You have to wonder how these things happen. China has never been a democracy. Its citizens have been subjected to a stream of propaganda for decades expounding the merits of communism in its current form, whatever that may be at the time.
And yet, last week, a nameless young woman – name for Twitter purposes @feefeefly – posted a video of herself splashing ink on a “Chinese dream” poster of president Xi Jinping. She then turns towards the camera and says “I oppose Xi Jinping’s tyranny.”
Later the same day she posted pictures of police officers apparently taken through a door peep-hole. “Right now there are a group of people wearing uniforms outside my door. I’ll go out after I change my clothes. I did not commit a crime. The people and groups that hurt me are the ones who are guilty,” she said.
And the rest, probably, is silence. A short discussion in the office concluded that this story, label on Twitter the Ink Girl, would probably not yield further installments. Professional detachment is obligatory in these conversations. But some speculation about future updates is allowed.
Was this lady, we wondered, perhaps – as we used to say before mental illness became an acceptable item for the media menu – one or two sandwiches short of a picnic?
Did she have a dissident boyfriend she wished to impress? Or knowing the likely consequences, was she suffering from some secret sorrow and indulging in a sort of state-assisted suicide?
Privately, I thought it was a pity nobody was around at the ink-splashing site to take her quietly on one side and say “Go home, pet. It’s not worth it.” And then I thought, with some misgivings, that probably people had thought much the same sort of things about Sophie Scholl.
Ms Scholl is fondly remembered in Germany as one of a group of students who started distributing leaflets denouncing Hitler and his party in 1942. Early in the following year she was caught doing this in Munich University, where she was a student.
She was accused of treason, tried, convicted (isn’t the Rule of Law wonderful?) and executed by guillotine on the same day. Among her last recorded words are a note to her mother, which concludes: “How can we expect righteousness to prevail when there is hardly anyone willing to give himself up individually to a righteous cause? Such a fine, sunny day, and I have to go, but what does my death matter, if through us, thousands of people are awakened and stirred to action?”
Of course the parallels are not exact. The Ink Girl, as far as we know, was not part of a group. President Xi, though he has a fine collection of concentration camps, has not embarked on mass gassings, as far as we know. I decided after some thought not to put “yet” anywhere in that last sentence, but as Lord Acton said, “absolute power corrupts absolutely” so things could still get worse.
Thinking about these things puts the problems of Hong Kong’s opposition in perspective. People with inconvenient principles may lose their jobs and have occasional encounters with thugs in the street. But as long as you steer clear of the Public Order Ordinance politics is not a blood sport. Yet.
Times were hard for political dissidents in 1943. Very few of the group of resisting students survived the war, and at the time it seemed that their gesture was scarcely audible amid the catastrophe which was engulfing Europe.
Yet today Ms Scholl is regarded as a national hero – indeed among the younger generation as the national hero. Streets and schools are named after her.
I do not know what will become of those local leaders who now happily work for our new imperial masters, content with their five-figure salaries and free housing, loyally spouting the latest variation on “four legs good, two legs bad”. But I fancy they will not get many roads named after them.
And meanwhile, on the same day, it was announced that China wishes to have Chairman Mao’s Mausoleum added to the UNESCO Cultural Heritage list. What a pity they can’t put Adolf and Uncle Joe in there as well and have an internationally famous collection of stuffed mass murderers.