Friday, November 7, 2008

Interview with Lung Ying-Tai

this is an old interview. I had tried to sell it to a magazine. They liked it but didn't have room, so I have kept it. I wonder if it is still relevant now.


On the evening of January 23, 2006, as millions of Chinese were packing bags and boarding trains to head for the Lunar New Year holiday, a trim, 54-year old Taiwanese woman sat down at her desk to write a letter.

The woman, Lung Ying-tai, arguably Taiwan's most influential cultural thinker, slammed President Hu Jintao publicly in this letter for furthering a ''nation-building myth [that] contains elements of xenophobia,'' as well as running a system that ruins its people by ''treat[ing] truth as lies and lies as truths.''

Like thousands before her, she angled her complaint against the Chinese government censorship machine and pleaded for civility.

But a few factors make her letter one of the most important documents to affect China's ideology on human rights and the intense drama of the ''Cross-Straits Tensions'' that currently embroil Taiwan and China.

Instead of just documenting rank and file abuses, Lung demanded to know how anyone in China or Taiwan can talk about unification--Hu's most vaunted aspiration for China--if Hu himself could not allow China a free press or accord ''civility'' to the Chinese people and its multi-faceted beliefs.

It was a direct challenge to Hu's power and it did not go unnoticed.

The crimes of the Communist Party against Chinese thinkers and dissidents are well known. They include torture, wrongful imprisonment, banishment and overt surveillance, house arrests. And the punishments are usually brought about after calls for tolerance and justice. Like the June 4 Tiananmen Square crackdown 17 years ago, when the student movement made a brave and life-threatening call for democracy.

But that evening something was happening that infuriated Lung and that would begin a very small change in the way the Communist Party treats its media. Lung, a mother of two young men and Chair Professor of arts and humanities at National Tsing Hua University in Taiwan, was using her pen like a sword.

Unbeknownst to Freezing Point's chief editor, Li Datong, a directive from the Central Propaganda Department, passed on in phone calls to editors at other media outlets, forbade the printing or discussion of the closure of Freezing Point, issued every week in the Beijing Youth Daily, a party mouthpiece.

After the full scale of the closure had become known, Lung, formerly Taiwan's first cultural minister, called Li. Furious and hurt by the shutdown, Li confirmed the closure.

Knowing she did not have much time, Lung worked on the letter for fifteen hours straight, crashed on her bed and slept for five hours and then was back at the computer, where, after a few changes and a moment of self doubt, she hit the send button at 1 p.m. on January 24, dispatching her letter to five major journals in Greater China and the United States.

''Dissidents have written numerous letters. This one hit the target,'' says Lung.

A few weeks after ''An Open Letter to Hu Jintao'' hit news stands and the Internet, Freezing Point was back in print, although editor Li was reinstalled as a researcher in the news department. And Lung was in Hong Kong, where she has been giving lectures at the University of Hong Kong that are meant to educate the Hong Kong people on how to generate a civil society that operates like a true democracy.

And to prove how popular she is, the day before we meet for lunch, Lung gave a talk at the university during a ''red rainstorm warning.'' There were 400 people there and they had to videolink the conference to outside rooms so that the entire audience could listen to her.

''It took [the Communist Party leadership] by surprise,'' says Lung, sitting at a restaurant eating a Western and Asian buffet of sirloin, sushi and sliced zucchini. She sips orange juice through a pink straw.

''Someone linked what they do behind closed doors to the reunification issue. It was strategy, I knew that,'' says Lung.

The strategy was effective, but it almost didn't happen, she says. Just before she hit ''send'' she paused.

''Should I mail it to the chief editor [Li] in Beijing and one or two good friends, to check what I had written,'' Lung recalls. ''If they told me not to shoot at Hu, if I knew too much [about the repercussions of the letter], I might be persuaded to back down.''

If she had backed down, greater China would have missed out on a major development in China's politics, says a China media expert.

''[Lung's letter] was the most important document outside China on the Freezing Point
affair. She directly related the supplement's shutdown to the issue of cross-straits relations,'' says David Bandurski, a researcher for Hong Kong University's Journalism and Media Studies Center and their China Media Project.

''She said, basically, if you can't talk about democracy and free speech, how can we talk about reunification,'' says Bandurski.

And that is a crucial piece of what may seem to American readers like a basic comment on censorship, but what is in fact a powerful political statement for a Chinese that has implications for Taiwan.

Lung is good friends with the Koumintang's likely 2008 presidential candidate, the very handsome tri-athlete mayor of Taipei, Ma Ying-yeou. Ma set her up as the country's first cultural minister after witnessing her powerful influence in bringing a true democracy to Taiwan politics.

In 1999, Lung was living in Frankfurt finishing her eighth year as a research fellow at Orientalisches Seminar, at the University of Heidelberg in Germany. She had written several scathing essays about former Taiwan president Lee Teng-hui. Those essays and a group of articles about democracy led to the first direct elections of a Democratic Taiwan, in 1996. Many scholars believe that those essays and Lung's work since have created a democratic consciousness for Taiwan.

One day, she received a phone call from Ma's office. The mayor wished to create the post of Minister of Culture. The mayor wished Lung to fill that position. Could she send a CV?

Lung was incredulous and responded arrogantly, she admits. Displaying what she calls today her ''bitch intellectual'' side, she told the secretary that if Ma was interested in Lung, ''He should buy all of my books and read them.''

In July, during an official trip to Rome, Ma snuck away with an assistant on a midnight flight to Frankfurt. His secretary again called Lung, this time from the airport hotel. Would she come meet Ma?

''I was really not being considerate,'' says Lung. After negotiating it, they talked for three hours at Lung's home. Lung accepted the position.

But why was the seemingly ''small potato'' position as Cultural Minister so important? It's because of the discussion that Lung was able to create among political parties and Taiwanese citizens about international values.

In her ''Open Letter to Hu Jintao,'' Lung writes that in addition to growing up being Chinese:

''I have also developed something else, a set of values that are parallel to and are equally as important as 'my identity' [as a Chinese].''

''Whichever system upholds those values I believe in will be my country; whichever functions against those values I will despise and reject,'' she writes.

Intellectual independence; intolerance for inequality; rejection of the abuse of state power; respect for knowledge; empathy for the common people; and tolerance for dissent and contempt for lies. All values that the West assumes are the keystones to a democracy, but in Asia are almost rabidly fought against in public discussions.

The Chinese leadership has claimed that the West and the East are different. Therefore, China should abide by its own rules,born out of a situation that disallows a free and open system.

But values, incidentally, have become the major speaking points for a growing crisis in Taiwan. Ma, speaking in public about a debacle this June that saw President Chen Shui-bian come under fire for his son-in-law's alleged un-ethical stock market purchases, used values as a discussion point to address angry crowds who wanted to impeach Chen.

In this way, Lung is not just a floating world of human rights or a peace-loving Chinese. Her writing has affected the political map of Taiwan and the nation's political and cultural relationship to China.

She has written about the experience of watching Chen manipulate the Taiwanese people by feeding off of China's love-hate relationship with the island.

''I felt myself kidnapped--and I choose that word, kidnapped--because Chen's cause covers his brand of nationalism behind a facade of democracy. This is a kind of bullshit,'' Lung says at lunch.

Lung grew up in a fishing village in Kaohsiung, Taiwan, and her intellectual and activist coming of age, earned in American university libraries, has made her a sharp critic of political systems that dehumanize citizens.

''I grew up in the KMT's half-baked dictatorship,'' says Lung. ''The first time I walked into a library [in the United States] and opened books describing how the KMT shot the liberal intellectuals; that was the beginning,'' she says of an experience that set her on a course to speak out against two governments that have created a ''manipulated collective psyche.''

''I'm caught between nationalists for reunification and Taiwanese nationalists who want independence,'' says Lung.

One of her defining moments is her work to bring justice to the ''228 Memorial,'' a huge monument near her hometown that marks a massacre of liberal intellectuals that began on February 28, 1947 and ushered in 40 years of martial law.

According to news reports from the time, the KMT systematically hunted down the country's brightest intellectuals who questioned the KMTs rabid nationalism and fantasy of taking back China from the Communists.

When in 2000 the Taiwanese wished to honor the dead of that massacre, Lung orchestrated more precise language for the plaque, which at first absolved the KMT from wrongdoing. The plaque today names KMT leaders who were behind the effort.

Chinese-Americans should be more involved in this history of addressing wrongs in China, says Lung.

''The Chinese government does care [about scrutiny of its practices], especially about how the United States judges them,'' says Lung. ''I do think that the American Chinese could deepen their understanding of current affairs and the situation in China.''

Google and Yahoo! bow to Chinese leadership. Yahoo! allows the larger Chinese firm Alibaba to operate in its name in China. Recently, Yahoo! allegedly provided Chinese police and security officials with important IP addresses for two Chinese journalists, Shi Tao and Jiang Lijun, according to press advocates Reporters Without Borders. Their crime: showing documents to the world that prove China's censorship policies.

And Google screens ''sensitive'' words from its search engine in China. A user, unless he uses a proxy connection, cannot find topics like ''democracy'' or the famous photography of the ''Tiananmen Square incident.''

''You may not stop some of the practices that Google and Yahoo! are doing, but the more protest you make, at least the government knows they are in the wrong,'' says Lung.

But the fight to encourage Chinese activism is difficult. The Chinese identity is averse to speaking out when it comes to political ideas the Communists hold dear. Lung points to Hong Kong, the focus of some powerful lectures over the past year, as an example.

Hong Kong has a reputation as a world city, ''polished'' and sophisticated, situated outside the party politics because of its ''advanced'' economic situation. And sometimes, it lauds itself for shouting down its own government for not acting benevolent or democratic.

But underneath that autonomy, a ''fragile and confused'' psyche does not stick up for the values that through time keep that political machine at bay and create a consciousness that allows for a greater and truer democratic system to arise.

''If you have these right to say you shouldn't fire on your own people in Beijing, why would you have the right to destroy the cultural heritage at home?'' says Lung.

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