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Elaborating on freedom and discipline
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15:36, April 24, 2009

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By Li Hongmei People's Daily Online

Since the action film star Jackie Chan, once again, made careless remarks while attending the Boao Forum on weekend, he has not only landed himself at the center of a nasty controversy, but also ignited a firestorm of protest from political leaders both in Hong Kong and in Taiwan. Meanwhile, the online debate within and outside of the Chinese mainland has been going on and, has so far shown no signs of a ceasefire.

Jackie Chan certainly demonstrated a lapse of good judgment when he claimed that the Chinese people cannot govern themselves, and so they need regulations and control; and when he went so far as to kick up another sandstorm of severe criticism saying 'if you are too free, you're like the way Hong Kong is now. It's very chaotic. Taiwan is also chaotic.'

Although he did remark that he was not sure 'if it's good to have freedom or not,' he stopped short of making any elaboration on what his 'freedom' meant, and likewise, what kind of 'control' he pointed to. This might help explain a formidable disparity seen in the public views, which have been posted all these days on almost any Chinese portal website.

Netizens seem to have fallen into the same nightmare land as did Chan himself, disoriented in telling directions when fumbling their way to nowhere; and like in a nightmare, feeling so confused and petrified. Many comments just follow a simple logic line in an attempt to interpret why Chan surprisingly made remarks of the kind—

The linchpin of their logic is but a simple balance between freedom and discipline. In this light, if freedom outweighs discipline, there will be chaos; and vice versa, if too much discipline or 'control' is exerted upon the public, there will be less freedom guaranteed to them. Following the above logic, people will easily form the common knowledge that one cannot have both freedom and discipline at the same time. Extendedly speaking, this logic also means that the Chinese have yet to keep a good equilibrium between the two. Once the discipline imposed on them is relaxed, the Chinese will be 'too free' to be tamed, and disorderly conduct will thereby arise. So was born Chan's conclusion: We Chinese need to be controlled.

Is the balance between freedom and discipline something rarely gained, as the two in essence repel each other all the way? Is it that having them both is highly improbable like playing a zero-sum game, with one's triumph always at expense of defeat of the other side? It appears to be a topic too general to cover in a few words, but it can still be narrowed down to something more specific.

One example to be cited here is traffic in Hong Kong. As is well known, Hong Kong does not have so many thoroughfares and so broad avenues like those in Beijing. It's a city ceaselessly thronged with people and scattered with numerous narrow lanes. But why seldom can you find the deadlock of traffic? And why even congestions not so frequently happen as that in Beijing, which is almost an everyday encounter and already listed as the top threat to mental health for all living in the capital city?


Although one can hardly spot any slogan posted alongside the roads and streets in Hong Kong instructing drivers to drive and park their cars in a good manner, as commonly seen in the mainland cities, drivers seem to have an inbuilt courtesy while driving and parking. This indicates they have rules in mind—rules are rules, which might be exerted on them at first as part of public regulations binding for all, but gradually evolve into a kind of consciousness, and then an unconscious conduct people do so just out of instinct. Observing public order is no longer a rule which should not be bent, but more of a personal conscience, an organic component of social morality.

On this basis, one can understand what had come about at the time when London subway was blasted by terrorists in 2005. When explosion happened, the panicking Londoners didn't abandon those in need when fleeing for life. Instead, they helped the elderly and children escape first. As a result, in such a dreadful mess, no incident was reported about someone being trampled to death, which to this day still remains a miracle. A society which is accustomed to self-governing and self discipline must be, needless to say, highly admired and complimented.

On the contrary, if a society has yet to form a common sense of social morality, individuals will always need someone to look over their shoulders and to keep them in line. People in such a situation seem not to be able to afford the absence of a functioning government, or they will be thrown into the state of anarchy and feel confused. The Chinese mainland is generally a society in which government still plays an instructive or even enlightening role in standardizing the public conduct. The reason may lie in both history and reality: the whole decade of the so-called 'cultural revolution' wrought untold havoc to the time-honored Chinese civilizations, suffocating almost all the human ethics and courtesies. Even today, more and more Chinese are getting rich, as a result of the galloping economic growth, merely in wealth, not equally in morality.

Jackie Chan is right, in a sense, to say the Chinese still need regulations and control, although he, as a public figure, is not supposed to make utterances so rashly. But, there is little reason to carry the torch of wrath too long simply for what he had said, considering his great contributions to the Chinese community and, in particular, to the rescue work of last May's Sichuan devastating earthquake.

After all, this pop icon is an actor, not a political observer, and much less a political leader. His comments, though poor in taste, will not represent public sentiment nor dictate public policy, even if he could wield some influence over his fans.

Ironically, perhaps, Democratic Progress Party (DPP) in Taiwan got so enraged by Chan's words that it demand strongly Chan be scrapped as a public spokesperson for the 2009 Deaflympics to be held in Taipei this coming September.

One could not help but wonder DPP always insists that the fierce protection of free speech is one of the pillars of a true democracy, but why the guiding principle for free speech, that the DPP has been defending for dear as its party's lifeline, cannot be equally applied to the actor Jackie Chan. 'Zero tolerance' ? It sounds plausible, but what is actually beyond the tolerance of some DPP members is that, Jackie Chan's remarks on chaos in Taiwan allude to the beatings and war of words which typically occur when the 'parliament' summons a meeting.

The DPP, however, condoned and even defended the brutal beating and insult, which had become of Zhang Mingqing, Vice Chairman of China's Association for Relations Across the Taiwan Strait (ARATS), when he visited Taiwan last October. How ridiculous!

The article represents the author's view only. It does not represent opinions of People's Daily or People's Daily Online.



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