Ian Johnson
Ian Johnson

Journalist Ian Johnson interviewed democracy guru Liu Yu on her work and the political debate in China for the New York Review of Books. In this fragment they discuss how China´s internet users start to learn from those debates abroad, if they are interested, that is.

Ian Johnson:

When I interviewed Ran Yunfei , he argued that intellectuals in China are irresponsible and don’t yet know how to conduct political debates.

I sort of agree with Ran. I think it’s partly because the government has a monopoly on traditional forms of media. So public debate has only taken place online. But online debates have different characteristics than, say, newspapers or magazines. One is that you can publish much more easily anonymously. You can be very irresponsible because of the anonymity. Also, online comments can attract a lot of people very quickly. And it can be hard to back down because of this “crowd effect.” Also, things happen so fast. Someone curses you and you might suddenly curse them. Normally you don’t curse but suddenly you are.

People have to learn these things through watching and experiencing public debate. In England there’s a TV show called Question Time. On each show there’s a central topic and five people discuss it. You’ll have members of various parties, like Liberal Democrat, Conservative, Labor, an independent, and maybe another person. Each person has a certain amount of time to talk and so on. If you could turn on the TV and see shows like that, you’d learn how to debate. But Chinese have never seen national politicians debate.

Are Chinese beginning to learn such things from other countries?

Yes, more and more people really pay attention to what’s happening in, say, Burma, or Russia, or Egypt. But a lot of people also think China is really great—so great that “we don’t need to understand the outside world.” In school I can sense it. Many students’ English isn’t better than when I went to college. I went to university more than twenty years ago. I came from a small town and our English was terrible. A lot of these children grew up watching US shows like Friends or House of Cards. But you’ll notice that they don’t really have much curiosity about the world.

I think this is just a symptom of a general problem, which is suffocation of public thinking. It is not just the “outside” world people are uncurious about. Many Chinese are indifferent to the “inside” world as well. I mean, the domestic affairs in China. Thanks to the systematic de-politicizing efforts of the government, most people are only interested in personal development. You may pay a big price if you step out of that line of private life.

More in the New York Review of Books.

Liu Yu

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