MURONG XUECUN IS the pen name of Hao Qun, a novelist and the most famous of a wave of Chinese writers who have become publishing sensations in the past decade due to their canny use of the internet. Murong is one of the most outspoken critics of Chinese censorship, and accumulated approximately 8.5 million followers on Sina Weibo – ‘China’s equivalent to hybrid of Facebook and Twitter’ – before government censors shut down his accounts in May 2013. After graduating from Beijing’s University of Political Science and Law in 1996, Murong worked briefly as a lawyer, before turning his attention to writing on microblogs and BBS (bulletin board system) publishing forums. His debut novel, Chengdu Please Forget Me Tonight (2002) was initially published on one of the largest of these blogs. Its success amongst Chinese ‘netizens’ propelled him to international success; in 2009 it was translated into English as Leave Me Alone: A Novel of Chengdu (Allen & Unwin), with the manuscript longlisted for the Man Asian Literary Prize in 2008. The novel is narrated by an unpleasant character called Chen Zhong and evokes an urban culture of self-indulgence and betrayal. Murong has also written short story collections and narrative non-fiction, notably The Missing Ingredient (China Peace Publishing House, 2010), a work of undercover investigative reporting about a pyramid scheme that won the People’s Literature Prize. Following the government’s complete shut down of his internet presence in 2013, Murong became a contributing opinion writer for the International New York Times, reporting from within China; he has also written for the Guardian and Foreign Policy. In 2014, Murong was a writer-in-residence at the University of Sydney. In ‘Wake up while the flowers are blossoming’, published by Griffith Review, Murong continues to act as an invaluable mediator between China and the West in his descriptions of the vibrant culture of cyber-activism percolating on other side of the ‘great firewall of China’.
This interview took place on Saturday 5 September with the assistance and contributions of Murong’s partner, Dr Wang Ling, who translated his responses. Any changes in speaker and language have been noted.
Your debut novel, Leave Me Alone: A Novel of Chengdu (2002), was initially published chapter by chapter, on one of China’s largest bulletin board systems (BBS): Tianya.cn. You have estimated that BBS systems emerged almost twenty years ago, in 1997. How do they work and how have they been significant? Was this where Chinese ‘netizenship’ began
MURONG XUECUN: I first published my online novels on Tianya in 2002, and before that of course they had been running this website for quite a long time. We refer to it as the ‘BBS era’; it was the booming internet era in China. Many influential people like journalists, writers, artists – and priests! – began to write at that time. And since then, since we have had BBS, we have begun to discuss important topics. Patriotism, for example, and what exactly the Chinese government is like. It’s just an online public forum, and people can discuss politics, the economy – and probably publish their novels just like I did!
For lots of people of my generation, before we began discussing these kinds of topics we were not very clear about concepts like ‘nation’, ‘politics’ and ‘society’, and the relationship between them…and only since then have we started to discuss it openly, and we started to learn.
That my novel was published on the Tianya community was a big event because it attracted lots and lots of registered users. The Tianya community actually reached its peak between 2006 and 2008. During that period, the most prominent events that have ever happened on Chinese internet actually happened on that Tianya community. However, with the emergence of other social media like Sina Weibo and others, the influence of the Tianya community is declining, and nowadays it almost has no influence. And so the ‘era’ has kind of ended.
Let me give an example. If one person is tortured by the police, and they post a message on the Tianya community, then it will become a big thing in China – at that time. But since the birth of Sina Weibo, when people are mistreated they would just voice that on Weibo – and so Weibo becomes the platform.
In your essay you describe this process as a ‘cultural awakening’. Are Chinese people also becoming more vocal about sharing critical views in real life forums – at dinner parties, for example? Or are these conditions in China inviting people to develop, in a sense, two selves: a cyber self who speaks out, and an embodied self who remains quiet?
It’s not really separated, especially if it’s in private conversation – with not so many people, people can criticise very fiercely. They are always pushing the line.
There is actually a great difference between people’s expression on Weibo and on Twitter. For example, on Sina Weibo, people will always say ‘my country’, but on Twitter people say ‘your country’ because they don’t want to be seen as part of China, they just hate the Chinese government so much. On the free internet they will speak freely, they will criticise the CCP and the Chinese government very badly – they can say anything they want. But on Sina Weibo (and on Tianya) the censorship prevents them.
The internet serves as a kind of pioneer in pushing the line. Before 2012, there was a big discussion of the Great Famine [1958–62] on the internet. And after that there was a magazine and a published article about the Great Famine, but before that it was unspoken about. So, definitely, the Internet is pushing the line and exerting influence upon people’s mind, and they can speak more freely in their private lives. But of course, since 2012 there has been a crackdown on Internet – so all those things disappear. But in private life, people keep talking.
Are internet users making contact in response to seeing one another’s blog posts? The poem that you quote at the end of your essay, for example – did you contact the author after you saw it online?
Well talking about this specific poem, actually I saw it in 2011.
[Murong in English]: When I was here…
WANG LING: For the Sydney Writers’ Festival?
[Murong in English]: I can’t remember, it was during the Jasmine Revolution [December 2010 –January 2011].
[Murong in Mandarin]: And I saw this poem on Facebook. It was posted and re-posted by many people, and I just saw it. But I didn’t have a chance to meet with the author. When I wrote this essay, I just recorded that poem and tried to find it out. But it was very hard to find the author.
Actually the friends I have now are through the internet. So, just like you said, they post something and we discuss it very heatedly, and then we try to get in touch with each other and agree with each other…
How do you think people will continue to cultivate critique and express dissidence in the face of the crackdown?
As a matter of fact, if you are ‘invited’ by the police they will interrogate you, or if you are arrested because of your speech online. This kind of thing has become acceptable to the people. They think it has become normal. Not only because of the frequency of these kinds of things, but also because once this person is arrested because of their speech, people will regard him as a hero. People will support him with different kinds of actions. For example, this person was arrested, and people will send postcards to him and express their respect, and they will try to disseminate the message into the overseas media, and try to make laws for him – and some people will even donate money to his family.
So there is an activist culture that has developed around the dynamic between citizens speaking out and becoming arrested?
Yes. That’s why, despite the crackdown of the government and the more rigid control of free speech, far more people dare to speak out because, just as you said, there is this culture.
In 2010–11, when you first came to international attention for winning the Chinese People’s Literature Prize for your novel Leave Me Alone: A Story of Chengdu, you told the world that you were ashamed of the way you had allowed your book to be edited and censored. You admitted to being captive to fear. In 2013, you announced that you were no longer scared, that you have been emboldened by the freedom you have found online, and the solidarity with other bloggers. Now you aspire to be the writer that speaks his mind, regardless of the penalty; last year you even turned yourself in to the police after friends of yours were arrested for reading, on your behalf, a speech that you had authored. When and how did this new attitude develop in you?
Before 2011, I was the so-called ‘pure novelist’: I was interested in politics but said nothing about it, and I never criticised the government openly. This was just among my friends – we like to differentiate between the pure writers, and writers who dare to speak out because of politics.
In 2011, a series of incidents occurred in my life that changed my attitudes. At the beginning when I spoke out, I really felt fearful – I always feared that the secret police would knock on my door.
[Murong in English] After every speech I delivered, every article published, I always feared that the police would come to me.
[Murong in Mandarin] But gradually, when I kind of became a representative of outspoken writers, and after I survived under this fear, I kind of felt familiar with it. People may think I’ve become more and more courageous since 2011 but, for me, because it didn’t happen just in one day, it happened step-by-step, I don’t feel more courageous.
Perhaps your courage was really coming from a sense of purpose and responsibility to your readers and those other social critics…
Well, probably you’re right – we can look at this from two ways. First is that, when I continue criticising the government, I can feel that my colleagues – people that are also outspoken – become fewer and fewer. And I have always made a frontier and been a forerunner, so because there are fewer and fewer people I feel there is more responsibility on my shoulders. And the other thing is – that’s true – a lot of people’s feedback and people’s comments are an enormous encouragement to me. So I feel that they have expectations for me.
You have said that, before accessing the web you were ‘one of the ignorant masses’ – that you ‘felt blessed to live in a socialist paradise’ and ‘profound sympathy for the suffering people of Europe and America’. Now you believe China should aspire to be more like Western liberal societies. How much importance do you place upon the sustained criticisms of Western capitalism and the pathologies of individualism?
As a matter of fact, I know that all societies have their own disease, which is hard to be cured. And every government is probably evil. I also know that the powerful corporations have an impact on my own people’s freedom of speech… In terms of priority, right now my concern is the political system in China. So far, we don’t have those problems that you mentioned in capitalist society, so our first priority is not to watch over those big corporations, it is to watch over the big Chinese government.
Do you believe that all governments by definition are complicit in a kind of oppression over their citizens?
Actually it closely relates to power itself. People in power always want more power, want to expand their power. That’s something inherent in power itself.
While the internet is generally perceived to be a threat to the Chinese Communist Party, it also serves the CCP’s purposes by providing them with additional surveillance infrastructure, and a new avenue for spreading propaganda and smear campaigns. Can you talk about the phenomenon of government internet trolling and the ‘5-Cent Party’?
It started very early on the Chinese internet – back in 2002–03. At that time, some local government found that the popular opinion of their government was too fierce, and they tried to find someone to comment against that – to make up the public opinion. They registered different accounts and tried to pretend to be commentators and reverse the public opinion like that.
So between 2005 and 2008, this kind of thing became very normal, and popularised actually, and it was during this time that the so-called ‘5-Cent Party’ matured. After the emergence of social media, this party became more powerful. The government tried to recruit unemployed persons and college students, even prisoners, to do this job. Based on limited statistics, the total number could be said to be tens of millions of people doing this. And they were called the 5-Cent-ers because these people were getting paid 5 cents per message. [Laughs] Now they are called the 3-Cent-ers because the government is getting so poor they just can’t afford that.
Interestingly, it’s one of the first things that the government can’t maintain – it becomes a financial burden. And the second thing is that, because these ‘5-Cent Party members’ become more and more, it is difficult to control them, and sometimes there is information leaking out. Ai Wei Wei himself did interviews with three 5-Cent members.
[Murong in English] You can find it on Twitter. He did that in about 2009…a long time ago.
And so when people became aware of this they started referring to them as a political party in jest? An example of the wordplay you describe in your essay…
[Murong in English] Yes, that is something interesting. In China, ‘the Party’ usually means the Communist Party.
[Murong in Mandarin] But now people are kind of making fun of the word ‘Party’, like there’s the 5-Cent Party, the Reincarnation Party, the Soya Sauce Party – the Underwear Party! [Laughs]
How do you call, in winter…when people wear something inside their pants?
Yeah. Some fashionable people think that’s not so fashionable, they don’t like that. So I myself used to have a Thermal Party. [Laughs]
[Laughs] Thermals have the same reputation here. So you were the leader of this ‘Thermal Party’?
Yes, the leader! It was a long time ago – in 2010.
[Murong in English] In the beginning it was just a joke, and you make fun with the word ‘Party’. Then I said, I’m going to establish this Party: ‘The Party members must wear these thermals’. I found that many people wanted to join my Party! [Laughs] And I established Secretaries in different regions. [Laughs] But it’s only online.
Which media platform did you use for that?
Sina Weibo. I wrote a humorous declaration: ‘Everyone has the right to wear thermals, and everyone has the right not to wear thermals.’ [Laughs] ‘Everyone has the right to wear their thermals inside their pants, and the right to wear their thermals outside their pants.’ [Laughs]
[Laughs] I would like to join your party and wear my thermals outside of my pants, just because it would be my right. Humour seems to be quite significant for you. In your lecture at the Festival of Dangerous Ideas, you not only speak about the role of humour in connecting people with China, but you also channel humour and use it to connect with an international audience. What does humour mean to you personally?
WANG LING: He’s always been like this!
[Murong in Mandarin] Yes I’ve always been like this. Look at me, I’m always smiling. Actually in my own essays and in all those blog posts I always use humour, and sometimes I use illusion. For example, I will try to find a historic person and then make fun of them – and actually I am criticising the government. I myself make up many jokes.
Is there room for a comedy culture outside of the internet in China?
It’s very difficult, because of the censorship – they’re always watching out for people gathering together. On the internet, of course, people are always making jokes in China, laughing at the government. And sometimes people really love to mock what is happening in North Korea, and Kim Jong-un. But when they are doing this they are actually criticising their own government.
[Murong in English] But the government and the censors know that – they know that! They sometimes try to shut that down. And they even publish the editorial in a mouthpiece newspaper to say, ‘You people are pointing to North Korea, but actually you are criticising us, cursing us.’ But of course, it’s so difficult for people to perform comedy, because the government is aware of that.
Your essays often refer to the fight against China’s current censorship laws as if their dissolution is inevitable, and only a matter of time. How do you envisage those changes taking place? Is that kind of change possible without revolution?
There is one thing people know for sure: there is one day that this regime, this Communist Party, will collapse and China will be transformed from this authoritarian regime to a democratic country. But of course, this is a bumpy road. Actually you’re right, we need to look closely at these questions. For example, this process – whether there would be revolt, whether there would be famine, bloodshed – anything could happen in this process. But I think it always comes at a price. So, the most important question is, how many people would like to contribute, to make an effort to change China? For me, I’m quite optimistic about this. I think during that transformation some things will happen, but it won’t be anything too miserable – for example, famine, war, etc. I base my judgement on three reasons: first is because of this internet age, people can exchange information more freely and they have this more convenient transportation. The second is that the international society nowadays will work together – because it’s the age of globalisation, what happens in one country will affect another. And the third reason is that in the age of internet, more and more Chinese people have had a basic education in what democracy is and what we should do after the transformation.
It’s interesting that you mention the international community in that way. In your lecture at the Festival of Dangerous Ideas you spoke compellingly about the way in which China’s position in the global economy compromises the capacity for other governments, such as Australia, to actively criticise China’s government…
Yes, I want to illustrate it by citing an example, something that happened in Taiwan last year. You probably know that there was a sunflower movement in Taiwan. And Taiwanese students, Taiwanese people had this protest against the free-trade deal between the Taiwan government and the Chinese government. And there is a joke – quite popular at that time – which is: the teacher said to his student, ‘You have three dollars’ – and ‘Fat Tiger’ refers to the Chinese government – ‘and then Fat Tiger gives you two dollars. How much do you have now?’ And the student replied, ‘Zero, nothing.’ And the teacher replied, ‘Obviously you know nothing about math.’ And the student replied, ‘Obviously you know nothing about the Fat Tiger.’
I talk about this joke because similar things could happen to Australia. So, I hope that the Australians – especially the Australian government – that they do not only do the math, but they know something about Fat Tiger.
Yes, what Australians have to keep in mind is that the Chinese government is not only opposed to freedom of speech domestically, they are opposed to free speech globally. And you also have to understand that if you are doing business with a government like that, it comes at a price of the happiness of the Chinese people.
For another example, if you’re doing oil business with China – it’s true that it’s very lucrative, but as a matter of fact that business creates the high oil price in China, and because of the low quality of the gas it involves air pollutions. So all these costs have to be borne by the Chinese people.
As I mentioned in the talk, when the Chinese government is stringently in control over freedom of speech, it would not only affect Chinese people, it can also affect people overseas. For example, if the 1.3 billion Chinese people can’t use Gmail, then it would definitely affect people overseas because it’s not only used by Chinese people. I think the internet should be a whole – it’s a whole entity – but because of the Chinese governments’ efforts, the internet is now separated into two parts. One is Chinese internet: it’s like locking Chinese people inside a jail of information, and this would definitely affect other people. And because the Chinese government locks its people in this jail, the Chinese people are subject to their propaganda of warlike [rhetoric] and hatred – especially in recent years. And if that situation continued, that would definitely influence the whole world.
You probably don’t know about this – it’s quite crazy – on almost every TV station in China they are broadcasting a TV series about the anti-Japanese war. And in that TV series it tries to convey a message of hatred towards the Japanese, and the message that you can kill a Japanese with whatever you want.
[Murong in English] I have an essay about this in the New York Times.
WANG LING: It’s ridiculous. It’s very terrifying. Just imagine if people can’t access outside information, and everyday they are brainwashed by this. In 2011 there was some anti-Japanese protests, actually funded by the government. They targeted a Japanese car driver and beat him to death.
Your fiction writing has been described as dark and cynical, even nihilistic, in its portrayal of contemporary Chinese society. However, your non-fiction writing is notably optimistic about future change. What informs the way in which you represent China between fiction and non-fiction?
I feel like I’m living in distinctly different worlds when I’m writing the novels and writing the essay columns. When I’m writing novels, I feel I am living in an imaginary world, which is quite different from the real world. Although what I write in my novels is based on everyday stories in society. But in terms of story writing, it’s like I’m playing a visual game – you create your own world and characters and all sorts of things are just created on their own. But it is quite different for me to be an opinion writer. When I write for the International New York Times I need to do a lot of research, I need to focus on the argumentation, the facts, all sorts of things – it’s more like academic research.
I don’t know what it feels like to be a god, but when I’m writing fiction I feel like I’m the god of creation. There’s a French short story writer he once wrote a story about a novelist. The novelist had a kind of conversation with the characters under his pen, and those characters jumped out crying, ‘Let me live longer!’ So when I’m writing, I feel just like that. All my characters are on a set plate, and I can just pick one and have some conversation with him. When I wrote Leave Me Alone, I intended to write a story with only bad guys, but you have sympathy with these bad guys. They have this miserable life and the readers with weep for them.