Subscriber Community Thread (#10)
Comrade Elon; letter from a non-person; the New Imperium reaches Iceland; lazy lumpenbourgeoisie; rich Oxford religious cults and the end of the world
Welcome back to the monthly Upheaval Subscriber Community Thread: always on a different date and time to keep you on your toes.
I don’t have much to update you about here up top this time, other than that the planned essay on Lewis/Tolkien was slightly delayed due to a) my over-ambition making it more complicated than expected, and b) being very nicely asked to contribute something to a print magazine but then having to actually make a deadline. It’s on its way though.
After that I’m itching to turn back to a couple of China-related topics for a bit (though the long-requested Part 3 of the China series will likely wait until after China’s momentous 20th Party Congress this fall is over and we know more about what the next five years of Chinese politics might bring).
Anyway, as usual, here are a few suggestions, excerpts, and comments for you on some of the most interesting things I’ve read recently (as always please leave your own suggestions in the comments!):
Elon Musk, “Believing in technology for a better future” (China Cyberspace) [via the Beijing Channel Substack]
Have you read Elon Musk’s latest article in the Chinese Communist Party journal China Cyberspace (中国网信) yet? Oh, did you miss that one? Here you go, have a few excerpts:
I am pleased to share with my Chinese friends some of my thoughts on the vision of technology and humanity…
It is foreseeable that with the power of robots, we will create an era of extreme abundance of goods and services, where everyone can live a life of abundance. Perhaps the only scarcity that will exist in the future is for us to create ourselves as humans.
Achieving this goal requires that robots evolve to be smart enough and for us to have the ability to mass produce robots. Our "four-wheeled robots" - cars - have changed the way people travel and even live. One day when we solve the problem of self-driving cars (i.e., real-world artificial intelligence), we will be able to extend artificial intelligence technology to humanoid robots, which will have a much broader application than cars.
We plan to launch the first prototype of a humanoid robot this year and focus on improving the intelligence of that robot and solving the problem of large-scale production.
As technology continues to change lives at an accelerating pace and the world evolves, life is more than simply solving one problem after another. We all want to wake up in the morning full of anticipation for the future and rejoice in what is to come. I hope more people will join us in our fight to accelerate the world's transition to sustainable energy. I also welcome more like-minded Chinese partners to join us in exploring clean energy, artificial intelligence, human-machine collaboration, and space exploration to create a future worth waiting for.
Ok Elon, that was a bit weird, I have to say. Just because, well, China Cyberspace is a publication of the Cyberspace Administration of China, whose mission is to build up Chinese “national cyber power,” and they may have different ideas about how to use your robot army and brain chip technology than you anticipate. But I understand… a man must do what a man must to sell some Teslas, including touting the benefits of fully-automated luxury communism to the commies.
Xu Zhangrun, “From My Anguished Heart—A Letter to My Daughter,” as translated by Geremie R. Barmé (ChinaFile)
This is an excerpt from a deeply powerful essay by Xu Zhangrun, a Chinese professor whose criticisms of President Xi Jinping got him cancelled CCP style: falsely accused of “soliciting prostitutes” (the government’s favorite charge to foist on troublemakers) and briefly detained, then fired from his prestigious position at Tsinghua University, stripped of his pension and insurance, stripped of his accreditation so that he could no longer work anywhere, evicted from his apartment, and prevented from receiving donations. He wrote this letter to his daughter, who was about to return from Australia, as a warning about what life in China would be like for her:
Si’er, my beloved daughter:
I am writing to you on the eve of your return to China. Although joyful at the prospect of your coming home, my happiness is overshadowed by despondence.
The years have passed in the blink of an eye. Now, you will soon be a university lecturer and I’m bursting with pride.
Yet, as I’ve told you, I’m also wary; it’s no longer a vague or abstract parental concern. My heart is racked by guilt and an agony that is gnawing away at me. That’s because of what has happened since I dared speak up two years ago [when I published “Imminent Fears, Immediate Hopes” in July 2018]. During my recent detention, Tsinghua University fired me and stripped me of my teaching accreditation, so now I’m both unemployed and, for all intents and purposes, a “non-person.” It’s inevitable that my status could well affect you. I’m convinced that disaster looms, no matter how often the authorities reassure me that you won’t be penalized because of me.
The 20th century taught us all that they can’t be trusted under any circumstances. You’d have a better chance if you believed the Devil himself than trust anything that they tell you. Tens of millions of lives destroyed and legions of unrequited souls grieving in the wilderness speak a truth that is beyond words.
How could I not be agonizing over your return?
In the first place, the authorities probably already have your computer and mobile phone, including, of course, your WeChat account, under constant surveillance. They’ve probably compiled a detailed dossier as well—everything from what you’ve said and done while overseas, whom you’ve encountered, whom you plan to meet with, right up to and including the details of conversations on certain topics, the things you’ve taken an interest in, even what films you’ve been going to, or what you’ve published. They’ll pretty much have scoped out what you’re thinking today and what you’re planning to do tomorrow.
I can’t pretend that I have any particular insight into their precise modus operandi, let alone that I’m familiar with the routines of their undercover agents, but there’s one thing that I know for sure—it’s something that everyone in China is familiar with—Big Brother knows everything about you. Big Brother is not only omnipotent, he takes a particular pleasure in his work. People in the system get a kick out of every covert operation, they savor the pungent smell of blood of each kill, and they are emboldened by every success. To their insensate and cunning minds we are nothing more than statistics, corporeal digits to be manipulated and abused at will. Their power reinforces their belief that [as it says in Corinthians 6:12]: “All things are lawful for me.” Every unbridled action they take and each measure of satisfaction they extract from it further diminishes what little remains of their humanity.
I know for a fact that they’ve already collected information on your life in Sydney. You see, when they interrogated me the day after I was released from detention—at 4:00 p.m. on July 11, 2020, to be precise—they mentioned you specifically; they hinted that they knew everything about you, even though you’ve been living in another country for years, my beloved daughter! A country where, under normal circumstances, you would never imagine there were operatives of China’s SS. Why are they doing all of this? What are they planning? It’s simply because you’re my daughter. Dearest Si’er, you will suffer for my original sin. Your father has brought a calamity down upon you.
Then, once you’re back here in China and go to report to your new job, or even before then, it’s inevitable that they will approach you “for a chat.” They’ll say it’s because the powers that be want to “express their solicitude” for you. During the ensuing conversation, they will either make a point of directly asking about or simply inquire in passing what you think about your father. In particular, they’ll want to know what you think about what your father thinks. Depending on how you react, they’ll follow a time-honored logic and probe further, extrapolating and surmising in the process until, before you know it, you’ll have been issued with a stern warning.
Naturally, all of it will be couched in faux-sympathetic terms: They’ll claim that they only want to understand your circumstances so they can better support what is in your best interest. Nonetheless, they will make it quite clear that your life is in their hands. In reality, their display of casual magnanimity reflects an arrogance that masks a deadly potential.
As the conversation proceeds they’ll trot out all the tired old clichés: We appreciate all too well that father and daughter are two different people and that he’s responsible for who he is, just as you are for who you are. You will surely be familiar with our official policy, as it is quite specific: While the state is ever-mindful of an individual’s family background, what really matters is how you act yourself. We encourage you to understand your father’s case in the broader context and to be mindful of developing the correct attitude regardless of any familial bond you may feel. Relax, they’ll tell you, no pressure, just do the very best you can. No matter what they say, the core message is that you’re guilty and that, henceforth, you must live in submission; compliance is obligatory.
Once you start your job, “friendly conversations” with the authorities will be a regular feature of your life. Let me illustrate on the basis of my own experience: There’s one cop at my local police station who clearly relishes the power that he has over me. Semi-literate at best, he enjoys upbraiding me for my ideological backwardness and he pontificates about my moral turpitude. If that’s how I’m being treated, you can imagine how they might deal with you. Remember, they are capable of anything; in pursuit of their ends they feel absolutely no compunction or moral restraint. People like them simply have no sense of right or wrong; it’s not because there is no justice in the world, it’s because people like them simply don’t care. They have long ago banished all sense of moral decency.
There’s a line in the Book of Documents: “I have heard that the good man, doing good, finds the day insufficient; and that the evil man, doing evil, also finds the day insufficient.” Believe me when I say, there’s simply no limit to their perfidy! I know your sweet personality all too well and I’m worried that after just a few “heart-to-heart conversations” like that they may be able to break down your resistance. They’ll reduce you to living in a constant state of anxiety, and you will feel as though your actions are circumscribed in every direction. You may well sense that you are enveloped in an all-encompassing and nameless terror; you’ll feel impotent at the thought of the omnipresent surveillance; the realization that there’s no way out will be heartbreaking. Not only will you be weighed down psychologically, your ability to function normally and enjoy life will be severely compromised. Your existence will be like an endless test, the aim of which is nothing more than survival. That’s why, my dearest daughter, if you are back here in our homeland we will become one another’s hostages. We’ll be obliged to obey and our kidnappers will revel in their villainy.
Henceforth you’ll live in a state of constant vigilance; you’ll be on guard regardless of whether you’re just teaching a class or taking part in a meeting. One ill-considered remark or some minor issue in your everyday life could invite some new disaster. If it were anybody else they might be willing to overlook it, but because it’s you—my daughter—the odds are that it’ll become an issue. Even a minor thing can snowball into a serious problem. Remember, in a world ruled by what Isaiah Berlin called “the artificial dialectic,” laws, be they manmade or natural, count for naught.
Human sentiment is quite malleable, and cold indifference can all too readily replace the warm intimacies of the past. It’s more than likely that, from now on, acquaintances will keep you at arm’s length and young men may even be reluctant to date you. Professionally, things like applications to attend international conferences will most probably be denied. As to other academic opportunities, such as professional advancement and promotion, these too will be beyond your reach. None of this, however, will unfold in an overt fashion; it will be made to seem as though these petty obstacles are simply a matter of course, and they will be as inevitable as they are inescapable. Over time, you will be reduced to a state of mute frustration.
Of course, they’ll pretend as though none of this is because of me; nothing will be traceable back to my case. Over time, however, the repeated coincidences will be quite remarkable and everyone will know what’s afoot without a word having to be said.
I’m telling you all of this, my dearest daughter, because I don’t want to keep anything from you and, at this moment, I need to let you know that, no matter what I’ve said here, the decision of what to do is yours alone. If you feel at a loss, then may I suggest that you follow your intuition and seek prayerful guidance from the Heavens. If neither instinct nor the Heavens offer solace, and only if you really want to, perhaps you’ll let me know and allow me to suggest a course of action. This is all that I can offer you now and it doesn’t matter how you use my advice. For better or worse, you will have to live with the consequences of whatever decision you make.
She never replied and he hasn’t heard from her since. Read the whole thing, and you will understand a little better what living under totalitarianism is like. And if you want more of the best such things out of China, follow the Sinologist Geremie Barmé’s work at China Heritage. His translation work is unmatched in the world, and frankly invaluable.