Speech by Tang Shiqi at the 2020 Commencement of SIS: Empathy, Duty, Tolerance, Rationality
English translation by William Weitao Qiang
Dear Teachers and Students, Good morning!
First of all, please allow me to express my heartfelt congratulations to the members of the graduating class of 2020, both present and absent! Congratulations on completing an important stage of your academic studies, and congratulations to the considerable number of you who when you leave this campus, will have transformed from consumers of knowledge and wealth to their producers.
This year is a special year, and today is also a special day, so too are these felicitations special. I hope they can cross a thousand mountains and rivers and reach our students across the China and around the world who are unable to receive these felicitations face-to-face. What I would like to share with you is that today’s ceremony, from the day we started preparations, is not only for the dozens of students on campus, but also for the 200 graduates from all across China and around the world. This moment unites us the world over. I hope all of us can appreciate each other's existence and love.
In addition, I would also like to express my deep gratitude. First to the teachers and parents, then to each of our students. It is with everyone's understanding, support, cooperation and patience that we successfully completed the last semester of study, thesis writing and defense. Online instruction and thesis defense allows you to stay at home, but includes hard work and stress that would not otherwise exist offline. I believe that many teachers and students have seen their eye prescriptions increase by a couple degrees. In addition, some teachers, in order to find a common time for students across different time zones, have had to get up early, go to bed late, or miss a meal. In short, thank you all! If in our efforts we overlooked something, or forgotten something, please understand and forgive us. Of course, work of Commencement is still unfinished, and I hope that everyone will continue to be understanding and cooperative with each other as before. Please believe us in our efforts to keep everyone satisfied, including the issue of greatest concern—how to pack your luggage.
This year's graduation commemoration cannot escape the elephant in the room, that is, COVID-19. We have co-existed with it for half a year, and we have also struggled against it for half a year. It is because of COVID-19 that the vast majority of the graduating class cannot but miss returning to their alma mater to experience the grand ceremonies in person.
This is a special type of disaster. If we look at the number of victims in China of the 1976 Tangshan earthquake or the 2008 Wenchuan earthquake, those tragedies were more severe than this COVID-19 outbreak. But unlike COVID-19, they did not have as large an impact upon everyone’s thoughts and lives. The reason, I think, may be summed in two aspects. First, the epidemic has spread all over the world and caused changes in the global political and economic landscape; second, its presence has been sustained. It is only in this long-lasting aspect of the epidemic that people have enough time to grapple with and reassess our methods of coping with the epidemic, and reflect upon our attitudes and ways of life.
Today, as a send-off message, I would like to share some of my thinking during this time with you, graduates, on how to understand the responsibility of a citizen (gongmin), because in the epidemic, the responsibilities of the gongmin are a problem we often think of.
Gongmin is both a concept of foreign import and one indigenous to Chinese. In the foreign sense, gongmin (citizens) refers to the residents of a city, or citizen. In modern times, that concept has taken a political and legal concept, to refer to individual members of a country bearing full legal rights and obligations. In the native Chinese sense, gongmin refers to “people for the public”, its antonym being those concerned with private gain; that is, gongmin refers to those who care for the whole of the realm and strive for public welfare. Interestingly, in a political sense, the foreign phrase “citizen” and the native “gongmin” share similar meanings. In the Western linguistic context, the use of “civilians” (city-dwellers) as the precursors to citizens, imply a different lifestyle from farmers, which stems from its public and participatory nature. Within Western languages, the word “citizen” is imbued with strong public connotations. In other words, as the bearer of various rights and obligations, citizens are gongmin (public participants), not merely private individuals. Today I am talking more about the publicness when discussing gongmin, and not necessarily referring to “citizens” in the legal sense of any particular country.
Gongmin as people for public means responsibility, responsibility to others and to the community. Regarding these responsibilities, I would like to emphasize four aspects, namely empathy, duty, tolerance and rationality.
The first aspect is empathy. Empathy is a shared feeling of equals, not the mercy or sympathy of a hierarch. Mencius said that the “heart of commiseration is universal,” this is to say that compassion is a human instinct. The British thinker John Stuart Mill believed that the basis for empathy is “species consciousness,” which let us realize that we are one and the same while distinguishing us from other animals. Of course, in the busy life, fierce competition, or even mutual hostility, this human instinct is suppressed and forgotten, so that people will become cold to each other, and become unmoved to the joys and sorrows of others. Therefore, Mencius also stated that the “Four Dispositions” which includes the “heart of commiseration” is saved within junzi and abandoned by knaves (xiaoren). This epidemic has caused us to regain the perhaps long-lost feelings of empathy. Everyone has worried and wept for their compatriots in epidemic areas, and shared with them the feelings of pain and helplessness. Yet, during this arduous process, we have deeply felt that which is most basic thing between human beings – empathy – which is to hurting what others hurt; worrying what others worry. At this time, we realize that gongmin does not mean the accumulation of various legal rights, or even the disputes between different legal principals. The idea of gongmin first contains a destiny commonly bound, the emotional links of weal and woe. Without these links, there is no community to speak of, and the future of mankind will be bleak indeed. In this epidemic, the omnipresence of this empathy is what makes me feel hopeful of our future.
The second is duty. In this epidemic, there stepped forward a large number of courageous and inspiring people. I think everyone has witnessed them in action, and their deed are very touching. The so-called duty is the next step from empathy. If we can share in the pain of others and in the worry of others, then we should be able to bear also the pain of others upon our shoulders, and try our best to eliminate the pain and sorrow for others, just as if we ourselves are getting rid of our own pain and sorrow. This epidemic reveals that the virus does not distinguish between rich and poor, between countries and regions. The threat to any one person, is a threat to everyone; the safety of any one person, is the safety of all. Humankind is a real community. Of course, everyone possesses a different identity and therefore different duty. The role of medical staff was to march toward the front line of counter epidemic efforts; the role of scientific research personnel was to discover and reveal the truth of the virus; the role of an ordinary Wuhan citizen was to resist all manners of temptations outside and to insist on staying at home; graduates, your role was to finish your online coursework, write your theses, and manage the relationships with your parents and family so they can perform their own roles with peace of mind. The most basic duty of every gongmin during the epidemic, whether they liked it or not, is to wear masks in public places for the sake of others. In sum, duty, is to sacrifice for others. A person can be considered a qualified citizen only if he is prepared to sacrifice for others.
The third aspect is tolerance. Gongmin are people for the public, and "public" is not a concept that anyone can define casually, and exists only at the intersection of various "private" interests. The world we live in is highly complex and diverse. Everyone has a different lifestyle and faces different choices. In this world, to coexist peacefully and develop together we must abide by the most basic condition to tolerate each other, that is, to tolerate the differences between others and us, so long as this difference will not cause deliberate harm to the interests of others.
In this regard, learning to get along with people different from us, finding common values and interests within difference; at the same time, identifying elements to learn from in other peoples’ different choices are all precisely the most important aspect of a gongmin’s duty. In fact, when the world is peaceful, people may not need too much tolerance when they are doing their own thing; the significance of tolerance will only be highlighted when there is a clear conflict between people’s interests in times of crisis. Especially when an epidemic like COVID-19 strikes, when other people's different lifestyles or behaviors may be considered to threaten our own safety, that is, when our tolerance will be strictly tested.
The last aspect is rationality. Immanuel Kant said that we have an obligation of hope for the future. I want to say here that for any difficulties, we all have the responsibility to treat them rationally. The Romans believed that people in different regions, different nationalities, and different religions could have a common value, which is what the Romans called natural law, because people are equally rational. Therefore, reason is the only bridge between people with different customs, different cultures and different historical backgrounds, and is the best way to solve problems in times of crisis. It may be difficult to define what is rational, but it is easy to identify what is irrational. For example, it is irrational to panic in the face of disasters. It is irrational to build walls between neighbors when disasters arrive. It is also irrational to face disaster with wishful thinking and emotional decision making. What I particularly want to tell you all here is that we are facing a disaster, and may face other or even greater disasters in the future. When disaster strikes, we cannot avoid paying a price. How that price is paid and who pays the price are all questions that we must face rationally. Only by thinking clearly about these issues can we get out of these disasters at minimal cost. You are all students of politics, and understand the distribution of benefits and costs is precisely the fundamental issue of politics. As for those things like mutual agreement, fair exchange, those are not our concern. In other words, everyone here must learn to choose. In this regard, whether or not to face disasters rationally is the most important manifestation of gongmin responsibility. It is also an important step towards a person's maturation.
Students, everyone is about to say goodbye to one lifestyle towards another. I really like the words of Karl Popper: "Nothing is definite, the future is open". I hope everyone will bear in mind the responsibility of gongmin and to create a future that belongs to each of you.
The epidemic is not over yet, please take care. In addition, I would also like to announce to you, especially to those students who are unable to participate in today’s commemorative ceremony, a solemn announcement of the college’s decision that you can participate with any future graduating class in a ceremony at your own convenience. During the graduation and degree awarding ceremony, the college will organize a special session for each student to make up for your regret today.
Thank you all! We are waiting in Yanyuan and look forward to your early return soon.