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Thoreau, Civil Disobedience and Chatting with Guóbǎo

Murong Xuecun, author of Leave Me Alone Tonight, Chengdu, was in Australia when several intellectuals and activistsMurong Xuecun got together in Beijing this year to commemorate the anniversary of the 1989 “June 4th Incident.” Several of those who were there have since been arrested, such as civil rights lawyer Pu Zhiqiang (浦志强), and in order to call attention to their plight, he turned himself in to the police and admitted that while not present at the gathering, he had contributed an essay for their discussion. Here is his description of the ensuing questioning session with the 国保, or Guóbǎo (Inside a Beijing Interrogation Room): 

Then we discussed the Tiananmen Square incident itself. I argued that under no circumstances should the government have ordered the army to shoot at unarmed civilians, let alone dispatch tanks to roll onto the streets of Beijing. The officers did not agree or disagree with me; they just kept asking questions: Do you know what the overall situation was? Do you know what was happening in international affairs at the time? Do you know how many soldiers were beaten or burned to death?

The conversation turned to whether I had broken the law. I told them that I assumed they thought I did because they arrested my friends who were at the Tiananmen commemoration. The officers didn’t like that I made the law sound capricious. The law is not about what they “think,” one of them said. The police, the officer said, had arrested my friends because they broke the law.

Next we discussed whether citizens “must obey the law.” I said good laws should be obeyed but evil laws must be challenged. They strongly disagreed, insisting that the law must be obeyed whether it’s good or evil.

“And you’re a graduate of the China University of Political Science and Law, eh?” the younger one asked mockingly.

I began to talk about Thoreau’s essay on civil disobedience, but quickly felt like a ridiculous pedant. What’s the point of talking about the virtues of civil disobedience in a Beijing police station?

One reply on “Thoreau, Civil Disobedience and Chatting with Guóbǎo”

Surely there must be ancient Chinese anti-Legalist writings that he could have quoted? The young ignoramus (being a young ignoramus) would, one suspects, be less inclined to criticise revered Chinese thinkers of antiquity than loose and dangerous foreign thinkers like Thoreau.

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