By Wang Yong
If big-mouth scholars get away without rebuke for their irresponsible speeches, China may well be headed into a second round of intellectual devaluation in around half a century.
The worth of intellectual attainments first faded during the "cultural revolution" (1966-1976) when intellectuals were condemned to be choulaojiu (literally "stinking ninth level") - almost the lowest rank in society.
This political humiliation ended and intellectuals regained their dignity shortly after the "cultural revolution" ended. Today, professors are among the most-respected and best-paid people in China.
Knowledge is power. No country thrives by throttling its intellectuals.
But today some Chinese professors have degraded genuine knowledge, common sense and integrity ?? this time without any external pressure, but out of their own free will. They've willingly sold their souls and abandoned their conscience when they speak publicly.
Sun Dongdong, an associate professor at the Law School of Beijing University, apologized on Monday for his "careless" published comments in March when he described the majority of the country's petitioners as "paranoiacs." Sun holds a degree in medicine.
His apology rang hollow. "I regret that my improper statements have caused controversies and misunderstandings. I would sincerely apologize to anyone if my statements have hurt their feelings," he said in a statement to China News Service.
Many people are angry, and justifiably so. There's no need to use "if" to qualify a fact.
And how could there be "misunderstandings" of "improper statements"? An "improper" statement is improper - that's all, no misunderstanding.
In the March 23 issue of China Newsweek, Sun told the magazine: "My word upon it: 99 percent, if not 100 percent, of all the regular petitioners have mental problems - they are paranoiacs."
In that interview, Sun gave the example of a woman in Shaanxi Province, whose husband, a miner, died in the 1960s of lung cancer. She insisted her husband died at work and demanded due compensation.
Sun said she has been "making a fuss" since the 1960s, although local authorities confirmed that her husband died a natural death, not caused by workplace hazards.
Sun said her employer and her daughter then sent her to a mental hospital. Later her son returned from Guangdong Province and took his mother back home. The son then sued the hospital, his sister and his mother's employer. A local court ruled in favor of the son.
Sun said: "That was absolutely a wrong judgment, one that stemmed from the judges' ignorance about mental health."
How could he prove the judges' ignorance? He did not say in the interview, nor in the latest apology. Even though that woman's husband died a "natural death" - he did not perish in a mining accident - his lungs must have been affected by the mining work. That's common sense.
Even if it was extremely difficult to prove a causal relationship between the choking work in a mine and her husband's death, Sun should at least have demonstrated sympathy toward the hapless and hopeless woman, rather than calling her an example of paranoia. For although a causal relationship in that case may have been hard to prove, it was equally hard to disprove.
Unlike many other scholars who always follow the money in calling white black, it was unclear whether Sun had a monetary motive in such comments. Whatever, he did not follow his conscience, if he had one.
In a statement to a newspaper published yesterday, Sun said China Newsweek had misquoted him.
According to this statement, Sun didn't say 99 percent of all regular petitioners are paranoiacs, but only 99 percent of those whom he has met are mentally disabled, their judgment unreliable. This version of apology was no apology at all. Even if only 99 percent of those he has met are seriously paranoid, it's wrong to dismiss their cases as invalid. He said in the March 23 interview: "Paranoiacs need to be hospitalized by force, otherwise they will disturb social order."
In this sweeping and arrogant statement, he appeared to rule out the possibility that some petitioners might well have a strong case, even if they were mentally unbalanced.
He didn't believe that a mentally unbalanced person might well have been unfairly treated or that gross injustice and lack of redress might well have turned the person from normal to abnormal.
His comments have the effect of supporting those who would stand in the way of redress of grievances, those who want to diminish the credibility of all petitioners. Throngs of petitioners, after all, don't look good.
In fact, Li Zhuhong, an official with the Ministry of Public Security, said on March 12 that the majority of the country's petitioners were poor and powerless farmers who had strong cases.
And don't forget that famous saying: "Just because I'm paranoid doesn't mean they're not after me."
Sun is the latest in a bunch of professors - be they psychiatrists or economists or historians - who have sold their souls one way or another at a time when China is accommodating more and more different voices.
If you study China's real estate industry, you will find many big-mouth economists who try to babble away real housing bubbles because they have been paid by developers.
American Justice Louis Brandeis said in 1927: "Freedom to think as you will and to speak as you think are means indispensable to the discovery and spread of political truth."
But whose voices are louder? Those of the big-mouths, or of the rank-and-file? If the big-mouths walk away unchastised and spout damaging nonsense again and again, what's the use of the free speech for the minnows?
(Shanghai Daily April 8, 2009)