CHINA’S PRESIDENT XI Jinping and I have a common understanding: we believe that the internet has become the Chinese Communist Party’s greatest enemy, and, if left to take its natural course, the internet will change China. Based on this understanding, Xi Jinping and his government have decided to purge the internet.
Over the past two years, the government has cancelled numerous microblog accounts, shut down untold numbers of websites, arrested countless people and built the great firewall of China – whose primary function is to shut out overseas websites and deny access to unfettered information – higher than ever. But no matter how high the wall becomes, it cannot impede ideas.
Xi Jinping is right to be nervous. According to Chinese media reports, in November 2014 the online population of China reached 630 million, of which over 500 million are registered users of Sina Weibo, China’s equivalent to a hybrid of Facebook and Twitter. This enormous user base and the astronomical amount of data it generates has overwhelmed the old censorship system. The CCP has not yet set up netizen party branches, and it cannot possibly delete all ‘harmful’ information.
Tens of millions of users are sharing information and expressing opinions on bulletin board systems, microblogs and via WeChat groups. It is here that people are interacting, debating and even exchanging abuse. And it is in the midst of this cacophony that change is gradually taking place. People are beginning to think for themselves – to think about their country, about the society they live in and about their own circumstances. New words and new ideas are emerging every day. I can’t say that this has completely changed people’s mindset in China, but compared with the pre-internet age, people are far more clear-headed. A difficult but profound awakening will soon arrive.
IN THE 1955 war propaganda movie Dong Cunrui, Wang Ping is critically wounded. He rests on a precipitous mountain path, struggles to retrieve a small bundle from his waist pocket and says to Dong Cunrui, ‘I’m not going to make it. Here are my party dues for May. Please make sure you give it to the Party for me’[i] This scene gave birth to a vile tradition: from then on, every party member who dies in a movie asks his comrades to pay his party dues on his behalf. At the last moment of their lives, they are not thinking about their parents or wives or their brothers and sisters – concern for their Party is the only thing on their mind.
Evidence that this ever happened is meagre, but this meme has become an emblem of the CCP.
For the sixty years that the CCP has ruled China, the Chinese have never been treated as people, rather as objects – a member of a unit, a part of a collective, a brick of the revolution to be moved about as needed, a screw in a machine. They must always be ready to sacrifice their possessions or even their lives for the collective. When their services are needed, Chinese people are praised as the ‘discerning masses’ who are ‘industrious, valiant and kind-hearted’; otherwise they are plebeians unqualified to enjoy democratic rights. When necessary, they can even be disparaged as ‘a small group with ulterior motives’ who are capable of splitting the nation asunder, fermenting social unrest and devastating livelihoods.
In the age of the internet, people’s outlooks have gradually changed. At first it was not obvious – a few new terms cropped up, just fragments of ideas – but gradually it all converged into a new trend.
More and more people began to think of themselves as people, not mere material to be used. They began questioning: if I have not given my permission, how can you represent me? Why does the collective’s interests outweigh mine? Why does patriotism have to be more important than me? If I can’t protect my own house, why do we have to protect an uninhabited outcrop in a distant sea? If the nation can’t protect my freedom and safety, and, conversely, if my lack of freedom and safety is caused by my country, why do I still need to love it?
Protracted debates like these have inculcated new concepts, like ‘human rights take precedence over sovereign rights’, and ‘if citizens have no dignity, then the nation has no dignity’. At the same time, people are beginning to question such overbearing concepts as ‘the great masses of the people’. Questions arise about who ‘the people’ are, and who is qualified to represent them.
In recent years, self-appellations like ‘loser’, ‘shitizen’, ‘ant tribe’ and ‘grass mud horse’ have gained unprecedented popularity. When millions of people start referring to themselves with such deprecation, there is an undercurrent of meaning: ‘Sorry, please don’t call me a “people” because you already represent the people.’ From now on, these internet voices are saying, ‘I no longer want the honour of being a “people” – I’d much rather be a loser or a shitizen, simply a vulgar individual who is not represented by you.’
This is hardly a profound awareness, but don’t forget, this is China. Throughout sixty years of totalitarian rule, we have rarely had opportunities to even appear to be real people – individuals with dignity, freedom and rights – let alone live as real people. Day in and day out, the newspapers, television and radio constantly promote patriotism, nationalism and altruism, rarely if ever mentioning the wellbeing of individual members of society.
TODAY, CHINA CENTRAL Television (CCTV) still sings the praise of revolutionary heroes who, disregarding the safety of their own families, rushed to rescue the assets of the commune, while at the same time branding ‘individualism’ and ‘extreme individualism’ as equivalent to selfish and evil, and anyone so branded is regarded as a reactionary and public enemy.
In the internet age, huge numbers of people have already seen the rivers of blood and mountains of skeletons produced by evils like the anti-rightist movement, the great famine, the Cultural Revolution and the Tiananmen incident, under the twin banners of ‘the nation’ and ‘the Chinese people’. At the same time, rapid development of communications has made it easy to learn about the lives of people in America and Europe, as well as places like Hong Kong and Taiwan, populated with Chinese compatriots.
It all begs the question: why do other people, even other people of Chinese origin, live so differently? And why does the ruling party, which espouses serving the people, repeatedly push its people into the abyss? If capitalism is so selfish and corrupt, why do its people seem so happy?
After several years of thinking about and discussing these issues, I believe that many people choose to be patriotic, certainly, but they love themselves and love their own families even more than they love the nation. Some people over-compensate, adopting the selfish philosophy of Zhu[ii]: ‘Even if I could benefit the realm by pulling out one solitary hair, I still won’t do it.’ I know such people will never become exemplars in any country at any time, but in China it counts as an earth-shaking transformation when people begin to awaken from the dream of patriotism and nationalism shouting, for the first time in history, ‘I don’t love my country, I only love myself.’
This awakening is demolishing artificial gods. Over the past sixty years, the Chinese government has incessantly manufactured idols such as Lei Feng, who is said to have performed a lifetime of good deeds and never anything bad.
From Lei Feng and Liu Hulan, to Jiao Yulu and Ren Changxia, generations of Chinese have been living in the shadow of these models.
BUT IN THE age of the internet, such propaganda is losing traction. ‘Why do we have to learn from Lei Feng? What good will it do me? He died at the age of twenty and never even had a girlfriend.’ That’s what a young resident of Guangzhou said during the Lei Feng Emulation Month two years ago. Models for emulation like Lei Feng are being called into ridicule. More and more, individuals in China are questioning the absurdity of official propaganda. A passage in Lei Feng’s Diary mentions that he collected three hundred catties (over one hundred and fifty kilograms) of dung in one day. Some busybodies then calculated the total weight of the dung, his pace and the amount of time each pile of dung required, and came up with startling results: if Lei Feng was telling the truth, he would have had to pick up a pile of dung every eight paces. ‘You weren’t collecting dung, Comrade Lei Feng,’ they say. ‘You were obviously living in a cesspit!’
Likewise, more and more people are rejecting the ideal of ‘A great life! A glorious death!’ built up around Liu Hulan. She was just a little girl, barely ten years old, when she took up guard duty. At twelve she was part of an assassination plot and at thirteen she took part in actual warfare. At fourteen she participated in another assassination and at the tender age of fifteen she was executed. It’s a cruel tale, yet it has always been part of the Chinese primary education curriculam. A year ago, a parent pleaded on Weibo: ‘Liu Hulan, please stay away from my child!’ Such posts receive tidal waves of support.
GREAT NATION RISING, Great Nation Culture and Great Nation Foreign Affairs are terms have that frequently popped up on official media in recent years. The words ‘Great Nation’ might rouse the pride of some people, but, in an age of awakening, new questions demand answers: if there are no great citizens, how can we speak of a great nation? If my rights are not respected, what does it matter to me how great the nation is? On Weibo, when the war hawks proclaim that ‘China and Japan must fight a war’, they are mocked with questions like, ‘Is a Beijing residence certificate mandatory for the battlefield?’ ‘Will there be a lottery for the battlefield?’ ‘Will the leaders lead the way?’
It has been a rare thing in the past, but now people are becoming concerned about their own lives and property, and have become wary about nationhood and war. It’s an infinitesimal change, but the impact is far reaching. I believe that when more and more Chinese people become individuals with dignity, they will demand that the nation respects their dignity. Otherwise their clamour will be deafening.
On 15 August 1969, Jin Xunhua, who had just turned twenty, jumped into a raging river in an attempt to rescue two logs. Unfortunately, he drowned. Even more unfortunately, he became a national hero. His name appeared in newspapers and on radio broadcasts. Commemorative stamps were issued. Every Chinese was instructed to learn from him and his spirit of ‘risking his life for two logs.’[iii]
Under Communist Party rule, very few Chinese people understood their rights. Here, ‘the national interest or rights of the state’ and ‘the collective interest’ were supreme, while individual rights were insignificant. And after sixty years of this regime, the Chinese people became accustomed to a lack of rights and living a life not valued.
Six decades of totalitarian rule has made the residents of China accustomed to a lack of freedoms. There are strict class differences that force peasants, urbanites and officials to stay within boundaries. There is no reproductive freedom and women of reproductive age are often forcibly sterilised. There is also no religious freedom, only the state-sanctioned religions under the Three-Self Patriotic Movement umbrella. Freedom of movement is also restricted; leaving one’s registered abode turns people into second-class citizens, if not criminal suspects.
I believe the awakening of the individual will be followed by the awareness of rights. In the last few years, Chinese people have begun to care about their rights. Regarding the household registration system, individuals ask, ‘This is my country, so why do I need the government to approve a temporary residence permit? I want to be a permanent resident wherever I choose to live.’ On the family planning system, couples ask, ‘If the people are the master of the nation, why don’t we have the freedom to have children?’ And on re-education through labour, many workers and activists are asking ever more earth-shaking questions.
Under enormous pressure, our government announced the abolition of re-education through labour a year ago. But it was no cause for celebration. The government found a new way to lock up citizens at a whim: for instance, the crime of ‘picking quarrels and provoking trouble’. In May last year, several of my friends were arrested for holding a private gathering at home and charged with this crime. Tragically, one of those arrested was the lawyer Pu Zhiqiang, who made huge contributions towards the abolition of re-education through labour.
ECONOMIC RIGHTS ARE another thing. The core sectors of China’s economy are, more or less, controlled by members of the ruling class (or the well connected). A joke circulated on Weibo over a year ago: someone at a dinner party was asked what was keeping him busy. He answered, ‘Just some small business transactions. I just paid off Li Peng’s family[iv], did a business deal with Zhou Yongkang’s family, and tomorrow I’m off to sign a contract with Jiang Zemin’s family.’ The person who asked the question was astounded. ‘You call that small business?’ The man laughed, ‘It really is small business: I paid my electricity bill, went to the petrol station for a fill-up, and bought a new SIM card for my telephone.’
This is not just idle chatter. View it instead as dissatisfaction with China’s current situation. Apart from the state of Chinese soccer and complaints about the Chinese Red Cross Society, most criticism on Weibo is reserved for PetroChina and Sinopec, two petrochemical conglomerates. Web searches on these two companies return millions of pages, a significant number of which contain people expressing dissatisfaction and anger. The criticism is not merely because they have become the private property of powerful officials, it’s more about the usurious role they play within China’s economic life: when international oil prices go up, the companies raise their prices, but they continue to raise them even when international prices go down.
Many Chinese people are waking up from the pipe dream of socialist public ownership and are realising that the state-owned enterprises, supposedly owned by the whole population, are not only of no benefit to them, but also exploit and usurp their rights.
The anger directed at PetroChina and Sinopec is not unique. All monopolistic enterprises are being denounced: power generation, telecommunications and, now, even taxation. In January 2015, the Chinese government again increased fuel tax. The retail price of fuel is now over 40 per cent tax, giving rise to fierce criticism.
If you visit Beijing, I strongly urge you to go to the National Petition Centre or Beijing South Railway station. There you will see innumerable miserable petitioners, who are sleeping rough and eating the cheapest possible food, though they have not given up on their dream of receiving justice. Most of them are there because their homes were forcibly demolished and they did not receive satisfactory compensation. They then set out on the arduous path of being a petitioner. On their frequent journeys to Beijing, they are often driven out of the capital, beaten and even incarcerated. Over the past few years, many people have self-immolated in front of their own houses. Their deaths have not changed anything, but these suicides prove that more and more Chinese people are no longer bewitched by ‘the national interest’ or ‘the collective interest’, and are fervently concerned about their own rights.
And then there are political rights. In the Chinese polity, the National People’s Congress and the Chinese People’s Political Consultative Conference are two ironic playthings. On the surface they closely resemble the legislatures of democratic countries, but in reality every single member must obey the Chinese Communist Party and the government. Every year they produce unimaginably absurd draft resolutions, like ‘we shouldn’t encourage children from rural areas to attend university’[v] or ‘young women should marry men over forty’, which are ridiculed on the internet. One delegate is an eighty-six-year-old woman who, in her sixty years as a People’s representative, has never once cast a negative vote.[vi] Our government lavishes praise on her and has given her innumerable honours and titles, such as Model Labourer and Moral Exemplar, and the Women’s Federation March 8th Red Banner Award.[vii] But on the web her image is not highly regarded – she is called the Saint of Yes Votes, the Brain Dead Representative and the Living Fossil. People ask, ‘Is this the only kind of representative we can have?’
During the elections for People’s representatives in 2011, it was no accident that the many people who wanted to participate in the elections were threatened, dissuaded and, in most cases, ultimately lost. But they were determined to use their actions to express their views: we want genuine elections; we don’t want to be deceived by fake elections anymore.
Finally, there is freedom of belief. According to statistics from the Pew Research Center, a Washington-based think tank, there are fifty-eight million Protestants and nine million Catholics in China.[viii] The majority belong to underground churches, and the government has not for one moment relaxed its attacks on and oppression of them. It has demolished churches, broken up gatherings and arrested believers. Like their brethren overseas, Chinese believers have become the bravest and staunchest opposition to the government. A prominent voice among them is my friend, Pastor Wang Yi. Last June the police arrested him twice, but he did not cower. As far as he is concerned, being jailed for his beliefs is an act of righteousness, and he views his fate as a benevolent gift and a blessing.
A JOURNALIST ONCE asked me about the most lasting impression of my student days. I replied it was the lack of freedom to think. In Communist China, when it comes to history and society, there are only standard answers: history is determined by productive forces and productive relationships; consciousness is determined by the material circumstances; peasant uprisings are always good; landlords and capitalists are always bad; idealism and metaphysics are always bad.
The year I took the university entrance examination, the last question in the history exam was to analyse Chinese history after 1840. We were required to discuss the reforms of 1898, the self-strengthening movement, the Republican revolution of 1911 and the Republican era, and then come to the conclusion that only the Chinese Communist Party can save China. But recently, almost all the standard answers have come into question. Some people debate historical issues while others research modern society, and almost all of the officially sanctioned phraseology is coming under suspicion. All of this can be viewed as a cultural awakening.
In China, there are many writers and scholars like me who refuse to employ terminology such as ‘since liberation’ or ‘since the founding of the nation’ – we use simply ‘1949’ to demarcate the year the Communist Party established its regime. We do not use ‘New China’ to denote The People’s Republic of China; we change it to ‘Communist China’. Unless we are being sarcastic, we never say Chairman Mao and Premier Zhou; we simply use the names Mao Zedong and Zhou Enlai. We don’t use the single word ‘Party’ to stand for the Chinese Communist Party, and definitely do not place the party ahead of the nation, as in the common phrase, ‘Party and State leaders’. We just use the Chinese equivalent of CCP. Sometimes this desire for linguistic cleanliness can become compulsive. I obstinately refuse to use the Chinese characters for ‘the people’, which sixty years of official propaganda have distorted and cheapened. I prefer to say ‘citizen’ or ‘the populace’ instead.
This bureaucratic nomenclature has become the laughing stock of the internet in China. In 1978, the evening news on the state television broadcaster, CCTV, was the most important source of news with the highest ratings of all programs. Thirty-six years later, people make fun of the speaking voices of the newsreaders as well as their clothing and hairstyles. A succinct summary of the evening news circulates widely: ‘In the first ten minutes, the leaders are very busy; in the next ten minutes, the Chinese people are very fortunate; in the last ten minutes, the people of the rest of world live in misery.’ Last February, CCTV used hidden cameras to expose the dark side of the sex industry in a southern Chinese city. After the report was broadcast, netizens mocked it in unison, with tens of thousands siding with the prostitutes. One widely circulated comment is particularly noteworthy: ‘CCTV has sold its soul, yet it looks down on people who sell their bodies.’ Even CCTV had to admit that this roasting stemmed from mistrust. This demonstrates that, in the internet age, the CCP’s propaganda enterprise is in decline.
When people are able to shake off the spiritual and ideological influence of the old propaganda apparatus, they can begin to be creative. On the internet, exciting changes in vocabulary and writing styles are bursting forth daily, with people creating many humorous and peculiar terms to mock and criticise the communist regime, such as Yellow Soviet, West North Korea, The Bastard Dynasty and the Post-Qing dynasty.
Growing contacts with the West and increasing exchanges have led to large numbers of people becoming more familiar with English. New English words with Chinese characteristics are popping up: Chinese citizens become shitizens; Chinese democracy begat democrazy; secretaries with Chinese characteristics (especially the female secretaries of high officials) are sexcretaries. Political jokes are also spreading far and wide. Here’s one I encountered recently: Xi Jinping went into the Qingfeng Dumpling Shop and asked what the fillings were. The waitress answered, ‘This one is cabbage and pork; this one is pork and cabbage; this one is pork with added cabbage. Which do you want?’ Xi thought about it for a moment and said, ‘They’re all the same, there’s no choice.’ The waitress responded, ‘Aren’t you forgetting, that’s the way we chose you?’
AFTER XI JINPING came to power, in some respects China returned to the era of Mao Zedong. The media began to spare no effort to sing the praises of Xi’s brilliance, his drive, his language habits. Many regions established Xi Jinping Speech Research Centres and officials all over the country began to study his speeches. Military bases began to hang up photographs of and inscriptions by Xi Jinping. His books became bestsellers. His image appears on television. Songwriters sing of his loves and exploits. But he is no Mao Zedong, and the age of the internet will not be another Mao Zedong era. More and more people are sick of deification campaigns. In the past two years the words ‘If problems are not eliminated, harmful habits will be formed’ (毛病不除，养成恶习) have become a popular saying. The first of the eight characters happens to be the same as Mao Zedong’s surname and the last is Xi Jinping’s surname. Xi Jinping has acquired many nicknames in the two years since coming to office: his visit to the dumpling shop has made the name Dumpling Xi very popular, as well as the Emperor of the Qingfeng Dumpling Shop and Ignored by Dogs (the name of another famous dumpling brand). His espousal of the Chinese Dream has landed him the nickname Dream Emperor Xi. If Xi Jinping is clear-headed, he will understand that, although he may be able to seal people’s mouths, he can never stop them sniggering.
Over the course of Communist China’s sixty-year history, the Chinese people experienced two rare awakenings. One instance was in the 1980s, when the power of the authorities was slightly loosened and their arbitrary interference in ordinary people’s private lives became less intrusive. In just over a decade, ideas, culture and art flourished – unprecedented in the history of Communist China. In the age of the internet, and especially after the introduction of microblogs, Chinese society has experienced enormous changes in just a few years. The depth and breadth of topics and the number of people participating in discussions have far exceeded anything that occurred in the 1980s.
The Chinese government feels it is under enormous pressure and in 2012 began to comprehensively suppress the internet. It has implemented a huge word-sensitive database[ix], built a robust firewall around China, cancelled a large number of internet accounts and arrested many people who bravely speak out. Superficially, these measures have achieved extraordinary results: the internet in China is beginning to go into decline and discussions are becoming less animated, with fewer people having the courage to speak out. To use the government’s description, ‘the cyberspace has become clear and bright’[x].
However, the violent stoppering of mouths cannot achieve its aims for long. This is how a friend of mine describes the situation: ‘People’s mouths are not needed merely for eating food, they’re also very much needed for speaking. Under threat I will temporarily shut up, but I definitely won’t shut up forever.’
Despite the layers of chains and fetters inhibiting internet space in China, the internet has not entirely lost its vitality and creativity. The lampooning of CCTV that I described earlier occurred in February 2014, after wave upon wave of crackdowns had already commenced.
I cannot say that Chinese citizens are sufficiently brave and wise, but I have indeed seen more and more of them experience a difficult awakening. I cannot be sure that this will change China in the short term, but I believe those who awaken will no longer be willing slaves of a totalitarian regime. The wall will be built higher, but I have faith that no matter how high it rises, it cannot hold back the yearning for freedom. Another friend put it well: ‘The great wall will not collapse under the weight of tears, it will be laughed down. When the laughter is loud enough, it will tumble.’
In 1989, as young students awakened from their slumber, determined to remain silent no longer, they gathered in Tiananmen Square, shouting for democracy and freedom. Ultimately, they were driven out, killed or arrested. But in the age of the internet, the exchange of opinions has awoken even more among the populace. I believe our netizens will do something to rescue their country and their homes. This was expressed in a poem I read on the web:
You must really hate the cold
Because you slept right through the winter
You must dislike the heat too
Because you slept right through the summer
One year passes, and then another
You sleep in hiding from this world
But today, I want to walk through fields of blossoming flowers and say to you:
The flowers have blossomed
Please wake up while the flowers are blossoming.
This essay was translated for Griffith Review from its original Chinese.
[i] The relevant clip from the movie Dong Cunrui is at 26:30 https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=fkJVqCKO_fM
[iv] Ex premier Li Peng’s son and daughter are powerful players in China’s energy industry. http://www.nytimes.com/aponline/2015/02/09/world/asia/ap-as-china-swiss-leaks.html. Former president Jiang Zemin’s son held key position in china’s communication sector. http://www.nytimes.com/2012/05/18/world/asia/china-princelings-using-family-ties-to-gain-riches.html
[ix] Collecting sensitive words: http://chinadigitaltimes.net/2013/06/grass-mud-horse-list/
[x] Chinese websites to ‘spread positive energy’ http://news.xinhuanet.com/english/china/201310/30/c_132844968.htm