Chen Guangcheng, a blind human rights activist under house arrest was recently able to escape from his village in eastern China and find shelter in the US embassy, according to several reports. Chen's friends, He Peirong, as well as one of BBC's informants, Hu Jia, were detained by Chinese authorities. Today, the EU has urged China to refrain from harassing anyone associated with Chen.
Mr. Chen's story calls to memory the sagas of countless other dissidents: Nobel Peace prize winner Liu Xiaobo, artist Ai Weiwei, the world’s most popular blogger Han Han, or the exiled pro-democracy activist Wang Wanxing just to name a few.
In an interview with Al Jazeera, Hu Jia remarks, “[Chen] feels that change in this country is not very far off. He feels that this is an era in which civil rights will increase to unprecedented heights and that change in Chinese society has already become like a tide that cannot be suppressed.”
Chen’s struggle for human rights is inspiring, and Hu's bravery is enviable.
But one question begs to be asked: can the above claim be true?
One of the most ancient tenets of Chinese thought is that time is cyclical. In particular, cyclicality was observed with the rise and fall of dynasties since times of yore. Zhuangzi, the prominent Chinese philosopher who lived during the Warring States Period (4th century BC) wrote, "Time cannot be arrested. The succession of decline, growth, fullness, and emptiness go in a cycle, each end becoming a new beginning."
The scope of this article is not to give a history lesson, but to look at today’s China through a different lens – one in which we can predict the Chinese system’s trajectory through an analysis of the past. For a moment, let us take Zhuangzi’s age-old wisdom to heart and reflect on history to find an answer.
In China, there is currently no greater malady for the political machinery than intellectual dissidents, because they have the potential to inspire others to believe the system is mad, thus overthrowing it.
Similarly, in Europe, there was no greater malady than leprosy during the Middle Ages. The fear caused by this disease spread as rapidly as the disease itself. What ensued was a surge in leprosariums that “damned over the entire face of Europe.”
What do these two seemingly unrelated phenomena have in common?
In his book, Madness and Civilization, French philosopher Michel Foucault traces the history of madness from the Middle Ages up to the late nineteenth century. As leprosy disappeared from Europe, the inhabitants of towns and cities celebrated, thanking God for having been delivered from the diabolical curse. The great leprosariums were emptying out, and this phenomenal regression prompted many to consider what should be done of the lazar houses. But the stigma that leprosy left on Europe caused the attitude towards sickness itself to change.
A strange disappearance, which was doubtless not the long-sought effect of obscure medical practices, but the spontaneous result of segregation and also the consequence, after the Crusades, of the break with the Eastern sources of infection. Leprosy withdrew, leaving derelict these low places and these rites which were intended, not to suppress it, but to keep it at a sacred distance, to fix it in an inverse exaltation. What doubtless remained longer than leprosy, and would persist when the lazar houses had been empty for years, were the values and images attached to the figure of the leper as well as the meaning of his exclusion, the social importance of that insistent and fearful figure which was not driven off without first being inscribed within a sacred circle.
Essentially, while leprosy vanished from memory, the attitudes and structures surrounding it remained. It was no longer the diseased who filled the leprosariums, but as Foucault explains, the poor vagabonds, criminals, the unemployed, the insane, as well as the “deranged minds.”
One such “Hospital of Madmen” found in Paris, was the Hopital Général. Foucault explains, “from the very start, one thing is clear: the Hopital Général is not a medical establishment. It is rather a sort of semijudicial structure, an administrative entity which, along with the already constituted powers, and outside of the courts, decides, judges, and executes.” Sound familiar? According to BBC, the so-called Chinese "black jails," like the leprosariums, previously served another purpose: "The jails sprang into existence after a network of official police detention centres used to house people who did not have proper residence permits was closed in 2003." They then turned into "state-run hotels, nursing homes or psychiatric hospitals" that secretly stripped people of all human rights. Their victims? Time magazine claims that the black jails, like France's Hopital Général, are "used to round up vagrants, beggars and petitioners."
Foucault underlines, “In its functioning, or in its purpose, the Hopital Général had nothing to do with any medical concept. It was an instance of order, of the monarchical and bourgeois order being organized in France during this period. It was directly linked with the royal power which placed it under the authority of the civil government alone.” The organization of edifices such as the Hopital eventually extended over the whole of France, until an edict by King Louis XIII dated June 16, 1676, “prescribed the establishment of an ‘hopital général in each city of his kingdom.’” This phenomenon was not circumscribed to France; it had European dimensions. In German-speaking countries, it manifested itself in houses of correction called Zucht-häusern in places such as Hamburg, Basel, Breslau, Frankfort, Halle, Cassel, Torgau and many others. In England, the origins were even more remote: houses of correction which prescribed the deranged existed since the late-1500s, at which point there was “at least one per county.”
In an age we are accustomed to defining as the Age of Reason, it is fascinating to consider the sensibility to madness that existed. It is akin to the sensibility to the "deranged minds" that currently reigns in China. What’s more, this parallel can draw us to other riveting understandings of the present.
Russian writer Fydor Dostoyevsky once wrote, “It is not by confining one's neighbor that one is convinced of one's own sanity.” The confinement of another human being is merely proof of one’s own madness. This is precisely one of Foucault’s arguments: “There is no madness but that which is in every man, since it is man who constitutes madness in the attachment he bears for himself and by the illusions he entertains. [...] Self-attachment is the first sign of madness, but it is because man is attached to himself that he accepts error as truth, lies as reality, violence and ugliness as beauty and justice.”
What better example of such practices in today’s world than China’s black jails, its infamous network of labor and detention centers enforced across the country and its countless house arrests. Although China ostracizes those whom its political machine deems deranged and perilous – or maladies for the system – it is this very presumption that points to the system’s folly.
While we cannot conclude that Europe and China’s cases are identical, we can infer that their sensibilities were and are clearly articulated perceptions, which led to similar developments of a culture of confinement. As the problems of unemployment, mendicancy and idleness reappeared after the Thirty Years’ War in Europe, and the world of labor was disorganized by new economic structures, the intellectuals of the time mused, “What is the source of disorders? … And they would supply the answer that had already been given in the seventeenth century: ‘It is idleness. What is the means of remedying it? Work.’” Gratuitous labor solved the problem of mendicancy and derangement by confining the black sheep. Contemporaneously, it acted on the costs of production during unstable economic times. Similarly in China, while the dissidents are forced to perform gratuitous labor, "the operators of the black jails receive cash payments of 150 yuan ($22; £13) to 200 yuan per person, 'creating another incentive to employ forms of illegal detention.'"
However, Foucault believes that forced work was not defined by economic conditions; far from it. “A moral perception sustains and animates it. … The prisoner who could and would work would be released, not so much because he was again useful to society, but because he had again subscribed to the great ethical pact of human existence.” In other words, he had been corrected. What is the great ethical pact of human existence in Communist China? Non-dissidence.
Following confinement, China is known to go to great lengths to censor any voice that may remind of the dissidents. So much so, that according to an article by Tea Leaf Nation, the Chinese government censored the name of the world’s largest municipality from online social networks. They annihilate names of people and events such as the Tiananmen massacre by eradicating them from human memory. And as Foucault writes, “by confinement, madness is acknowledged to be nothing. [It becomes] an operation to annihilate nothingness.” Proof of this attitude can be observed, for instance, when reporters ask Chinese foreign ministry officials about the black jails, to which they answer, “Things like this don't exist in China.”
To return to our main argument, how can we evaluate the validity of Hu Jia’s remark: “this is an era in which civil rights will increase to unprecedented heights and that change in Chinese society has already become like a tide that cannot be suppressed”?
In his book, Foucault makes an important assertion regarding the houses of confinement. “If they absorbed the unemployed, it was mostly to mask their poverty, and to avoid the social or political disadvantages of agitation … they can be regarded as a failure. Their disappearance throughout Europe, at the beginning of the nineteenth century, as receiving centers for the indigent and prisons of poverty, was to sanction their ultimate failure: a transitory and ineffectual remedy, a social precaution clumsily formulated by a nascent industrialization.” As dissidents such as Chen Guangcheng, Liu Xiaobo and others have certainly noticed, the present system in China is bound to fail; the house arrests, black jails and detention centers testify to this fact.
What became clearer in Europe was that the very people who were being confined played an indispensable role in the State. Like the duality of Yin and Yang, there could not be the mad without the sane, the rich without the poor, the diseased without the healthy. Indeed, Europe realized that the confined constituted “the basis and the glory of nations.” China's dissidents are also its intellectuals, and a society cannot do without them. In Europe, the era of confinement terminated with mankind’s quintessential milestone: The Declaration of the Rights of Man and of the Citizen, ratified in France in 1789.
Not surprisingly, Chen Guangcheng’s fight for human rights and Liu Xiaobo’s manifesto, Charter 08, have much in common with the Declaration of the Rights of Man. China is strolling down a trodden path, of which the end is foreseeable. Its demise, as Hu Jia commented, is unavoidable, “like a tide that cannot be suppressed.”