Moral freedom

In Moral China in the Age of Reform, Ci Jiwei, Professor of Philosophy at Chinese University of Hong Kong, explains that Chinese do not have moral freedom.  His detailed explanation should be required reading for all China observers.

 What does it mean that Chinese don’t have moral freedom?

 Ai Fen is a doctor in the emergency department of Wuhan Central Hospital.  She was the first medical person to tell the world about the virus.  She got the nickname whistle blower for being the first to tell other hospital doctors – including Li Wenliang, one of the first doctors to die.  Her story is in some detail here.

In interviews, she talked about being threatened by the hospital party leader and head of the jian cha ke, the hospital version of the jiwei, the feared CCP Discipline Inspection department.  The leader said that she lost face in Wuhan city government meetings, because of what Ai Fen had said publicly.  The party leader accused Ai Fen of hurting the overall development of Wuhan City, and destroying all the improvements the hospital Party leader had made over the prior years.  According to Ai –

After the interview, I suffered an unprecedented and very severe rebuke.

At that time, the leader of the conversation said, “We can’t afford to raise our heads when we go out for a meeting. The director of XX criticizes our hospital.

Ai was threatened with spreading rumors, for which she could go to jail.  The party leader, incidentally, refused to let doctors and nurses wear masks early in the epidemic – she would lose face and she said, masks would scare patients.  She did not appear in the hospital emergency department until mid-March, when there was a big showy meeting with leaders.  She wore full protective equipment then.  More than 200 – some say, 300 – of the hospital staff are still in treatment for the virus. 

Ai Fen’s story in her own words is at Science Integrity Digest.

Ai Fen walked out dazed and shaken from this criticism meeting with her leaders.  She had never been threatened before.  She is a medical doctor, with many years of schooling and she is, as they say in China, a really excellent person.  But after this warning, this threat, she remained quiet - until her later public interviews.

Two questions – why did Ai Fen – clearly a smart, well educated, thoughtful person - think that these wild accusations about harming the GDP of Wuhan were any of her affair, or even remotely her doing?   Why could she not respond to the Party leader – figuratively, of course – with a personally directed expletive?

A couple of ideas – Ai Fen is an excellent person.  All her life, she was told how to be a good daughter, a good student – primary school, high school, university, medical school – the emphasis was always on being the best.  On the one hand, nothing wrong with incentive and initiative.  But “being the best” also meant being a good soldier, a good Party member, do what you are told and – in one of my most hated phrases in Chinese – meiyou wenti – no questions.  One could not advance in school without learning to mouth the right answer.  Her salary, advancement, stature would depend not only on her excellence, but on her relationship with leaders.  Obey authority is the idea.

What meiyou wenti means is that Ai Fen could not develop the courage make choices for herself about moral questions – what is right, what is wrong, truth, falsity.  She was always told the correct answer, and there was no room for debate.  Wo bi xu zuo -  I must do it.  Making these judgments requires experience, and she did not have it.  Her reaction, though troubling to her, was to obey.

When presented with the virus diagnosis in December, she did the professional thing – circulate information to her colleagues.  This is science at its best – share information, seek the truth. This, however, was a political error – in CCP terms, an error in moral judgment.  When confronted by the leaders, she then chose to remain silent.

When confronted with power, she could only be in fear of what could happen to her personally from her inexperienced action. As a doctor, she always concentrated on her studies and her work. She was always shielded from the world of real power.  She is young, with two small kids, one a year old.  Jail?  Simply disappear?  She warned her husband after the severe reprimand -

I went home that night, I remember quite clearly, and told my husband after entering the door, if something went wrong, you can raise the child. Because my second treasure is still very young, only over 1 year old.

Most Chinese never have to deal with issues of moral freedom.  They have the luxury of living life, going to work, going to school, going shopping without having to confront issues of right or wrong, truth or falsity and making considered moral judgments – even voting or choosing what can be said or printed. That is what CCP wants.  Others – journalists, writers, artists, social scientists, intellectuals of all stripes – confront lack of moral freedom in some way every day.  In Wuhan, moral freedom came for Ai Fen.  With the interviews, Ai Fen found courage. She rose above CCP, and gained moral stature- not in CCP, but in eyes of the world.