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Nature, Nurture and Social Credit

Apr 19, 2019

Listen to Episode 51: The New Yorker's Profile of Yan Lianke

Today’s episode features a panel discussion with three people from Queen’s University in Kingston, Ontario – all are previous guests on this podcast. Tricia Baldwin is the Director of the Isabel Bader Centre for the Performing Arts. In Episode 12 Tricia and I had a conversation about the role the arts play in our society. Elizabeth Goodyear-Grant is a Professor of Political Science and in Episode 37 we talked about US politics, specifically women, polarization and the media. And Daniel Woolf is Professor of History and outgoing Principal of Queen’s University – he was my guest in Episode 10 when we dug into the meaning and power of history and historiography.

Our conversation's point of departure is a long-form article in The New YorkerYan Lianke’s Forbidden Satires of China by Jiayang Fan, published in October 2018. From there we discuss the rise of China, the cultural and social differences between China and the west, the gulf between western values of individualism and eastern values of the community, the dreamwalking state that we find ourselves in when scrolling on our phones, the social media credit system of surveillance and control that is being implemented in China (and that is not dissimilar from science fiction or an episode of Black Mirror), the dystopian paths down which we may already be marching, and finally, if it’s better in the end to know what on earth going on, or to choose ignorance.

Yan Lianke is a widely-read and influential Chinese satirical writer, most of whose books are effectively banned in China. Formerly a Colonel in the Chinese People’s Liberation Army, Yan was a professional propagandist before he turned his artistic gaze to the absurdities of the Chinese state and society. His fantastic yet cutting prose is based on the premise that "the reality of China is so outrageous that it defies belief and renders realism inert." Yan believes that language matters, and it’s evident in The New Yorker profile of him. His body of work since around 1980 includes 15 novels, more than 50 novellas, over 40 short stories, three extended essays, five essay collections, six collections of literary criticism, and about a dozen TV and film scripts.

What stays with me from this conversation most of all is the ongoing tug of war between the influence of deep human instinct and the sway of culture -- nature and nurture, if you will. I recognize that our panel of four contains all white Canadians interpreting an article in an established American magazine about a completely different society, language, system of government and targets for satire. A political scientist, historian and arts professional can use their abundant tools to analyze what's happening in China and where it comes from, but that still leaves us looking through foggy glass. But it also gives us the opportunity to step outside of the subjective bubble and ask, what are the commonalities between China and the west?

As quoted in the conversation, when fascism comes to America it will be wrapped in the flag and carrying a cross. Are the cultural differences just masks for the way humans, at the core, organize themselves everywhere? Is there any functional difference between the social credit system of surveillance and control being implemented in China and what corporate platforms like Facebook, Twitter, Uber and Google are building in the west? A piece in World Politics Review shows that China's system enjoys domestic support, not unlike the consumer demand for more ways to share and connect online. Is there something distinct about China, or is it all the manifestation of the same trend? This is one of the reasons that I keep bringing up China's social credit system. Yes, the Orwellian scale and intent of it is horrifying. But perhaps more troubling is the question, have we already built it here?