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the shekou storm – translation

Throughout the 1980s, Beijing and Shenzhen were symbols in and locations of debates about the development of post-Mao society. In many ways, Beijing symbolized and produced theories of reform and opening, while Shenzhen symbolized and actualized these theories. However, as the saying goes, plans can’t keep up with change. Roughly a year and a half before the demonstrations in Tian’anmen, the Shekou Tempest demonstrated that the government was serious in its intention to reform and open all of society, including politics as usual.

In tribute to the efforts of young people in both cities, and the sincerity of the questioning, I have translated “Questions and Answers about the Shekou Tempest (蛇口风波问答录) by Zeng Xianbin (曾宪斌) because the article reminds us how important Shenzhen was (Shekou especially) to the hopes and dreams that characterized Chinese youth during the 1980s. The article also illustrates at what cost Shenzhen’s post Southern Tour (1992) development has come; once upon a time, Shenzhen residents had the rhetorical skills and ethical compulsion to debate the social implications of going capitalist.

Ironically, many of the early Shekou gold diggers, who once believed it was possible to make money and contribute to society, now sould like old leftists – too many people have come to Shenzhen only to make money without contributing anything to society. This emphasis on working for society, rather than oneself seems to be the important thread that links Old Shenzhen to the Chinese Revolution; New Shenzhen, post 1989 Shenzhen, is something else again.

Questions and Answers about the Shekou Tempest

by Zeng Xianbin

Reporter’s note: This is a small debate that took place half a year ago and was later reported in several newspapers. Today this newspaper [People's Daily] introduces the event and some related opinions, as well as providing space for more comerades to participate in the discussion, together exploring the question of youth political thought work.

On January 13 this year [1988], Shekou, Shenzhen organized a “Youth Education Experts and Shekou Youth Symposium”. Participants included Comerades Li Yanjie, Qu Xiao, and Peng Qiyi, three political lecturers from the Chinese Youth Thought Work Research Center and seventy Shekou youths. The media has already introduced this symposium. Even if evaluations of this discussion were mixed, nevertheless there was concensus about one point: its meaning exceeded the actual tempest itself. During the first and middle parts of July, this reporter split his time between Beijing and Shenzhen, interviewing people involved such as Li Yanjie, Qu Xiao, Peng Qingyi and Yuan Geng, asking them to answer questions about which readers are concerned. In order to insure that the reader gets objective, verifiable facts, this reporter has recorded only the questions and answers. The reader must judge the rights and wrongs of the case for herself.

Did this symbosium have a “sudden revolt”?

Question: Many of the press reports on this symposium have said that the three political lecturers “belive that there was a ‘sudden revolt’ by the symposium youth, turning the symposium into an ideological debate” and “directed the meeting onto the wrong path”. What actually happened?

Li Yanjie: I don’t think it’s excessive to say that this symposium was something of a “surprise attack.” When the Shekou District invited us to inspect  the Fufa Glass Factory, there was no mention of a symposium. It’s said that this meeting was organized by the Shekou District Youth League Committee, but that day the League Secretary who accompanied us on the inspection didn’t know anything about it. Not until we were eating dinner were we invited to talk, but what we saw was a poster for “Youth Education Experts and Shekoku Youth Symposium”. I think at the very least this was rude behavior. We only went so as not to put anyone on the spot.

Jing Yue (Vice Director, China Merchants Shekou Training Center): Several days before the symposium, I asked Teacher Yanjie when he came to Shekou would he be willing to meet with us and he didn’t object.

Xie Hong (Shekou District League Vice Secretary): We organized this symposium at the behest of the the Training Center. About whether or not the teachers knew about the event, I don’t think it’s important . After all, they are experts in youth education. If they come to Shenkou, what’s so unusual about meeting and talking with youth? About the talk that there was a deliberate intention to make things difficult for the teachers, this absolutely untrue, which can be proven by two things: first is that the participating youth, including those who spoke, all came voluntarily; second, we didn’t even prepare any recording equiptment so it could be more casual.

Qu Xiao: At the beginning, Xie Hong organized the meeting, inviting Li Yanjie and me to speak about our feelings on coming to Shenzhen and Shekou. The others and I had only come to Shekou for a short time, our biggest, deepest impression was of great transformation. In several years, Shenzhen had made the leap from being a small border town of 20,000 people into a modern city of several hundred thousand people. In 1980, its GNP was 60 million and now its 576 million. This proves that the Party’s policy to establish a Special Zone was correct and reflects the success of the Special Zone’s workers. Comrade Yanjie and I felt good about the builders of the Special Zone, we were especially proud of the Special Zone’s youth.  This is why Yanjie talked about “Beautiful scenery, beautiful hearts; beautiful environment, beautiful people”. I praised the Special Zone youth for being soaring eagles and not kites with broken strings.  I still don’t understand what was wrong with saying this, how was it irrelevant?

Peng Qingyi: After teacher Qu Xiao spoke, a youth in the audience said, “I hope that the three teachers can speak with us about substantive questions, and not talk about irrelevant education matters. You say that the people who came to Shenzhen are builders, pioneers, and also gold diggers. Please explain clearly what a gold digger is.” So at the beginning there wasn’t a steady atmosphere. Afterward, we were frequently interrupted. I see this as irregular.

Xie Hong: Actually this kind of symposium that turns into a debate is commonly seen in Shekou. There have been even more heated ones. Not long before this symposium, Wen Yuankai came to speak. The level of that ideological discussion was much more extreme that this one, but everyone thought it was regular. The thinking of youth here is lively. They dare to think and dare to speak, but never deliberately don’t get along with someone. When the views of the three teachers were different from ours here, in Shekou, raising a few questions wasn’t out of theordinary.  We never thought that the teachers would view the matter so seriously. Afterwards, everyone commented that these teachers from neidi always heard applause and cheers, and weren’t used to debating questions.

What Questions were Debated?

Question: At this symposium, around which questions were there conflict points of view?

Qu Xiao: The first debate was over the meaning of gold digger. In fact, I did mention that there was another reason people came to Shenzhen, it was to grab a portion of the wealth that others had created. I think that there are a tiny number of gold digers.  The headline in the Shekou Dispatch was ‘Shekou: A Heated Confrontation betweenOld Fashioned Instruction and Modern Ideology’, but even today, I still don’t concede that my point of view was old fashioned in any way. I believe that there is a small number of neidi youths who don’t come to Shenzhen and Shekou to undertake important work, to build a Special Zone, but rather come for a good life and a higher salary. If the money isn’t enough or life will be difficult, they simply don’t come. I call these people gold diggers. Moreover, I believe that  the Special Zone doesn’t welcome these opportunistic gold diggers. Where’s the error?

Peng Qingyi: One youth said, “What’s wrong with gold diggers? The American West was developed through the actions of gold diggers and speculators.” However, America is America, how can it be compared to our Special Zone? The US is surnamed “capital” and it practices capitalism. We’re building a socialist Special Zone. These two have nothing in common. We can’t bring the capitalist methods used to develop the [American] West to our Special Zone.

Li Yunzhong (youth from the Shekou China Merchants Import Export Trade Company): Qu Xiao and the rest came here and said, “There’s definately no market for ‘Gold diggers’.” But in the meeting I expressed this idea: If we come to Shekou and Shenzhen, why can’t we earn money?  ‘Gold diggers’ earn money, but have done nothing illegal, so its not really a mistake. The explicit motivation for ‘gold diggers’ to come to Shenkou is to earn money, but they have objectively contributed to the construction of Shekou. Just like entrepreneurs who open restaurants. Their goal is to earn a living and make money, but they give the country taxes and provide convenience to everybody. What’s wrong with this kind of ‘gold digger’. I praise the following line from the Shekou Dispatch: Everything in Shekou is moulded from the sweat and blood of gold diggers.

Yu Changmin (Department Head, Shekou Economic Development Research Office): Our understanding of ‘gold digger’ is a world away from Qu Xiao’s. In today’s Special Economic Zone, wanting and being able to earn money are understood to be expressions of talent. It is historic progress and a sign of a perspective that has changed after natural and production ecnomies have been replaced by commercial economies.

Guo Haiyan (Department Head, Office of Foreign Youth Research, Youth Research Institute, Beijing Normal School):  At the symposium, I spoke after the three teachers. I believe in addition to the question of ‘gold digger’, there were other areas in which some of the youths held obviously mistaken political opinions. For example, one said, “We’re more free here, the mountain is high and the emperor far away! If I scold you, no one will discipline me, and my Hong Kong boss is even less likely to fire me. You say you want to contribute to the country. The money I earned through my own blood and sweat should be for me to enjoy. Why should I give it to others?” Another said, “We strongly object to the propaganda in the newspapers that say if Shenzhen is walking the road of socialism with Chinese characteristics, just what are those characteristics? Shenzhen’s special characteristics are foreign characteristics! Its buildings, streets, urban layout, and corporate management are identical to those of a foreign country. If it has Chinese characteristics, say its Chinese, just don’t invent Chinese characteristics that it doesn’t have.”

Wei Haitian (Reporter, Shekou Dispatch):  In addition, there were three other disagreements. First, one of the youth education experts thought that we should advocate the idea that “a large portion of entrepreneurial income should be givin to the country to  support public welfare”. In contrast, in Shekou you these “leftist” leanings shouldn’t be supported. Presently, some entrepreneurs aren’t willing to work in this way, which is a sign of their fear of “leftist” thinking. It should be recognized that at the same time that they are earning money, entrepreneurs are also contributing to the country. When entrepreneurs confidently and uprightly reach into their pockets [to give money], that will make even more people believe in the continuation and stability of the Party’s policies. Advocating unlimitted appropriation of other people’s labor won’t do it. Second, Qu Xiao thought, “Seeing all these foreign cars driving on Chinese roads makes me uncomfortable.” Why did he feel that? Qu Xiao said, “Because we’re backward.” Shekou youth thought that this answer was too superficial. Backwardness was created by problems with our system. However, in light of reform, not having foreign cars is a sign of backwardness. Third, if Qu Xiao can express his gratitude to the country by “lighting fires in people’s hearts”, then Shekou youth should be allowed to express their patriotism through manual labor. One shouldn’t carelessly accuse Shekou youth of “indifferent patriotism”.

What was the deal with presenting a name card and “records”?

Question: According to the news reports, “in the midst of heated debate, a famous education expert who clearly wasn’t used to this kind of debate said to a youth, “Do you dare tell me your name!? To the laughter of the youth in the audience, the person in question presented his name card.” After the meeting, that records were started in name of “Beijing Normal School Youth Education Research Institute”. Believing that this youth had “obviously mistaken political views” and that “the entire atmosphere was mocking, indeed oppositional”, the name card was also included in these “records”.  What’s the truth?

Peng Qingyi: I asked for the name, not some “famous” Li Yanjie. I asked him if he would tell me his name because I believed his opinion was representative because I was giving an invited lecture in Shenzhen the following day and wanted to talk about his viewpoint. This was like any two people exchanging names in a conversation, perfectly regular, why were people suspicious?

Guo Haiyan: I wrote those records and any responsibility is completely mine. At the time, I was upset on behalf of Li Yanjie and the other teachers, incredibly angry. Coincidently, the Shenzhen Youth League Secretary asked me to write a summary of the meeting, so I wrote “The Complete Story of the ‘Shekou Symposium’ (“蛇口座谈会”始末)”, and mentioned the name of the youth who had given his name card. But this was absolutely not broadcast, it was a report for superiors, a normal work report, with nothing unethical at all. Of course, I had a responsibility to give a factual report of a particular youth’s mistaken political views.

Wei Haitian: In that kind of atmosphere, using that threatening voice, could it have been regular to ask someone, “Do you dare tell me your name?” As eyewitnesses, we felt that at the least it was unequal treatment and unequal dialogue, using the high status of a master teacher to criticize a lowly student. What was even harder for us to understand was that at the meeting they expressed, “We’re satisfied with your sincerity and frankness. From your feedback, we believe more research is necessary. At least in the future, we won’t go to an unfamilar place and carelessly give our opinions.” On the face of it, they understood what the youths had said. However, the symposium was on the 13th and then on the 15th the “records” of the “Beijing Normal School Youth Education Research Institute” completely denigrated the Shekou youths. Then, in subsequent lectures throughout the country, they used Shekou youths as negative examples. How could this not anger people?

Zhang Mengfei (Editor, Shekou Dispatch): Frankly speaking, at first there was no plan to report this matter because debate in Shekou is completely ordinary, so wasn’t worth reporting. However, the next day in his Shenzhen lecture, Qu Xiao deliberately denigrated Shekou youths. This was broadcast on television, followed by the released of those less than brilliant records. We believed we couldn’t remain silent, and had to protect the honor of Shekou’s youth. Staff reporters Wei Haitian and Wang Kepu happened to be at the symposium, proposed a news story, which led to their report.

How to evaluate this symposium?

Question: The Shekou Dispatch first reported on the symposium on February 1, and subsequently the report was picked up by domestic and foreign news agencies. Some essays said, “This symposium symbolizes the end of ‘I speak, you listen; I give orders, you further the moral code, lessons, and corrections”; “Youth are no longer mystify authority”; and “The content, method, and perspective of political thought work all need to be renewed”.  How should we evaluate the symposium and these reports?

Yuan Geng (Chairman, Shekou China Merchants): Two things can be definitively stated. First, since no one comes here to prostylitize, there needs to be more than one voice; since it was a symposium, everyone could speak. Comerades Qu Xiao and Li Yanjie are allowed their opinions, and should also allow others to have their opinions. We also need to advocate the idea that as long as it doesn’t oppose the Party or harm someone, then it can be expressed here, popular here, and explored here, it doesn’t matter if its internal or external, doesn’t matter who or what opinion. But it should be clearly stated,we don’t welcome the empty teachings of master teachers who don’t listen to different opinions, and even want to know where you work, and what your name is. An old man like me couldn’t endure being treated like that. Young people are even more likely to resent it.  Second, I strongly admire the statement, “I can disagree with your point of view, but I swear to protect your right to express different opinions”. I hope that the reporter comrade will transmit this idea, as it protects the sacred right to freedom in our constitution. Thus, I will definately protect the youth who was harrassed for his name and then entered into some record. Even if what he said was wrong, we won’t permit speach crimes.

Liang Xian (Executive Manager, Shekou China Merchants Corporation Research Department): I don’t think this conflict could have been avoided. The difference between the two sides was too great. Even their habitual use of language and vocabulary were different. I saw that Qu Xiao and the others are unfamilar with a commodity economy. If you don’t understand the commodity economy, and then come to Shekou, where the commodity economy is most lively, how can you communicate and dialogue with youth?

Li Yanjie: Since the symposium and related reports, I have remained relatively silent. This surprises people. I was the last one to speak at that symposium and said, “The sea receives all rivers, it has great capacity”. Why have I been silent? There are three reasons. First, I am not moved by honor or disgrace. I’ve seen many storms, and written the following words, “Not moved by honor or disgrace, watching the flowers bloom and wither;  Going or staying is accidental, watching the clouds pass in the sky”. Second, I’ve been too busy. You say we have old fashioned opinions. But I have received more than 1,000 invitations to speak throughout the country, including in Guangdong and Shenzhen. If my ideas were too old fashioned, I would have already been boo-ed off the stage. In addition, we have a heavy work load, what matter doesn’t require our time and attention? Third, I believe in the masses and I believe in the Party, I especially believe in the ability of youth to distinguish right from wrong. I think that many youth in Shenzhen and Shekou are good, and those few in Shekou don’t represent them. This past half year, I have received many letters, all upset on my behalf. A student from Political College offered to represent me in a lawsuit against those youths. I refused. I’ve never had the disposition to use “going to court” or any other method to educate people. About whether or not we used “I speak, you listen, I give orders you do it” in order to “put on a hat” or “beat” people with different opinions, I don’t think there’s any evidence.  I was the earliest to oppose oppressive pedagogical methods. I have always advocated deep trust, understanding, and love of youth. The Shekou Dispatch said Shekou youth don’t want to listen to our “moral code, teaching and corrections”. I think the the reporter who helped organized the symposium should be clear about one thing: did we proactively go to Shekou to “spread a moral code, teach, and correct”, or did all of you invite us?

These years we can say with a clear conscious that we have fulfilled our responsibilities to the Party, to the People, to our profession, to youth and to our own conscious. Why do I say this? None of us works with youth for fame or fortune. We all have a career; I am a professor, Qu Xiao is a pyschologist, and Peng Qingyi is a famous artist, who really doesn’t need to become more famous or richer. From the time we began this work, we have given hundreds of lectures, and have we ever asked for money? If I wanted money, for a casual lecture I earn several hundred. We’re old and infirm. After this talk, I couldn’t lower my blood pressure below sixty or raise it to 90; Qu Xiao has stomach problems and arthritis; Peng Qingyi is blind in his left eye and his left leg injured. My 28 year old daughter is still unemployed, but who knows about this? Peng Qingyi and his wife still sleep in bunkbeds. And so on. I’m not saying this to change anyone’s impression of events, but rather to say that in these conditions, in a time when political thought work is particularly difficult, we’re at the front line, making painstaking effort, but not getting the recognition we deserve. The problem is one of not having a leg to stand on. We admit that we need to improve ourselves, but shouldn’t helping us overcome our difficulties and mistakes be done in a comradely way?

I don’t think our thought work style is old fashioned or passe. From a global perspective, you can say its powerful. In a discussion of improving and strengthening political thought work, I believe that professionals like us who also work with youth, stepping forward, is itself a direction and is a transformation of the system. In addition, I would still like to raise three kinds of change: change of content, perspective, and method.  We also have three principles: the first important principle is don’t become fixed, the second is support reform and opening, the third is maintain education, don’t simplify.

Those few Shekou people’s way can be classified as five mistakes: mistaken standpoint,  perspective, factual content, direction, and method.

Qu Xiao: To that small minority of people who intentionally spread gossip and cause confusion about right and wrong, we have one last word. If you think that at anytime we won’t or don’t dare use legal weapons to defend our rights, you’re mistaken.

Wu Houxin (Director, Zhujiang Film Studio): I’m probably the only one who participated from the position of an observer. To collect materials, I recorded the symposium. At the time, I felt that although there were two different paths, it was nevertheless a normal conversation. Recently I listened to the tapes again. I still can’t hear that the Shekou youths deliberately revolted in any way. I think, if we set aside the question of right and wrong, straight and twisted, we can confirm one thing: the “extremely poetic” talks of the experts didn’t have expected results. The essense of the tempest was a serious challenge to traditional political thought work, from style to content. The youths’ dissatisfaction with the experts I speak you listen style was a normal reaction. The experts weren’t accustomed to talking with youths because the were shackled by thousands of years of Chinese “moral code, teaching and corrections”.  Today is different from the past. Science is taking off, knowledge and perspectives are rapidly changing, the generation gap is increasingly obvious, and study, especially youth’s creativity is more valued than before. This is the background for ideologis of equality and democracy to challenge “respect for teachers”. Traditional “moral code” and “correction” authority are greatly weakening. They are being replaced by dialogue and communication. Special Zone youths are located in a region where the commodity economy is more developed, and more of their perspectives have changed. The commodity economy is essencially replete with ideologies of equality and democracy, which makes them yearn for equal dialogue. This is natural. There’s no need to make mountains out of molehills. In contrast, political thought work must adapt to these changes and strive to renew perspectives, only then will they be able to communicate with youths.  If one’s own thinking is insufficiantly liberated, demanding that others submit, assuming the position of master teacher, not listening to different opinions, in the end one can only “collide”.  Comrade Li Yanjie and the others have done examplary youth work in the past, improving older thought education. And this is precisely why their tempest with the youths has such representative significance.


4 Comments

  1. [...] like him whose souls shine.With these letters in hand, she scrambled her way to Guangdong and then Shekou, preparing to look for Yuan Geng. She hid on and island for half a month, then went to Hong Kong as [...]

  2. [...] alternative ideas. The Top Ten discussion of “Empty talk” introduces the history of the Shekou Storm. At the time, Yuan Geng emphasized that while Beijing officials blathered on about ideology, Shekou [...]

  3. [...] empty talk in response to Beijing educators who claimed that Shekou youth were gold diggers (Shekou Storm 1988). First time round, empty talk actually supported alternative voices. However, Yuan Geng made [...]

  4. [...] “the clean government storm (廉政风暴)”, another reference to the Shekou Model, the Shekou Storm of 1988, when Yuan Geng protected students from investigation by visiting Beijing [...]

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