Wanting Change, Chinese Get on Their Knees: Adam Minter

a | A

By Adam Minter

What does a citizen in today's China have to do to capture the attention and empathy of local government officials? He or she might organize a petition or a march. Or, following the recent example of a group of university professors in Hubei Province, the citizen can get on his or her knees.


On Nov. 1, a group of professors from Yangtze University in the city of Jingzhou gathered some students, made some protest banners and then headed downtown. There, they did something that absolutely rocked China’s media and netizens: They knelt down before city hall to protest the debilitating effects of pollution coming from a nearby steel mill.

The sorry tale began in 2007, when Jingzhou Chuhang Special Steel Products Co., Ltd decided to build the unlicensed mill 100 meters from the gates of Yangtze University. Faculty and students complained to the local government about its construction; in return, they received silence. Soon, the mill began operations, swallowing scrap metal and then spitting out steel and smog. Yangtze University students and faculty soon developed sore throats and coughs -- even cases of leukemia were reported on campus. The steel mill's managers, however, took no heed, much less action to stem the pollution.

Throughout 2007, the university’s faculty filed eight petitions with the local, provincial and national governments, asking that the unlicensed factory be shut down. The mill's managers, confident in their close relationship with local government officials and their shared commitment to economic development, continued operating, and polluting. Chinese government officials, at all levels, looked the other way.

Jingzhou’s professors, however, would not be deterred. A decade ago, before the advent of social media networks and a 24-hour news cycle in China, the Nov. 1 kneeling protest may have never received attention. But the professors brought cameras, and soon images of the protest were featured in newspapers and microblogs, horrifying netizens and journalists raised in a culture where, for centuries, it was believed that scholars knelt for nobody.

Liu Yuan, a popular newspaper columnist, tweeted on Sina Weibo, China’s largest microblog:

We should never propagate this kind of feudal signal. A hundred years has passed since the Revolution of 1911. If we think of ourselves as an ignorant common people as low as dirt, instead of as citizens of a modern society, officials will treat us with even more disregard.

Equally disgusted was Wang Quanjie, a local government official and university professor from Shandong Province. He also took to Weibo to vent his anger. His was aimed not at the Yangtze University professors for getting on their knees but at a society and government that would lower a traditionally respected class to supplicants. He wrote:

Kneeling professors: the weak’s only resort in the face of bureaucracy and strong power; kneeling professors: a shame of history, society and country.

Kneeling, in Chinese culture, is a complex social act with multiple layers of meaning. It is typically a sign of respect and entreaty reserved for those to whom gratitude and obligation is felt, such as government officials, parents and –- traditionally –- a wife to her husband. In an influential 2010 essay, “The Resurgence of Chinese Kneeling Culture,” commentator Li Nuoyen parsed three types of kneeling:

A kneel to bow is etiquette which lowly beings perform for noble beings, and it has the meaning of respect; kneeling to thank is the most profound body language for expressing appreciation, and it has a commendatory meaning; kneeling to beg is a kind of helplessness and surrendering, with a derogatory meaning.

Recently, the Chinese press ran photos of parents kneeling in gratitude before a woman who helped their injured daughter, and another of a mother who knelt with a critically injured son in her arms, asking for help. The images are disturbing because of the circumstances of the kneelers, but these voluntary instances of kneeling -- Li's second and third types -- are rather uncontroversial by contemporary Chinese standards.

However, over the last eighteen months, there have been other high-profile instances of Chinese students being forced to kneel in front of their teachers. These stories and images have caused intense reactions among Chinese netizens.

In some cases, the students were forced to kneel as a punishment. (In one prominent case, they were forced to write confessions while supplicating themselves.) In others, students kneeled at high school graduations or on the occasion of teacher’s day to show gratitude to their superiors. In the cases that hit the press, repercussions often followed, including terminations of school administrators and teachers for making the students kneel. In one recent case, a student who exposed kneeling as forced punishment at her school was expelled.

It is the third type of kneel Li Nuoyen described, a begging kneel, that was clearly on the minds of Jingzhou’s professors when they appeared at city hall on Nov 1. They had solid precedent: Last April, in the northern Chinese county of Zhuanghe, more than a thousand poor villagers knelt in front of their city hall in protest, hoping the mayor would dismiss allegedly corrupt local leaders. The mayor refused. But then, images of the protest circulated online and in the mainstream media, casting the mayor as an unsympathetic, unresponsive leader. It was an embarrassment to a Communist Party that still fancies itself a populist organization. Not long after, the mayor of Zhuanghe was fired.

Predictably, the Jingzhou government’s reaction to the kneeling professors was less than enthusiastic. One  photo shows a bureaucrat in a heated argument with the professors. Some media accounts claimed that he told the group, “If you want clean air, you should move to Africa.” Other reports, however, disputed that the bureaucrat said this. Whatever the response was, it was already too late from a public relations standpoint: News and images of the kneeling professors quickly circulated widely online, stirring up much sympathy for them before the Jingzhou government could formulate an acceptable response.

Zhang Ming, a professor of politics at Beijing’s prestigious Renmin University, asked on Sina Weibo:

Is there any good method for them except kneeling? Is there any good method for anyone in front of arrogant and indifferent power? Can you think of another good idea to handle the situation when you are bullied with no place to turn?

Likewise, when ifeng.com, the online counterpart to Hong Kong’s Phoenix TV, asked its largely Mainland audience whether they agreed or disagreed with the professors’ decision to kneel, roughly 60 percent of the more than 65,000 respondents agreed. Of those, almost half explicitly affirmed the statement that “kneeling can attract the public and media to put pressure on the local government.”

Most netizens and newspaper editorialists also interpreted the kneeling professors as media savvy social networkers with a worthy cause.“The professors' kneeling is helpful insofar as it is so shameful, so astonishing and so eye-catching,” wrote an editorialist with the Guangzhou Daily. “To a certain extent, it is like performance art.”

To be sure, many disagreed with the action, seeing it as lowering the status of intellectuals while raising the pride of local government officials -- who are, indisputably, the most despised class in contemporary China.

In the end, the kneeling protest may be futile. Despite a Nov. 3 order from the city government to shut down entirely, Jingzhou Chuhang Special Steel Products Co., Ltd. continues to partially operate its mill. And according to several media reports, economic development-minded local government officials have suggested that Yangtze University,  rather than the steel mill, should relocate.

(Adam Minter is the Shanghai correspondent for the World View blog. The opinions expressed are his own.)

To contact the author of this blog post: Adam Minter at ShanghaiScrap@gmail.com

To contact the editor responsible for this post: Katherine Brown at kbrown114@bloomberg.net

-0- Nov/10/2011 22:55 GMT