Learning How to Argue: Interview with Chinese intellectual Ran Yunfei

"They say I’m a running dog of the Americans. But I’m just my own running dog."

One of China’s most outspoken public intellectuals, Ran Yunfei was detained last year after calls went out for China to emulate the “Jasmine Revolution” protests sweeping North Africa. He was held without trial for six months until last August. Interestingly, prosecutors turned down police requests for Ran to be formally charged, sending the case back to police with requests for more evidence. When police failed to come up with more evidence, he was then held under house arrest until early February.
Ran works for the government-run Sichuan Literature, where he writes often about classical Chinese. He is also the author of over a dozen scholarly books, including a meticulous history of a local temple, The Lungs of Old Sichuan: The Temple of Great Charity, which was released after he was detained last year. But it was his blogging—where he sometimes goes for the jugular, mixing humor and exaggeration—that got him into trouble. After anonymous calls were made on overseas exile Chinese websites for a Jasmine Revolution in China, Ran wrote China needed reform or would end up like the North African states that were then in turmoil. (He also has an account on Twitter (@ranyunfei) with 57,000 followers—viewable in China only with a VPN or proxy—and another blog on a permitted Chinese microblog, Sina Weibo with 70,000 followers.)
Most recently, Ran, who is 47, has been concerned with freedom of expression and what he sees as a need for a change in the country’s moral education. Born in a rural county that is now part of the city-state of Chongqing, he is a member of the Tujia ethnic group, one of China’s 55 recognized minorities...
Ian Johnson: Since you were detained last year, the word on the street has been that police thought you were involved in the Jasmine Revolution here in China. Of course there was no revolution here—not even really a protest movement inspired by North Africa. So what were they worried about?
Ran Yunfei: They’re worried about networks. But the thing is, I’m not someone who’s often in touch with others. They asked if I was in touch with Wang Juntao (the famous Tiananmen uprising leader) and other (leading dissidents). I said: none. I really am not in contact with anyone. I’m just me with my views. I think the guobao (State Security agents) eventually believed me but at first they couldn’t. They think everyone is linked up.
What did you do in jail?
Mostly I read. Books like the Bible are banned because they think it’s against the government. But they allowed me to read all the classical Chinese literature I wanted. What they didn’t realize is that classical Chinese also has some (subversive) ideas. But they can’t understand classical Chinese so they let me read what I wanted.
It’s interesting that despite all these troubles you still have a job with a government-run publication. How can that be? Do the authorities see it, in effect, as a way of paying you off?
No, the money is almost nothing and I rarely go to work. It’s a management technique. If something happens, then they don’t have to deal with you directly; they let your relationships and obligations put pressure on you. Let’s say you have a good boss, you like him and then he’s under pressure. They ask him to deal with you and then he asks you…well, what do you do? So they say, “Hey, what’s up with Ran?” Then they ask you and then chat with you about how [whatever you are doing] is going to hurt your boss and then you feel, well, do I want to hurt him?..

You’re working on a new book about education in China. What’s the link between belief and education?

You have a society where the educational materials are all about loving the party—of course it leads to a spiritual crisis.
Everything they teach you to admire is jiade (fake). Right now they’re pushing Lei Feng (the Communist hero who was a model of selflessness) again. But everyone knows that Lei Feng is made up. All of their model heroes are false: Wang Jie, Liu Wenxue, Lai Ning: fake fake fake. So when they teach morality their teaching tools are fake. Completely fake. After a while the students learn that Lei Feng is a fake. He existed but all the stories are made up. It’s destructive—it destroys everything you’ve been taught. You feel that nothing is real. How can they teach virtues? It’s impossible. The problem is they don’t have a bottom line. There is no bottom line in society. You find out that the things you’re supposed to admire the most are untrue. So it seems nothing is real. So the only way the party can succeed is by cheating you. That becomes their biggest success. That’s who you’re ruled by.
How do you combat that?
You have to learn how to argue. Too few public intellectuals in China have learned to argue logically. They don’t know how and end up cursing each other all the time.
Like Ai Weiwei?
Old Ai reacts excessively. Like that guy from Global Times (a nationalistic newspaper that criticized the famous artist). The editor called Ai names, but then Ai put a recording of his telephone conversation online. That’s just not right. You can call me names but it doesn’t give me the right to disclose private conversations. This country makes you angry but you should be angry at the government or the system. Don’t destroy your own standards. To defend freedom you can’t use methods that destroy freedom. The main point of most discussions in China is to make someone so angry: “Hahaha, I’ve got you, take that!” “[I] Tweak your nose, spit in your face. Na na na na na!” That’s an argument? No...

People are saying that this year might be a year of reform. The leadership will change in the autumn and there seems to be more recognition about the need for reform in official thinking. There was a widely read People’s Daily editorial last week calling for more reform.
I saw it but you have to understand that People’s Daily always has some articles like this to give intellectuals false hope. They are talking about reform. Even Global Times talks about it. They see there are problems but I’m doubtful it will lead to political reforms. Maybe some more economic reforms.
The good news is that blogging and the Internet have damaged the CCP’s monopoly on information. So change is happening slowly, from the grassroots. But the damage of years of living under this system is profound. You, as a foreigner, can live here and learn to use chopsticks and learn Chinese perfectly but you might not know how Chinese people think, especially in sensitive areas. If you ask ordinary people about a sensitive thing, how they react is different than how you’ll react. It’s hard for you to imagine their sense of fear. You might be expelled but it’s not like being here. The system of language has to be analyzed. The CCP created a parallel language system (of untruth) that is on an equal basis with the language of truth. You have to analyze what it’s like to grow up in this kind of an unfree country. This is the only way to really know this country... Read more: 

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