Zhang Zhan, Vaclav Havel, and ‘picking quarrels’

This week, the Chinese citizen journalist Zhang Zhan was sentenced to four years in prison after having been detained in May on charges of “picking quarrels and provoking trouble.” Zhang’s crime: being one of the very few journalists who dared to report unvarnished facts from Wuhan during the early stages of the COVID pandemic. Eager to portray themselves as in control of the situation, Chinese authorities detained Zhan and many other citizen journalists and activists under this elastic statute. Of course, this is not the first time “picking quarrels” has been used as a blanket tool of repression.

Vaclav Havel documented the very same reality in communist
Czechoslovakia, which had a similar statute as contemporary China. In
Czechoslovakia, it was called Article 202, of which Havel wrote in a 1978 essay
that it “was created as one of the countless instruments by which the
centralist authorities … keep their citizens under permanent control. People
may not know very much about the article, but they cannot but feel it in the
air.” Article 202 was, Havel added, “a power that sees society as an obedient
herd whose duty is to be permanently grateful that it has what it has.” And if
a citizen dared to, even momentarily, leave the obedient herd, there were
opportunities for people to report his disturbance of the peace. “Essentially
anything can be called disturbing the peace if someone declares that it has
offended him,” Havel observed.

Communist Czechoslovakia had a related article, Article 203,
under which people could be charged with parasitism. Parasitism can, of course,
be anything. Zhang, reporting from Wuhan without being employed by an official
newspaper, could easily be labeled a parasite. In prison, Havel seized the
opportunity to conduct empirical research by asking his fellow prisoners of
which crime they had been convicted. About half, he reported in his essay “Article 203,” had been convicted of
parasitism. Article 203 of the criminal code of the Czechoslovak Socialist Republic
(CSSR) stated that anyone evading honest work or gaining their living in an
underhanded manner could be imprisoned for up to three years. “In a country
that calls itself a workers’ state, the prisons are full of workers,” Havel

Pro-democracy supporters protest to urge for the release of 12 Hong Kong activists arrested as they reportedly sailed to Taiwan for political asylum and citizen journalist Zhang Zhan outside China’s Liaison Office, in Hong Kong, China December 28, 2020. REUTERS/Tyrone Siu

The CSSR was — using Hannah Arendt’s definition of totalitarianism
— not a totalitarian country, but it was certainly a dictatorial one. In 1978,
it seemed impossible that this workers’ state with its endlessly elastic articles
on parasitism and disturbing the peace would collapse. Who, but a few idealists
like Havel (and he, as he pointed out, had some protection thanks to his international
audience), would dare to say anything lest it disturb the peace or be
considered parasitism? Eleven years later, this week in 1989, Havel became
president of Czechoslovakia.

In all authoritarian, dictatorial, and totalitarian countries, dissent is rare because the cost is so high. And yet a few brave people dare, even though they will suffer as a result. They dare even though they’re unlikely to be rewarded with gratitude or prominent posts if change eventually occurs. Havel becoming president was an exception. As Arendt notes in Eichmann in Jerusalem, “under conditions of terror most people will comply but some people will not.”

Arendt mentions Sergeant Anton Schmidt of the Wehrmacht, who courageously provided Jewish underground fighters with forged papers and even Wehrmacht trucks. Other brave Germans who did not comply included Hans and Sophie Scholl, Helmuth James von Moltke, Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Hans Oster, and Ulrich von Hassell. Like Sergeant Schmidt, all paid with their lives. In trying to depose Hitler, some of them had certainly done more than disturbing the peace; but totalitarian countries’ peace is Friedshofsruhe — graveyard peace. Behind the Iron Curtain, too, a few brave people dared not to comply; they were punished with prison and menial jobs (Havel at one point worked in a brewery); some, like Poland’s Fr. Jerzy Popiełuszko, paid with their lives.

Zhang, too, is at death’s door as a result of her hunger strike. The Chinese authorities won’t let her die for the cause of disturbing the peace and have been feeding her through a tube while keeping her restrained around the clock. Many of us may not care about a trial in a faraway Chinese city featuring an accused whose name is unfamiliar to us. We’re fortunate to live in countries where we’re allowed to disturb the peace. The least we can do for Zhang, and for other Chinese activists arrested for disturbing the peace, is to keep their names in the news. Just as Havel’s international support kept him a bit safer than many other Czechoslovak disturbers of the peace, doing so could have an impact on Zhang’s odds — and even on China’s proliferating graveyard peace.