Liu Xiaobo, Drifting With the Tide

Westerners worldwide will wake up tomorrow with gifts under their Christmas trees. Liu Xia will wake up tomorrow — for her, December 26th — with the knowledge that Christmas brought her an empty home for the next eleven years. On December 25th, Liu Xiaobo (Liu Xia’s husband) was sentenced to eleven years in prison for “inciting to subvert state power,” or in other words, writing this.

Liu probably foresaw this outcome when he was writing the document in question — called Charter 08 — for he wrote within it, “we should end the practice of viewing words as crimes.” Liu will also be denied his political rights for an additional two years after his release in 2020. One suspects the dark irony of this is not lost on him, though it may be lost on his captors.

Liu’s conviction was a foregone conclusion — having indicted him, it would have been internationally embarrassing for him to be found innocent — but his sentence was not. While his crime can be punished with up to fifteen years in prison, he could have been sentenced more lightly. Eleven years is a slap in the face to the other co-signers of Charter 08, and a warning shot across their bow. Liu’s lawyers plan to appeal, but there isn’t a lot of optimism about Liu’s prospects for an early release.

The government has also taken steps to stop people from discussing the case online, reportedly ordering all Chinese search engines to block the search term “11 years”. Nevertheless, netizens are discussing the issue and showing their support. They are even — as is their wont in times like these — using puns to express implicit support for Liu Xiaobo:

For example, there are many posts in this forum that include or consist solely of the phrase: “随波逐刘”. This is a pun on the Chinese expression “随波逐流” which literally means “follow the waves, pursue the flow”, or figuratively: “drifting with the tide.” But flow (流 liu2) sounds like Liu Xiaobo’s surname (刘 Liu2) and the Chinese word for “waves” (波 bo1) is also part of Liu Xiaobo’s given name. So, when written as “随波逐刘”, it might be loosely translated as “Follow Xiaobo, Pursue Liu” or “Drift with Liu Xiaobo”.

One netizen writes:

In the West, today is the day of the coming of Christ, and we are pacing outside heaven’s gate, unsure of whether we should go in, whether we can go in. If there is a God, I don’t understand why you never extend your favor to the the deeply distressed people of the earth…

Where is the hope, where is the window? I can’t see it, can’t hear it.
Eleven years later, at the crossroads of fate, I choose to ‘drift with Liu Xiaobo’ [随波逐刘]

Shortly after that post was made, the forum was closed. Attempting to load it prompts this message:

Sorry, in accordance with the relevant legal regulations and policies, this forum has been temporarily closed.

Twitter, though, is unblockable, in the sense that it is already blocked but a growing community of netizens uses it anyway. Expressions of support have also been growing there, where users have added yellow ribbons to their pictures in solidarity with Liu Xiaobo, and have begun tagging tweets with #freeliuxiaobo. Other tweets on the subject can be found by searching for the judge’s first name.Facebook groups and the like also exist, and are likely to grow in membership in the coming days.

That the case is a travesty of justice is undeniable. It may not be unconstitutional, though. The Chinese Constitution states:

Citizens of the People’s Republic of China enjoy freedom of speech, of the press, of assembly, of association, of procession and of demonstration.
Article 35

Unfortunately, it also states:

Citizens of the People’s Republic of China, in exercising their freedoms and rights, may not infringe upon the interests of the state, of society or of the collective, or upon the lawful freedoms and rights of other citizens.
Article 51

It is the duty of citizens of the People’s Republic of China to safeguard the security, honour and interests of the motherland; they must not commit acts detrimental to the security, honour and interests of the motherland.
Article 54

In any event, the results of the case are deeply discouraging. The tactical announcement of the verdict on Christmas — the time when foreigners are least likely to be paying attention — proves that the government is at least a bit shameful about it, too, or at least fearful of international meddling. There will still be meddling, of course — US officials have already denounced the verdict and called for Liu Xiaobo’s freedom — but the Chinese government has never before buckled under this kind of pressure, and is not likely to start now. And the outcry will certainly be muted by the impending holiday in the West.

For those interested in the outcrying — and know that I count myself among you — I urge a modicum of caution. Let us recall that it was not China that arrested and sentenced Liu Xiaobo, but people, and that it is not China that we oppose, but the cowardly actions of these people. Whatever systemic evils exist, they exist because people put them there, and we must not judge or condemn en masse, else we risk violating justice just as Liu Xiaobo’s captors have.

Let us also remember that beyond the political posturing, there are smaller tragedies here. This Christmas, we think of Liu Xia in her home, alone. She has barely seen her husband for a year, and will see him less, if at all, in the next eleven. China has robbed itself of a patriot, but it has also robbed a man of eleven years of freedom, and a wife of her husband. Liu Xia may not be the biggest story here, but she more than anyone — perhaps more than Liu himself — will bear the weight of this eleven year sentence.

(Many of the links in this story came from the China Digital Times, which is also probably your best source for up-to-the-minute information on the case).

Christmas Presents from the Chinese Government

It’s the time of year for lights, trees, bells, and creepy columns about how Christmas presents excellent opportunities for proselytizing. Even in China they’re celebrating, and the while the Chinese government may have been a bit busy fending off American ‘conspiracies’ sabotaging global efforts to combat climate change and dooming small island nations in Copenhagen this year, it didn’t stop them from picking you up a few things on the way home!

The stocking stuffer, wrapped with bright river crab-patterned paper, was chosen specially for all you internet users out there. China knows you love to surf the web, but you’re tired of all those pornographic foreign websites, and nothing irks you more than a website that isn’t registered with the Ministry of Industry and Information Technology. Well guess what, over the next year, a fresh new crackdown on “pornography” may just require every website in the world to register with the Chinese government or be blocked. Finally! The new year is looking more harmonious already!

The true gift, though, won’t come until Christmas day itself, when Charter 08 author Liu Xiaobo is expected to be sentenced. The man wrote a document advocating democracy, equality, the rule of law, and human rights, etc. We’ve got to get him off the streets, and while nothing’s a sure bet just yet, but I feel pretty certain that all the good little boys and girls are going to see Liu Xiaobo in shackles under the tree. (UPDATE: Yup. Eleven years.)

Bad little girls and boys? Well, there’s a good chance we’ll just be getting a Grass Mud Horse.

ChinaGeeks will be taking a short break until after Christmas, probably. Forgive us for this, perhaps the bitterest ChinaGeeks post ever, but it’s been a depressing couple of weeks for freedom of speech fans who follow China. If you’re inclined to complain, be aware that you very nearly got a sarcastic parody of “The Night Before Christmas” instead of this post:

‘Twas the night before Christmas, and all through the land,
Not a website dared stir out of fear they’d be banned;
The dissidents were locked up in prison with care,
Except for Liu Xiaobo, who soon would be there;
The citizens nestled all snug in their beds,
While visions of river crabs danced in their heads;
And I, with my sweater and crushing headache,
Had just logged off WordPress to take a damn break…

The rest, perhaps, is best left to the imagination. Merry Christmas, everyone!

Ai Weiwei, Lu Xun, and the Hope of Hopelessness

This China Digital Times post has been sitting open in my browser for several days now. If you’re stuck behind the GFW, it’s a question and answer Chinese artist and social commentator Ai Weiwei did with a private Chinese BBS forum, full of social questions and snappy answers. It’s worth a read, but one question and answer jumped out in particular:

jencoxu: Do you still have any hope for China? Do you think the next round of reforms will be top down or bottom up?

Ai Weiwei: I never had any hope for China. I am only resisting the hopelessness China is imposing on me.

“I never had any hope for China.” In the same interview, he also said “I think we have a 100% bastard government.” Strong words, to be sure, and words that remind me of another Chinese firebrand that seemingly had nothing but negative things to say about China and Chinese culture: Lu Xun.

Lu Xun, China’s most famous modern writer, remains widely studied in China despite the fact that he died over a half-century ago. In large part because he was already dead when the Communist Party took control of China (he was a CCP supporter, ideologically), he has been held up and idealized as an artist with the courage to criticize the state of things in China. Still, reading his fiction gives the impression that he was about as “hopeless” as Ai Weiwei. In fact, he famously refused initial encouragement from a friend to become a writer by comparing criticizing Chinese society with waking up prisoners in an iron house before they were about to suffocate (our translation):

[I said,] “Suppose there is an iron house, without a single window and extremely difficult to destroy. Inside there are some people sleeping soundly, who will all soon suffocate, but entering death from such a sound sleep they will not feel they have died tragically. Now, yelling, you startle a few people out of sleep; you’re just forcing these unfortunate few to face their miserable deaths without hope of escape, and yet you believe this isn’t doing them a disservice?

Yet, Lu Xun did begin writing fiction, albeit fiction with a deeply cynical streak and a thick vein of hopelessness running through it. His earliest work, “Diary of a Madman”, compared Chinese culture to cannibalism, and one of his most famous stories, “The True Story of Ah Q”, concerns a ‘typically Chinese’ protagonist self-centered and stupid enough that he ends up waiting placidly for his own execution on wrongful charges. Lu Xun may have used the F word less than Ai Weiwei, but his early work wasn’t any less harsh or critical.

Ai Weiwei, too, has expressed hopelessness through his works. Certainly, his photographs of himself flipping the bird towards Mao’s portrait on Tiananmen or his more recent short film F*ck You Mother, Motherland don’t seem to hold out much hope for the possibility that things are going to change.

Yet both men, I believe, do have hope for China. When Lu Xun compared China to an iron house that was suffocating the Chinese people quitely, his friend appealed to him, and he was forced to admit that while he still felt hopeless, hope couldn’t be completely discounted. The full story, from Lu Xun’s preface to A Call to Arms (our translation):

[My friend Qian came to me and said:] “I think you could write some articles…”

I understood his meaning. They had just started [the magazine] New Youth [新青年 Xinqingnian], but at that time there was no one endorsing or even opposing it; I thought perhaps they felt lonely, but said, “Suppose there is an iron house, without a single window and extremely difficult to destroy. Inside there are some people sleeping soundly, who will all soon suffocate, but entering death from such a sound sleep they will not feel they have died tragically. Now, yelling, you startle a few people out of sleep; you’re just forcing these unfortunate few to face their miserable deaths without hope of escape, and yet you believe this isn’t doing them a disservice?”

“On the contrary, since a few of them are awake, you cannot say there is no hope of breaking and escaping the iron house.”

Although I remained firmly convinced [that the people in the iron house would simply suffocate], hope cannot be completely written off, because hope lies in the future.

Later, in “Old Home” (a short story known to many Chinese people as Runtu because of the name of one of its main characters), he famously wrote (translation by Gladys Yang and Yang Xianyi):

Hope cannot be said to exist, nor can it be said not to exist . It is just like roads across the earth. Actually, the earth had no roads to begin with, but when many men pass the same way, a road is made.

In essence, I understand his meaning to be that one must soldier on even in the absence of any real hope, as hope arises naturally as others begin to take up the same cause. Others will likely disagree, but I see this as fundamentally similar to what Ai Weiwei often says, and what he seems to be doing with some of his art. His hopelessness isn’t really hopelessness, and what is often misread as contempt for the government and disdain for those who disagree with him isn’t really just Ai being “an asshole” (in the words of one of our frequent commenters). He’s trying to change things, and on occasion, he seems to be drawing some ideas from the harsh social criticisms made by Lu Xun a century ago.

Ai Weiwei is not Lu Xun, and there are many differences between the two men and their approaches to both art and social activism. Still, it’s fascinating to see that Lu Xun’s hopeful hopelessness is still alive and kicking in China nearly a century after he penned “Diary of a Madman” for New Youth.

Favoring Foreigners

There is a reason that when the topic of racism in China comes up, many Chinese think of the preferential treatment foreigners sometimes receive, rather than anything else. (including famous lawyer Liu Xiaoyuan, who told us “Chinese law gives foreigners all sorts of special privileges” when we contacted him for this post). In reading about the KaiEn English fiasco, I found a pretty good example.

The short version of what seems like a rather over-dramatized story is that the heads of a Shanghai English school ran out of money and left the school more or less overnight, leaving a trail of unpaid employees and untaught students who had already paid tuitions in their wake. I have absolutely no interest in entering into the speculation about whose fault this is, or how (if at all) it’s connected to ChinesePod. I did, however, find this sentence from the Shanghai Daily rather interesting:

Foreign teachers of KaiEn English Training Center, which closed suddenly earlier this week, will receive 20 to 30 percent of their lost salary tomorrow as the first batch of life aid, the Chinese partner of the joint institution announced today.

Chinese staff and students were told to wait until the financial situation of the school was figured out.

[…]

Foreign teachers said that they are owed at least 2 months of salary ranging from 12,000 yaun to 40,000 yuan, even higher.

Chinese teachers’ salaries were delayed even longer on average, though their monthly wage is lower.

Obviously, everyone involved deserves to be paid — in full — for the work that they did, but honestly examining the situation, wouldn’t it make more sense to pay the Chinese teachers before the foreigners? After all, the foreigners were making more money. If KaiEn’s payment works like many of the English schools in China, foreign staff were probably payed somewhere between two to six times the salary of the Chinese staff (and they probably worked fewer hours than the Chinese staff, too). Aren’t the foreign teachers thus more likely to be able to hold out for a bit longer without salary than the Chinese staff who were being paid less? And frankly, aren’t they going to have an easier time finding other work as an English teacher than the Chinese staff probably are?

Now, to be fair, I have no special knowledge about the workings of KaiEn English specifically, nor do I know anyone who worked there personally. Given that, perhaps it’s best to put the question to you: wouldn’t it have made more sense to pay the Chinese staff first, or to pay everyone a smaller amount at the same time? Why were the foreigners paid first?

Subtlety in The Times

Who are the titans of Chinese industry? The Times thinks we should know — what with the Chinese economy growing by the minute — and they’ve does us the favor of writing up a list. But how to convey that information to the illiterate and the lazy, who aren’t going to read about powerful Chinese “businessmen” like director Zhang Yimou? According to The Times’ Art department, photoshop their heads onto terracotta warriors, and then photoshop the warriors in front of the Chinese flag:

I’m not really even sure what to say about that, but it’s worth pointing out that the article also commits the sin of using the illegal “long march” metaphor.

Ai Weiwei: The Need for Change

After some time in Europe, which he spent doing art stuff and recuperating from what Professor Farnsworth would call his stylish head wound, Ai Weiwei is back in Beijing. And thanks to Tiger Temple (Ai’s own blog seems to be gone, we can’t access it even here in the States), we’ve got some pretty solid updates.

First up is a twenty minute video “diary”, which is really more of a loose conversation on a number of topics, such as Ai’s involvement and what he said in a Western newspaper article. The recording isn’t great, and they’re speaking too quietly to hear at points, but it might be of interest to some (obviously it is all in Chinese, though).

More interesting, though, is this video of a phone interview with Ai Weiwei on a TV program (I think it’s an HK program but it’s hard to tell as the name of the show is blocked). He has some interesting things to say about his frankness, society, and all things personal. Some especially interesting snippets below:

A person, if he doesn’t have any means of communicating his ideas to the public, is impossible to listen to. For example, if you take a taxi in Beijing, [you will find that] every driver will talk about some social or political issues, but you wouldn’t say that he is focused on society or politics because he doesn’t have a way of communicating publicly about them, he can only tell you, right? But if you’re a bit more famous, many people aren’t willing to talk about anything publicly, because…well, there are some people like me, who basically just say whatever they see.

The internet is very important, partially as technology and partially because it allows for widespread mutual identification between people.

The reason I have some [social] influence is because […] lots of people are paying attention to the same topics [as me], so I hope that in the future I become more influential, so more and more people pay attention to these topics. This is obviously a necessary condition for a civil or democratic society.

Of course some people will be unhappy [with having many people paying attention to social issues], but I feel, as to the people who are truly unhappy, can we still call them people?

This world may never change, but we need to change. That is, we ourselves must change. Otherwise, if we don’t speak out, we will be changed by others […] if we don’t keep persisting in saying these things, we will be changed by others. That’s how it is.

The interview touches on some other stuff, including Ai Weiwei’s thoughts on some of his classmates (the famous first class to graduate from Beijing Film Academy after the Cultural Revolution, which included film luminaries Chen Kaige and Zhang Yimou, among others), and his $1600 t-shirt. It’s well worth a watch for anyone who speaks Chinese, but the big takeaway line, I think, is “If we don’t change ourselves, we will be changed by others.” Tiger Temple liked that line, too. (The original Chinese is 如果我们自己不改变,就会被他人改变).

Although Ai Weiwei’s blog seems dead, his Twitter is alive and kicking.

(Note: my translations here should be considered even more suspect than usual as it’s much easier for me to translate text than something I’m listening to.)

Yan Xiaoling, Legal Questions, and Reporting Injustice

For some time now, lawyer and blogger Liu Xiaoyuan has been following the case of three netizens (You Jingyou, Fan Yanqiong, and Wu Huaying) accused of framing/falsifying information because they published an article on the internet about the lethal gang rape of Yan Xiaoling. The post attracted widespread interest online and was posted on many popular Chinese internet portals. Unfortunately, the official verdict came down on Yan Xiaoling as having died from pregnancy-related complications rather than gang rape, and according to the police, the post about the rape was “purely rumors”. According to Liu Xiaoyuan, the libelous part of their post was probably the first part, where they name several police officials by name as being complicit in the administration of the KTV establishment where, according to the post, Ketamine was openly sold, prostitution was encouraged, and Yan Xiaoling and possibly other girls were raped to death. At the end of their post, they call for netizens to report the incident to officials and “punish severely these conscienceless police bandits!”

There are lots of strange things about the case. For one, the evidence from a local hospital of Yan Xiaoling’s death there after the incident (whatever happened) comes from a “Diagnostic Certificate” rather than a “Death Certificate”, which seems odd; furthermore, this was only given to Yan Xiaoling’s mother seven months after her death. She has been seeking audience with higher-ups to look into the event for a year. She maintains that she was raped to death; but the police cite her death as complications from ectopic pregnancy, citing the autopsy report. (The previous two paragraphs are all based on information from this post by Liu Xiaoyuan)

(For more background on the case and a translation of the original post, see ESWN, but be warned it contains a pretty gruesome and probably NSFW postmortem photo of Yan Xiaoling.)

In any event, the netizens who wrote the posts about this were arrested, which raises some interesting legal issues. Is posting something untrue on the internet “false accusation” if the writer believes it is true? Furthermore, does making a post on the internet really count as a false accusation or is it just an expression of suspicion, given that it’s not at all formal. Certainly, plenty of other untrue things have been posted online without the authors behind them going to jail. Beijing lawyer Su Zhanjun wrote quite a lengthy post on the legal implications of the “framing” charge on Liu Xiaoyuan’s site, concluding that “if suspecting someone of something falls under the category of falsely accusing them, then this society truly is terrifying.”

Well said. It’s also hard to imagine that there isn’t at least some truth to what the netizens posted, as an anonymous democratic party [a Chinese democratic party, not the American Democratic Party] member writes in this open letter to the local secretary now in charge of handling the case (via Liu Xiaoyuan, our translation):

Dear Secretary Sun Chunlan,

As a member of a democratic party, I’ve been closely following the “framing netizens” case’s investigation, to see whether the rights granted to citizens in the Constitution of the People’s Republic of China will be protected or not, and whether Secretary General Hu’s [promise] of “making people the focus” will be fulfilled or not.

That you were appointed the secretary should be a good thing to the three defendants; as you used to be the head of a group of workers you most understand the situation of the [common] people, understand their frame of mind, and are able to protect them. The facts of the case are clear; there are only people reporting injustice because injustice exists. They [those reporting injustice] are people of conscience, [you] should not use your power to harm them further and hurt the hearts of the whole nation’s people.

Freedom of speech is the root from which the development and prosperity of a nation and a people springs. [People’s] thinking cannot be liberated until speech is free, and free thinking is the greatest power in developing productivity. Secretary Sun, you may understand this logic much better than many others; now we focus on what must be done.

In truth, your appointment [as secretary] was where the change in this case started from, I hope you can implement Secretary General Hu’s governing principle of “making people the focus”, accord with the principles of the Constitution, resolve this case in a way that is harmonious with the people’s hearts and opinions, safeguard the image of the Party, safeguard the dignity of the Constitution, and turn Fujian into a harmonious society!

Most Sincerely,

A Democratic Party Member
December 5, 2009

The sentence “there are only people reporting injustice because injustice exists” was highlighted in red on Liu Xiaoyuan’s blog, and was also the title of his post. It is, I think, a pretty valid observation. Whether or not Yan Xiaoling actually died from being raped, it seems as though something fishy was going on, to put it lightly. And there’s no one living in China who would doubt that there might be police officers in league with local gangsters and shady KTV bars.

If the allegations are true, it’s one of the most disturbing cases we’ve heard about in some time. And if they aren’t, given the widespread belief that they are on the internet, the police and government might indeed do well to heed the feelings of the people and produce some more evidence that nothing unjust happened instead of locking up the people trying to start discussions about the case.