On Hope

    by Liu Di

Hope is not a science. It has the potential of being realized, but also of not being realized. As soon as what is hoped for becomes a reality, it is no longer a hope.

Hope can't be judged true or false before the event, because we can't predict the future. Society is a complex, non-linear system, and in such a system the flick of a butterfly's wing can give rise to a storm on the other side of the world. Here, great events need not have great causes: minor players can have tremendous impact. It is impossible to analyze the whole chain of causation with any clarity, the more so because everyone is himself a part of the system and cannot step outside it for a view of the whole. The only way to find out how such a system will behave is to set it in motion and let it run: that is the fastest way to figure out the outcome. In society, which is such a system, if something doesn't happen you can always come up with a host of reasons why that thing was never going to happen; but if it does happen, you can think up just as many reasons why it had to happen. In fact, the same reason can often be invoked to support diametrically opposite conclusions. This is why attempts to predict the future are doomed to fail: the best we can manage is the wisdom of hindsight as we explain what has happened.

The meaning of hope is to be found in action. As Lu Xun said, “Hope is not something of which you can say it exists or doesn't exist. It's like the roads of the world: even where there originally wasn't any road, if enough people go that way, a road comes into being.” The best way to predict the future is to make it happen. A hope can be verified or disproved only through the praxis of unceasing effort. If no one makes that effort, then the hope is false. On the other hand, even if it is a false hope, if it leads to action that is true and meaningful, it will share in that meaning. For example, in 2003, there were high hopes for the new administration of Hu Jintao and Wen Jiabao. These hopes proved false; but without them, it is doubtful that the vigorous movement led by the Rights Defense lawyers would have been launched.

Admittedly, hope comes with no guarantee. As Hayek said, history is the result of human action but not of human design. Only a very few hopes are capable of realization. Consider how entrepreneurs tirelessly develop new products, invent new techniques of production, and open up new markets, though only about one percent of their efforts will be crowned with success: yet their creativity, with only a one-percent success rate, changes the world. It's just like our ancestors who hunted in the forests and on the savannahs, most days coming home empty-handed; but there was always the possibility of bagging a mammoth, and when that happened it fed their whole tribe for many days. Hope furnishes a vision and an impetus to action and helps us keep trying, unafraid to fail. Even if the attempt falls short, it is better than not having tried at all; and failure, moreover, can teach us many things. Some like to say, “Cast away illusions and prepare to fight.” But often it is the illusions that motivate us to fight. If you cast away illusions you may also cast away the impetus to fight.

Some think that to expect political reform is a ‘false hope.’ But what really matters is the actions such a hope may lead us to carry out. The expectation of incremental political reform may inspire positive action that furthers China's political modernization. Those who expect a revolution, on the other hand, may be stuck in a fantasy that never leads them to action.

December 2012

Translator’s Notes

“Hope is not something of which you can say…” The closing sentences of Lu Xun's 1921 story “My Old Home” (故乡)

the Rights Defense lawyers A small, informal movement of attorneys including Xu Zhiyong, Teng Biao, Guo Feixiong, and Gao Zhisheng that, beginning around the time of the Sun Zhigang murder in 2003, filed appeals and defended the underdog in high-profile cases against organs of the State. It was associated with a push for legal reform and greater respect for human rights. All these attorneys have endured reprisals such as beatings, kidnappings, disbarment, or imprisonment.

As Hayek said, history is the result of human action… Hayek was quoting Adam Ferguson, an eighteenth-century Scottish philosopher.

“Cast away illusions and prepare to fight.” The title of an August 1949 essay by Mao Zedong about American Imperialism.

translated by A. E. Clark