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Diversity of Values and Our Right to Choose: Reflections on Charter 08

November 26, 2012

I have a friend who opened a coffee shop on the 20th floor of an office building downtown. He did not advertise it or have a business plan. He does not even try to get new customers. The only people who go to his shop are patrons from his previous coffee shop and a few others they bring with them. He told me his intention was to create a private and tranquil personal space, an antithesis of the hustle and bustle of city life. He likes to have friends come by, listen to oldies from the 1980s, admire the Nara Yoshitomo artwork on the wall, sample his home-brewed coffee, chat about politics, ideals, life, and escape from life’s problems and worries by indulging in a feast of the senses.

One day we got to talking about human rights. I asked him what he thought was the most important right that an individual in society is entitled to. Without stopping to think, he said that our government likes to say that it is the right to survival. But, he pointed out, that right is in fact the most bottom-line among an individual’s basic rights. It is the kind of right to which even people without a government should be entitled, that every living creature has. But the right that a government needs to guarantee is the right to choose, he maintained.

For example, he said, people should enjoy the lawful right to choose where they live, yet China’s hukou system does not guarantee this. People should have equal right to access medical treatment and insurance, but China’s healthcare reform to date remains on the surface. We should enjoy equal right to choose the university we wish to attend and receive the education we wish to receive. But the university entrance examination system has only brought to students ever-increasing academic pressure, thicker and thicker glasses, greater and greater loathing of study, and fewer and fewer academic achievements with innovation.

I strongly agree.

Students in class. Beijing, February, 2011. Photo credit: ToGa Wanderings; Thomas Galvez.

Take education for example. To begin with, students do not have the right to choose. From the time they set foot on campus, they are thrown like gladiators into a coliseum. Each day, like thousands of soldiers and horses crossing a single narrow bridge, they are subjected to the indoctrination of set thinking. This gives them no choice but to use scores, grades, and exam rankings as the most important measures of their ability to learn and the results of their studies. It fills them with a kind of insecurity that goes like this: “If I don’t do well on tests, I’ll lose everything. I will have failed to live up to my parents’ and teachers’ expectations and to prove my excellence.” It also often makes them think that crushing others is indicative of one’s own success. Students only have one option, one path to take in order to make their parents feel that, for all these years, the tuition has not been paid in vain, and their investment has not been made in vain. This applies to college entrance exams—whether domestic or the SAT—and getting a higher education.

There is nothing wrong with getting a higher education per se. But the problem lies in the conventional social judgment that “a scholar is above all the rest.” This has, unwittingly, led to discrimination against those with lower levels of education. The truth is that society is in fact like the human body. You need a brain and you need a torso. Society needs those with higher education, but also needs to equally respect ordinary workers and farmers. But when such a society only has one path, one option that is widely accepted and acknowledged, the people instinctively use grades and ranks to measure a person.

Similarly, in many secondary schools, in order to ensure high rates of university enrollment, high-performing students are placed in “gifted” classes to be nurtured, while those with poor grades are placed in regular classes. Measured by a single standard day in and day out, these students are of course extremely likely to use a single standard to measure people in society. In time, a vicious cycle is formed.

Teachers do not have the right to choose. Imparting textbook knowledge and exam-taking techniques has become a major part of their job. An evaluation system based solely on university entrance exams has caused the entire education system to not care about a student’s intrinsic value, character, strengths, or special traits. To the academic circles, teaching to fit a student’s ability has become the be all and end all of China’s secondary education. A teacher’s principal task is not, as Confucian scholar Han Yu wrote, “pass down the wisdom of the sages, bequeath knowledge, and dispel confusion”; rather, it is to channel knowledge to students and teach them how to test well and get into good schools.

The divide between the gifted and regular classes also breeds a hidden competition among teachers. “Good teachers” can teach the gifted students and earn more, while “inferior teachers” can only teach the regular classes and earn less. If we dissect primary education from this angle, it is not hard to see that it has thoroughly been reduced to commerce and industry. If this industrialized education is the only educational option in China, does it really benefit China? I think it is just the opposite. Such a system inherently violates the purpose and meaning of education.

School principals do not have the right to choose. The quality of a school is determined by the performances of students’ university or secondary entrance exams. The higher the scores, the more willing families are to send their children to that school. The school in turn will have stronger applicants, and the stronger applicants will affect the university entrance exam results in future years. A school’s performance will attract more “good students” who want to be in the gifted classes at the “best school.” Meanwhile, the students with weaker grades can only make it to the “worse classes” at the “worst school.” In continuing the cycle, China’s schools are a perfect illustration of the Matthew Effect in action.1

The college entrance examination system has these many faults. The assigned essay topics are rigid and rely on memory rather than creativity. Learning processes are rigid, dull, and force feeding-like, placing no value on inspiration. The most critical aspect, however, is that people still believe this is a life-changing turning point, the best opportunity to gain quick success. The entire society becomes nervous and restless about this— police cars clear the streets, parents crowd outside the school’s entrance, waiting for the students to finish testing, the media covers the story, and government employees make their inspection rounds. In reality, this is just an exam. But because it will determine the test takers future and fate, too much meaning is inevitably forced onto it, and it is granted a degree of social importance that is far too high above its own value. This single evaluation standard alone will almost decide whether a student will get a ticket to a higher education at all, and how much such a ticket is worth in terms of a future career.

But the Ministry of Education does not provide the right to choose. People are still accustomed to conceding the point that "this is currently China’s fairest system.” Therefore, under the banner of "fairness,” all its problems don’t seem serious enough to warrant reform or to be worth spending hard-earned money to reform. On the other hand, essential reform would involve various stakeholders—for example, the “exceptional teachers” who make their “grey incomes” from high private tutoring fees, or the Ministry of Education which uses “national interests” as a shield for using gender as a factor for admission, or the enormous chain of interests composed of vested interests and other stakeholders in college admissions. The Ministry of Education would rather stick with the beaten path for the sake of stability and practicality, rather than take the risk of reforming the system inside out by seeking better solutions. To do the latter would raise more questions and doubts, and invite inspection and scrutiny by the people to the extent that would threaten the authority and control of the ministry.

But to exclude all other options is an oversimplified answer to a complicated problem. The current system is essentially a repression of human nature, and this kind of repression will surely lead to more problems. Examples are everywhere, and are not confined to the sphere of education.

All these issues reflect a sense of insecurity among the people. People do not have the right to choose for themselves, or a second option. Thus in making that one choice available to them, they will often ask themselves: Is this really a good thing? Will this be effective? Is this worth it? Is this right? Moreover, what results from executing that sole option is that inevitably only a small number of people are satisfied. The answers to their questions more often bring feelings of panic and insecurity, or otherwise leave people wanting to escape and weakly coming to terms with their compromised choice. This leads people to reflect: what kind of people have the most right to choose, or, in other words, what kind of people have the most options? There are two answers. The first is wealthy people (“money can make the millstones turn the devil,” as they say); one can see that the range of choices available to them is vast. The second is those with power. That is why government officials, especially corrupt officials, are filled with insecurity. They rake in limitless sums of money only because they fear the day when they no longer have the aura of power or the money to protect themselves. On that day, they will, like the regular people, have no right to choose. When we start building a value system based on power struggles and wealth possession, and use that as our mainstream value system to guide us and abide by, how can such a society not be sick?

Back to where I started. My friend with the coffee shop is also a typical “small government, big market” liberal. He feels that everything should be settled by the market. Universities should be free to recruit students of their choice and there should be a direct correlation between their academic achievements and the quality of their students; different schools with different strengths should attract talents of different abilities; and their recruitment, teaching, and academic achievements should complement one another. Universities should determine their own admission standards. Corruption would have a long-term effect on a school’s academic achievements and reputation.

My friend also believes that health care should be privatized, transparent, and market-oriented, resulting in the elimination of hospitals with poor treatment standards, poor service, and substandard medical ethics. As for the hukou system, he feels that it should be abolished. As a citizen of the People’s Republic of China, he feels that he should have the right to choose his place of residence. As he understands it, there is no difference between a temporary residence permit and a visa, and that the Chinese government, which claims “inviolable sovereignty,” uses this “visa” system to split the the motherland every hour and every minute.

In these times, people like my friend are often seen as nonconformists or even crazies. People are unable to accept that someone who runs a coffee shop would not be thinking about how to increase his revenue, open more fancy shops, hire more workers, make more profit, and welcome the rich and the powerful as he would honor his elders—someone who just thinks about coffee, politics, and life all day long instead. He says that he simply only wishes to take his own interpretation of how coffee should be made to produce simple, authentic, unique, and unadulterated coffee rich with his personal philosophy, and then sit with his friends to chat about what interests him and nothing more. But a society with a value system consisting of a singular measure of people does not have great respect for nonconformists like my friend. We are too accustomed to romanticizing the splendor of the wealthy and the social circles of the politicians, and are not good at being concerned with each particular individual who affects the transformation of our society.

My friend has time and again insisted that what he proposes are simple, doable things that need not pose a threat to the ruling regime. But I believe the opposite is true. Though these so-called market reforms certainly are not premised on changes in the political system, they demand that those with vested interests give up the huge profits in their hands in order to put these reforms into effect. To think that this poses no threat is too idealistic. As soon as they renounce their interests, it means that they will have to assume responsibility for the reform after these interests are abandoned, and adapt to the inevitable criticism that would come about during reform as well as the insecurity that comes with their diminished authority and control. For them, the high costs, unknown results, and loss of benefits are not worth their while.

My friend believes that freedom of speech is a relatively upper-tier right. But I feel the exact opposite. A mature society should first permit, include, and be willing to highlight those people whose values differ from the mainstream but who lead vibrant lives. It should hold the same attitude toward those with a so-called second point of view. Just like a mature person not fearing another’s censure, because he is guided by his own values, and accepts honest criticism and seeks to actively correct his character faults. This is not to say that such a person does not have shortcomings, or that he will, through this process, become flawless. Society is the same. A society where speech is not free and where people can only “accept the given” on the same matter is a society forever at risk of an inflated ego.

I at first viewed Liu Xiaobo with contempt after reading Charter 08: he was like certain other scholars. I thought the Charter was little more than a call for human rights and democracy. It was too idealistic and didactic and lacking in feasibility and practical values. However, looking back at the release of Charter 08, I find that its significance is greater than the clauses it contains. It is a defense of the right to choose—namely, that someone was trying to offer society a second option politically. That, in itself, is admirable. As to whether this second option is right or wrong or good or bad, people can have different views. And people are bound to have their own ways of analyzing it, depending on their standpoints and perspectives. I feel that, whether Charter 08’s views are right or wrong should not mean that the Charter’s release and publication are not worthy of discussing or protection. Whether different opinions should be protected and examined or suppressed and blocked is to a great extent a reflection of the regime’s level of maturity and sense of security. Blocking, suppressing, and deleting speech that may pose a threat will only remind people of the story of the man who tries to hide his treasure by putting up a sign that says “there is no money here.”

The arrest of Liu Xiaobo also fully attests to the relationship between the right to choose and freedom of speech. Perhaps Charter 08 did in fact incite some people. However, have we asked ourselves why people are so easily incited and why the government is so afraid of people being incited? I believe that the source of the problem is in speech not being free. People have no choice when it comes to speech, only the government’s rhetoric, which only stimulates the public’s interest in conspiracy theories. And at that moment, a person need only voice a view in opposition to the government, and we all instinctively want to get close to it because it is different from the mainstream view. But imagine: If there are five things being said, all different from the mainstream view, and each has its own rationale, would people still be so easily incited? If everyone were to put forth their own advice on governmental reform, and if the government did not stop people from speaking—because “it is more dangerous than stopping a river's course,” as the saying goes—would people be so easily incited by others’ speech? I believe not.

Students, Fudan University campus. March 25, 2007. Photo credit: Rose Graham.

I believe the issue of Chinese society is not which path we should take or whether the Communist Party is right or wrong. Rather, the issue is about whether we will cling to the belief that our society should have only one kind of speech, one voice, one way of solving things, and one social norm, and that we should continue this way. There are many ways that can improve society. The defense of human rights ultimately stems from people’s sense of insecurity, and the emergence of human rights issues, in turn, ultimately stems from the ruling party’s sense of insecurity.

The Chinese government preserves the thousand-year-old feudal dynastic convention of placing itself at the apex of the social hierarchy. This position distances the regime from the people’s thinking and views, and results in the ruling party’s wish to control and manipulate them by disguising itself as a heroic, larger-than-life figure. The result is exactly the opposite of what was intended: the regime is unable to prevent different speech from coming forth and at the same time is intensifying people’s sense of insecurity, which, in turn, increases its own insecurity and, thus, its desire to control and manipulate even more, forming a new round of a vicious cycle.

From the government's perspective, I believe that if the government rushes to eliminate or suppress speech merely because of a perceived threat that stems from its own insecurity, it would yield the opposite result. But if the government has truly positioned its political and social roles well, transforming itself from ruler to genuine leader and servant, perhaps the situation would be entirely different. When we become aware of and strive for diverse social values, we are bound to discover one day that our sense of security need not rely on a government that does not have a sense of security. A relatively more mature government would not persist in worrying about social instability and political change due to the emergence and release of a second, or a third, or more, voice among us.

Jiang Wuji belongs to the post-1990 generation and is interested in human rights and Chinese law.

Translator’s note

1. In the education context, the Mathew Effect describes how early educational achievement leads to faster rates of subsequent achievement. Conversely, for the low-achieving reader, frustration diminishes motivation and therefore the likelihood of future success.^

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