Excerpt: Liu Xiaobo’s No Enemies, No Hatred
Sampsonia Way presents an excerpt from Liu Xiaobo’s book No Enemies, No Hatred: Selected Essays and Poems. The book was edited by Xiaobo’s wife, Liu Xia, as well as Perry Link and Fearless Ink. columnist Tienchi Martin-Liao.
The essay below was written by Liu Xiaobo in 2008, eighteen months before he was sentenced to eleven years in prison for “inciting subversion of state power.” The essay is reproduced here with permission of Harvard University Press.
Imprisoning People For Words and the Power of Public Opinion
I. County-Level Bullies and What They Do
China has a rich tradition of persecuting people for their words. Victims are strewn across Chinese history from the First Emperor of Qin (259 BCE–210 BCE) and his famous “burning of books and live burials of scholars” to Mao Zedong’s 1957 Anti-Rightist Campaign and 1966–1969 Cultural Revolution. In these pogroms even family members and acquaintances of victims have been punished. Today, thirty years after the beginning of “reform and opening,” at least eighty journalists and online writers are in prison in China. The “glorious” 2008 Beijing Olympics are drawing near, but accounts of the imprisonments are banned from China’s media. Still, even with the ban in place, cases keep coming to light on the Internet. Here are some examples:
The Pengshui Poem Case In August 2006, Qin Zhongfei, a clerk in the Personnel Department of the Education Committee of the Pengshui County government, in the municipality of Chongqing, wrote a poem set to the rhyming scheme of “Springtime Seeping through a Fragrant Garden” in which he satirized county officials. He sent it out as a text message on his mobile phone, and that was enough for Communist Party Secretary Lan Qinghua and County Chief Zhou Wei to throw Qin into jail on charges of “fabricating rumors and libel of county leaders.” After a public outcry, and with help from rights lawyers, Qin was released and awarded 2,125.70 yuan in compensation.
The Jishan Article Case In April 2007, Nan Huirong, Xue Zhijing and Yang Qinyu, three technology officials in Jishan County, Shanxi Province, wrote an article that expressed discontent with the situation in Jishan, criticized County Party Secretary Li Runshan in a number of ways, and adduced evidence to back their complaints. They sent it to thirty-seven local government departments, and ten days later police arrested them. Again the charges were “rumor-fabrication and libel.” The Party Secretary went so far as to require more than five hundred officials at the level of section chief and above to attend a “public warning meeting” at which the three authors of the offending piece appeared in handcuffs and were forced to criticize themselves and to confess.
The Danzhou Lyrics Case In July 2007, two high-school teachers, surnamed Li and Liu, who opposed the decision of the government of Danzhou City, Hainan Province, to move the senior high school grades of the Nada Number Two High School to the Dongpo branch of Hainan High School, wrote a folk song in the Danzhou dialect criticizing the move. The local police put the two teachers under administrative detention for fifteen days “on suspicion of personal attacks on city leaders and libelous defamation of city leaders.”
The Gaotang Internet Post Case In December 2006, Dong Wei, Wang Zifeng, Hu Dongchen, and others in Gaotang County, Shandong Province, posted comments about local governance in the “Gaotang” entry on the Internet site Baidu, and later the three were criminally detained “on suspicion of insulting and libeling County Party Secretary Sun Lanyu.” After a public outcry and help from rights lawyers, officials in the Gaotang county government decided on January 21, 2007, to withdraw the arrest warrants and release the suspects. The three later filed for compensation and were each awarded more than 1,700 yuan.
The Mengzhou Book Case In December 2007, six farmers in Mengzhou City, Henan Province, reported financial malfeasance at a village-owned brewery. They printed and distributed a booklet called An Appeal for Justice in which they criticized the deputy mayor of Mengzhou, the former deputy director of the United Front department of the Mengzhou Municipal Party Committee, and a few other officials. The six farmers heard no answer to their “appeal for justice,” but they did hear a judge at a local court sentence them to six months in jail for “libel.” Worse, they were escorted through the streets—twice—in the kind of public-shame parade that was standard in China’s imperial era.
The Zhu Wenna Case On January 1, 2008, People of the Law, a magazine published in Beijing by the state-owned Legal Daily, carried an investigative report by Zhu Wenna that criticized County Party Secretary Zhang Zhiguo in Tieling City, Xifeng County, Liaoning Province. On January 4, public security personnel from Tieling traveled to the offices of People of the Law in Beijing to detain Zhu on “suspicion of libel.” Later, after a strong public outcry, Tieling County Public Security withdrew its charges and issued an apology. The Tieling Party Committee announced that Party Secretary Zhang’s involvement in the decision to “go to Beijing to detain the reporter Zhu Wenna” and to file charges against her had shown “weak awareness of the law” and that Zhang had direct, inescapable leadership responsibility for the incident. On February 4, 2008, Zhang was obliged to acknowledge that responsibility. He wrote a thoroughgoing self-criticism to the Tieling Party Committee and resigned.
These examples of imprisoning people for words result from two factors: the primitive nature of our political system and the deterioration in quality of the officials who inhabit it. China’s autocratic political system has endured for millennia, and right up to today there has been no fundamental change in it. In ancient times the one who ruled “all under heaven” was an emperor, and challenging him was out of the question. (There were, to be sure, a few enlightened emperors who abolished laws that treated words as crimes. Emperor Wen of Han [202 BCE–157 BCE] abolished the crime of “black magic libel,” for example.) In today’s autocracy, it is the Party that rules “all under heaven,” and Party rule at times has been even tighter than premodern autocracy in its annihilation of dissent. High Maoism defined the extremes in treating words as crimes, and today, even after thirty years of reform, there is no change at all in the principle that Party power reigns supreme. The dominant official at every level of government, without exception, is the Communist Party secretary. Once a decision is made, people are free to applaud. In this the popular jingle gets it right:
The Party points the way,
The people all say “yea!”
The rulers make a move,
The ruled all say “approve!”
Local officials have always made “holding onto the scepter of rule” their highest priority in governance, and in recent years they have been growing more aggressive and arbitrary in their obsession with personal power. They launch large construction projects—which are riddled with corruption and wasteful of public resources—in order to accumulate records of “political performance.” The pursuit of boondoggles, in turn, entails that great effort and energy must be spent on “shutting people up.” The ostensible mission of “building wealth in a locale” turns into “going berserk in a locale” and finally into “bringing disaster to a locale.” Anyone who exposes corruption needs to be packed off to jail. Even if corrupt officials are caught and punished, it is rare for anything good to happen to a whistleblower.
The local bullying happens, moreover, in a context where the bully monopolizes all the resources. The media are not free, the judiciary is not free, and the police work for the “head honchos.” The country’s constitution states that citizens enjoy the right to free speech, but Article 105 of the Criminal Law provides that “inciting subversion of state power” is a crime, and when the two principles collide, Article 105 wins. This fact makes any criticism of the Communist Party or its officials at any level into a high-wire act and ensures that China’s prisons remain well stocked with prisoners of conscience. Even the Party Secretary in a peanut-sized county is an emperor on his own piece of turf, where he can block the sun with one hand if he likes. Offend this little emperor and you can go to prison.
Because Communist ideals have become completely hollow during the “reform” years, the Communist Party has turned into nothing more than a coalition of profit-seeking interest groups. Officials are corrupt and the quality of governance is in steady decline. The marriage of government and business is already well established, and in recent times we have seen an alliance between government and the underworld as well. In some locations this alliance is so tight that the two are practically indistinguishable. The underworld buys the government with bribes, and the government borrows the underworld to control troublemakers. Party officials increasingly behave like underworld godfathers who reject any kind of criticism or dissent. They can use the machinery of state power to cut your throat or their underworld tools to shut your mouth.
II. The Power of Public Opinion in “Low Sensitivity” Cases
In the eighteen years since the Tiananmen Massacre, China has seen many cases of “prison for words,” and they have occurred at many levels of government. Most of the victims have been either political dissidents or rights defenders, two categories about which China’s rulers are extremely sensitive, and for that reason news of their cases is routinely sealed from the media inside China, making it almost impossible for the public to come to the aid of such victims. The tiny number of political prisoners who do get released are normally the famous ones, because theirs are the cases that major Western countries know about and can complain about. “Hostage diplomacy” has by now become a standard practice in the Chinese government’s negotiations with other countries.
The persistence of political prisons in China might seem depressing, but there is a brighter side to this issue as well. China has come a long way since the Mao era of “one voice fits all.” Today we live in a post-totalitarian state where values are more diverse than before and a hubbub of different voices grows louder day by day. “Rights awareness” is on the rise, civil society is growing, the space for expression of opinion is expanding, and concrete acts of rights-defense are popping up with increasing frequency. Now that we have the Internet, which provides both information and a platform for expression that ordinary people never had before, the hunger to say one’s piece has grown stronger, too. It looks for every crevice it can find, and when public opinion comes together on an issue it can gush forth in a great wave.
In recent years the Chinese public has been moving toward a consensus that sending people to prison for their words is wrong. The issue of freedom of expression was once something that only intellectuals and journalists worried about, but now it has spread to many other parts of society, where opinions are getting stronger every day. Absurd behavior by local officials (in the cases we noted above, for example) actually serves a useful purpose in building public consensus on the question of treating words as crimes. The consensus can be built because the victims in the grassroots cases are not big-name dissidents or rights defenders of the kind the regime brands as “enemy forces,” making people afraid to identify with them. The grassroots victims are just regular government clerks, run-of-the-mill reporters, and other ordinary citizens, and their criticisms are aimed not at the whole Communist system or its high-level officials but at county bosses and local government. In order to voice complaint about the treatment of a famous dissident, a person has to “jump the Great Firewall” of Internet censorship and do his or her talking out in international cyberspace; by contrast, these low-level cases, with their low political sensitivity, can be the basis on which ordinary people satisfy their hunger to express anger at officialdom, and they can do it inside the firewall. When they begin to do so, an additional benefit emerges, which is that the question of imprisoning people for words comes to seem a more normal issue, less “sensitive,” and in the long run this is a good thing for the big-name dissidents as well, because public opinion now begins to hold that “prison for words” is just plain wrong, regardless of the level at which it occurs.
All this could not happen without the Internet, which is where ordinary Chinese now go when they want to know what “really happened” in stories that they see in the state-run press, and is also where they go to say something if they want to. No major event in recent years in China has escaped frank public commentary on the Internet.
The public outcry in the cases that I listed at the beginning of this essay could not have happened without the Internet. Those instances of outcry led, in turn, to long reports and commentaries in some of the more open of the official Chinese media, such as Southern Metropolitan Daily, Southern Weekend, and China Youth Daily. Even one of the Party’s standard mouthpieces, Xinhuanet, has published sharp words about the criminalization of speech. When an article called “Why Are the Culprits in Prison-for-Words Cases Always County Party Secretaries?” appeared on Xinhuanet under the pen name Wang Ping, many top websites scrambled to republish it. A search today on Baidu for comments on county-level imprisonment-for-words yields more than 100,000 results. The Wang Ping article alone gets 5,580.
Any case of prison-for-words, whatever the details, draws a torrent of public comment if it ever hits the media, and public attention of this kind can provide protection for victims. The protection is not guaranteed, to be sure, and it does nothing to bring perpetrators to a court of law, but it can get certain other things done. It can spare the victims a trip to prison, and occasionally can leverage compensation from the government as well—as shown in the Pengshui Poem Case and Gaotang Internet Post Case, noted above. It can force perpetrators to retract decisions and make public apologies. Sometimes it can even oblige higher levels of government to impose punishments on offending officials, as in the Zhu Wenna Case, in which Party Secretary Zhang Zhiguo was ordered to resign.
Governmental controls on public expression loosen and tighten from time to time in China, but the pressure from below for more free expression does not fluctuate. It just keeps growing. In the 1990s, petitions that protested cases of prison-for-words typically attracted only a few dozen signatures, and often less than that. A decade later, thanks mostly to the Internet, such letters get hundreds of signatures and sometimes thousands. In 2004 the open letter that was posted in the “Southern Metropolitan Case” [editors in that case were fired and criminally charged after exposing government cover-ups—Ed.] attracted more than three thousand signatures among media workers alone. Public pressure—including international pressure—eventually grew strong enough that two of the victims, Deng Haiyan and Cheng Yizhong, were released on grounds of “insufficient evidence” while the other two, Li Minying and Yu Huafeng, both saw the charges against them sharply reduced and their prison sentences greatly shortened. Li was released in 2007 and Yu in 2008. None of this would have happened without public pressure.
The growing popular opposition to prison-for-words has been crucial in the rising “rights defense” movement. In an obvious sense, of course, opposition to prison-for-words is precisely about freedom of speech, but the importance of the issue goes beyond that. This is because the expression of public opinion, besides being good in itself, has become an indispensable tool in pursuing almost everything else in the rights movement. Rights in our authoritarian society are not protected by legal or administrative structures, so the role of public opinion becomes especially important. In a sense it doesn’t matter whether a fight is over a nasty law that affects everyone or just a single person’s case, because the side-effect of a controversy is always to raise popular awareness of rights. This is why step one for rights defenders is to expose facts to the light of day and let people know that they have the right to comment. This simple step can bring important results in relatively “unsensitive” grassroots cases. It can even do some good in cases of very high sensitivity, such as those of Liu Di, Du Daobin, Sun Danian, and “Freezing Point.”*
The Chinese government has been doing everything it possibly can to control the Internet. It constantly announces new regulations and laws, sinks vast sums into building its “Great Firewall” against “anti-China” content, hires an ever-larger army of Internet police, and has been paying people to go online to write posts to “guide” public opinion in pro-government directions. And yet, despite all of that, it is losing. It cannot repress the burgeoning spread of citizen-run websites. Liberal-minded intellectuals, in particular, make good use of the Internet, where they run unofficial and semi-official websites of many kinds. Even websites of the mainline state media—“Building a Stronger China,” “New China Forum,” “China Youth Online,” “Southern Media Web,” and others—contain much criticism of China’s governing system and of policy decisions that top leaders have made. In short, an online civil society is taking shape, whether the government likes it or not.
Moreover the regime’s efforts to block overseas online media are losing ground. “Wall-jumping” software has become easier to get in recent years, and the Chinese today enjoy a broader range of information than they have ever had before. International opinion is also beginning to influence Chinese popular opinion in unprecedented ways. Even the opinions of Chinese dissidents are reaching people inside China more than before because they are rechanneled back into China through international websites.
Clever officials, perceiving the utility of the Internet in building public opinion, have begun to use it to burnish images of themselves as “caring for the people.” During the huge blizzard in winter of 2008, for example, several hundred thousand people became stranded outside the Guangzhou rail station, and the issue began to attract considerable attention in the media. On February 3, in an effort to soothe popular frustrations, Guangdong Provincial Party Secretary Wang Yang and Provincial Governor Huang Huahua used a news website called “Olympics First Net” to publish “A Letter to Our Guangdong Netizen Friends.” The letter showed unusual tolerance, even approval, of netizen criticism of the government, and was sprinkled with fashionable net-lingo to boot. You netizens, it said, are “well-informed, thoughtful, enthusiastic, and spirited.” You have offered many good opinions and suggestions about what to do in this unusual, disastrous blizzard, and your opinions “have become an important foundation that supports our decisions . . . We are willing to ‘rap on’ with you on topics of common concern. As for the imperfections in our decisions and our work, we are happy to see you ‘let it fly.’”
The Chinese political system remains so untransparent that it is hard to say in any quantifiable way exactly how much the new prominence of public opinion actually affects government decisions. But the trend is certainly upward. On the Internet, 2007 was dubbed “the inaugural year of Chinese public opinion” because of several well-known cases in which the pressure of public opinion obviously had a major effect. These include the “Toughest Nail House Case,” in which one solitary family held out against forced demolition of their home; the “Brick Kilns Slave Labor Case” [see pp. 94–106 above]; the “Nie Shubin Case,” in which a young man was executed for a crime that (it was later shown) he did not commit; the “Pengshui Poem Case” and “Zhu Wenna Case,” both cited above; the “City Patrol Beating Death Case,” in which a man named Wei Wenhua was beaten to death after photographing police violence; and the campaign to abolish “Re-education through Labor.”
In China today, control on expression by an authoritarian regime and pressure for greater latitude from an increasingly pluralistic society are both realities. It is a mistake to ignore either of them. Among the forces pushing for more freedom, there are heroic acts that challenge government power, but these are rare; much more common, indeed the mainstream of the resistance trend, are the low-key, practical ways in which people everywhere keep making small differences. These people have the principle of free expression in mind, but they are also tactically astute. They know how to get things done even as they devise clever ways to protect themselves. They are aware that the political regime is not going to change any time soon, so do what they can in their immediate environments. To purists, they can seem to be making too many compromises, but there can be no doubt they are a major part of the overall quest. The best hope for the future lies in the way civil society on the Internet continually eats away, inch by inch, at the government controls.
In sum, the power of public opinion in China today is much greater than it was in the 1990s, to say nothing of the Mao era, and it is unlikely that China will ever revert to a situation where only the government speaks and everyone else shuts up. But we must recognize that the power of public opinion is not yet a formal part of the political system. It works here and there, now and then—and more and more—but only freelance, as it were, outside of the system. The regime can still simply “declare” an activity to be illegal whenever it wants to. We must look forward to the day when the rights of the people will have institutional guarantees. That day will come.
*Du Daobin was arrested in October 2003 on charges of “inciting subversion of state power” on the Internet. Sun Dawu is a businessman sentenced in November 2003 for illegally accepting public funds. “Freezing Point” is the name of a supplement to China Youth Daily that was shut down in January 2006 for its criticisms of Communist Party officials and its support for non-Party interpretations of history. On Liu Di, see “From Wang Shuo’s Wicked Satire to Hu Ge’s Egao: Political Humor in a Post-Totalitarian Dictatorship” (pp. 177–187 above).
At home in Beijing, February 19, 2008
Originally published in Ren yu renquan (Humanity and Human Rights), March 2008 Translated by Louisa Chiang
Excerpted from No Enemies, No Hatred: Selected Essays and Poems by Liu Xiaobo, copyright © 2013. Reprinted by permission of Harvard University Press. All rights reserved.