Thursday, January 23, 2014
In a puzzlingly familiar pattern, the authorities in Xu Zhiyong's trial - who after all control the outcome - have gone out of their way to avoid even the appearance of fairness. According to the New York Times, the court told Xu and his lawyers that no prosecution witnesses would appear in court to be cross-examined, and Xu would not be allowed to present any witnesses of his own. The response of Xu was to remain silent and refuse to present a defense. Nevertheless, he did attempt to make a closing statement, which was stopped by the court after ten minutes. Here it is: Chinese | English.
On another listserv of which I'm a member, there's been some discussion of whether Xu can be called a "moderate" and whether his recent actions have been a strategic mistake.
If you read anything Xu Zhiyong has written, including his closing statement above, or consider the actions he has taken, it’s hard to see why the word “moderate” should not apply. What is immoderate and extremist are the government’s actions against him and others like him. I cannot see any reason to call Xu immoderate unless anything that gets you persecuted is by definition immoderate. That logic would make it impossible to conclude that governments ever persecute moderates, and so doesn’t seem very helpful as a tool of social science analysis, in addition to its unacceptable moral privileging of governments over their opponents.
A discussion about whether Xu made some kind of strategic mistake seems to me to miss the point of what Xu is doing and why he is doing it. He is not engaging in some kind of Chicago-school cost-benefit analysis; who would be an activist and oppose this government on rational cost-benefit grounds? The collective action problems are insurmountable. I have met Xu only a few times and can’t claim intimate knowledge of what motivates him, but my own take is that he does what he does because he feels he must, and cannot do otherwise. This accounts for his calm and steadfastness in the face of intense pressure, and explains why he inspires such fear and loathing in the mighty state. I’m not suggesting he doesn’t have a healthy streak of pragmatism as well, but in many cases analyzing what people like him do in terms of tactical or strategic mistakes will miss the point, since they aren’t trying to avoid “mistakes.” We don’t analyze why people tip at restaurants they’ll never go back to by (a) assuming they believe it will somehow benefit them down the road, and then (b) asking whether that belief is mistaken. Same here.