Posted by Joel Martinsen on Sunday, December 31, 2006 at 3:55 PM
The Emperor's New Clothes was the literary reference of choice for a number of Chinese commentators this week.
On 26 December, People's Daily printed the following letter:
We are students at Nandan County High School in Guangxi. This November 19, the teachers and students of Nandan High School and Nandan #2 High School, along with the county education department leadership, county government work unit workers and leaders, and students from the town of Chehe, participated in a "10,000-strong Diao River pollution management campaign" that the county government had organized. That morning, the county government sent 40-some cars to pick us up and take us to the Diao River in Chehe. In the course of the trip, we saw many businesses such as smelting factories and ore separators along the banks of the river. The wastewater from these enterprises contained toxic heavy metals like lead, nickel, germanium, tin, gold, and copper, as well as a large quantity of acids and high levels of arsenic. The water, sand, and stones throughout river have turned yellowish-red because of pollution, and many tailing dams have also been polluted. The river water is stinking and dirty, and no fish or aquatic creatures can be found in it. Adults say that after drinking from the Diao River, cattle get diarrhea and ducks grow deformities; many people living along the river have come down with strange diseases - their muscles atrophy and they cannot get out of bed much of the time; vast tracts of fertile farmland on both sides of the river can no longer grow anything.
When we arrived at the bank of the Diao River, we thought that we would really be participating in an exercise to control river pollution. We did not expect that we had come to stage a show. Everyone was sent to different sections of the river; banners were posted along the river for more than 10km, and cars from all of those work units filled the public roads along the riverbank - a sea of people, and it truly was magnificent to behold. Everyone stood along the river pretending snag objects with shovels and rakes; an excavator pushed ore from the left bank to the right, and then from the right bank to the left; it took rocks and sand out of the river and then desposited them back in again - they said it was sufficient to turn over the rocks and sand in the river to let others know that we had "taken control". The county leadership had the TV station take lots of shots with everyone fake-working in the background, which they said was to propagandize that the Diao River had been managed. We then understood that participation in this event was actually just to have us inflate the numbers. We couldn't understand why they'd do such a thing.
Guangxi Nandan County High School Students
No one was much surprised at the local government's shenanigans, though some voices wondered who the fraud was intended to impress. Rather, it was the fact that more than a month after an exercise that had involved thousands of people, it was only a class of high school students that dared speak out about it - the most ready reference was naturally Hans Christian Andersen's classic fable.
The Information Times asked "When will The Emperor's New Clothes leave the stage?", Xin'an Evening News wondered, "How should a sequel to The Emperor's New Clothes be written?", and Beijing Youth Daily said:
Think about it - if the students who wrote that letter were the governor of Nandan County, would they do a better job than the current lying governor? At the very least they wouldn't waste all that manpower and material in order to pull the wool over the eyes of their superiors and all of the county residents!
Someone might say that the children who wrote the letter can't be county governor because they are too naive. I disagree with this view. The spirit to seek truth from facts is definitely not naive; lying and wasting money and labor is no kind of mature wisdom. An emperor living among lies and running about naked on the streets is certainly stupider than the child who points out that the emperor is not wearing any clothing.
In fact, the idea of children speaking out against government fraud while adults were too afraid to say anything so captured the attention of the media that some people suggested this was done by design. In the Changjiang Times, Zhou Xiyin, a Jiangsu broadcaster, speculated on the ultimate author of the letter:
Suppose this letter came from an individual or a group of Nandan cadres who still have some integrity, and was only sent in the name of the high school students. Evidently the writer, speaking the truth, worried that using his true identity to put this problem "on display" would very likely result in an investigation and other problems the extent of which is hard to predict. In addition, putting words in the mouths of students makes it easier to attract the attention of the media and the public, since a problem that gets a sharp, angry reaction from students can easily attract widespread attention. In this way, writing a letter in the name of high school students is an unavoidable strategy; speaking the truth, speaking forthrightly, is not so easy.
We still do not know the thinking of the local county government - is there anger at the exposure, or regret now that they know they underestimated the public? Or, having been openly fraudulent already, will they put on another "show"? Regardless, do not say that the local officials are "frightened" because of a single group letter, even though another show to "finish off" the Diao River pollution management effort is not very likely. If the mistaken mentality toward development in Nandan that one-sidedly emphasizes economic development at the expense of the enviroment is not corrected, and if the ugly situation in which rule of law is overruled by rule of men is not done away with, then openly fraudulent things like the "10,000-strong pollution management show" will not disappear, and may even flare up again in a different guise.
Though no one actually mentions the similarity, this situation naturally calls to mind another bogus public works project that was in the news this month. Gao Qinrong was jailed for eight years for his exposure of a Potemkin irrigation project - what will happen to these students for their efforts? An op-ed piece in the Mirror talks of the dangers:
This group of students might not know that there is a serious price to pay for speaking the truth! Think carefully - this group of students has offended the leadership of the county education department and the leadership of county government work units - this large group of fakers and liars will probably have a hard time finding the tolerance to keep their shame from turning into anger, to keep from taking revenge on this group of "truth-speaking children". This group of fraudulent liars were trying to burnish their image by conducting this circus, and now that their shame has been revealed to all, can you expect them not to make things difficult for the kids?
Anderson never wrote a sequel to The Emperor's New Clothes, so we don't know whether he worried about the child's fate. This writer believes that at the same time that we make public this "letter of indictment", we should take protective measures on behalf of these "truth-speaking children" so that they do not have to pay the price for speaking the truth. Nurture these precious "seeds of truth."
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