Saturday, June 26, 2004
A while back, Erika commented whether I can write a bit about post-Tiananmen China. But am afraid I find writing about China to be utterly debilitating; because I am not any better informed about China, fact-wise, than anyone here who reads the major newspaper, and also because writing about China as an expatriate of long and far remove feels even more futile than it normally is.

I do read Chinese newspapers, not for information particularly, because most of them are either salacious rags or mouth-pieces, often both. But from what is and is not reported and discussed, reading between the lines, I can obtain an oblique view of what is happening. And there are a few conscientious papers in China, even though they must be circumspect in many ways. 《南方周末》 (Southern Weekend), from which the following article is taken, is a good example.


"Should society regulate the individual, or should individuals regulate society?"


A controversy went up when, during this year's national college entrance exams, a student was disqualified because he was a minute late. The critics argue: a student spend years of hard work to prepare for such an important exam, to disqualify him because of a minute's tardiness is simply cruel. The defenders counter: a society has rules; only when individuals obey the rules can the society function correctly.


But what if the society's rules were incorrect?


Arriving a minute late - well, hurry up and get started; I simply cannot understand why it is necessary to disqualify the student? Our public transportation is far from reliable, delays and congestion are everywhere; taking care of these problems are the responsibilities of we adults. We can't manage the city, can't manage the traffic, but not only do we not feel guilty towards the young people who suffer thereby, we have them take the fall for our own incompetence. Meanwhile we intone pompously: you young people must learn to obey the society's rules! What nonsense!

不错,那个考生明年还有一次机会。但是,每一个考过大学的人(包括笔者这种在高考系统中的成功者)心里都清楚:准备高考、被迫长期死记硬背,严重压抑个人心智和学识的发展。如果今年能考上,却因为这一分钟而不得不再考一年,等于浪费了一年的生命。而高考对孩子的心理压力之大,即使是我们这些当年轻松过关的“过来人”也会终身不忘。20 多年前自己参加高考时,头一天晚上就没有睡着。第一门考试,开场才 5 分钟,坐在前面的女生就晕倒被抬了出去。如今我们还要怎么折腾下一代?这样因迟到一分钟而取消考试资格,以后考试前还有人能睡得着觉吗?

True enough, that student will get another chance next year. But anyone who has gone through the examination process (including people, such as myself, who were successful in that system) knows well: to prepare for the exam means years of hard learning by rote, seriously stunting an individual's intellectual and mental growth. If it was possible to pass this year, but because of this one minute, to be forced to wait until the next, this is nothing less than having a year's life wasted. The mental stresses associated with the exam are so enormous that even those of us who passed will never be able to forget. Twenty years ago, I spent a sleepless night before the exam, and five minutes into it, a girl in front passed out and had to be carried out of the room. And why are we are still torturing the next generations this way? If a minute's delay is enough for disqualification, will anyone ever be able to go to sleep the night before the exam?


This incident fully demonstrates that although China is stepping towards a market economy, the authoritarianism from state-planning days are still ever pervasive. Yes, individuals must conform to the fundamental rules of society, if the society if to function. But society is made up of individuals, society's rules are created by individual persons, to serve the broad public, with the consent of the public. Any rule, imposed without such consent, cannot be legal. Thus, the individuals in our society must not passively obey society's rules, but take an active participation to create and reform such rules, and to establish the frameworks for creating rules. This is the only way a society can learn to manage and regulate itself.


Students participate in the examinations in order to seek opportunities for education. Our educational goal should not be teaching students to obey rules made for them by other people, but to help them to understand how rules are to be made, and how to participate in the creation and regulation of a reasonable society. In other words: we should not teach them to "listen and obey", but to regulate themselves, to challenge unfair societal rules, to create new social frameworks. What our society needs are active, responsible citizens, not fearful underlings and servants afraid of making mistakes.