Officials are allowed to be despots in China

A well-known Chinese saying describes official despotism very well by saying, “Only the official is allowed to set fire, but the common people are not allowed to light lanterns.”

The saying originated from the true story of a prefectural governor named Deng in the Song Dynasty when it was a crime to use the characters in an emperor’s name in writing while those similar in sound were not allowed to use in speaking.

Like lots of officials in feudal China, the governor regarded himself as a local emperor with similar authority in his jurisdiction. As soon as he took office, he posted an announcement banning the use of “deng”.

The officials under him were in trouble at Lantern Festival when fire-prevention ban on lighting lanterns all night long should be lifted for three days. They had to post an announcement to allow people to light lanterns for three days, but they could not use the word lantern that contained the sound “deng” in Chinese. Finally a clever official found a way out, he used “set fire” to replace “light lantern”. The announcement then read, “It is Lantern Festival (yuanxiao in Chinese that does not contain the sound of deng) now. People are allowed to set fire for three days.”

A traveling scholar passing by found the announcement absurd and asked and learnt the reason why people were allowed to “set fire” instead of lighting lanterns. With indignation, he wrote on the lower part of the announcement: “Only the official is allowed to set fire, but the common people are not allowed to light lanterns.”

What he wrote soon became a very popular saying in describing an official’s irrational words or deed.

Official despotism has been so common in China that it can even be regarded as an established Chinese tradition. Chinese people shed blood to carry out a democratic and then a communist revolution with elimination of official despotism as one of their major goals, but Chiang Kai-shek and Mao soon turned the regimes set up after the revolutions into lots of central and local despotisms.

Before the Anti-Rightist Campaign, the Party secretary of my secondary school Mr. Lu Zhu was a very kind person. He respected the teachers and loved the students. In 1956, Shanghai City’s Education Bureau decided to learn from the Soviet Union that the school year examination should cover all those taught in the whole school year, but there was the established practice that such examination only covered the recent half-year term.

Seeing that the City’s decision brought too much pressure on the students, Mr. Lu decided that there should be a transitional period of one year for students to be prepared for such kind of examination. He announced that the coming examination should cover only half a year and the examination covering the whole year should be conducted in the next school year.

However, the Bureau did not approve Lu’s decision and Lu was forced to revoke his decision. The students in my class protested against Lu’s revocation strongly as we failed to review those taught in the first term due to Lu’s decision though we had enough time to review it then. However, when the decision was revoked later, we did not have time for the review.

To silence our protests, Mr. Lu invited us the students who took an active part in the protest to his home. He was very kind and tried hard to persuade us. He said he could not disobey the Bureau’s order, but would still reduce the pressure on his students. He said that he would give an order that the part of the first term in our examinations should account for less than 15% and would tell teachers to help students review the part that will be examined. We were all persuaded by his sincerity.

However, after the Anti-Rightist Campaign, Mr. Lu became another person, a despot in the school used to denounce teachers and students whenever something irregular had been found in them.

I sometimes wonder whether there is despotism in the blood of a Chinese including me. I am scared at the very thought of it.

When I learnt the stories of tiger mother and wolf father, I realised that the problem lied in China’s tradition of parents acting like tyrants and children acting like blindly obedient subjects. That was why I placed my post “Tiger Mom and Wolf Dad Teaches Blind Obedience to Tyranny” on February 1.

The most serious problem in China now is that too many officials are despots. They grab people’s land and deprive people of their rights at will.

You find the persecution of Chen Guangcheng unbelievable in a country that claims to have the rule of law and respect human rights, but officials in China from top to bottom seem to regard it as not a big problem and the despots remain arrogant and continue to persecute Chen’s relatives while the higher authority has no desire to punish them. They all seem to get used to despotism!

In another post on May 25, I told the story of toxic soy sauce made of industrial salt, but according to Ming Pao’s report today, the official in charge of testing the soy sauce said that all such sauce was up to the standards though he knew well that the sauce had been made of industrial salt banned by the State for use in food industry. Poor Chinese people, you have to take toxic food as your despotic officials have the power to regard toxic food as food up to the standards.

That was a minor despot. The bigger despots, such as Bo Xilai sending a blogger to labour camp for mocking him (as described in “Blogger Sent to Labor Camp for Mocking Bo Xilai Seeks Redress”), are of much greater concern.

Categories: Human Rights & Social Issues

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6 replies


  1. A lantern festival with no lanterns « Tom Bradman
  2. May 27 2012 China Daily Mail Headlines « Craig Hill
  3. Rule of law a long way away « China Daily Mail
  4. Qiao Shi’s book rouses demand for judicial independance « China Daily Mail
  5. Qiao Shi’s book rouses demand for judicial independence in China « China Daily Mail
  6. In China, officials are always correct; two true stories of despotism « China Daily Mail

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