In recent years, the word “traitor” has been used again and again by those who identify as members of the left [in China]. I understand that recently a list even came out of “China’s Ten Greatest Traitors” (中国十大汉奸).

While I’m a staunch advocate of freedom of expression as guaranteed in our Constitution, I’m puzzled by this sort of labeling. Have we gone back to that era after our victory in the Second Sino-Japanese War, when Chinese collaborators were actively weeded out? How is it, in an era of openness and globalization, that we can’t be more tolerant of the views of others, and of their right to express those views?

Are there really any way academics these days could truly sell out their country?

In other countries, the left is generally defined by its pursuit of social justice. It hopes to turn greater government powers to the restriction of capital, redistributing the wealth of society in order to extend a hand to those at its lower rungs. According to this logic, China’s left — whether we’re talking about the homegrown left advocating a return to the era of Mao Zedong, or the new left influenced by Western marxism — is grounded on [the idea of] the masses.

The so-called “right”, on the other hand, is also in China referred to as the liberal camp (自由派). The right advocates the development of constitutionalism, democracy and individual freedoms in order to check arrogant and roughshod power.

In a country like ours, with a long history of autocracy, corruption stemming from the abuse of power has never been eradicated. Today, as a market economy develops and rule of law has yet to take root, the economy is very often manipulated by government power in its favor. So the liberal camp has frequently advocated political reform in order to check government power.

As it stands, neither the right nor the left is happy with the current situation. And both, in fact, have contributions to make to society.

I still remember how in 2003, after the college student Sun Zhigang (孙志刚) was beaten to death in a Guangzhou detention center because he didn’t have a residency permit with him, the liberal camp surged up against this abuse of power and human rights.

Due in large part to the efforts of legal scholars and liberal academics, “Measures on Detention and Repatriation of Urban Vagrants”, which had been in effect for 21 years, was repealed. The left, by contrast, was conspicuously quiet [on the Sun Zhigang case], but the words of one web user called “Betel Nut” shook me to the core: “Beat me to death. We Chinese have made this land our temporary home for 5,000 years already!” [NOTE: The implication from the user here seems to be that Chinese remain insecure, not in control of their own destiny and therefore “homeless”.]

The Deng Yujiao case, which unfolded in Hubei’s Badong County in 2009, offered a better example of how the left and right could join in condemnation of local governments that ran roughshod over the people. True to form, the right spoke out against unbridled power. The left, meanwhile, drew out Mao Zedong’s doctrine of opposing bureaucracy as its weapon of choice, accusing corrupt officials of forgetting their duty to serve the people.

Unfortunately, aside from this example, the right and left in China are, in the vast majority of cases, like water and fire. The schism has degraded to the point where certain people feel they must brand those on the right traitors.

I don’t deny the value of the left, but based on my own observations, it’s generally people in the liberal camp who are the most active over such issues as social welfare and environmental protection, striving against concrete social injustices and speaking out as citizens.

The complexities of China’s social transition are such that it is impossible, I’m afraid, to apply the standards of left and right to the views of most individuals. The late American sociologist Daniel Bell once said that he had been “an economic socialist, a political liberal and a cultural conservative.” He viewed himself as a “left-leaning centrist”, but he was seen by much of the world as a right-leaning “new conservative.” Calling someone a leftist or a rightist is in most cases little more than careless labeling, a completely arbitrary act.

Recently, I attended an event held by the Heinrich Boll Foundation under the auspices of Germany’s left-wing Greens. What I found strange illuminating was the fact that the Chinese who had attended their previous events were, if not centrist civic-minded activists, intellectuals from the liberal camp generally regarded as left-leaning. Among the scores of names of those who had attended in the past I couldn’t find a single name from China’s left (中国左派).

What does it mean that China’s right rubs shoulders quite comfortably with Europe’s left?

I would like to urge the idea that it’s far better to achieve merit through good works (行善积德) than to spend time attacking others as “traitors” and “collaborators”. That working together in good faith and seeking points of commonality between left and right, while respecting our differences and complexities, is far better than spitting bile back and forth and venting grudges. And that concretely participating in real flesh-and-blood social issues as an expression of one’s values is preferable to the abstract pursuit of majestic ideals.

This article was published in Chinese at the Global Times on January 31, 2012.