of scholarly inquiry to distort history" can always attract the attention of many people.
Yu: There are few people who truly support "seditious speech"; it is mainly because they haven't heard such things before - it is new, so they take it up with both hands.

SPW: There are also those who say that some of the viewpoints you say are absurd can be understood as mere problems of perspective and not dangers to the country.
Yu: Is there a lack of absurd speech in the papers today? This is a question of the difference between mistakes, violations of the law, and crimes.

SPW: So you are saying that these absurd viewpoints are not necessarily "seditious speech"?
Yu: This is true, but speech that argues for the Opium War is definitely seditious speech.

When news of Yu's proposal first came out, Sichuan-based journalist Ran Yunfei posted a harsh response on his blog. Ran frequently writes on free speech and education issues, and is well acquainted with having his blog posts dissappeared by service providers. In the following translation, background material that duplicates descriptions of Yu's proposal has been elided, and Ran's typical "wall of text" posting style has been divided into more manageable paragraphs.

Traitor or Party Hack?

China's CPPCC members and NPC delegates - representatives at the Two Sessions - are (1) not truly elected fairly, openly, or equitably, and (2) perhaps more than 80% of these people are members of the Communist Party. These two points demonstrate quite clearly how an undemocratic government can assume the appearance of a democracy through the Two Sessions, thereby singing the praises of the government, and at the same time, the strength of the party members can control the unstable elements that may appear during the meetings (though the majority have never appeared before). I have seen it with my own eyes, when an opinion cannot be fixed according to the wishes of the important officials, party representatives will be taken aside and asked to submit to the party organization and put aside their individual opinions in order to realize the pre-determined "election" or "vote" that must pass through a democratic interlude.
...
This Yu Quanyu is truly a piece of work. This "demigod" seems never to have lived in the land of China where disasters occur with frequency, but rather high up in China's sky, so his grand arguments arise repeatedly and he has no shortage of intriguing opinions. A few years ago he answered a reporters question saying that the Chinese government had never maltreated anyone and had never starved anyone; later, he once again shockingly aligned himself with the government in opposing the promotion of serving the taxpayers in place of that old jingle, "serve the people." The scholar Ms. Xiao Xuehui and the essayist Mr. Huang Yilong both produced refutations of his "grand theory," which you all may find online. Perennially publishing a series of articles in magazines like Mainstream and Pursuit of Truth that waste taxpayer money and scam taxpayer rights, this so-called "human rights scholar" who distorts the facts of Chinese human rights saw too many people in disagreement with his "farsighted opinions," so he took his skill at making a sensation and came up with a master-stroke to finish things once and for all: the proposal for a law against seditious speech. This move seems much more effective than all of the patchy articles he's written glossing over human rights. Don't you all enjoy refuting Yu Quanyu's viewpoints? Haven't you refuted Yu Quanyu completely and utterly? Ok then, Yu Quanyu won't mince words with you; if you have differing opinions, you'll be crowned as a traitor. This charge of treachery in this country has the intrinsic advantage of needing no judgment or legal process. Calling someone a traitor is like calling them unpatriotic or saying that they have betrayed their country. Such immense moral superiority, regardless of whether the charges are framed.

Our country does not divide the party from the state; it is a state ruled by the party. Criticizing the party and criticizing the government are both unpatriotic and are judged as "a crime of overthrowing national security." It only requires a bit of common sense to see these crimes as absurd and ridiculous and not worthy of rebuttal. So what is a traitor? Whatever is not in accord with Communist Party ideology may be defined as traitorous. Fortunately this Mr. Yu Quanyu is a "human rights expert" and a "member of the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences" (I'll add a note here that more than 90% of the first class of "academicians" are party members, as if it were an scholarly roll-call of party members; the scholarly achievements of many of them are basically unfit to be mentioned, except that they fit in with the party ideology). A "human rights expert" who does not know what freedom of speech and academic freedom, and counts this as Chinese characteristics. This is unspeakably embarrassing; this sort of human rights expert will naturally claim China's human rights disasters as its human rights accomplishments. Even more risible is the fact that this "member of the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences" seems to be unaware of the following common knowledge:

One, that freedom of speech is protected by the Constitution; any law that violates freedom of speech should be seen as unconstitutional and immediately rescinded.

Two, dealing with differences of opinion, particularly in scholarly research, is not the place for legislation to intervene; rather, you should bring out your facts and proof, use your research to prove that someone else's viewpoint is in error. It is impermissible to interfere with freedom of speech and scholarly research.

Three, research in certain areas of scholarship cannot wait for opinions to reach a consensus. The world is does not exist quite so simply, and it does not treat lightly those whose judgment is either-or. Precisely speaking, splits in any realm of research should be seen as normal; Yu Quanyu perhaps believes that thinking can and should be unanimous. According to his viewpoint, then, liberal democracies like the US and the UK will have the most "American traitors" or "British traitors," because scholars often advance views at odds with the mainstream. These non-mainstream views may not even be in line with the interests of their country, yet no one would dare to view these researchers as "American traitors" or "British traitors." And people like Yu Quanyu who protect uniformity of thoughts and opinions at many times are not working for the interests of the country but rather for the interests of the party (belittling the KMT's war of resistance, for example).

Four, because modernization occurred late in our country, research into the period of modern history is an area of nationalistic focus. Particular care must be taken in gathering evidence and drawing conclusions; one cannot believe on the basis of first impressions that one's own views are correct, much less use this to suppress differing opinions and research or to immediately class all differences of opinion as "traitorous" viewpoints. Were this the case, it would be as utterly absurd as the Communist Party believing itself to be intrinsically "glorious, grand, and correct" without the facts to demonstrate this.

Five, the period of modern history is one saturated with party ideology, a period in which the Communist Party authorities have rewritten and interfered with the most. Such large-scale distortions written into all kinds of history textbooks is called "wolf's milk" by Mr. Yuan Weishi; those who were educated after 1949 grew up drinking this "wolf's milk" of massively distorted history education. In this kind of history education that does not respect the facts, even the primary party in the war of resistance (a party in the wilderness sounding encouragement from the sidelines shamelessly calls itself an indispensable cornerstone of the war of resistance; what sort of "treachery" is this in Mr. Yu's eyes, I wonder) has become an bald cover-up. It is impermissible to study this cover-up, much less say that the Nationalist Party made leading contributions to the war of resistance. In other words, there is much negative about the Nationalist Party, but that it made considerable efforts against the Japanese is a fact that cannot be wiped out; standing the facts on their heads is to no avail. The Nationalist Party fought many Japanese soldiers, but the Communist Party has always called itself the indispensable cornerstone. Can we use Mr. Yu's argument to say that the Communist Party's mentality is a seditious mentality, and that those who proclaim the viewpoint that the Communist Party was the indispensable cornerstone are traitors? (Tangentially, I actually wonder what Yu Quanyu would say about Mao Zedong expressing thanks to the Japanese in the 1950s?) I say we cannot. This is but a struggle with a party ideology that does not respect facts; researchers can bring forth more practical, workable evidence to demonstrate that it is false.

I have said before that modern political parties in China are not the western concept of political parties; most of them are similar to criminal organizations (of course this does not include any party under the current democratic system in Taiwan). What is a criminal organization? In short: an excessively harsh organization that cannot be freely entered nor exited; no individual opinions, but only the opinions of the party boss; unity of thinking and an oath of allegiance. These three points are at considerable variance with the concept of a true political party in the west. As a party member, Yu Quanyu naturally is well-versed in "unified thinking," in formulaic "political correctness", and in "inventive innovation" that anticipates and caters to the aims of his masters. And thus the proposal for an unconstitutional law against seditious speech rears its head. A netizen joked that this proposal of Yu Quanyu's has completely blacked the international image of the Communist Party and recommended that the Communist Party arrest this "traitor." Mechanically applying Yu Quanyu's line of thought, his actions have indeed been detrimental to the image of the Communist Party, and the Party ought to arrest this "party traitor." This "party traitor" not only has harmed the image of the Communist Party, but he has brought trouble to the party. Because of this, passage of his proposal would come only if the Communist Party wanted to flirt with ultimate insanity. A rational political party and a civilized government would absolutely not violate such common values of human rights or act in such opposition to the present tide.

On the subject of traitors, I suggest that Yu Quanyu have a good read of Mr. Li Ling's "On the Origins of the Concept of Traitor" [Dushu, 1995.10] before further discussion of the traitor issue. Speaking a bunch of nonsense over there without even a basic understanding of the concept of traitor will not please your "great, glorious, correct" masters, I'm afraid, because they still seem to be "keeping pace with the times." In our "harmonious society," in our "great" era, I have not seen any traitors, but I have seen far too many party hacks. Yu Quanyu is perhaps the most distinguished of the lot.

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