Traitor or Patriot?
Now the world knows Li Chengpeng’s The Whole World Knows
It’s a paradox: The suppressor is the biggest promoter of the suppressed.
Without the Chinese government’s disturbed behavior, Liu Xiaobo would not have received the Nobel Peace Prize, nor would Ai Weiwei have become an international icon. Similarly, the nationally popular writer and blogger Li Chengpeng has recently attracted international attention, thanks to an official “promotion.”
- During the Cultural Revolution, people were sentenced to death or outright murdered because of one wrong sentence. In China today writers do not lose their lives over their poems or articles; however, they are jailed for years. My friend Liu Xiaobo for example will stay in prison till 2020; even winning the Nobel Peace Prize could not help him. In prison those lucky enough not to be sentenced to hard labor play “blind chess” to kill time AND TO TRAIN THE BRAIN NOT TO RUST. Freedom of expression is still a luxury in China. The firewall is everywhere, yet words can fly above it and so can our thoughts. My column, like the blind chess played by prisoners, is an exercise to keep our brains from rusting and the situation in China from indifference.
- Tienchi Martin-Liao is the president of the Independent Chinese PEN Center. Previously she worked at the Institute for Asian Affairs in Hamburg, Germany, and lectured at the Ruhr-University Bochum from 1985 to 1991. She became head of the Richard-Wilhelm Research Center for Translation in 1991 until she took a job in 2001 as director of the Laogai Research Foundation (LRF) to work on human rights issues. She was at LRF until 2009. Martin-Liao has served as deputy director of the affiliated China Information Center and was responsible for updating the Laogai Handbook and working on the Black Series, autobiographies of Chinese political prisoners and other human rights books. She was elected president of the Independent Chinese PEN Center in October 2009 and has daily contact with online journalists in China.
Li, the 44 year-old Weibo-writer, has over 6 million fans in China, yet it’s still very difficult for him to publish his books because all ISBN numbers are controlled by the authorities. Since his books contain sensitive social criticism, no one wants to take the risk.
Well, almost no one.
Last winter, after three years of effort, Li finally found a small publishing house, Xinxing (New Star Press) in Beijing, which was willing to publish his essay collections.
“This country must publish such a book,” one of Xinxing’s editors said. The other declared, “In our time, there must be someone who dares to take responsibility for this book.” Nevertheless, the publishing house took many precautions with Li’s work. Everything was kept secret during the proof-reading process; Li and his editor avoided using cell phones, and deleted the manuscript right after sending it to the printer, before it was even on the shelf. Finally, The Whole World Knows was out in January and Li went to Beijing for the book tour.
“Big eyes” Li, as his fans calls him, was surprised that, among his audience in Beijing, both the police and patriotic leftists were waiting for him. Last September Li wrote an article, “Confessions of a Traitor,” which criticized anti-Japanese nationalists and explained that a “boycott of Japanese goods” is just a form of self-deception for “brain damaged” patriots.
At the book signing in Beijing, Li was punched by two men and threatened with a gift-wrapped knife. These people were probably angry with him for criticizing his own fatherland while expressing tolerance of the Japanese, who recently displayed—again—their ambitions in the Senkaku-Island dispute.
Two days later, on January 12, before a book signing in his hometown of Chengdu, the authorities told Li that he should keep his mouth shut—no greetings, no exchanging any words with the readers. Some of Li’s literary friends, such as the scholar Ran Yunfei, the poet Li Yawei, and the renown writer Liu Shahe, were there to support him, but he could only shake hands with them silently. Plainclothes police removed the microphones, cancelled the press conference, and forced the guests to leave the stage. Li even wore a black gag while signing the books. He then went to the middle of the stage and opened his jacket. Inside he was wearing a white T-shirt with four blue characters written on it. They read: I love you all.
Thus a simple book signing turns into a dramatic and emotional confrontation. Once burnt, twice cautious, the authority is alert to all sorts of mass gatherings. In their logic, any event with a crowd means a potential riot. Therefore it needs to be nipped in the bud. Yet, due to the authorities’ “help,”The Whole World Knows was sold out—300,000 copies—within a week!
First allow the publishing, afterward prevent the book tour.
Such contradictory behavior is very normal in China. The best description of the publishing situation can be found in Li’s article “Only a Common Youngster.” In it he writes: “Only the publishing house under Party leadership is allowed to give out ISBN numbers; many harmful works can be published without the ISBN number though. Some bold or not ‘well-educated’ publishing houses dare to resist the pressure and publish certain books. Yet publishing is just the beginning, because afterwards censorship is still there. Despite the pressure, some books are published secretly, but will be banned right after they are on the market, like Ye Fu’s Urban Elegy years ago. Other books are printed, yet the information has been leaked, so they must be piled in storage, like Yu Jianrong’s Report on An’yuan…there are also books that are printed but directly destroyed, like Solo Mission 2…When a book is published, it is only the beginning; there are still tens of thousands of miles to go and no one can tell when and where it will be killed by certain forces.”
The situation is the same for bloggers. Your home page or Facebook account can be shut down overnight. Your article can be deleted in minutes. In this country, independent writers are fighters and survivors. Li said it well: “Writing is not a way to teach lessons; it is only a civilized way to find company, so that you are not alone.”