One week ago we wrote about the ascendance in China of the propaganda term “positive energy” (正能量) — generally referring to news coverage, online content and cultural products that are uplifting in character, not dwelling on the negative side of Chinese society and politics. A few days later, we translated a report in the official Liaoning Daily attacking what it said was an overwhelming current of negativity about China among university instructors in the country.
Xi Jinping seems to be launching a full frontal attack on negativity. Not just in journalism, on the internet, in arts and culture, and in academia, mind you, but in China’s foreign and trade relations as well. “Positive energy” is a one-size-fits-all prescription targeting both dissent at home and “negativity” towards China in every other context.
In recent times two online groups have been engaged in fierce debate.
One of these groups the “citizen-intellectual” group (公知), combining together the identities of the “citizen” and the “intellectual.” They seek out the dark side of society and magnify them infinitely, then start making irresponsible remarks online while throwing in language from Westerners (洋人) — speaking lies with their eyes wide open . . .
There is another group called the “BYOG 50s” (自干五), “the 50 centers who bring their own grain,” meaning that out of their own will [without government pay] they praise positive energy in society (社会正能量). They are web users who offer encouragement for the development of China.
Those who disparage the “BYOG 50s” say they’re even worse than the “50 Cent Party” (五毛党) who get paid by the government. Not even paid, they have to bring their own food.
Here, I would like to say some things to stand firmly with the “BYOG 50s,” because they, with a factual attitude, carry out rational, historical and objective rumor-denying, explanation and criticism of language that slanders China.
. . . They are tolerant of those who are able to provide materials and offer rational argument — fundamentally unlike those so-called “citizen-intellectuals” and “elites” who view society with coloured glasses and use sharp and mocking language to attack the government and society.
Zhan Jiang believes that while Liaoning Daily has a right to conduct watchdog journalism on social issues. But the public has an even greater right to fully know the sampling and investigative methods in order to be assured of the conclusions rigor. . .
Zhan Jiang said: “University teachers in the social sciences, humanities and philosophy in particular require a critical mindset in order to do research. If we want to change our society, if we want this society to improve, then first we have to identify our deficiencies and inadequacies.”
Lu Xun is remembered and celebrated as “the backbone of the Chinese people” because of his tough-love attitude, criticising ugly phenomena in China and awakening an awareness of the struggle.
Zhan Jiang disagrees with the accusations in the open letter, that criticisms of the society and nation in Chinese classrooms would lead to erroneous value systems in students just stepping out into the world, making them lose faith in society. University students, he said, are already mature and full of ideas. They are not vulnerable to indoctrination as they were in the closed-off era before economic reform and opening. Information is shared rapidly today, and students can access numerous sources via the internet. They are capable of forming their own opinions about society in the process of receiving various information. The teacher’s opinion is just one point of view. Students are able to think and form opinions on their own. According to John Milton’s theory of a “marketplace of ideas,” differing ideas can form an opinion marketplace where knowledge can emerge from among competing views.
Zhan Jiang pointed out finally that as a media, Liaoning Daily had the credentials to investigate and criticize university teachers. But whether this is done as journalism or social science research, the method of investigation should be rigorous in order to arrive at accurate conclusions. And so he hopes the paper is able to be open about the subject of investigation, it’s sampling methods and its investigation process.
Zhang Ming, of Renmin University, a frequent critic of China’s educational system, kept most of his criticism of the Liaoning Daily “report” on China’s university classrooms to Tencent Weibo. A few of his posts are translated below:
Of those attacking me on Weibo, saying I spread poison through my lectures, none have actually attended my classes. They can’t even utter a word about how I supposedly spread poison. In the same way, instructors who have had their classes suspended for punishment haven’t been presented with any reasons [for their being disciplined]. There are no procedures, there is no public debate, nor are they given any opportunity to defend themselves. Meanwhile, those who don’t take teaching seriously, who don’t know their stuff, who talk total nonsense — they face no consequences. Our universities care only about political correctness.
In fact . . . The greatest problem among university instructors is not criticism of the government but lack of seriousness and expertise in teaching.
In the history of world journalism, has there ever been undercover reporting of university instructors teaching class? Filming and recording in secret? The goal of Liaoning Daily is not to instruct or advise instructors on how to teach, but rather to gather evidence of guilt and hold these instructors to account.
Liaoning Daily has sent reporters undercover to collect materials for [political] smears. This isn’t normal reporting activity but cultural spying. This is essentially turning instructors into the enemy.