Late last week, a New Year’s letter appeared online written by Gao Yu (高昱), a deputy editor at Caixin Media and former reporter for Lifeweekly magazine. In the letter, Gao obliquely but palpably expressed his sense of despair at the present state of affairs in China – in which journalists trying to report the facts are criticized not just by the authorities but by patriotic “keyboard warriors” and others who subscribe to China’s self-congratulatory official narrative.
The letter was shared avidly through social media, including WeChat, and for many a single line stood out. “Standing here on the last day of 2020, I dare to overstep the bounds and speak a single sentence,” Gao wrote. “That all of the efforts at enlightenment over the past thirty years, they have failed.”
Another former journalist, like Gao a veteran of what can be considered China’s movement of professional journalism from the 1990s through to the mid 2010s, responded regarding this language of “failure”:
I want to understand the words of my colleague sympathetically. I think it is the inevitable product of the feelings of frustration and hopelessness that constantly strike us. But this is more an emotional perception than a rational one. I don’t think there is any power at the moment capable of undoing thirty years of enlightenment. It cannot be zeroed out, but only transformed and compressed into a more complex form – the way vast forests became underground deposits of coal. And this heat will one day have a purpose.
This geothermal view of hope in the midst of the feeling of despair voiced by Gao Yu was perhaps welcome to some and painfully out of reach for others. But the discussion did not survive long. Within 24 hours, the post had been removed from domestic channels, though it has remained archived elsewhere, including here at Matters.
Some stray criticism of Gao’s letter has, perhaps not surprisingly, remained. At Guancha Syndicate, a site based in Shanghai and supported by venture capitalist Eric X. Li that is a favorite for so-called “new nationalists,” one post was typical in its critical stance toward critical media, expressing the view that by reporting critically, journalists like Gao had actually done harm to China. The post is fundamentally adversarial in its view of the role of media as part of a “national team” dutybound to “tell China’s story well” (to use the Xi Jinping phrase).
“I wonder, what has your group done?” the post asked of Gao. “Have you made an account in your heart? For a year, the West slandered, suppressed, besieged and attacked China. I don’t see you making a sound, or marching out to war. Instead, elbows to the outside, you plunge the knife inward.”
The following is CMP’s full translation of Gao’s letter.
I took out my old phone today, which has sat gathering dust for half a year. This was not to reminisce, but to offer thanks to the people we knew and didn’t know who helped us when we were in Wuhan [reporting on the epidemic], and to wish them a good New Year.
In the old phone, I came across this group photo [above], taken at 4:00AM on January 23, 2020, in the underground garage of Wuhan’s Grand Mercure Hotel. It was a moment at the start of a war to defend the city that still belongs to us.
Returning to those days, particularly when we were sharply accuse of having crooked backsides [being biased] and offering the knife [i.e., with which others could criticize China], I was asked by a friend: “So back then you said that you wanted to ‘make sure that the price paid wasn’t paid in vain,’ do you think now that the price was worth it?” I think the price I paid myself was worth it. The south wall was hit, but this story we forget, [as the song goes]. People can take from it what they will. But tragic losses in this country have been transformed into hymns of praise. Lessons have already been ignored. And we see few people even asking questions.
The ranks of the self-confident are swelling, while those with critical thoughts are busy with self-mutilation. The scars of natural and human disasters alike are recast as military medals by the counterpoint of Westerners’ foolishness. Our keyboard warriors (键盘侠们) hold up their magnifiers and besiege anyone on Weibo who dares to reveal the scars at all. As Professor Du [Junfei] wrote: “Doctors die while patients live; Facts die while illusions live.”
Standing here on the last day of 2020, I dare to overstep the bounds and speak a single sentence. That all of the efforts at enlightenment over the past thirty years, they have failed. More and more of the people we hoped to help in breaking free from terror, they have become the people who despise us more than those who oppress them.
If we have failed then we have failed. I am a positive pessimist. Even if we have returned to the darkness, I won’t go and dwell on those days when light shone. If there is no light, then I must fetch fire. We don’t persevere toward the good things in the world because there is hope; our perseverance is what gives hope. Anything worth having is worth holding on to, and worth waiting for.
After the last dark gengzi (庚子) year [in 1960, on the sexagenary cycle], our fathers waited 18 years [before reform and opening offered promise]. And before that, in the dark gengzi year before that [in 1900], our grandfathers waited 11 years [before the Xinhai Revolution]. Tomorrow is the start of year one. So I wait. Those thirty years of youth mean nothing. What else is there to be afraid of?
With faith and love, there is hope. In the years of perseverance and waiting, may there be those to wish you goodnight, may the narrow road on which you forge ahead not feel too lonely. I wish you health and wellness in 2021.