Banality of Evil

By He Qinglian on June 16, 2013.

Source article in Chinese: 中国“硬币”的两面:独裁之罪与平庸之恶.

Some of the incidents that recently took place in China made me want to write this article. 

Sin of Dictatorship

The people of China have come to understand quite well about the sin of dictatorship. Their different views on Mao Zedong aside, most of them are aware of what dictators like Adolf Hitler, Josef Stalin, Muammar Gaddafi and Kim Jong-Il have done. The evil of dictatorship in real life could easily be identified. The recent arrest of photojournalist Du Bin by Beijing police on the charge of “suspicious of disturbing order in public order” is an example. 

Those who knew the works of Du Bin would see that the authorities do not like Du's works in recent years. From his first book about petitioners, to the more recent ones on the Tiananmen massacre and the dark truth about inmate abuse at Masanjia, Du has become increasingly direct in revealing the ugly side of the Communist regime.

While peoples in democratic countries see freedom of publication and speech as their natural rights, the people of China would still be incarcerated for their criticism of the dark side of society and their political views, and crushed the dictatorial apparatus. This is a typical sin of dictatorship. 

Banality of Evil

But, understanding the sin of dictatorship is one thing, looking deep into the banality of evil is another, and in general, few Chinese people would do so.

The conventional Chinese custom of not holding wrongdoers responsible when they are large in number has degraded into a downward comparison of who is the most evil. As the people completely lost their moral compass, coupled with the canonization of the people of the bottom of society and the hostility toward intellectuals, this type of discussion became immensely difficult.

The term “Banality of evil”, originated from Hannah Arendt’s Eichmann in Jerusalem: A Report on the Banality of Evil, implies that individuals who do not process the ability to think and make judgment independently would be as submissive, insensitive and irresponsible toward power as machine. The Nazi Holocaust is the product of the sin of dictatorship and the banality of evil combined.

The core viewpoint of this book by Arendt is that although great evil is commonplace in history, the Nazi Holocaust was a unique phenomenon. The Holocaust was executed not by radicals or sociopaths but instead by those ordinary persons who considered their own actions normal.

Through her analysis of the behaviors of Adolf Eichmann during the process of mass killing of Jews, Arendt came to an important conclusion that when a totalitarian movement comes, all the people are actually fueling it, either knowingly or unwittingly. 

During the Holocaust, Eichmann signed tens of thousands of orders to execute Jews. It was precisely these orders that brought up to millions of innocent Jews to their miserable death in concentration camps and gas chambers, and their bodies cremated in incinerators. 

Arendt stressed that Eichmann was not a criminal who devoted himself to evil. Rather, he was a person who did not think and had not the ability to tell good from evil. Eichmann was not hideous, cunning, and he was not fierce or imperious either. She argued that probably apart from being very enthusiastic about his own promotion, Eichmann had no other motives. But while this enthusiasm was definitely not a crime per se, it was the cause of his becoming one of the biggest criminals of that time. That, Arendt argued, was banality, a powerful instinct capable of unleashing all vices of man when people were detached from reality and stopped thinking.

Both the history of and the status quo under the governance of the CPC have verified the aforementioned viewpoint. The Anti-Rightist Movement, the Cultural Revolution and all sorts of other mass movements in new China were all the product of the sin of dictatorship and the banality of evil combined. 

If Arendt’s observation that “apart from being very enthusiastic about his promotion” were changed into “apart from being very enthusiastic about making more money” , it would fit perfectly those Chinese who join the legion of fifty centers and those who work as state security agents and hit men of forced demolition teams.

Sin of Dictatorship and Banality of Evil

If the status quo of China were likened as a coin, many would acknowledge one side of the coin: the political institution of one-party dictatorship is the root cause of all social conflicts. However, they are reluctant to face the other side of the coin: the banality of evil constitutes the socio-psychological basis of one-party dictatorship.

What Ye Haiyan and Ai Xiaoming experienced recently could illustrate very well the Chinese banality of evil.

As a result of her protest against child sexual abuse by a principal of an elementary school in Manning, Hainan, Ye was harassed in her own home by a dozen of men and women. 

Instead of holding those harassed Ye responsible, the police put Ye in custody for 13 days. 

Upon her release, up to a hundred locals gathered and started a movement to expel Ye. They held a banner that demanded Ye to get the heck out of Bobai, so that peace and order in the area could be restored.

Both these two groups of people who harassed Ye came from the bottom of society. The first group of people claimed that their business was affected by Ye’s protest, and the second group made a demand that was in line with that of the local authorities.

Allegedly the local authorities want Ye to move out, and so they pressured Ye into doing so by this type of manufactured public opinion. 

It is probable that both groups of people did what they did to get some meager rewards or bounty from the government and they didn’t really know why they were told to take those actions—as was the case when Bo Xilai’s “Sing Red songs” campaigns swept through China, people could get 50 yuan each time their took part in those activities. 

Various Forms of Banality of Evil in China

What was mentioned above illustrated the banality of evil of those at the bottom of society. The ensuing arguments about Ye and Ai reflected the banality of evil in other classes. 

By showing a demonstration card that read: “Principal, leave the students alone. If you want sex, call me”, Ye did indeed draw on her background as a former sex worker in her protest. Possibly with the intention to show Ye’s background did not impair the validity of her protest, professor Ai Xiaoming simply staged a topless protest in solidarity with Ye after she was detained.

Although I do not think these were the best ways to stage protests, I understood the validity of their actions and I had to support them. Many others, I believe, share this view.

Some individuals who appear to be well-meaning, however, deliberately overlook the reason Ye and Ai protested in unconventional manners: to defend the rights and dignity of girls in China, and focused only on the inappropriateness of Ye’s background and Ai’s unconventional way of protest. 

On the surface, it seems that these individuals found it hard to accept that Ms. Ye, a woman who worked as a sex worker before, would become famous by engaging in public welfare undertakings, and they deemed that Ms. Ai, a professor, should not have staged a topless protest; deep down though, they were strangling social conscience with another form of banality of evil.

The Snowden incident and China’s Song of the Animal Farm

The sin of dictatorship and banality of evil had an ensemble in China recently.

Edward Snowden, an American who dislikes the political institution of the United States, chose Hong Kong, a city under the jurisdiction of Beijing as the place of refuge so as to “seek asylum in a country with shared values”. He claimed that the US government is building a mega surveillance apparatus that would crush privacy and accused the US government of being the largest hacker attacking China and other countries.

Reactions of the US to this were different from those of China.

The people in the US demonstrated their ability of independent thinking and quickly calmed down from the initial shock. The sentimental articles of Washington Post in the first few days of this incident failed to guide their opinion. Quite a number of Americans wrote on their blog, re-examining the balance between individual liberty, citizen privacy and state security; a greater number of Americans read again George Orwell’s 1984 to compare the status quo of the US with “Oceania”. I have witnessed discussions like this several times after I came to the US. The likes of this discussion took place after 911 and during the Occupy Wall Street movement.

Whenever major events take place here in the US, it is almost certain that official media outlets in China would be in a carnival. This time it is with no exception. The Global Times and other Chinese state media outlets believed the Snowden incident has debunked the US cloak of freedom and democracy, and proved that the US is the same as China in carrying out all-encompassing surveillance on its people.

The Chinese version of the “Song of the Animal Farm” thus went: US’s surveillance good, China’s surveillance better.

And they bleated that the US has no right to call for internet freedom and that there is also serious political persecution in the US as an American has come to seek refuge in Hong Kong, China.

Fifty centers and their blind followers drew a conclusion from this that all crows in the world are black. The US imposes double standard and the freedom and democracy it holds up is hypocritical. The so-called freedom and democracy is thus not worthy of pursuing. This conclusion is what Beijing would to hear the most. Many individuals who normally see themselves as champions for democracy also joined in making viewpoints like this.

Amid the carnival, none of those who took part in it care to think about the essential differences between PRISM of the US and the Golden Shield Project of China. 

The objectives of PRISM are to combat terrorism, it is to serve the public security purposes of the US, and its legal basis is the PATRIOT Act approved by Congress after 911. 

The Golden Shield Project of China is to guard against all criticism of the government and to maintain stability for the Communist regime. The Chinese government has never told the people the legal basis of its speech surveillance. The fifty centers and the blind followers are lazy enough not to notice that there has not been a case of political persecution in the US after the surveillance project began while China’s internet surveillance project has led to the imprisonment of quite a number of critics.

Mario Vargas Llosa, a Peruvian writer and Laureate of Nobel Prize in Literature, has once said that a dictatorial government tainted and destroyed all aspects of society. Even those things that have nothing to do with politics, even family life, and love, are contaminated. With profession being related to corrupt politics, one has to, like it or not, make moral concessions to survive.

The sin of dictatorship and the banality of evil complement each other. The reason that the dark rule of the CPC could continue to this day and the reason that China’s environment became so appallingly polluted are very much related to the Chinese reluctance in facing their banality of evil.