Ancient War Of Words In China

June 06, 1995|By Ian Johnson | Ian Johnson,Beijing Bureau of The Sun

BEIJING -- Most readers who picked up a recent edition of Liberation Daily probably first read the news about China's volleyball team or the government's latest tactic to combat inflation.

But tucked in among the news of the day was a piece that made many readers sit bolt upright: an article charging that China's top leaders encourage corruption.

Instead of fighting money-hungry officials, the article charged, leaders were forcing honest officials to commit crimes.

The article created a minor sensation among Chinese news junkies. And coming in a newspaper closely identified with China's ailing leader, Deng Xiaoping, it seemed to be a jab at President Jiang Zemin, who has been moving in recent months to fire some of Mr. Deng's cronies and establish himself as Mr. Deng's successor, all under the guise of fighting corruption.

Writers are eager to air their opinions of China's first transition of power in nearly 20 years, but are having to revert to an old Chinese political tradition of using historical allegories to slip their criticisms into print.

"For centuries China's literati have been plumbing history to talk about the present. They've rarely dared to speak openly, so by using historical figures they can talk about the present and then deny this intent if questioned," said Jonathan Unger, professor of Chinese studies at Australian National University in Canberra.

The 1980s saw a spate of historical debates about historical figures. For example, newspapers argued whether China's capitalists of the 1920s and 1930s played a positive role in their country's history -- by extension debating whether China's capitalist reforms of the 1980s were good.

After the 1989 massacre of anti-government protesters, few dared even these veiled debates, said Allison Liu Jernow, a scholar who surveyed China's press in the early 1990s.

Since then, economic policy has been opened up for debate, with writers now relatively free to talk about inflation and unemployment. Politics, however, has remained taboo.

The May 2 article blasting the top leadership supposedly dealt with Gongsun Hong, an official who lived 2,000 years ago and was a censor in the Han Dynasty, a position that required him to criticize the emperor. His legendary frugality and incorruptibility made his colleagues hate him, so they gossiped to the emperor.

The tale, well-known to educated Chinese, says the emperor summoned Gongsun Hong and criticized him for trying to win a reputation by being overly frugal. The emperor encouraged him to go with the flow and take from the public till.

The writer, who used a pseudonym, makes clear the link to the present by comparing Gongsun Hong with the current drive, giving the clued-in reader a jolting message: China's top leaders -- like the emperor in the tale -- are directly responsible for today's pervasive graft.

One newspaper editor said the article reflects the feeling of many Chinese who doubt that the current anti-corruption campaign will do much to limit the country's widespread graft and embezzlement, especially because the top leaders' children are so heavily involved in corrupt business practices.

"It's clearly an attack on the leaders. We all know that the leaders don't want the anti-corruption campaign to go too far or else their children will be implicated," said the Chinese editor of a monthly economics journal.

Another widely read article in Beijing Youth Daily said that a high official who lived 2,500 years ago was murdered by the emperor instead of having committed suicide as is widely believed.

According to Chinese journalists, the article also works on two other levels. It questions whether a vice mayor of Beijing, who recently committed suicide rather than face corruption charges, might really have been murdered.

More profoundly, it attacks the tyranny that still oppresses China.

Qu Yuan, the official who was supposed to have committed suicide, is a popular folk hero. Every year at the end of May, he is commemorated by dragon boat races and the eating of steamed rice dumplings.

According to the author, the festival has a hidden meaning, though. Traditionally, the boat races are supposed to represent the fishermen racing after Qu Yuan to quickly recover his body from the lake.

The rice dumplings were offered to the fish so they wouldn't eat him, thus allowing the body to be buried intact.

But the author says the boat races really show Qu Yuan being pursued by his imperial murderers. The dumplings represent Qu Yuan's body wrapped in a sack and tossed overboard by the assassins.

People on the shoreline devised the festival to tell future generations about his murder by the evil emperor, he says: "People witnessed the murder. But they couldn't speak out because they lived in tyranny."

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