The Best China
In the first installment of The Best China, a China Heritage series focussed on Hong Kong launched on 1 July 2017, we introduced readers to recent commentaries written by the veteran journalist Lee Yee 李怡 (李秉堯).
Founding editor of The Seventies Monthly 七十年代月刊 (later renamed The Nineties Monthly) Lee Yee has been a prominent commentator on Chinese, Hong Kong and Taiwan politics, as well as the global scene, for over fifty years. His position has gone from that of being a sympathetic interlocutor with the People’s Republic during the 1970s to that of outspoken rebel and man of conscience from the early 1980s. For decades, Lee has analysed Hong Kong politics and society with a clarity of vision, and in a clarion voice, rare among the territory’s writers. The essays by Lee Yee that we translated in China Heritage are from ‘Ways of the World’ 世道人生, the regular column Lee wrote for Jimmy Lai’s Apple Daily 蘋果日報.
On 31 March 2021, Lee Yee told his readers that the changed circumstances in Hong Kong, and his advanced age, had led him to decide to cease publication of ‘Ways of the World’. From mid April, Lee began publishing a new series of interconnected essays under the title Reminiscences of One of the Defeated 失敗者回憶錄.
In mid April, Margaret Ng 吳靄儀, an old friend of Lee Yee’s, a former Hong Kong lawmaker, barrister and veteran Civic Party member, was one of the nine democrats convicted of organising and participating in a peaceful protest on 18 August 2019. She was given a twelve-month sentence, which was suspended for twenty-four months.
The mitigation plea that Ng addressed to the court has been widely circulated internationally. Sebastian Veg suggested that China Heritage should publish a translation of Lee Yee’s farewell essay, and we do so with a heavy heart.
— Geremie R. Barmé
Editor, China Heritage
24 April 2021
- Lee Yee 李怡, ‘The Road Not Taken by Margaret Ng 吳靄儀, China Heritage, 24 April 2020
- Margaret Ng 吳靄儀, ‘Hong Kong 攬炒 — Burning Down the House’, China Heritage, 1 May 2020
- Margaret Ng’s Mitigation Plea, Hong Kong Free Press, 16 April 2021
Selected Essays by Lee Yee in China Heritage:
- Lee Yee 李怡, ‘Endgame Hong Kong’, China Heritage, 5 July 2019
- Lee Yee 李怡, ‘Young Hong Kong’, China Heritage, 16 July 2019
- Lee Yee 李怡, ‘Hong Kong Goes Grey for a Day’, China Heritage, 20 July 2019
- Lee Yee 李怡, ‘This is Who We Are — We Are Hong Kong’, China Heritage, 22 July 2019
- Lee Yee 李怡, ‘Living and Learning in Hong Kong 2019’, China Heritage, 29 July 2019
- Lee Yee 李怡, ‘Back in the Year — Hong Kong 1984’, China Heritage, 31 July 2019
- Lee Yee 李怡, ‘Restoring Hong Kong, Revolution of Our Times’, China Heritage, 6 August 2019
- Lee Yee 李怡, ‘The Mission of Our Times in Hong Kong’, China Heritage, 28 August 2019
- Lee Yee 李怡, ‘Superfluous Words’, China Heritage, 20 November 2019
- Lee Yee 李怡, ‘The End of Hong Kong’s Third Way’, China Heritage, 22 April 2020
- Lee Yee 李怡 & The Editor, ‘Jimmy Lai, the Twilight of Freedom & the Dawn of “Legalistic-Fascist-Stalinism” 法日斯 in Hong Kong’, China Heritage, 12 August 2020
On Reaching Eighty Five
On 14 April 2021, Lee Yee celebrated his eighty-fifth birthday. He marked the occasion by quoting passages from some of his old essays, including one published on the occasion of his eightieth birthday in April 2019. In it he said that the birthday gift that had the greatest impact on his life was The Complete Works of Lu Xun, which his father had given to him on his sixteenth birthday. He then quoted the following passage from ‘Random Thoughts: Thirty Eight’, an essay that Lu Xun published in 1918:
The Chinese have always tended towards self-importance, sadly, it has manifested as a kind of ‘collective patriotic afflatus’ rather than being a sense of the individual’s self-worth. This is why in the wake of the country’s failure to compete culturally with outsiders, it has proved itself to be unequal to the task of being able to get a grip and make noteworthy advances.
A true sense of self-worth is a form of individualism that is nothing less than a unilateral declaration of war on the common crowd. Apart from those with what the psychologists call delusions of grandeur, the kind of self-importance I’m speaking about here is the reflection of a particular kind of genius. —— According to physicians like Max Simon Nordau, one symptom is a measure of sublime arrogance. Individuals thus possessed are convinced that their ideas are superior to yet misunderstood by the common herd. That’s why they display a contempt for the world and its ways. Over time they become habituated to such a disposition and may well end up being regarded as ‘Enemies of the People’. The truth of the matter, however, is that they are the source of all truly innovative ideas; all reforms, be they in the political or religious realm, originate with them. That’s why a nation that can boast many such self-important individualists is truly fortunate.
Conversely, the ‘self-importance of the crowd’, as well as the ‘afflatus of patriots’ reflects a demeanor that demands compliance and outlaws difference. It is one that declares war on the small number of uniquely gifted individuals in their midst. —— & it’s something that takes precedence over declaring war on the civilisations of other nations. They lack any talent worthy of boasting about to others, and so they use this country as a shadow, a feint: they raise a great hue and cry about the so-called ingrained habits and system of this place, heaping them with praise. Since their ‘national essence’ is so wondrous they naturally bask in its reflected glory! When they encounter an attack they feel no need to take up cudgels for they conceal their vulgar gesture in the shadow; they have countless stratagems at their disposal and the wiles of the mob which, under the guise of distracting clamour, they lay claim to a pyrrhic victory.
Victory is ours, because I am part of the crowd. Even if we are defeated, since there are so many of us, I won’t necessarily lose out myself and, when a mob creates one of those inevitable disturbances, that’s exactly how everyone thinks. It’s a collective and individual mindset. It may, for all intents and purposes, appear as if they are launching a furious action, but they are really cowards. As for what comes of all the hubbub — a restoration of the past, a newly discovered adulation of autocrats, support for the stricken empire and a desire to obliterate foreigners, and so on and so forth — we’ve all seen just where that leads. That’s why a country that boasts about its crowds of ‘patriotic masses’ is but a pitiable place and a most unfortunate nation!
Are these the words of some contemporary writer? No: they were written over a century ago, by Lu Xun on 15 November 1918, and published under the title ‘Random Thoughts: Thirty Five’, one of the essays collected in the volume Hot Air.
I quote this passage here to illustrate the fact that a commentary by Lu Xun like this is as relevant today as it was a century ago It also illustrates why the essays and fiction of a writer who was praised by Mao Zedong in Yan’an [in the early 1940s] are now gradually being excised from high-school textbooks in China. The roots of Chinese autocracy past and present grow out of what Lu Xun called here ‘collective patriotic afflatus’. It’s a form of hubris that the power-holders manipulate in order to maintain the support of the supine majority. Thus it was before and so it continues to be today.
The Sweet Sorrow of Parting
Lee Yee 李怡
translated & annotated by Geremie R. Barmé
I am hereby bidding farewell to ‘Ways of the World’, the series of essays that I started writing for Apple Daily in 2016. While I am loath to take my leave of all of the readers who have supported my column over the years, I fear that the time has come for me to bid you all adieu. Given the unpredictable state of human affairs there’s no telling whether we might be able to meet again in this way. The undeniable reality for a person in their eighties like me is that it’s doubtful that many new opportunities to write commentaries on current affairs will readily present themselves.
Given that we are living at a time in which all kinds of conspiracy theories flourish, I feel I must make it absolutely clear that last year when I reduced the number of commentaries I wrote each week from five to three, I was doing so entirely of my own volition. Apple Daily didn’t pressure me to do so nor, for that matter, was it a response to the slings and arrows of those who wished me ill. After all, in a writing career that has spanned some sixty years, I’ve never been in want of critics. Having said that, I should add that, nonetheless, I am now confronted by another, undeniable and implacable pressure. With the imposition of the Hong Kong National Security Law on 1 July 2020, political commentators like me can no longer expect to enjoy the protection of the law. This has been truly an unprecedented development.
In my previous essay [‘Why I Love Martha Gellhorn’ 愛上何桂藍, Apple Daily, 29 March 2021], I observed that this is an age in which ‘everyone can say everything about some things, while other matters have become completely unspeakable’. We are living with absurdity; we have witnessed a Hong Kong that always enjoyed the benefits of the rule of law and rational civic life disappear before our very eyes. The nature and meaning of what has been happening is obvious to all, and everyone is equally a critic of the realities of our situation, no matter how minuscule.
[As Lee Yee wrote in that earlier essay:
‘You don’t need to be a specialist or a political commentator to be able to analyse what’s really going on. Everyone can tell you just how farcical things have become; everyone knows that even the women and men in power don’t believe the grandiose things they say.’
Given this situation, what good is a commentator like me?
The very fabric of our society has been rent; pro-Beijing and pro-Hong Kong camps remain at loggerheads. Meanwhile, in the United States, conservatives and members of the liberal elite are as divided as ever. The political commentariat and the witterings of those known as ‘key opinion leaders’ continue to flourish and they circulate entirely independently of one another, garnering droves of partisan likes and followers in the process. Warring camps endlessly find fault with each other and reject things despite being presented with incontrovertible evidence to the contrary. Rational exchange between differing parties is well nigh impossible and all attempts at persuasion have become futile.
Even when I went to considerable lengths to back up arguments with historical facts in the essays I wrote for ‘Ways of the World’ I did, at best, only manage to bolster the views of people who already agree with me and was powerless to influence the intransigent in any way. These days, everyone has an opinion about just about everything, and they are unstinting with their criticism.
Then there’s all the things that people simply can’t talk about anymore. Here in Hong Kong people are afraid of a legal system that they know will no long protect basic civic rights. America, along with the West as a whole, is now regularly decried as being ‘politically incorrect’. What in the past would be thought of as being a statement of the obvious is now regarded as positively daring here in Hong Kong, while in America it is decried as being ‘discriminatory’.
[In the essay ‘Why I Love Martha Gellhorn’ Lee Yee remarked that:
‘The reality about “those things that can no longer be said” affects both what appears in the mainstream media as well as on social media. The vagaries of the National Security Law can be deployed and the proliferation of red lines that cannot be crossed means that no one can be sure how things might be dealt with either by the police or by the law courts. The taboos are not limited to the print media for even the arts are now embroiled, as has been the case with the contemporary art museum M+ which has been accused of “insulting national dignity”. And the official pro-Beijing media has decried the [award-winning] documentary film “Inside the Red Brick Wall” for “disseminating sentiments invidious to the state”, leading to the film being banned. ….
‘Then there are all the words and expressions that have now been rendered unsayable, like “Restore Hong Kong, Revolution of Our Time” and “Bring Back the Glory of Hong Kong”. Even the rallying cry people use at sports events like “Go For It, Hong Kong!” is verboten. If, over time, Hong Kong is reduced to the level of the Mainland then such things as freedom, democracy, the rule of law, the Communist Party, Winnie the Pooh and Cuicui [both lampooning references to Xi Jinping] will also become taboo, and new homophones and strange expressions will crop up all the time, none of which most Hong Kong people can understand. Banning what can be said is a wilful form of self-delusion; after all, not only will the things that people really want to say still exist, they will surge mightily in people’s hearts and minds regardless of all attempts to suppress them. …’
— 世道人生：愛上何桂藍, 29 March 2021]
Over the decades I have always done my level best to write the truth, to express my views clearly and in terms of what could be appreciated as a common sense approach. Now, however, what I have to say can no longer be said. In fact, I recently re-read the four essays by the philosopher Hsü Fu-kuan on the topic of ‘the greatness of normality’ [which he wrote some forty years ago shortly before his death]. I appreciate more than ever his view that when societies oppose tradition in their quest for the ‘extraordinary’ they invariably fall prey to ‘abnormality’. [This is a play on the words 正常，非常，反常.]
[For Hsü’s essays, see here]
Apart from the things that are allowed to be said, the nature of the authoritarianism that I’ve been writing about for all of these decades is the same as it ever was, and what I have to say about it all pretty much amounts to the same thing. To keep on writing in this vein is boring, even for me. As for those things that are ‘no longer allowed to be said’, whatever one writes or says in Hong Kong now can suddenly end up with you falling foul of the law, or it may well lead your being ‘ensnared in the net of words’.
Another equally cogent reason for my decision to stop writing commentaries on current affairs is that I am, after all, eighty-five years old. In the past, I could dash off a piece in one go, but these days even searching through reference materials has become a struggle; moreover, I’m constantly worried that I’ll end up repeating what I’ve said before. The truth of the matter is that neither my mind nor my body are up to it any more.
It’s three years since I announced that I was going to cut back on the time I spent writing about current affairs so that I could focus on writing my memoirs. But that plan was frustrated by the unfolding situation in Hong Kong, one which inspired me to write about the here and now. That, in turn, forced me to reflect on and reconsider my previous stance regarding a number of things. [See, for example, Lee Yee, ‘Restoring Hong Kong, Revolution of Our Times’, China Heritage, 6 August 2019.]
During 2020, the pandemic and the presidential election in America became a new focus of my attention and both had an impact on my writing, right up to the point that a value system [that underpinned free speech] that I had always sought to defend was completely undone. The media freedom that I had so valued in America proved to be unable to withstand the depredations of elite liberal currents of thought [that advocate a ‘cancel culture’] and corporate politics. Although I had devoted myself to supporting the ‘conservatism of the normal’, left-leaning simpletons disparaged my efforts, despite what I was really trying to say.
My credo has always been to engage actively with contemporary life even while maintaining an overall pessimistic outlook on how things would turn out. Now my pessimism has soured into hopelessness and I am confronted by the fact that the concept of freedom of speech that I have supported and pursued throughout my writing career has been undone by brute shamelessness.
You see, there is a breed of self-appointed leftist that rejects the idea that we should stand up for the rights of those with whom we disagree. Daresay, people of that ilk will be delighted to learn of the demise of my column ‘Ways of the World’.
Bidding farewell to this column does not, however, mean that I am giving up writing altogether. After a short period of adjustment, I plan to sally forth again. I will compose a series of essays in which I will present to my devoted readers an account of what has proven to be a lifetime of failure.
But here I will conclude by drawing once more on Lu Xun who provides an apt epitaph for this, the final essay in ‘Ways of the World’:
Through my literary efforts I became ensnared in the net of words;
Defying the commonplace I offended prevailing sentiment.
Their slanders might threaten to dissolve the marrow of my being;
I voiced my thoughts regardless, albeit as a vainglorious gesture.