From “Outlaws of the Marsh” to Chen Guangcheng: What Hasn’t Changed in China

Recently, I have been watching the Chinese TV series “All Men Are Brothers,” a 2011 TV production based on the classic Chinese literature Outlaws of the Marsh (Water Margin is another translation). This historic fiction is set in the 11th century in China during the Song Dynasty. A group of good men and women were being forced into a life as outlaws by injustice in society.

Some of them were persecuted by evil officials. Others were victims of local thugs and rebelled. Yet there were others who took justice into their own hands and broke the law. Eventually, 108 of them (including three women) gathered at Liang Mountain to form an outlaw society. Known as heroes of Liang Mountain, they robbed the rich and helped the poor, and vowed to “do justice on Heaven’s behalf.”

Revisiting this epic novel in a TV series, I was struck by how relevant the stories are to today’s China. Despite the dramatic changes in recent years, much of China hasn’t changed at all. Every single story in “All Men Are Brothers” seems to be repeating itself in contemporary China – common people who are powerless and subject to abuse by villains, petty-minded officials who have gained high powers, upright people who find themselves running afoul of the authorities.

Perhaps the most telling example is the character of Song Jiang, the leader of the Liang Mountain heroes. Song was known as a person with the Confucian virtues of loyalty and righteousness. He developed a reputation for generously helping others whenever there is a need. Therefore, people gave him the nickname of “Timely Rain,” or “Rainmaker.”

Before he became an outlaw, Song was a small official in a local court. His biggest ambition was to serve the imperial system. After he became the leader of the Liang Mountain outlaws, Song still believed the most worthy cause was to serve the imperial court and become “a pillar of the country.” He blindly believed that the emperor was good and wise, only the officials surrounding him were evil. Eventually, he led his group to obtain amnesty from the emperor.  For that, he gave up his motto “do justice on Heaven’s behalf.” Instead, he pledge his allegiance to one man under Heaven – the emperor.

This is based on a true story that happened almost a thousand years ago. Today, China is no longer under imperial rule. Yet, Song Jiang’s blind obedience to authority is still deeply rooted in the Chinese psyche. We don’t need to look very far to see that this core of Chinese culture has remained the same. I have heard many times from people in China that the central government is good and wise, that only some officials, especially local officials, are evil.

The recent scandal surrounding Bo Xilai, Chongqing party chief and member of the Politburo, should give a clear indication that central government officials are no less corrupted than local ones, perhaps much more so. Sources revealed that Bo’s wife Gu Kailai, who allegedly murdered British businessman Neil Heywood, attempted to illegally transfer $6 billion overseas. One cannot help but ask: how many others out there are like Bo Xilai?

More cheerful news is that China does have heroes like the ones at Liang Mountain. Chen Guangcheng, a blind legal activist who has relentlessly fought injustice in China, is an excellent example. Born in an impoverished village, Chen was blinded by a high fever as a child. He couldn’t go to school until he was seventeen. Yet, Chen has risen from poverty, and devoted himself to help disabled people gain legal protection. A self-taught lawyer, Chen won several cases in court, including a victory over the Beijing subway system.

Chen’s trouble came when he started to represent village women who were being forced to have an abortion or to be sterilized. He was thrown into jail for four years because of his activist activities on behalf of those women. After he was released from jail, Chen was under house arrest for 18 months. His dramatic escape and subsequently seeking protection from the U.S. Embassy in Beijing caused a diplomatic tussle between the U.S. and China. As we have all witnessed, this drama ended with Chen’s arrival in the U.S. on a student visa to attend New York University School of Law.

I have only respect and admiration for Chen Guangcheng. He represents the best of China. Not too many people in China are like him, who is fearless and relentless to fight lawlessness in China. Yet, even Chen Guangcheng is not exempt from blind trust in high authority.

While hiding in the U.S. Embassy in Beijing, Chen released a video onto the Internet, openly calling for Chinese Premier Wen Jiabao to investigate his case. In the video, Chen expressed that local officials’ hideous behaviors were done in the name of the Communist Party, which, he said, “blemished the reputation of the central government.” Therefore, he asked Premier Wen to investigate the serious abuse of power by local officials.

Premier Wen Jiabao has carefully tailored an image of a loving official who cares about average people and their suffering. He has also repeatedly called for democratic reforms and rule of law in China. Since he hasn’t been able to put any of his words into action, many critics believe that Wen is either acting or incapable of executing any reforms.

Not surprisingly, Chen Guangcheng’s call was not answered by Premier Wen Jiabao. Ironically, his call was answered by U.S Secretary of State Hillary Clinton.

My real question is that, if Premier Wen Jiabao had his eyes closed on Chen Guangcheng’s case for years, why did Chen still believe that Premier Wen would help him restore justice and punish local thugs? His blind faith in the central government also led to his initial decision to stay in China, believing that if he lived in a different city, he would be able to enjoy the protection from the central government. Even after he arrived in the U.S., Chen praised the Chinese government profusely despite his experience as a victim of the system.

This is not to say that Chen Guangcheng is not a hero. He is. Chen may purposely not irritate the Chinese government out of his concerns for family members back home, or he may want to make peace with the government to pave the way for his future return to China. But I see a remarkable resemblance between Chen Guangcheng and Song Jiang, the leader of the Liang Mountains heroes in “All Men Are Brothers.”

The point is that the Chinese have very a different attitude toward authority. They value hierarchy and respect authority to the point of blindness. Confucianism has played a major role in this attitude of obedience. Without understanding this, one cannot truly understand China.

The inability of the Chinese to challenge authority has ramifications that go far beyond human rights issues or political reforms. The Chinese government plans to invest $1.5 trillion for “indigenous innovation.”  But until a culture of independent thinking is encouraged, until the clash of ideas is welcomed, until people dare to challenge authority, China will have difficulty in breeding leading-edge technologies and innovations and reaping the benefits.

A version of this article was originally appeared on Forbes.

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