April 2011

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By Maura Elizabeth Cunningham

As I noted in an article I wrote for the Dissent website earlier this week, one of the major China-related stories of 2011 has been the government’s ever-increasing crackdown on public expression. What started subtly back in January—a slowdown in internet service here and there, more websites (including this one) being blocked—became a full-blown international issue on April 3, when artist and activist Ai Weiwei was detained at the Beijing airport. Ai’s disappearance has sparked a flood of analysis and commentaries: Colin Jones discusses “The Purge of Ai Weiwei” at Dissent, Evan Osnos at the New Yorker has written a series of blog posts on the subject (here, here, here, here, and here), and the shows Bob Dylan played in Beijing and Shanghai last week became entangled in the issue as a number of pundits asked “Did Bob Dylan sell out?” for not calling on the Chinese government to release Ai (more links than I can list, but check our Twitter feed for a selection and also listen to friend of the blog Jon Wiener discuss the issue with Dylan-ologist Sean Wilentz during his latest “On the Radio” show).

Before Ai Weiwei’s arrest and Dylan’s performances, though, I had the chance to consider China’s tightening of the internet within a broader context, as I attended a lively conversation on the topic at the Association for Asian Studies’ annual meeting in Honolulu two weeks ago. I was at the conference to assist with three “Late-Breaking News” panels funded by the Luce Foundation, including one entitled “New Media and Old Dilemmas: Online Protest and Cyber Repression in Asia.” This panel brought together a range of journalists and academics: Orville Schell of the Asia Society served as moderator and Rob Gifford of NPR and Ananth Krishnan of The Hindu traveled from China to participate, joined by freelance journalist Angilee Shah and USC professor Andrew Lih, author of The Wikipedia Revolution. For China Beat readers unable to attend the meeting (start planning for Toronto 2012!), here’s a quick summary of the presentations each panelist gave during the session.

Panelists, L-R: Rob Gifford, Ananth Krishnan, Orville Schell, Angilee Shah, Andrew Lih

Schell noted in his remarks opening the panel that U.S.-China relations often seem to have shrunk to the internet issue, which now subsumes all other matters of concern to the two nations: free speech, religion, defense, business deals, and more—perhaps most strikingly clear in Hillary Clinton’s “China and the internet” speech last January. Yet China is certainly not the only country to monitor and control its citizens’ web use, as the ensuing discussion emphasized.

Taking the session’s title under consideration, Rob Gifford began by meditating on how new media has challenged the Chinese government’s “old dilemma”—namely, how to control its population. He pointed out that the source and direction of discourse in Chinese society have both undergone a fundamental change as a result of rising internet use in China. The government no longer stands as a single voice at the top, with a controlled message directed toward the country’s population; instead, everyone is talking to everyone else in a cacophony of sound that might obscure the fact that, as Gifford wryly stated, the majority of people are saying “nothing.” He views most users as primarily concerned with the internet’s potential to entertain and divert them, and only a small number of Chinese netizens as interested in using it as a tool to foment popular discontent. When the Arab Spring spread across the Middle East and North Africa, Gifford argued, most Chinese people “were too busy shopping to stroll for revolution.” Yet he did not discount the tremendous impact that access to the web and the information available on it has had on people at all levels of Chinese society, and concluded by noting that in its ever-increasing control of the internet, the Chinese Communist Party is revealing a nervousness that hints at just how limited and uncertain its vision for the future really is.

Ananth Krishnan placed Chinese internet restrictions within a comparative context, drawing parallels between protests in China’s Xinjiang Autonomous Region in 2009 and the Indian-administered state of Kashmir in 2010. Both protests, Krishnan argued, showed that the internet had become a tool used by dissatisfied youth, but it was a tool that could only prove effective to a certain extent. While the Chinese government’s decision to “turn off” the internet in Xinjiang for several months caused consternation both within and, especially, beyond the country, India’s shutdown of websites related to the Kashmir protests resulted in little public discussion. Krishnan concluded with the observation that in both India and China, there is a lack of legal framework for dealing with online activism and the “crimes” related to it, so the governments of the two countries prosecute cyber activists under other statutes (Schell added that in China, Mao-era counterrevolutionary laws have been repackaged into state subversion laws and used to prosecute figures such as Liu Xiaobo, the currently imprisoned 2010 Nobel Peace Prize winner).

As Angilee Shah emphasized, however, in some countries the government does not need to intervene directly into the cyber world—citizens themselves restrict their own online outspokenness. She pointed to Singapore, where the culture of self-censorship has spread so pervasively that the government finds blacking out websites unnecessary. Despite this, however, some younger web users are increasingly using new media to subtly circumvent the government’s restrictions on what they can say; if and when that becomes a more widespread phenomenon, government leaders will find themselves in need of a new approach to online activism.

Andrew Lih returned to China in his presentation, discussing the tensions within the government’s attitude toward the internet and the technology world more generally: while China would like to move up the high-tech value chain and increase its presence in research and development, it also wants to control how people use that technology and what happens when they do. Continuing on this theme of balance, Lih pointed out the compromises the Chinese government has made in its treatment of internet use—permitting, for example, the existence of Virtual Private Networks (VPNs) that enable web users to access blocked websites. As long as the number of people using VPNs remains on a small scale, the government has seen little need to clamp down on their circumvention of its internet restrictions. In the aggregate, the Chinese government still accomplishes its goal of restricting widespread public discourse, proving, as Lih stated, that “you don’t need perfect censorship to have effective censorship.”

With their presentations concluded, the panelists embarked on a discussion with each other and with the audience that brought in considerations of other locales while focusing on internet issues in China. Rob Gifford argued that while in recent months the Western media has frequently debated the prospects for a Jasmine Revolution in China, the country’s “hopelessness rate” is quite low—reinforcing a comment he had made earlier in the session, that in China today a lot of people have the dream of a better life, or at least the ability to imagine that dream—and there is far less frustration among young urban Chinese than there was among the young urban Egyptians who filled Tahrir Square. One audience member proposed that in China, we might see a model for economic growth without internet freedom, contrary to the expectations of all who celebrated the world wide web as a worldwide force for democracy. Krishnan reminded attendees that China has defeated almost every prediction made (about the pace of its economic development, the stability of its political system, etc.) for the past decade or more, and the country shows no signs of slowing down. Though there are certainly people speaking out against the increasing restrictions that the Chinese government has been implementing out since January, it remains to be seen how the situation will play out. As befits a “Late-Breaking News” panel, the speakers had no definitive conclusions or solutions to offer, but simply ended with a logical piece of advice for the audience: stay tuned.


By Lionel M. Jensen

Just over four days after Ai Weiwei’s sudden apprehension by China’s Public Security Bureau, the government has initiated, as is its tireless and terrifying custom, the public process of building a case against the disappeared by alluding to the subject’s “crimes.”

In comments made on Wednesday and Thursday in three of the Chinese Communist Party’s growing number of online and print “news” sources, China and the world have now learned that Ai’s actions were, according to Renmin ribao and the Global Times, legally “ambiguous” and too near “the red line of Chinese law.” The Global Times also reported that the departure papers for his flight to Hong Kong were “incomplete.”

Under China’s “stability maintenance” program, with which many are familiar following the 2009 treatment of Liu Xiabo, when he vanished for many months without acknowledgment, as allusion, innuendo, and vague, groundless assertion made the case for the subsequent necessity of his “trial” and imprisonment, these are serious charges. On Thursday morning the character assassination phase became more ominous, when Xinhua News Agency reported that Ai was being “investigated for suspected economic crimes in accord with the law.”

Imagine living in a real world—not an imaginary one from the work of Franz Kafka—where ambiguity or fear or insecurity or suspicion is cause for arrest. Actually, Ai Weiwei has not been “arrested.” Nor has he been “taken into custody,” or “detained” or “disappeared,” because these are merely the words of those attempting to describe what is self-evident but not acknowledged. The government has not admitted that Ai is in their grasp, although the Global Times did comment that he “was said to have been detained recently.” This is why Gao Ying, his mother, filed a missing persons report on Tuesday. “We have no idea where he is at the moment,” she said. More telling was her rhetorical query: “How can a country with laws allow this to happen?”

China’s constitution states that, “Citizens of the People’s Republic of China enjoy freedom of speech, of the press, of assembly, of association, of procession and of demonstration; the freedom of person of citizens of the People’s Republic of China is inviolable.” A 2004 amendment, highly touted by Premier Wen Jiabao, confirms additional guarantees more succinctly: “the state respects and protects human rights.”

Gao Ying’s plaintive cry is most astute because it is law, or more importantly the summary lack of respect for it as the guarantor of basic civil liberty and a documentary force independent of political manipulation, that is of concern. China is indeed a land of many laws and the Communist Party has in this very instance violated some of them—with extreme prejudice—by not informing his family of his whereabouts or permitting his attorney to speak with him. These actions are in contravention of Chinese law.

In a newspaper interview (his last) conducted on March 29 and published this week in Munich’s Süeddeutsche Zeitung, Ai Weiwei reflected on his work in the wake of the disappearance of many of his friends and acquaintances, whose “offenses” were those of questioning, speaking or writing.

When asked his own wellbeing, he expressed concern about the latest campaign against free expression. He spoke with anguish about recurring nightmares of incarceration and torture by police in which tourists blankly walked around the spectacle as though it was an exhibit. “They saw everything but didn’t care…they simply acted as though this was quite normal…we live in a world of madness.”

With friends like Tan Zuoren (who assisted him in collecting the names of the nearly 5,000 children killed by the Party corruption responsible for the collapse of schools in the 2008 earthquake) and others already apprehended or incarcerated, he worried that he might be next, saying that in a recent interrogation, police suggested that he “go abroad” to continue his career.

It is said that when Ai Qing (Jiang Zhenghan), Ai’s celebrated poet father, was jailed and tortured by the National People’s Party (KMT) in the 1930s for his left-wing literary views, that he continued to write but found so execrable the fact that he and the leader of the KMT, Jiang Jieshi (Chiang Kaishek) had the same surname that he created in protest an alternative pronounced “Ai.”

Ai Weiwei bears this name and the history of artistic passion and defiance that is its legacy. This alone may ensure that the astonishing record of his diverse creation and the power of his imagination will prevail: a triumph for the Chinese people.

Lionel M. Jensen is Associate Professor of History and East Asian Languages at the University of Notre Dame.

By Lionel M. Jensen

Ai Weiwei (as most readers of this blog will know), perhaps China’s best-known artist and provocateur, is missing. Like so many other people of conscience and voice in the past two years, he is gone. Swallowed by the insatiable fear of the state’s authoritarian belly. It has been more than four days since his apprehension and his wife, Lu Qing, who was also detained and questioned, has not heard from him; he is unreachable by phone.

One can only speculate as to why a painter, architect, sculptor, designer, blogger, ceramic artist, photographer, and activist of his stature, who has become the public conscience of the 2008 Sichuan earthquake victims, would be “disappeared” in this way. Certainly, he is no friend of the government or its ruling party. That, of course, could be said about millions of his fellow citizens, though.

As always, there is little to report. Here is what is known: on Sunday morning, as Ai was about to board a flight in Beijing bound for Hong Kong, he was arrested. Thereafter authorities entered his studio and took possession of computers and hardware, CDs and DVDs, and his notebooks while also detaining his eight assistants. The police remained through the night interrogating Ai’s staff through a vague harassment of inquiries about projects, income, the studio, travel plans. As befitting these all too frequent occasions, officials threatened them with “inciting subversion of state power.” His studio remains occupied today.

Some more relevant details: For the last 20 months Ai Weiwei and Tan Zuoren, with the help of countless netizens apprised of Ai’s progress on his blog, have helped to identify the names of every child killed in the collapse of the “tofu dregs schoolhouses” (shoddily constructed owing to corruption) in the Wenchuan Earthquake of May 12, 2008. This past year he completed this memorial project, Nian (“Missing”), a 240-minute long MP3 reading by volunteers of the thousands of names of all children killed in the collapse of the schools. Before the names are read on the recording, Ai comments that the project “represents the memory of the lives that have been lost and the anger at the covering-up of the tofu-buildings. Respect life; refuse to forget.” More than 80,000 people were killed in the disaster. The government shut down his blog.

Sichuan officials resented the unwelcome inquiries and the mounting negative publicity of “Missing” so much that there have been consequences for Ai. On August 12, 2009 Ai was in Chengdu, Sichuan when police allegedly entered his hotel room and beat him, and threatened to kill him. The vicious assault caused a cerebral hemorrhage, which was repaired by surgery in Germany.

Last November he was placed under house arrest about the time that the government announced that it would destroy his new studio in Shanghai because he had not gone through the “proper application procedures.” The building was “illegal.” Yet, it was the Shanghai government that had asked him to build it to anchor a planned cultural district! Ai announced that he would hold a party to celebrate the studio’s demolition, sending an open invitation on Twitter. Ever since, his movements have been notably restricted.

For the last year government authorities have been monitoring Ai Weiwei very closely, installing surveillance cameras around the perimeter of his studio outside Beijing. Stationary cameras were deemed insufficient to track his actions, so the Public Security Bureau has mobile surveillance units parked outside his studio. His mother’s house has been canvassed by strangers.

Unbeknownst to the Public Security Bureau, the timing of Ai Weiwei’s detention is momentous, just as was the death of Hu Yaobang in early April of 1989 and the unexpected national mourning of Zhou Enlai on April 5, 1976. Both events became catalysts for popular movements, the effects of which are still felt today in the anxious weiwen (“stability maintenance”) policy of the CCP.

Ai Weiwei’s disappearance occurred fifteen days beyond the Vernal Equinox, the day of the annual festival of Qingming, when the tombs and graves of loved ones are cleaned and restored by descendants from families all over China, Taiwan, Hong Kong, and Macau. It is a bittersweet occasion of remembrance of love and legacy, loss but also gain. It is a celebration of the inevitable advance of spring, for Qingming is literally the very first day of the fifth solar term. The winter solstice is in distant retreat. Yet, this cannot be said about the dark forces of a purblind Party.

Ai Weiwei’s father, Ai Qing, one of China’s greatest modern poets, would have been so honored by his son on this day: cult paid to a brave inspiration, who was persecuted, put in a labor camp for twenty years, victim of the excesses of a confounded ideology. Honor and memory will have to wait, while Ai Weiwei, the artist as public man, with imagination and fearlessness unbounded, draws breath for the spring sun that awaits his family’s proper respects.

Lionel M. Jensen is Associate Professor of History and East Asian Languages at the University of Notre Dame.

The latest issue of Twentieth-Century China should be arriving in subscribers’ mailboxes right now, bringing readers four research articles described below by Chief Editor James Carter in an excerpt from the journal’s editorial:

Jan Kiely, “Shanghai Public Moralist Nie Qijie and Morality Book Publication Projects in Republican China”

Diran John Sohigian, “Confucius and the Lady in Question: Power Politics, Cultural Production and the Performance of Confucius Saw Nanzi in China in 1929”

Margaret Kuo, “The Legislative Process in Republican China: The 1930 Nationalist Family Law and the Controversy over Surnames for Married Women”

Michael Sheng, “Mao and Chinese Elite Politics in the 1950s: The Gao Gang Affair Revisited”

Jan Kiely and Diran Sohigian focus explicitly on particular texts. Kiely’s analysis of public morality books, focusing particularly on the works of Nie Qijie, illustrates the way in which this traditional genre became part of the language of modernity, urbanism, and nationalism in the Republican era. Sohigian, in the same time period, explores the uproar surrounding the publication and performance of Lin Yutang’s play, Confucius Saw Nanzi. The controversy over the Sage’s fictionalized encounter with a woman, the Duchess of Wei, provided a lens onto the struggle by modernizers and traditionalists for control of the Chinese nation as well as its cultural patrimony.

Gender relations, modernity, and tradition are also central to Margaret Kuo’s analysis of the Family Law of 1930. Enacted a year after Lin Yutang’s play was first performed, this law and the accompanying debate over surname practices in the Republic foreground the struggle to define Chinese society in this turbulent period, providing insights into the changing nature of both the family and the law.

Michael Sheng uses newly available texts, in the form of memoirs from participants and observers, to deepen our understanding of a very different, but no less turbulent period: the early years of the People’s Republic. Already known as an evocative and revealing case of Mao Zedong’s political modus operandi, the Gao Gang Affair is here shown to be an even greater example of Mao’s devotion to Mao, and his extraordinary political abilities. Historians often rail against the overuse of the word ‘inevitable’ in discussions of historical events: Sheng’s article demonstrates yet again how historical processes are contingent, sometimes on the will and abilities of a single individual.

Additionally, April is China Studies month at Maney Publishing, which puts out Twentieth-Century China. Head over to the Feature of the Month page at Maney’s website and check out the resources highlighted there: a free Chinese studies virtual journal of over 50 articles from Maney’s four China studies publications, videos from editors of Early Medieval China, Ming Studies, and Twentieth-Century China, and information about forthcoming special issues (including TCC’s January 2012 issue on Chinese music and September 2012 focus on the May Fourth Movement). Discounts on both institutional and individual subscriptions are also offered at the site through the end of the month.

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