An interview with Sima Nan (司马南) on universal values


I used to visit James Randi website years ago. I was very much sympathetic to Randi’s causes in challenging against supernatural claims made by a number of people. Sima Nan name was mentioned a few times by Randi on the works in China.It seems nowadays, Sima Nan is also battling against those who are selling dubious ideas.

Recently an interview was given by Sima Nan to a local paper (Economic Observer) on his essay against certain writers from Nanfang Daily group of papers.   In the interview, Sima Nan talked about universal values and democracy, and I find that his way of thinking is certaintly profound and my hat off to him. (The translation was done by Roland Song of the EastSouthWestNorth blog ).

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Q. How did you come up with the idea of writing your essay?
A.  I had been dissatisfied with certain things published in <Southern Weekend> and <Southern Metropolis Daily>.  This wasn’t something that happened in one or two days.

Q. When did you start writing it?
A. Never mind the old stuff, but a more important landmark was Chang Ping’s essay <Tibet: The Truth and Nationalistic Feelings>.  Another essay was the one titled <The System of National Honor should be based upon Human Universal Values>.  At that time, I had the urge to write something, but I did not.  Later on, I read the <Southern Weekend> editorial <Out of the Pangs of Wenchuan comes a New China>.  I could not sleep that night, and I wrote the essay.

Q. Actually, it was the explosion after a long period of thinking and feeling.
A. Yes.  The Southern group has been doing that for a long time.  For example, after the earthquake, <Southern Weekend> labeled the call "I’m Secretary Zhang, please rescue me"  as the "most awesome piece of bureaucratese in the world."  There are two problems here.  First, what are the facts?  I am dubious.  Secretary Zhang denied that when he was interviewed afterwards.  Secondly, is this incident appropriate?  You refuse to write any progressive typical cases, but you want to demonize the image of Secretary Zhang who works in the disaster zone.  The selection of such an incident does not affect the matter itself, but the message reflects a different kind of value preference.

Q. So the earthquake shook out a Sima Nan on the Internet.
A. After the Wenchuan earthquake, I attended a charity event.  I was the host of a charity banquet and I planned the large television gala.  I could sense the very strong feelings of loving care.  But the <Southern Weekend> essay attributed everything to the indescribable universal values and said that it was because "the Chinese government was honoring its promises about universal values."  This is logically inconsistent, and it does not match the facts.  On what basis can universal values be said to be responsible to disaster rescue/relief?  When we did not have these universal values before, then we couldn’t conduct disaster rescue/relief?

Q. This disaster rescue/relief effort was different from those of the past.  For example, after the Tangshan earthquake, the news was kept away from the people and we did not open up to the world.  Today is completely different from 30 years ago.  Ideas have changed a lot.
A. How are the ideas different?  Are the ideas different because universal values are in charge of saving lives?  There is nothing different with respect to saving lives.  The simplest value for the Chinese people is that "human lives concern the heavens."  If you want to use the concept of human rights, then this human right has a long history in China and it is known to everybody.  Chinese culture is based upon everybody being in one big family through good and bad.  With disaster strikes, the people help each other and the soldiers risk their lives for the people.  How is this different from the past?  The Tangshan earthquake has its unique historical background.  The leader of the Republic had fallen ill several times and a certain group of people was trying to seize power.  It was a time of Cold War between east and west.  China was under siege from every direction.  The environment could not be more different from the opening after the reform and the increased strength of the nation today.  But there is no difference between the Communists today and back then with respect to soldiers helping the people and people helping each other.

Q: Do you believe that the values shown in these two earthquakes are different?
A. Insofar as the values shown in rescuing people, I don’t think that it is no different today than 30 years ago.  These are the traditional values and socialist values of "when one side is in trouble, all sides will help" and "serve the people."  After the disaster occurred, the soldiers quickly assembled and raced towards the frontlines.  What is the difference?  No difference.  During the disaster rescue, there was none of the universal values that some people talk about.  How can the universal values claim credit for rescuing the Chinese people?  If you want to talk about universal values, then it is not up to just some people to say so.  Don’t the Chinese people have universal values?  "Everything for the public"?  "Don’t do unto others what you wouldn’t want done to yourself"?  "Blood is thicker than water"?  How is it that none of this matter?  Instead only democracy, freedom, human rights and constitutional governance matter?  Actually, all those people who are selling universal values have their own ulterior purposes …

Q. Which purposes?
A. In order to dispel the sense of nationalism and nationhood among the Chinese people.  They argue that if we fulfill the promise of universal values, we will achieve ethnic reconciliation inside China and global reconciliation outside.  That is to day, the reason why there is no reconciliation inside and outside China was our fault.  Since we have not yet reached the "bottom line," the foreign overlords are unhappy.  How can such an absurd logic be promoted in newspaper editorials?  What is the sense?

Q. Do you believe in socialist values?  What is the content?
A. Of course.  Socialist values are "you are well, I am well, everybody is well, not just the eilite and the wealthy being well."  Socialism is about regarding the existence of others just as importantly as oneself.  Certain elite are not like that.  On one hand, they keep harping about human rights, freedom and equality.  On the other hand, they think of themselves as elevated as leaders and they seldom show any sympathy.  Socialist values are based upon permanent ideals and human sympathy.  The people in the lowest stratum can sense the so-called socialist values more strongly and deeply.

Q. But some people have said that the empirical evidence since the 1980’s has shown that it is hard to define the so-called socialist values.  The so-called socialist values promulgated by certain people are fake.
A.  During the earthquake rescue/relief, were the socialist values shown by the People’s Liberation Army and the Communist Party fake?  Our Premier rushing to the front line to lead the troops, the bountiful tears and the donations gushing forth like fountains were all fake?  It is no surprise that some elite people cannot explain socialist values clearly.  But it is clear as a mirror in the hearts of the common people.  It is about sincerely serving the people, as opposed as to enjoying the privileges of being a government official.

Q. Such a cadre is in the minority.  A single person will find it hard to change the social problems caused by the system.
A. Cannot change the social problems caused by the system?  Who is talking about changing that system?  Do you want to change the system because you show that some cadres have problems?  Or is it the problems with some cadres that make you doubt the system?  If it is the latter, then does it refer to the problems with choosing cadres or is it the basic political system?  This is ambiguous, so how can it be answered?  I hope that the problems to be discussed should be strictly based upon the defined concepts.

Q.  There are many instances of unfairness in Chinese society today.  Can one or two clean officials solve the problems?
A. We did not discuss the issue of clean officials.  The salvation of individuals depend on the transformation of society as a whole.  During the transformation of society, one or two persons will have exemplary roles.  On one hand, the power of a role model is unlimited.  On the other hand, a person alone is clearly inadequate.  Even as we condemn the unfairness in society, we must also see that while many things in society are unsatisfactory, there has been a tremendous transformation in China today.  Relative to the world, this is the biggest, the quickest, the most astonishing and the most satisfying change to our people.  At the same time, it caused many other people who don’t want to see a strong and wealthy China to become jealous.  We have to be quite biased if we fail to observe this transformation, or the progress of our government, or the greater freedom for the people, or the effort to solve these problems by society.
Individual media still have certain stubborn ideas.  They will not acknowledge progress.  In fact, progress only provides new excuses for them to criticize.  The nature of their media concepts is anti-establishmentarianism.  In other words, this is otherwise known as "changing our basic system."  Some people regard the universal values as the ultimate standards.  Why are those universal values so?  They will not do any reasonable exploration.  Instead they might even deliberately make the terms ambiguous.  They won’t specify that it is "not to be taken uncooked or cold or oily" or "not for pregnant women."  So why are they different from the peddlers of fake medicine?

Q.  You do not accept universal values?
A.  That depends on what you mean by universal values.  As an example, a piece of email titled "universal value" from an unknown sender just showed up in your mailbox.  What is inside?  You don’t know.  It could be the Edison Chan photos or a worm/Trojan horse virus.  The sender merely labeled it as "universal value."  Wouldn’t you be very careful about opening it, downloading it or executing it?  I have a simple view — the right to name universal values is even more important than the universal values themselves.

Q.  You were firm in opposing false science.  You were a "science warrior."  Some people are perplexed how this "science warrior" could be opposing democracy today.
A: This is a good-intentioned question, but the thinking is a bit too simplistic.  Interestingly, they get to define the concepts of science, democracy and anti-democracy.

Q: Couldn’t science and democracy co-exist?
A: Ever since the May 4th movement, there is a popular saying about science and democracy (Mr. Competitve and Mr. Virtuous).  What exactly is democracy?  Up to today, there are various understandings and descriptions.  Is democracy even an defined concept?  It seems that this requires a simple exposition.  Democracy originated from the philosophers of ancient Greece, where the democratic system was merely one (and not the only) way of conducting politics.  The ancient Greek philosophers did not think that this was the sole and exclusive system.  They never imagined that people would think that democracy is the current American democracy which can be exported with weapons.  There are many issues about democracy that need to be clarified in detail.  Right now, many people are unbelievably enamored with democracy.  When its comes to democracy, they become as excited as if they smell chicken blood.  They believe that the term democracy cannot be doubted, not even discussed.  Democracy by voting is everything.  They praise the democracy in Iraq under bayonets.  They praise the democracy in the Philippines.  The United States refuse to acknowledge the Hamas democracy.  Therefore, even though the Hamas were elected, our own elite do not see any need to discuss them.  I wonder if this kind of democracy has departed from its original intent and become a "religion of democracy."

Q.  Shouldn’t we pursue democracy?
A: If everybody in the world thinks that democracy is a universal value, then I won’t object.  But I want to know that how the universal value of democracy is realized in practice?  Is this premised upon the realities of a nation, or the pure concept of democracy?  Is this premised upon a "fundamentalist democracy,"  or does it go by the way of making a realistic, in-depth analysis first before finding a true path of reforming the political system in a manner that fully reflects the will of the people?  Will it be done gradually, or will it come in the form of a shock?  Someone might have founded one particular form of democracy, but does that enable them to force others to accept it, even to the point of starting a war to force others to implement their kind of democracy and carry out the so-called democratic transformation of society?

Q. Let me interrupt this.  Shouldn’t a totalitarian state such as Iraq ruled by a dictator be overthrown?  Of course, I don’t think that the United States has the authority to attack Iraq.
A. Do you think that getting the authorization by lying to Congress and the people in order to use force to invade and overturn another sovereign nation be condemned?  Where is the justice to overthrow one totalitarian government and replace it with another totalitarian government?  Some people are using the example of Iraq for China.  The progress in China is easy to see.  We are genuinely moving down the road to democracy.  But someone insists on saying that this is totalitarianism.  The Manchurian dynasty had been totalitarian.  Is today’s China the same as the Manchurian dynasty?  Yuan Shikai was totalitarian.  Is China today the same as Yuan Shikia’s era?  The Tang-Li dynasty was called hereditary because the emperors were all named Li.  Do we have a hereditary system for our rulers today?  Could it be that this regime is not totalitarian if our highest leaders are selected according to a the will of a certain country?  Meanwhile, if the Chinese people select their own leaders according to their own political system, then it must be totalitarian?
I have not written specifically about totalitarianism.  Let me give a couple of examples.  The first is about the transition in the highest authority in China.  Historically, this was done through bloody politics (either dynastic internecine struggles or rebellion).  So isn’t the current system a vast improvement?  You may not want to accept the idea of "negotiation-style democracy" but you cannot deny what has happened.  The second is that the rights and freedoms of people are improving.  As someone who wrote newspaper editorials in the 1980’s, I can personally feel this change.  Without saying anything else, there have been two-digit growth rates in these past 30 years to lift people out of poverty and change the face of the nation as well as the world.  Whoever wants to label this government as a totalitarian has to be quite totalitarian themselves!  I cannot tolerate certain people accusing us with these so-called universal values.  I find it unacceptable.  What are we fighting about today?  It is dignity.

Q.  Whose dignity?
A:  The dignity of the nation and its people.  Certain forces are attempting to divide the nation, the government and the people.  Mr. Cafferty of CNN tried that.  But the interests of the nation and the interests of the people are not oppositional.  The thirty years of the reforms resulted in a Pareto improvement in which we are all beneficiaries, right?  (But there is still relative poverty)  Today, what the beggars demand are not the same as before.  We are all  living better than before, right?  When the whole society improves, this shows that that the interests of the nation and the people merge and all members of society are enjoying the fruits of progress.  But certain people are using improper means to gain more than their share of interests.  Then what?  Let us get rid of that!  But before this is accomplished, how shall we look at this society?  I think that this is a price that the whole society has to pay under the backdrop of Pareto improvement.  Of course, we don’t want to pay this price, but who has the ability to eliminate all that while still allowing us to enjoy all the benefits of the social progress due to the reforms?  I agree that the best thing is to have a healthy, harmonious, orderly and stable outcome in which no member of society will suffer any damage.  The problem is that there is no precedent in the world that anyone can do this.  The group of people who are selling universal values?  They are good at cursing people, causing trouble and making irresponsible remarks.  Who has ever seen them done anything serious?

Q.  If we define universal values to consist of democracy, rule of law, freedom and human rights, would you object?
A. I wouldn’t object.  I have never had the idea of opposing these values.  But I would ask, Who proposed these concepts?  What is the meaning underlying these concepts?  For example, in the case of human rights, people should have human rights and not live like pigs.  But how do you implement human rights?  According to whose standards do we decide when something violates human rights?  Does the death sentence violate human rights?  Does abortion violate human rights?  Why is subversion of national security unpardonable in one country but it is a democratic uprising in another country?  Whose standards are used to classify them?  Fifty years ago, the political-religious state in Tibet was corrupt and cruel.  Where were the human rights?  Today, the western politicians describe that Tibet like a pastoral poem?  How do we determine who is right?  During the 2000 World Human Rights Congress in Geneva, I witnessed the ugly speeches of certain Chinese scums.  Frankly speaking, it was the shamelessness of these people which motivated me to write the essay that you mentioned.  It is a nice thing to talk about human rights, but we have yet to see any equal human rights in the real world.  What is the first of the human rights?  The right to live.  Everyday, many people starve to death from malnutrition in the world, right?  In a certain country, invading soldiers come and many innocent civilians are killed.  A certain country seeks hegemony, and it produces half the number of weapons in the world each year.  If that country donates even a tiny fraction of the weapon production money, then there won’t be any famine in the world.  But that country has not taken such action according to human rights standards.  The aid that this country gives to Africa often includes additional conditions.  Under such premises, what are we suppose to understand by the universality of human rights?
In the freedom rights, there is the right to relocate.  That’s very well.  Sima Nan and some African friends want to relocate to live in the state of California.  I don’t even mind the fact that there are earthquakes over there.  But we cannot go there.  Why?  Because the United States of America will not issue visas to us.  Do you see how hypocritical that system is?  The so-called human rights, democracy, freedom and other abstract principles sound wonderful, but they are not prepared to implement them.  When the United States gets ready to invade someone else, they claim that human rights transcend sovereignty.  When Sima Nan and friends apply to relocate freely to the United States to enjoy their freedom to relocate, they say that sovereignty supercedes human rights.  They don’t even blush with these logical fallacies.

Q. Does this mean that the values of democracy, rule of law, freedom and  human rights are negated?
A. Perhaps one day we can truly live under the sunshine of universal values.  But in the 19th century, 20th century and 21st centuries there was a certain people — their nation is still intact, the national interests are segmented, divided, contradictory and even conflicting.  Universal values are still stuck at the stage of the myth.  Thus, its values are just myths and ideals.  A certain country believes itself to be superior and uses the so-called universal values not to realize these universal values, but to use this myth of universal values to achieve its own national interests.
Whether this is a myth or not, it represents our goal.  We should have this goal.  But I oppose a certain group of Chinese parrots who don’t care about right versus wrong, ignore the developmental phases of society and deny the diversity of civilizations.  Instead, they use this myth to condemn, lecture, humiliate and oppress China.

Q. In 1984, you went to work at <China Commercial News>.  You worked at the newspaper/magazine from more than a decade.  Today, you are still active in various media.  You can be said to be a member of the elite.  As an elite who arrive through the 1980’s, you seemed to have split farther and farther apart from many other mainstream elite.  For example, your high degree of identification with the establishment and your persistent questioning of the values of democracy.
A: Are they the "mainstream elite"?  They are the "vulgar elite"!  Patriotism is mainstream.  Not being patriotic is shameless and vulgar.  They said that I am a clown, a running dog and they singled me out for condemnation.  Some people say that intellectuals ought to be calm, independent and neutral, but they have two faces.  One face is: I am neutral, I am independent, I am calm, I am critical, I refuse to compromise.  The other face is: I turn around, and I ask, "How much?"  If I get paid, I become shameless; if I get a government official job, I become shameless and I will prettify the devil.  Such people have no backbone, no scruples and no integrity.  Even merchants despise them.  A business boss said, "Intellectuals only talk money.  We business people can still talk some culture."
Must intellectuals maintain an uncompromising and critical attitude towards society?  Must they attack everything about the ruling party or government relentlessly?  In the days of Tsarist Russia, information was restricted and the intellectuals fought against the totalitarian, repressive and corrupt government.  They do so out of inner sympathy towards the people.  But that was more than a century ago.  Today, the government does the right things and you still want to challenge them.  I don’t understand what you are trying to achieve here.  When the government is wrong, it is right for you to monitor and criticize.  But there are two completely different ways of doing things.  If there is a fly on someone’s face, you can chase it away.  Or you can remind him to use a fly-swat to kill it.  You can also turn on the electrical fly-chaser.  But you cannot use the hammer of ‘universal values’ to knock his head off.  The fly may be killed, but the man is dead.  Were you trying to kill the fly or the person?  I don’t necessarily agree with everything today, but I am full of confidence in the future of the country.

Q.  Frankly, some people are criticizing you for being opportunistic.
A.  It is their right and freedom to criticize people.  It is also consistent with a certain ugly style of thinking.  They say that I must have heard something.  Hey, there are 1.3 billion people in China.  Is there anything that I alone can hear but nobody else does?  There are other people who say that I had opposed false science for opportunistic reasons.  They said that I did it because I foresaw that the situation would be favorable later on.  Was I such a seer?  In truth, you know, it was not easy opposing false science and exposing the supernatural grandmasters back then.  I fought on for many years.  If that I was opportunistic, then why weren’t you opportunistic too?  Someone said that I opposed Chinese medicine opportunistically next and I am opposing universal values opportunistically now.  Since when was I opposed to Chinese medicine?  When I get cursed out, I reflect and examine myself.  If I don’t think that I have done anything wrong, why should I care about the scolding?  A real man has many friends as well as enemies.  A poisonous Internet post only marks the author as being flustered and exasperate, and that is the payback for the target.

Q: In our view, the values of science and democracy are compatible.  Back then, you were very courageous in fighting false science.  Why won’t you accept the values of democracy?
A: Li Dazhao and Lu Xun had made the relationship between democracy and science very clear.  I don’t need to waste any words.  My inner logic has always been clear: I want to expose the scandalous behaviors of those grandmasters who lay claim to so-called extraordinary powers in order to make sure that the people won’t get fooled.  Today, I am using my real name to write about the scandals behind the peddlers of so-called universal values also in order to make sure that the people won’t get fooled.  Based upon my many years of professional experience in dealing with fake scientists, the damage from pushing these universal values on society will be even bigger.  The supernatural grandmasters are just small-time swindlers, but the selling of universal values is a globalized political fraud.  This is psychological warfare that disarms the other side completely.  The empirical evidence will show that what I say is true.  The values of democracy should not be the excuse used to humiliate China.

Q: So far, do you still insist that your views are correct?
A: Of course.  At the present, some people are stirring up trouble in the same way as the color revolutions in the west.  The color revolutions stirred up by a certain country were fierce in some of the countries in the former Soviet Russia.  Today, some of our NGO’s and intellectuals have the same objective.  We are presently in a situation where the west possess the hegemony in speech and culture and some people have accepted those messages.  They think that there will be a new China if these things are accepted.  These people are naive, romantic, credulous, uncritical and reliant.  There are other people who have sold their souls out.  These people are malicious and hostile, and they are willing to sacrifice the national interests for their selfish interests.  They may have been hurt during certain movements in past history.  Or else their government department leader may have done something to offend their dignity.  There is a certain kind of monkey.  This monkey was stepped upon by a larger monkey on the same tree and had its face scratched to boot.  Instead of trying to square with that monkey, this monkey went to find a saw to bring down the tree in which all the monkeys are living on — some people are using this type of method to deal with the basic interests of the republic.
Obviously, this was not a moment of sudden inspiration.  I have been thinking about this for a long time.  A friend asked me about the background of the essay and gave me some advice.  I replied via SMS: "My heart is resolute and I will write according to my ability.  This will not affect our personal friendship because it is for the sake of public justice."
The national interests are paramount and above all else.  Only the development of the nation can the welfare of the people as a whole be guaranteed.

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About kchew

an occasional culturalist
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