The Private and the Public. What we can learn from Wittgenstein

On a Canadian website devoted to the translation of writings by contemporary Chinese intellectuals, its creator, David Ownby of the University of Montréal, writes: “China is, if not totalitarian, surely authoritarian, and I readily admit that I do not fully understand the relationship between the Chinese state and the intellectuals I study.  It is obvious that their published work is not a perfect reflection of their private thoughts, which surely means that many times they cannot say what they really think, but what trade-offs they make and how they make their calculations remain obscure.  While I prefer to believe that what they publish is a fair if perhaps partial reflection of what they think, many people do not, and I admit that now and again I wonder if I’m being played.”[1]

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“Benevolent Autocracy.” The case of Hong Kong

On January 4, 2021, 1,000 Hong Kong police went out to arrest fifty-three democratic lawmakers, politicians, and activists. The event was as much a demonstration of unrestrained police power as an actual  police operation. The arrested were, moreover, charged with a strange crime, namely “trying to use strategic voting to secure a legislative majority, with an ultimate goal of shutting down the government.”[1] They had organized a primary election to produce a slate of democratic candidates for the then upcoming election to Hong Kong’s legislature. 600,000 Hong Kongers had cast their vote on that occasion.  The democrats had also expressed hope that their united front might gain a majority of the seats in the new legislature. Benny Tai, one of the initiators of the event, had, moreover, suggested in a newspaper op-ed that such a majority might eventually be able to veto the city’s budget and, perhaps, even push its unloved Chief Executive to resign.

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What hope is there?

Democracy in China. The Coming Crisis is a tightly argued new book by Ci Jiwei that sets itself the dual task of analyzing China's democratic deficit while doing so in a genuinely philosophical manner.

What follows is a short first stab at an assessment of this book.

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A short trip to China

A month ago I attended the fourth International Wittgenstein Symposium in Xi’an. I gave a lecture on the beginning of the Philosophical Investigations and a talk at Northwest University on “Wittgenstein and the Decline of the West.”

Almost everyone in Berkeley said: “Xi’an. Where is that?” It tells you how ignorant we are about the country. It is a city of some 7 million people (and perhaps unofficially even of 10 million). The first capital of China lone before Beijing and as such full of antiquities. It was also the end of the Silk Road, the place where Buddhism entered China and it has, till today, a thriving Muslim quarter. A modern city but one with a history.

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Local struggles in a global city

A few weeks ago, I met up with a number of local activists in Hong Kong. I wanted to know how much support they still had from the general public and what their chances were for asserting any political influence, given that their leaders were under attack and their elected representatives had been disbarred.

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Hong Kong in turmoil

When I arrived in Hong Kong a month ago it was already clear that a political crisis was brewing. The HK administration had tabled a new extradition law and opposition to it was growing by the day. Now the issue has come to a boil.

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The End of Eternity

A week ago, I saw Bi Gan’s movie The End of Eternity (《地球最后的夜晚》)-- called In English Long Day’s Journey into the Night -- on a Cathay Pacific flight. I came away thinking that this must be one of the great movies of all times. The next day I discovered that it was also playing at a neighboring movie house and so went to see it again. I couldn’t sleep after that as the images, words, and sounds of the movie were hauntingly coming back to me again and again in the middle of the night. Dark, mysterious, and melancholy, Bi Gan’s work is, in fact, a piece of the most sublime Chinese poetry and utterly captivating as this poetry can be.

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Doing prison time in Hong Kong

On my current visit to Hong Kong I am once again trying to talk to some of the activists in order to get a better understanding of the shifting political territory. When I contacted Joshua Wong, one of the most dedicated pro-democracy campaigners, he wrote back to me: “I might not able to meet you since my court case sentencing is scheduled on Thursday afternoon. I need to prepare before being locked up in prison.” This will be the third time he is sent there for his political engagement.

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Hot Days in Hong Kong

Saturday May 11, 2019 There was heavy fighting yesterday in the Hong Kong legislature over a newly proposed extradition law. Legislators were injured in the melee. The previous day had seen demonstrations in the street.

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The Enemy In-Chief

Since its foundation the US has always had an enemy in-chief. First it was the British who helped to solder the nation together. Then came the extermination of the American Indians extending the American territories “from sea to shining sea.”. Then the civil war when the Americans made mortal enemies of each other with wounds that are still not fully healed. Then came the Spanish, the Germans (twice), the Russians, the North Koreans, the Vietnamese, the Taliban in Afghanistan, Saddam Hussein in Iraq,

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Made in China 2025

The Trump administration has been worried about China turning itself into a leading economic power. Its current trade war with China is officially aimed at bringing about relatively small changes in China’s economic policies but its real aim is to constrain China’s long-term development. We can be sure that China would be willing to adjust its trade policies but it will certainly not abandon its overall development plans. There is no reason to think that the Chinese would ever consent to being in a permanently inferior economic position.  And it is not obvious that the US can keep it there.

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Two views of Beijing

August 16, 2018

The World Congress of Philosophy is continuing; but today, Thursday, it is mostly student presentations in Chinese. I take time off and get on the subway to do some sightseeing. What I discover is an abyss in the human heart.

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Meeting Joshua Wong

August 11, 2018

It is Saturday morning and I am about to meet up with Joshua Wong at the Bricklane Café right across from Hong Kong’s Legislature where Wong’s political party has its office. It turns out that Wong has already been at work that weekend morning and I am not the only visitor he will see that day. I am curious to hear from him about the current state of Hong Kong politics.

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