Gagging China's intellectualsBEIJING - As intellectuals, activists and netizens continue to defy Chinese Communist Party efforts to maintain its monopoly on the truth, freedom of expression is coming under fierce pressure not seen in recent years. The party's determination to fetter them was revealed on Monday when three outspoken intellectuals were detained for intimidating questioning - and released on Tuesday.
The sudden pressure comes at a time when party chief and President Hu Jintao has consolidated his political power. It had been hoped by many that he would be a moderate reformer (and in some cases he had shown himself to be one). Similarly, it was hoped he would take a kinder, gentler line when it came to media and free expression.
Since he finally grasped the political scepter at the party plenum in September, his kinder face has not been so evident, and an extraordinarily shrill campaign of criticism has been launched in an effort to stifle public intellectuals - journalists, artists, academics and others.
"It's the same old story for us journalists," said a senior reporter at the state-run China Youth Daily, speaking to Asia Times Online. "The atmosphere is deadly, and it's certainly very discouraging." He spoke, like everyone interviewed for this article, on condition of anonymity.
"This is the worst things have been in three years," said an intellectual in Beijing.
On Monday, authorities in Beijing detained at least three prominent intellectuals: Yu Jie, Liu Xiaobo, and Zhang Zhuhua. They were held for questioning, presumably about alleged anti-state activities, then released on Tuesday. The message was clear; the media recently were directed not to give publicity to Yu Jie, a well-known writer, and several other intellectuals who published critical views. Liu Xiaobo is a longtime campaigner for democracy and Zhang Zhuhua is a former official of the Communist Youth League. Their detention and release were reported by the international media. The Paris-based Reporters Without Borders said Yu was told to stop posting articles on the Internet.
Liu is president of China PEN, which in October bestowed the Free Writing Award on Zhang Yihe, author of the banned best-seller, The Past Is Not Like (Dissipating) Smoke, about Mao Zedong's 1957 anti-rightist purge of intellectuals. At that time, Mao had encouraged intellectuals to speak out and freely air their constructive criticism. Many were jailed and severely punished for their audacity.
Before the detentions, the latest political strike against intellectuals came in November when propaganda officials ordered a ban on the discussion of the role of "public intellectuals" in the media - after a daring call by a Guangdong news weekly for intellectuals to take a bold stand on public issues.
The term "public intellectual", which refers to intellectuals who are involved in public affairs, entered the Chinese vocabulary last year via Europe, but was for the most part limited to the pages of academic journals. In September, however, the Southern People's Weekly published a list of China's 50 public intellectuals (in Chinese the term is far broader than in English). The list included leading Chinese scholars, artists, journalists, and writers - living in China, Taiwan, Hong Kong and elsewhere - who have been outspoken on a wide variety of issues, including the environment, severe acute respiratory syndrome (SARS), AIDS and human rights. News of the list shot around China via the Internet, soon becoming a hot topic among netizens.
The eclectic list included both establishment and non-establishment figures. For example, economist Mao Yushi, legal expert He Weifang, environmentalist Liang Congjie, exiled poet Bei Dao, Taiwan writer Li Ao, Cui Jian, the grandfather of Chinese rock, Wang Shuo, the bad boy of contemporary Chinese fiction, AIDS activist Gao Yaojie, and outspoken journalist Lu Yuegang.
The names missing from the list were equally telling, and showed that the newspaper still felt a need to toe the line. The names Jiang Yanyong, the former People's Liberation Army doctor who blew the whistle on the SARS scandal and coverup last year, Dai Qing, a leading opponent of the Three Gorges Dam, and a host of other political dissidents, in jail and in exile, were all absent.
The Southern People's Weekly candidly explained its motive for publishing the list, saying that the market economy had pushed the majority of intellectuals to the fringes of society, and that China desperately needed them to take an independent stand. It said that China had as many professors and experts "as there are hairs on a cow" but that those intellectuals who were brave enough to stand up for truth, "if they have not already vanished, have become the rarest of rarities". The magazine also heaped praise on American writer Susan Sontag, whom it called "the conscience of America" for her criticism of the US government. The message could not have been clearer.
That intellectuals should wish to take a back seat to political activism should come as no surprise. The year has seen a number of journalists from leading newspapers demoted, fired or imprisoned. In fact, China has more journalists behind bars than any other country in the world - the number runs from the 20s to the 40s, depending on the definition of the word "journalist".
Intellectuals have also been targeted, with a number of books blacklisted. The government banned the best-seller An Investigative Report on Chinese Peasants, which portrayed the dire situation of China's rural citizens. And when Zhang Yihe, the daughter of China's "No 1 rightist" of the 1950s, wrote her reminisces she was first required to censor the work heavily before it could be published. Later, the authorities banned The Past Is Not Like (Dissipating) Smoke outright.
Jiang Yanyong, a medical doctor who treated wounded pro-democracy students on the morning of the bloody Tiananmen Square crackdown on June 4, 1989, spent months in detention after making a public call for a re-evaluation of what is called the 1989 Tiananmen incident. And Jiao Guobiao, a journalism professor at Peking University, had his classes canceled at the prestigious university when school opened in September. In a stinging open letter to the Communist Party's publicity department this year, Jiao said the party felt intellectuals were "supposed to act like children who never talk back to their parents".
That same month, the popular Yita Hutu bulletin board service (BBS) at Peking University, a channel for students and teachers to exchange ideas and discuss current events, was shut down without explanation. Also in September, Strategy and Management, a monthly magazine that carried articles by leading thinkers, was closed after publishing a piece critical of the North Korean regime. Wang Guangze, a journalist working for the 21st Century Business Herald, was fired from his job in November after returning from a sanctioned visit to the United States, where he gave a speech at Trinity College called "The Development and Possible Evolution of Political Ecology in China in the Age of the Internet."
In an article in Foreign Affairs in July, Orville Schell, a China specialist, lamented the lack of free discussion in China today, recalling a time - dating as far back as a century ago - when Chinese scholars reveled in a heady period of intellectual discourse. "Dipping back into the intellectual ferment that marked the first half of the 20th century and comparing it to the stilled public dialogue today, it is easy to feel wistful for a time in China when debate was common, ideas and discussions mattered, and thinkers were open to the world and able to speak freely," Schell wrote.
The government's response to the list of 50 public intellectuals both shocked and amused Chinese observers. On November 15, Shanghai's conservative Liberation Daily launched the official attack on political intellectuals in an article written in a tone reminiscent of the Cultural Revolution (1966-76). The newspaper argued that the value of an intellectual "lies in serving society and the masses".
"Chinese history has [proved] that only when intellectuals walk together with the Communist Party, become a part of the working class, and one with the masses, can they fully manifest their own talents and have a lofty position in history and society," it said. Ten days later, the People's Daily, the party mouthpiece, reprinted the article verbatim.
"This is so reminiscent of the Cultural Revolution," said the Beijing intellectual quoted earlier. "A newspaper somewhere else in China publishes something ideological, and then the People's Daily picks it up."
The China Youth Daily reporter chuckled when asked for his reaction to the article, calling it childish. "This is not your normal immaturity," he said, turning serious. "It's exceedingly immature."
Jeffrey Wang, a well-known journalist who declined to use his full Chinese name, said the article was the party's official rejection of the term "public intellectual". He said, "Officials feel that intellectuals should not be independent and should not express views that contradict those of the government." Wang added that the biting tone of the article was one that the Communist Party often resorts to when it lacks a logical or scientific counter argument.
Reporters at several Chinese publications have confirmed that the party's publicity department, which is responsible for monitoring the media, issued a verbal ban in November prohibiting news reports regarding the role of "public intellectuals" as well as articles by several leading liberal commentators. Sources have confirmed to Asia Times Online that Oriental Outlook and China Newsweek have been ordered not to publish any articles by Wang Yi, a professor in Chengdu, Sichuan province, and one of the people on the list of 50.
According to Reporters Without Borders, the publicity department blacklisted a total of six renowned political commentators, banning their writings from the pages of the media. The organization called the move to sideline liberals "sanctions from another age".
Why the harsh reaction? Chinese insiders say officials were already miffed at being the tail increasingly wagged by the Internet. In 2003, the government abolished a controversial law dealing with vagrants after the death of a man in police custody led to a national outcry on the Internet. And in another incident, a court was ordered to re-hear a case after widespread protests of partiality on the Internet. Chinese journalists argue that some dissidents have been dealt with more leniently after cyber-activists took up their cases.
Party officials are said to be even more frustrated by the growing number of intellectuals taking stands on a wide variety of issues. The Beijing intellectual said that the publicity department "wants intellectuals to know their place, and what their responsibility should be".
It didn't help when rumors spread that public intellectuals were somehow involved in two recent protests that saw tens of thousands of workers and farmers take to the streets in two inland cities.
The Beijing intellectual interviewed takes the view that now that President Hu Jintao has won his struggle with Jiang Zemin, who stepped down from his post as chairman of the Communist Party's Central Military Commission in September, he "no longer needs the media", and wants to reassert his control over it.
"In reality, the new government is no better than those of the past," she said. "It would like to return to the Maoist days and the road of Marxism, because experience has taught the leadership that they have no other way to go."
Journalists support her argument, repeating rumors of internal meetings in which officials have allegedly called for China to copy the example of Cuba and North Korea in controlling freedom of expression. The intellectual insisted, however, that there is no turning back. "Will other people in the party and in the media be willing to go along with this?" she asked. "I don't think so. This is not North Korea."
More troublesome for the Communist Party is that the media are becoming more and more commercial and dependent on sales, which has made the press increasingly independent and aggressive in reporting the news.
Journalist Jeffrey Wang conceded that the two sides may be heading toward a collision and said he couldn't rule out the use of harsher measures to counter this trend. But he argued such a policy would be met by strong resistance.
"The media [have] become very commercialized, and if the party wants to control [them], that won't be as easy as before," said Wang. "The people will strongly oppose this."
He cited the example of Peking University journalism Professor Jiao Guobiao, whose classes were canceled but who was still able to travel abroad, where he spoke out quite openly, with no apparent retribution so far. "If they touched him, there would be a serious public reaction," said Wang. "My feeling is that there is no news that cannot be seen, and no word that cannot be spoken."
The China Youth Daily journalist argued that the party mistakenly thinks that intellectuals are bent on revolution, which he says is incorrect. "They think we're anti-China, but we're not," he said. "There's really no need for them to do what they're doing."
Wang said suppression of free speech could boomerang on the party. "If these rational voices are suppressed, then an irrational voice could emerge," he said. "And this will not be good for the political transformation of China."
So far, intellectuals and activists show no signs of backing down, and no one can predict the outcome.
Many intellectuals are frustrated that the fourth generation of the Chinese Communist Party leadership, President Hu Jintao and Premier Wen Jiabao, have not turned out to be the open reformers people had hoped for. The general consensus is that the Hu-Wen team is actually even harsher in dealing with freedom of expression.
"Before he came to power, we had a lot of hope for Hu," said Wang. "Since then, we've not been so optimistic. We feel quite depressed."
But despite harassment, arrests and disappointments, Chinese continue to speak out via their local media, the Internet, the international media and during trips abroad. As writer Yu Jie told a group at Harvard University in May, "The best way to deal with an irrational and dictatorial government is for more people to speak the truth."
Despite the banning of Zhang Yihe's The Past Is Not Like (Dissipating) Smoke, the book continues to do a booming business on side streets and dark underpasses around China. It reportedly sold 300,000 legal copies and is believed to have sold as many as 2 million pirated copies. The same is true for An Investigative Report on Chinese Peasants, which has also become an underground best-seller.
The uncensored version of Zhang's book, under the title The Last Aristocrat, published by Oxford University Press, is now on bookshelves throughout Taiwan and Hong Kong. When Zhang was awarded a China PEN award of US$2,000, security agents warned other writers not to attend the ceremony held in a small village near the Great Wall. But Reuters reports that 60 people - including some of the top names in China's literary circles - defied the ban to show their respect for Zhang. The author is now at work on her second book.
Another recent example is Liu Di, aka the "Stainless Steel Mouse". The 23-year-old woman, who looks like anything but a threat to the survival of the Communist Party, was whisked off her university campus by security police in 2002 because of her political activities on the Internet. She spent a year in prison before being released; charges were never brought against her.
Despite her bitter experience, the demure Stainless Steel Mouse has returned to cyber-space. As she told the New York Times last July, "It's the right thing for me to do, so I'm going to keep doing it."
Paul Mooney is a veteran freelance writer based in Beijing.