Keep the Power in a Cage, Not the Writers

by    /  March 28, 2018  / No comments

Image via ChinaTechNews.com.

China has become a force with its digital technology in the last decade. According to the statistics Portal,there are one billion netizens in China in 2017, an increase in the past few years. Accordingly, E-commerce transactions are estimated to be larger than in France, Germany, Japan, the United Kingdom and the United States combined. The mobile payments among China’s Internet users grew from 25 % in 2013 to 68% in 2016: even beggars in China are using an i-pad to beg! In order to manage this huge volume of information and transaction, the government is making enormous capital investments in digital technologies such as big data, artificial intelligence and financial technology. The “e-governance” systems, as well as drones and robots, are being developed and manufactured by many private companies, and some also gain subsidies from public money. But the government does not only want to control the world market or the consumers’ habits. To only grab people’s pockets is not enough. It wants to control their minds.

In the digital era, our daily life is digitalized. Nietzche, if he were still alive, would certainly shout,”God is dead!” And others would agree. Most people lose their orientation, get lost in the digital jungle and feel the same way as Nietzsche. Big companies can control our hearts and minds, and of course our pockets. When the companies, such as Microsoft, Cisco, Google or Facebook, not to mention the Chinese domestic leviathan- Baidu, Tencent, Alibaba and Huawei etc. are collaborating with the totalitarian regime, then we are all dead, that’s for sure.

  1. Blind Chess, a column by Tienchi Martin-Liao
  2. 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 til 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.
  3. Tienchi Martin-Liao
  4. 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.

The Chinese government plans to launch the so-called Social Credit System in the country to evaluate the “trustworthiness” of each citizen. The ambitious plan has started already, it scores individuals on their consuming habits, what kind of food, clothing, car and leisure activities they prefer. Does they pay the tax and the utilities bills properly? What type of friends do they have? Have they expressed any dissatisfaction to the public policy or critics to the government? The authority sets up the standards. Right now the Social Credit System is voluntary, but in 2020 it becomes mandatory. This score is like one’s shadow, it will follow you for your whole life. The score (350-950), determines whether one can get a date or find a job, receive a mortgage, or gain travel permission. The authority knows everything about you, where you are, with whom you are, how you are, with or without money, with or without a secret lover, when you are ill, or even when you are going to die.

The futuristic perspective of the Chinese is even more horrible then in Orwell’s 1984, more miserable and hopeless than in A. Huxley’s Brave New World. However, the Chinese government describes the “beautiful Chinese world” as a “society of sincerity”, where less fake goods, from baby food, to medicine, to luxurious cosmetics, and handbags will be on the market. With this illusion (or fata morgana) of healthy food, and genuine and authentic products, a majority of Chinese are willing to give up the personal freedom and dignity to become a slave of a plastic card number to gain the material stuff. How cynical it is, what a tragedy, what a sham!

Even today, the surveillance system is already so expanded that the security authority controls comprehensive information about those unrelenting individuals. In 1998 the Ministry of Public Security launched the Golden Shield Project. It is a nationwide network-security project, also called the Great Firewall of China. It is a censorship and surveillance project that blocks and filters politically inconvenient information from foreign countries. It took the authority many years to complete the system, it started to operate in 2003. Another five years passed before the Ministry finished the perfect monitoring system in 2008 when the Olympics were hosted in Beijing. Many people who are dissidents in eyes of the authority, are being visited or subpoenaed (also ironically called “tea drinking” treatment)regularly by security police. The officers have got a list of critical writings of the subpoenaed people, they are told that the authority has enough “evidence” of their anti-government activities. Depending on their behavior in the future, a step more could mean arrest and prison. The authority has built up the cages, walls, fences to bring in the independent and unpatriotic intellectuals. Anytime it feels that the state power has been challenged, it is time to bring them in. It is as though they are taunting or daring the dissidents to harm national security, disclose state secrets, injure the interests of the state or society, undermine national unification, destroy the social order etc. These were the accusations which brought the poet Shi Tao to spend 10 years in prison, and the “crimes” that Liu Xiaobo was said to have committed so that he spent almost 9 years in jail and finally died.

How could a couple dozen writers and activists harm and endanger the society, leak the states secret, disturb the social harmony and order through their words and behavior? So many writers and bloggers spend tens of years behind the bar, or even lose their freedom forever and spend their whole life in prison. The courageous intellectuals in China say that “the power” is a monster. It should kept in cage, instead of the writers. Yet, after the Peoples’ Congress has amended the constitution in March and removed the paragraph that the State President’s mandate is unlimited, we should expect a lifelong dictator in China- Xi Jinping. Under Xi, the power will not be kept in cage, but the untamed independent individuals will be.

We do not fear the firewall. Fear – pathetic fear- belongs to the dictator and the totalitarian regime. We writers believe that words are free, that words and our thoughts have wings. We can overcome any border, any fence, any wall, and any cage. Even in jail, the imprisoned colleagues are free human beings, their thoughts are free, their courage and ideas will be carried on by other writers all over the world.

About the Author

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.

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Fearless, Ink.