Yuan Weishi 袁伟时

Yuan Weishi 袁伟时, a historian now retired from a long career at Zhongshan University, precipitated the shut-down and reorganization of the China Youth Daily‘s ‘Freezing Point’ 冰点 supplement with his 2006 essay Modernisation and History Textbooks, which criticized the established patriotic narrative of China’s struggles with encroaching foreign powers at the end of the Qing Dynasty.

In 2007, when Yu Quanyu 喻权域, a Chinese People’s Political Consultative Conference member, proposed a law criminalizing seditious speech, Yuan was widely assumed to be one of the targets of the legislation.

In a March 2007 interview with the Southern Metropolis Weekly, Yuan talks about sedition, the limits of free speech, and historians’ duty to continually re-interpret history. Like many commentators, Yuan disagrees with Yu’s proposed law in part because the term used for sedition is imprecise — Yu’s proposal used 汉奸 (lit. “traitor to China/the Han”), which he likely intended to apply to all Chinese citizens, regardless of ethnicity. In this translation, 汉奸 is transliterated as hanjian when Yuan is arguing ethnicity, while elsewhere it is rendered as “traitor” or “seditious.”

The translation below was originally published on Danwei.org.

Punish Seditious Speech? What a Joke!

An interview with Zhongshan University professor Yuan WeishiPeng Xiaoyun, Shi Lei, Liu Yuan / SMW

Southern Metropolis Weekly: When did you first learn of this proposal by Yu Quanyu to draft a law against seditious speech?
Yuan Weishi: On the morning of 6 March, a reporter telephoned me to tell me that a CPPCC member had proposed drafting a law punishing seditious speech, because people have published many treasonous opinions reversing the decisions on the Opium Wars and the Eight Powers Allied Army. I was amused as I listened, and I laughed all the way until the end of the call.

SMW: As you were finding this amusing and funny, did you also think about what the result might be if the proposal really passes?
Yuan: This thing of his is entirely unable to be adopted. To adopt it would immediately bring immense harm to China’s international image, and would have serious consequences for the development of academic thought and culture domestically. It’s been nearly 30 years since the reform and opening up; the consequences of this law are not hard for the common people to see, much less the leadership on the NCP standing committee and the members of the CPPCC who have abundant political experience. So this is merely a curious interlude in the history of the CPPCC, merely a joke.

SMW: This is just something comical?
Yuan: Of course not. First, we must assess the nature of the matter.

I believe that this represents the extreme nationalist mentality of certain persons. Thought and culture should be diverse and open; any modern country should be this way. They call for this kind of law punishing seditious speech to punish “according to the law” speech that they do not like. If this were thirty-some years ago, when the Cultural Revolution had not yet finished, it would not be at all strange to make this proposal. But today, when the reform and opening up is nearly 30 years old, it is very strange for it to appear at this time. But underneath there’s something not strange at all, the fact that China’s narrow nationalism is deep-seated and not easily dissolved.

Another side is that this is also an ideological trend toward cultural authoritarianism. People whose outlook is even just a little bit modern would not think up such a devious idea: using the law to punish “traitorous speech.” Today, angry youth label people traitors online at the drop of a hat; if Yu Quanyu’s proposal actually becomes law, then a tide of investigating “traitorous speech” will sweep over the whole country, and that’s really frightening.

SMW: According to Mr. Yu Quanyu’s standard, some of your articles could be labeled “traitorous speech.” How would you feel to have this label applied to you?
Yuan: Of course I’d feel that it’s abusive towards me. However, I personally have the mindset of an observer. I’ve always kept the mindset of an audience member toward all things; they are all historical phenomena to be watched, investigated, and analyzed. So I would not feel any undue pressure.

SMW: Had you been aware of Mr. Yu Quanyu previously?
Yuan: I had never heard the name Yu Quanyu before. It was only when I looked things up now that I became aware of his existence. Yu Quanyu is of my generation. People of this generation, because they have been cut off from the mainstream of world culture, have a particularly narrow field of knowledge and understand too little. Only after the reform and opening up, when the door to the country was opened, did I learn that the world had changed. Some people worked hard to renew their knowledge and make outstanding contributions, but others arrogantly stuck with their old practices and gradually fell behind the forward pace of the times.

Were anti-war Japanese traitors?

SMW: One foundation for Mr. Yu Quanyu’s proposal to punish seditious speech is that after World War II, Germany and Austria passed laws “prohibiting Nazi justification.” Is there a basis for comparison?
Yuan: No. The Nazi’s carried out genocide, their crimes were subject to ruling by international court, and the evidence was irrefutable. For this specific, special crime, in order to prevent people from committing the same errors, there needs to be a law. However, “traitor” is a generalized concept, and there is no way to define it precisely. He cannot say what the denotations and connotations of “traitor” are, so how can a law be enacted?

SMW: According to Mr. Yu Quanyu’s argument, “traitorous acts are direct actions; carrying messages or acting as a guide for invaders, or informing them of our military conditions are called traitorous actions. This type of crime is serious; Austrian law is like this.” Then he said that laws should be enacted to punish “seditious speech”; he said “distorting historical facts” is “seditious speech,” “and in years past, there was not much seditious speech, but now seditious speech has gradually increased.”
Yuan: “Punish hanjian speech” — first, the concept is unclear, and second, its logic is muddled. The term hanjian targets the Han ethnic group, but the Han did not form a separate country and have no separate autonomous regions. The central government of a multi-ethnic country can enact laws protecting minority rights, but to enact laws punishing the criminals of a particular ethnic group that do not apply to other ethnic groups is impossible. How to define hanjian is a major question. Has he committed a criminal offense? If there has been a criminal offense, then it should be applicable to someone from any ethnic group. Looking at it like this, a law to punish hanjian speech is already illogical. Second is “speech”: restricting speech through legislation would be a reactionary move for any country in the world. Moreover, who will judge whether this or that speech is “traitorous” or “heroic”?

SMW: I’ve always felt that the term hanjian is a word that appears in movies from our childhood. I feel that after we grow up, this term remains in history. How do you view this term?
Yuan: In Chinese, hanjian is not a strict legal term, and it is not a precise scholarly term. Selling out the country’s interests or secrets, destroying national security — these are crimes. While there is hardly an absence of precedence for these actions, if one is facing a country that suppresses and slaughters its citizens internally and engages in invasions or terrorism externally, exposing their inhuman practices is absolutely a righteous act. During the war of resistance, Japan was the invader, but anti-war Japanese at the time represented the side of righteousness; there was “Japanese sedition” there. In addition, the use of the term hanjian has not been particularly strict throughout history. For example, Guo Songtao, China’s first minister stationed overseas, was smeared by certain people as a hanjian, but now there are many Han people working in the US government, working for the interests of the US. There are Han people throughout companies large and small in the US and Japan. They serve foreign bosses — are they hanjian?

SMW: Many posts online have popularized the term hanjian, to the point that college students who translate for foreigners to help them bargain are cursed as hanjian by the women managing the sales stalls. When the word is used in this way, do you feel that it has some sort of renewed life?
YuanHanjian is a relic of the time from the Opium Wars in the 19th Century through the first half of the 20th Century. I believe that this word no longer has any meaning for judging contemporary speech acts of Chinese citizens. It had meaning during the anti-Japanese War of the 30s and 40s for punishing traitors; after that, the problem was resolved. In the fifties there were still some war criminals who had to be tried, so it still had meaning. Today, to casually call someone hanjian is utterly meaningless; it is an expression of ignorance.

SMW: What sort of mentality does the widespread use of this word reflect in Chinese society?
Yuan: This is a nationalist sentiment. Resolving nationalist sentiments in China is no easy thing. Many countries with long histories are accompanied by serious nationalism once they develop. Far-sighted politicians and far-sighted intellectuals must work hard to direct and dissolve these sentiments bit by bit. Worldwide harmony will arrive one day, and the world is currently headed toward unity, but these sentiments must be dissolved. This does not mean obliterating history; those crimes of aggression and slaughter are part of the brutal history of humanity and should be made very clear and never forgotten. However, a distinction must be made between the past and the present, and at the same time there must be an objective, complete, sober analysis that rejects sentimentality.

Where do the bounds of free speech lie?

SMW: When Mr. Yu Quanyu proposed his law to punish seditious speech, his legal foundation was Articles 51 and 54 of the Constitution. He said, “You have free speech and free press, but you cannot harm the interests of the country.” What’s your view of this?
Yuan: This broaches a very serious question: what are the limits of free speech? Look at the original text of the Constitition: “Article 51: The exercise by citizens of the People’s Republic of China of their freedoms and rights may not infringe upon the interests of the state, of society and of the collective, or upon the lawful freedoms and rights of other citizens.”* “Article 54: It is the duty of citizens of the People’s Republic of China to safeguard the security, honour and interests of the motherland; they must not commit acts detrimental to the security, honour and interests of the motherland.”

“They must not commit acts detrimental to the security, honour and interests of the motherland” — what’s mentioned here are “acts”. Speech and action are distinct. And actions that are detrimental to the security, honor, and interests of the motherland should have a strict legal definition; the whim of a particular individual cannot be used as a yardstick. Criminalizing speech is an action of a medieval authoritarian country or a modern totalitarian government; modern democratic countries are unwilling to get mired in that cesspool. Some countries and regions handle cases of speech according to this standard: articles and discussion on public matters, except for inflammatory speech that may cause “manifest and immediate danger,” are never pursued. For studies of historical questions arriving at differences of opinion to be criminalized as “seditious speech” is really too ridiculous!

So where are the limits to freedom of speech? For hundreds of years, many outstanding scholars across the world have written many glorious texts. Those outstanding works are the crystalization of human civilization, and China, currently in the process of building a country ruled by law, should carefully absorb from them.

In my view, there are three limits that may not be crossed. Slander or insults of others, infringing on others’ rights; leaking the secrets of other individuals or groups (such as companies); leaking state secrets. Note that China is promoting open information; do not randomly take information that some citizens ought to be able to obtain and make it confidential so as to pin them with a crime.

But there are two so-called limits that are fundamentally untenable. One is what Yu Quanyu said: the discussion of the results of academic research can only take place within the scope of a small number of people and cannot be made public. This immediately runs into a problem: who determines which scholarly questions can only be discussed among small numbers of people? Who gives these people that power? And is this legal? More importantly, scholarly research must continually retire the old and promote the new; using administrative or political means to influence scholarly research is not only a fundamental error, but is an act detrimental to the interests of the country as well, and may even be a crime.

Another limit was mentioned by another scholar: scholarly research must be measured according to the constitution and the law. There is nothing off-limits in scholarship; the constitution and laws of any country can be studied and criticized; otherwise there can be no progress. At the same time, scholarship explores the future. Without this exploration, society will lose a major motivation for progress. For example, laws currently in effect ban prostitution and solicitation, but some sociologists have drawn conclusions from both domestic and foreign experiences and advocate legalizing red-light districts, believing that this will be beneficial to controlling STDs, protecting the rights of sex workers, and solving the sexual needs of more than 100 million laborers. This sort of discussion obviously violates current laws, but this is a normal phenomenon in scholarly research. This is common knowledge in scholarly activity; I don’t know whether to feel pity or sorrow for the person who actually wishes to challenge this type of common knowledge!

SMW: Mr. Yu Quanyu proposed a law punishing seditious speech. One of the things he may have had in mind was putting a halt to “reversing historical verdicts.” How do you view what he says about certain people “reversing verdicts” on historical events?
Yuan: Look at many historical figures from the Qing Empire to the Republic to the People’s Republic — was there a court that ruled on their crimes? No. And since there’s been no guilty verdict, then the term “reversing verdicts” doesn’t enter in. And even if there’d been a guilty verdict, research can still take place: faulty verdicts can be reversed. And historical events are all the more in need of continued research to debunk some people’s counterfeit history and work to expose the true face of history.

SMW: Are you saying that historical truth can never be completely and absolutely recovered, but that historians have the responsibility to continually approach it? And that this inquiry is not as simple as reversing or not reversing a verdict?
Yuan: Right. By continually engaging historical truth, it is possible to basically restore it, but complete consistency is very difficult because historical materials are limited.

SMW: But Mr. Yu Quanyu believes that there are occasions when history may be re-interpreted, and you must study it among a small number of people. This is free and not against the law. If you publish it in a newspaper so that young people can discuss it, this will corrupt the youth.
Yuan: He does not trust that citizens today, including young people, possess independent judgment. Citizens’ rational attitude can only be formed out of free discussion of many different viewpoints. By no means is setting young people apart and filtering their thinking the way for them to develop healthily. Young people who grow up in this way are likely to become the tools of a political schemer, since they completely lack independent judgment and cannot judge between right and wrong. This is something that has been proven by history.

Yu Quanyu’s opinions are also free speech

SMW: Current discussion has basically come down heavily against Mr. Yu Quanyu. Did you expect this?
Yuan: Yes. China has won a few points for its international image through this argument. Why? Because the first voice criticizing Yu Quanyu was China Economic Times, a paper sponsored by a department under the State Council, a paper run by the Chinese government. And there also was the China Youth Daily. On the second day, Southern Metropolis Daily also published an opinion piece refuting him. Papers from the national to local levels published commentary, and all of them trumpeted that this was a mistaken political viewpoint. Online there were many different opinions, but the majority championed the cause of free speech and demonstrated a valuable rational attitude. Through so many years of reform and opening up, through the wind and rain, the ability of the Chinese people to judge right and wrong has increased markedly. This is something to be happy about.

SMW: So you’ll tolerate Mr. Yu Quanyu’s viewpoint?
Yuan: It’s not me tolerating anything. Rather, it is an acknowledgement of one member out of a diverse collection of viewpoints. That there is this sort of person is entirely normal; whether you agree with his opinion, this is a very normal phenomenon.

SMW: Some netizens have said that if Mr. Yu Quanyu’s viewpoint were broadcast in the west, this would be detrimental to China’s image. According to his logic, would he then become someone who has spread “seditious speech”?
Yuan: Indeed. Supposing that China’s legislative apparatus accepted his viewpoint as political legislation, then it would be a crushing blow to China’s image. This is utterly impossible. And it was our central government newspapers that were first to come out in opposition, so this is an important bit of oversight. This is something to be happy about. China has made progress.

SMW: If you look at it from a different standpoint, is there anything else positive about this affair?
Yuan: This affair reflects the fact that everyone cherishes their freedom of speech. This is commendable. Yu Quanyu proposing these opinions is an expression of freedom of speech. After debate, the majority of people understand how things are.

Note: The English excerpts of China’s Constitution were taken from the People’s Daily translation.