"A tide that cannot be suppressed" - a Foucauldian interpretation of China's future

By Daniele Pestilli on April 30, 2012
A shirt that reads Free Chen Guangcheng. Image by k-ideas (CC)

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 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 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.

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.”