Friday, March 4, 2011

"Is China Ready for Democracy?"

In my literature capstone class last night, we were discussing Athol Fugard’s play, Sizwe Bansi Is Dead, which is set in the apartheid era in South Africa. Toward the end of the class (and this is one of the best groups of students I have ever worked with), we were tying this play back to our earlier readings.

All of those readings, starting with Sophocles’ Antigone, feature characters who are forced to make choices between two untenable positions. In the case of Sizwe Bansi, he is forced to choose between retaining his name, which conveys everything about his identity--his tribal affiliation, his connection to his wife, his children, his whole family, his place of origin—and taking on the identity of a dead man, a man who has the right stamps in his internal identity papers. If he takes on the dead man’s name, Robert Zwelinzima, he will—because of the stamps in the dead man’s document—be able to seek work, seek a residence and he will be able to send money home to support his family. In class we talked about codes of ethics that refer to (what we may think of as) timeless and enduring values and we talked about situational ethics.

What is the “right” thing for Sizwe Bansi to do? Should he give up his identity in order to support his family, essentially denying who he is and divorcing himself from his wife and the four children he has fathered? Or should he say “No More!” and take a stand against the oppressive situation he’s in, one that forces him and every other non-white person in South Africa to twist their lives and beings around the restrictions enforced through unjust laws?

All of the works we have read so far feature characters who are put in excruciating ethical situations and must make hard, hard choices. Antigone, Fugard’s The Island, and Chris Cleaves’ Little Bee all ask the question: What should one do when the choice is between one’s responsibilities to other human beings and saving oneself? Should you stand up to oppression and risk your own life? Does the situation change if you have others, like a wife and children, who depend on you?

I say all of this as a preamble to touching upon an article that Nick Kristof wrote in the Times on February 26: “Unfit for Democracy?” In this article Kristof makes the point that to those in the West and also in the East who speak variations of “Oh, the [Arabs][Chinese][Egyptians] aren’t ready for democracy,” we see now every day that people in these and other countries do see change and greater freedom as values worth dying for. These are people who have families, who have jobs, who have aspirations to long and happy lives and—every day—these people are imprisoned, killed, tortured.

Kristof notes that the chaos of change often brings periods of oppression, oppression in a new form, but that people go on wanting freedom and a greater voice in the disposition of their lives and the future of their countries, even knowing that this is often true. He quotes Lu Xun to this effect: “Before the revolution, we were slaves, and now we are the slaves of the former slaves,” Lu Xun said, about the fall of the Qing regime.

Without having a chance at change, the people of Egypt, China, Yemen, Libya and elsewhere will never know whether democracy or at least a less oppressive state system will ever work in their countries. I am struck by the connection between this notion and the front-page article in Tuesday’s Times (March 1, 2011), “Well-Oiled Security Apparatus in China Stifles Calls for Change.” This article introduced me to a word and concept we have not yet added to our Mandarin vocabulary in class, “weiwen,” or “stability maintenance.”

The next few years, or maybe even the next few months, will give us in the West some indications of whether the crackdowns and “stability maintaining” actions we are seeing in places such as China and Libya will create stronger and more violent discontent or will—only for awhile—“stifle calls for change.”

Consider another quote from Lu Xun, this one from his story, “My Old Home”: “…hope cannot be said to exist, nor can it be said not to exist. It is just like roads across the earth. For actually the earth had no roads to begin with, but when many men pass one way, a road is made” (from Selected Stories of Lu Hsun, 64).