We thank Emile Dirks for this contribution. Emile is a PhD student in Political Science at the University of Toronto whose research interests include Chinese social media, Sino-Southeast Asian relations and, more specifically, migration and HIV/AIDS on the Sino-Myanmar border.
Sima Nan (司马南) (b. 1956) is a prominent social commentator and representative of China’s new left who first rose to prominence as a noted skeptic of new age qigong spiritualism.
Graduating from the Heilongjiang College of Business (黑龙江工商学院) in 1981, Sima Nan became caught up in the “qigong fever” (气功热) then gripping China. Like many of his contemporaries, Sima Nan was entranced by the purported health benefits of qigong practice and for eight years remained an avid practitioner. Yet by 1990 he found himself increasingly disillusioned by qigong masters who not only promised their disciples the health benefits of standard qigong techniques, but supernatural powers as well, all in exchange for exorbitant cash donations.
Sima Nan’s transformation into an apostate launched what would become a lifelong career as a professional skeptic. By the mid-1990s, Sima Nan was demonstrating to audiences across China such “supernatural” abilities as fire swallowing and telekinetic spoon bending, all before explaining the simple scientific principles that lay behind such tricks. Such exhibitions earned him the ire of numerous qigong masters and their disciples. But their vocal—and sometimes physical—attacks against him seemed only to strengthen his resolve. For Sima Nan, “fake qigong” (伪气功) was not only a ruse intended to profit off the gullible, but a threat to Chinese society, views which he publicized in such books as “Distinguishing Fake Miracles” (神功辩伪) (1997).
It was the Chinese government’s 1999 crackdown on the Falun Dafa (法轮大法) that launched Sima Nan to national prominence. Until that point, Sima Nan had been (in his own telling) engaged in a solitary crusade against ”fake qigong”. Yet with the CCP now designating the Falun Dafa and other qigong organizations as “evil cults” (邪教) and threats to national security, his skepticism was suddenly in political fashion. A confident public speaker, Sima Nan became a prominent fixture on China’s national broadcaster CCTV, where he inveighed against self-proclaimed qigong mystics and neo-spiritual practices. Following the government crackdown on the Falun Gong, Sima Nan began to take part in international conferences on cults and pseudo-science. He soon found an international ally in the form of American skeptic James Randi, whose own anti-cult beliefs led Randi to take a similarly dim view of the groups like the Falun Gong. Together the two went on to offer a $1.1 million prize to anyone, in or outside China, who could offer scientific proof of supernatural abilities.
Today, Sima Nan still rails against such targets as now-disgraced qigong master Wang Lin (王林) or the Christian-inspired millenarian movement Church of the Almighty God (全能神教会). Yet the last fifteen years have also marked the evolution of Sima Nan into an outspoken nationalist. In articles, microblog posts, and interviews, Sima Nan (a Communist Party member since 1977) has emerged as a fierce advocate for China’s one-party state. No longer content to direct his rhetorical barbs solely against his former qigong foes, Sima Nan has taken aim at those he views as China’s domestic and foreign enemies. Favourite targets have included China’s liberal intellectuals, the US government, and those who seek to promote in China the “universal values” (普适价值) of competitive elections and division of powers. In recent years, Sima Nan has served as an unofficial interlocutor for the Chinese government on the Voice of America’s and BBC’s Chinese-language services, respectively, where he has discussed everything from the fall of Bo Xilai (薄熙来), to China’s territorial claims in the South China Sea, to the rise of President Xi Jinping (习近平). Yet at the same time, he has taken pains to avoid the label “anti-American” (反美), countering that he is simply opposed to the hegemonic position of the US in international affairs.
Like many other nationalists in China, Sima Nan defends the country’s Maoist legacy and identifies as a leftist. Like his fellow traveller Peking University professor Kong Qingdong (孔庆东), Sima Nan frequently eulogizes the era of Maoist rule, when the Chinese people still spoke of their country as a socialist state based on an alliance between workers and peasants (“工人阶级领导的以工农联盟为基础的人民民主专政的社会主义国家”). And while careful to preface his views with statements of support for the Party, Sima Nan has expressed frustration at growing corruption in the government and the widening social and economic inequalities that post-Mao economic reforms have produced. For him, only a return to Maoist political ideals of the sort once championed by former Chongqing Mayor Bo Xilai can save China from political and moral collapse. (The years following Bo’s fall from power have put Sima Nan in the awkward position of continuing to champion Bo’s so-called “Chongqing Model” (重庆模式) of neo-Maoist governance while disavowing any connection to the man himself.)
While not immediately apparent, a connection could be drawn between Sima Nan’s new left nationalism and his longstanding vendetta against “fake qigong”. Whether in his anti-cult diatribes (the Falun Gong’s media threatens to turn a “once fantastically ambitious China into a chaotic and hopeless China” — “…后果就是一个本来具有伟大进取心的中国变成一个混乱和绝望中国…”) or his vigorous defence of one-party rule (“If China departs from the leadership of the Chinese Communist Party, China will inevitably fall to pieces” — “今天，一旦离开了中国共产党的领导，中国必然陷入四分五裂”), Sima Nan presents himself as a man battling for the future of his country. To Sima Nan, these struggle are intimately linked. Those cults which first cheat the Chinese people are the same cults which will one day seek to “overturn China’s [political] system” (“当搞大了之后它就生出政治野心来，要颠覆中国的制度”). The fight against these cults thus takes on a strong political hue: groups like the Church of the Almighty God and the Falun Gong “aren’t only opposed to society, they’re also trying to seize power” (“…中国这个邪教它不是但反社会，而且它还试图夺取最高权利”). While his career as a professional skeptic predates the campaign against the Falun Gong, he has certainly professionally profited from—and personally embraced—the Chinese state’s aggressive stance against the group. In this respect, Sima Nan differs from his American peer James Randi. Unlike Randi, Sima Nan’s skepticism reflects not only a personal philosophy; it is also imbued with a partisan political commitment to his country’s ruling party.
While commanding a firm following amongst China’s nationalists, Sima Nan has been subjected to relentless criticism from China’s liberal wing, for whom Sima Nan is nothing more than “the biggest Fifty Cent-er” (“最大五毛”). There was no shortage of schadenfreude when a video of a university student hurling a shoe at Sima Nan while the latter was giving a talk at Hainan University went viral in 2012. And earlier this year, Sima Nan was forced to fight off rumours that he had compromised his patriotic principles by applying for a US green card for himself and his family. In spite of such criticism, Sima Nan continues his work as a regular commentator on Chinese-language programs both in and outside the PRC.