Today, PEN launches its groundbreaking report on free expression and human rights in China.
Who’s winning, China or the Internet?
Two respectable publications have printed two contrary views. A Financial Times correspondent in Beijing relates that Communist party heavies may be able to batter Apple into a ritual apology for its perceived “arrogance”, but is losing the online backlash against its heavy-handed tactics.
The Economist, on the other hand, is publishing an entire special section on China’s unexpected success in using the Internet to tighten its control.
In the past three or four years, along with a huge rise in internet users – by the end of 2012 there were 564m, more than double the number of four years earlier – the wave of mockery and cynicism directed against the government has grown exponentially.
High-tech gadgets and social media sites are inherently cool and the fact that online discourse is dominated by snide remarks about the government makes poking fun at the government cool as well.
The Chinese internet has its share of funny dance videos and cats doing silly things but unlike in the west, many of the most popular viral memes are direct or indirect political assaults on officials and their policies.
Not only has Chinese authoritarian rule survived the internet, but the state has shown great skill in bending the technology to its own purposes, enabling it to exercise better control of its own society and setting an example for other repressive regimes. China’s party-state has deployed an army of cyber-police, hardware engineers, software developers, web monitors and paid online propagandists to watch, filter, censor and guide Chinese internet users. Chinese private internet companies, many of them clones of Western ones, have been allowed to flourish so long as they do not deviate from the party line.
The online mob can gorge itself on corrupt low-level officials because the party leaders allow it. It can make fun of censorship, ridicule party propaganda and mock the creator of the Great Firewall. It can lampoon a system that deletes accounts and allows them to pop up again under a new name, only for the new accounts to be deleted in turn. It can rattle the bars of its cage all it likes. As long as the dissent remains online and unorganized, the minders do not seem to care.
Image: Ai Weiwei, “Sunflower Seeds,” 2010; Ceramic, 500 kg; On exhibition at White Rabbit Gallery, Sydney; Courtesy of the artist and White Rabbit Collection
China’s role in the global economy is expanding, but its writers continue to struggle with censorship and restrictions. This month we’re presenting fiction, nonfiction, and essays by banned Chinese writers. In work that could not be published in their native country, the authors here testify to the conditions both during the Cultural Revolution and now. We open with Liao Yiwu’s impassioned acceptance speech for the Peace Prize for the German Book Trade, just awarded in mid October. Yang Xianhui exposes the hideous truth of the Great Famine, and Xie Peng and Duncan Jepson contribute a graphic portrait of gluttony. Chenxin Jiang interviews censored authors Yan Lianke and Chan Koon-chung. In fiction, Chen Xiwo depicts scheming poets, and Sheng Keyi describes a paradise turned dark. Activist Cui Weiping urges individual action. And in two memoirs of the Cultural Revolution, the late Ji Xianlin recalls his torture and imprisonment, and Zhang Yihe records a clandestine meeting between the top two Rightists.
Elsewhere, in fiction by two writers from the New Literature from Europe Festival, Spain’s Ricardo Menéndez Salmón sees a marriage go down in flames, and Romania’s Dumitru Tsepeneag witnesses a backyard transformation.
J.P. (translator), Yu Jie, and Larry Siems discuss author Yu Jie’s writings in China and his life in exile.
Yu Jie’s stories, which are banned in China, have been downloaded over 8 million times. The discussion was followed by the screening of the powerful documentary Silence or Exile by Marion Stalen, which profiled five writers living in exile in ICORN cities around the world.
Reporters Without Borders is releasing an exclusive video showing the artist Liu Xia under house arrest. The wife of China’s jailed Nobel peace laureate Liu Xiaobo, she has been subjected to house arrest since October 2010. She is being denied basic freedoms although never convicted by any court.
“The hounding of Liu Xiaobo’s family, especially Liu Xia, must stop at once,” Reporters Without Borders said. “The surveillance to which she is being subjected is not only unacceptable but also completely illegal. Liu Xia is the victim of psychological harassment for the sole reason that she is Liu Xiaobo’s wife. We demand the immediate end to this undeclared imprisonment.
“The video of Liu Xia that we are releasing today is very short and lacks detail, but is very symbolic. Smoking a cigarette at her window is one of the few freedoms left to her. The difficulty of obtaining this footage is also indicative of the isolation imposed on her and the danger to which anyone trying to approach her home is exposed.
“We continue to demand Liu Xiaobo’s immediate release. His detention constitutes a grave human rights violation with regard to international standards and, in particular, article 19 of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, which the Chinese government has signed.”