[Note: The following is a Tea Leaf Nation op-ed, and does not necessarily represent the opinions of the editors.]
Writing an article for Tea Leaf Nation about five children who recently died in a dumpster in Bijie, China, reminded me of what Michael Lewis said in his baccalaureate remarks at Princeton in 2012: “You owe a debt, and not just to your Gods. You owe a debt to the unlucky.” The sentiment is echoed by Yang Jiang (杨绛), a famous contemporary Chinese writer, in her short story “Lao Wang” (老王) about an ordinary rickshaw driver almost three decades ago. The last line of the story: “This is a guilt piece from the lucky ones to the not–so-lucky ones.”
Indeed, this is a guilt piece too–my guilt stemmed from the realization that I didn’t do enough for the needy and that I am one of the “adults”–the parents, teachers, government officials, and average Internet users–whose neglect allowed this tragedy to happen. The case quickly turned China into a binary nation of fragile children and should-be-responsible adults, and most of us are on the adult side. I believe the same feeling of self-blame has been more or less shared by most Chinese adults over the past few days. Activists have already started urging users of China’s Weibo microblogging platforms to donate warm clothes to children in the coming winter.
But while touched by the kindness, I somehow feel unsettled, even somewhat fearful. I am afraid this story will become another fast-food item to feed the starving drama-hunting media and the so-called “public intellectuals” craving outlets and attention.
In this social media era, emotions are strong, memories are short, and information is fragmented. As Bai Yansong (白岩松), a well-known television host, once commented on “Touching China,” the Chinese version “CNN Heroes”: “On the show, you would see tons of people moved to tears in the studio as well as in front of their TVs each year; they must have made so many beautiful wishes [to help others]. But when the sun rises again the next morning as usual, all the wishes just vanish, only to be remembered again during the next episode of ‘Touching China.’”
Yes, undoubtedly, we are shocked, we are frustrated, we are disappointed and we are angered by the tragedy in Bijie, but will these feelings last long enough to keep us motivated to do good deeds? Will these feelings be strong enough for us to maintain the same sensitivity towards the darkness when we turn off our laptops and go to work and school tomorrow?
Can you still remember what happened in China just two years ago? On November 15, 2010, a savage fire destroyed a 28-story high-rise apartment building in Shanghai, killing at least 58 people and injuring more than 70 others. Such big news then, but how many of us remembered that? If that does not convince you, let’s look at the present. Merely one day after heated nation-wide discussion on the Bijie children, the topic “David Beckham will potentially join Chinese Super League” became the top story on Sina Weibo, China’s Twitter. Mr. Beckham attracted over 30 million mentions, compared to just 4 million mentions of the Bijie tragedy.
What would happen later? I asked myself. Will policy discussions really lead to systematic changes? Will the suspended officials quietly return to their positions months later after amnesia sets in?
Because at the end of the day, we are “the others.” We like to think we become involved in various social issues on social media, but we are just bystanders. As a group, we willingly share the guilt but then shrink the responsibilities. Yes we feel shameful about the systematic loopholes, but we are not the ones who actually created them; yes we feel sorry for the possible scapegoats, but we are not the ones who were suspended; yes we understand the parents’ sadness, but we are not the ones who lost kids in the end.
Chinese social media pushes an unbearable number of sad stories before our faces every morning. The world of Weibo gives me a sense that China has reached its most dangerous time. A friend who studies sociology explained why she is not a frequent Weibo user: “Surfing Weibo for one hour would consume the positive energy you accumulate in a whole week.”
Of course, feelings of anger, sorrow, and helplessness are exaggerated on social media. Unfortunately, we often forget about this and take whatever Weibo presents as reality. Diluting the meaning of each sad story becomes protection against depression; selective ignorance prevents us from sinking too deep into the stories. It is okay to turn to ignorance for comfort once or twice, but what scares me is the thought of getting used to it, even addicted.
When I chatted with a friend in Shanghai days ago, I was surprised that he did not even know about the Bijie tragedy. After I told him the story, his first reaction was to cite a poem called Dead Water, written by Wen Yiduo, a Chinese poet, in 1925:
“Here is a ditch of hopelessly dead water—
a region where beauty can never reside.
Might as well let the devil cultivate it—
and see what sort of world it can provide.”
While the collective guilt and anger on Chinese social media is completely understandable considering the struggles for basic survival that characterize so many Chinese lives, as well as continuous frustration and distrust of the government, what really scares me is the deeper insecurity and uncertainty beneath the cynicism and hopelessness.
As a Chinese person, sometimes it takes courage for me to write about China’s social issues. I pore over commentaries and analyses on stories that are sad and frustrating that inevitably bring about emotional torment and self-doubt.
However, it’s not hope that makes one persist; it’s persistence that brings hope. The individual is indeed small and powerless in the larger social context, but the good news is: I am not alone in wanting to write about China’s social issues. Every step counts in a long journey. As Long Yingtai, an influential Taiwanese writer, once said: “Don’t wait for heroes or heroines; every individual has the power to push down the wall.”