Escape from China

As I’ve said before, China can be a wonderful place, as long as you play by its rules. There are many things to praise about the CCP — the one that’s helping bring technology to the countryside, or the one that helps certain (but by no means all) minorities maintain their culture. But as I also have always said, there is more than one CCP. And the CCP you’ll read about in this superb essay by Chinese writer Liao Yiwu is the worst of the worst.

Liao was once imprisoned for daring to write a poem about the government’s harsh handling of the student protestors of 1989, and his books, needless to say, can only be published abroad. After being barred from entering the US to attend a PEN conference, his handlers told him if he tried to go to the airport he would be “disappeared” just like Ai Weiwei.

For a writer, especially one who aspires to bear witness to what is happening in China, freedom of speech and publication mean more than life itself. My good friend, the Nobel laureate Liu Xiaobo, has paid a hefty price for his writings and political activism. I did not want to follow his path. I had no intention of going back to prison. I was also unwilling to be treated as a “symbol of freedom” by people outside the tall prison walls.

China for him had become a prison in which he was destined to rot. That was unacceptable. He had to write, and he would do whatever he needed to to secure the freedom to express himself.

Only by escaping this colossal and invisible prison called China could I write and publish freely. I have the responsibility to let the world know about the real China hidden behind the illusion of an economic boom — a China indifferent to ordinary people’s simmering resentment.

Escape he does, crossing from a border town in Yunnan to Vietnam, and finally making his way to Berlin, where one of his books is being published. This is a remarkable story of bravery and refusal to be silenced by government terror.

Which leads me to an observation I made in China last week. Somethings seems to have changed. Censorship, which my Chinese friends used to laugh at as a nuisance, has become a front-and-center national issue. As always on these trips, I talk to as many Chinese people as I can about their feelings toward the government. Granted, these spot interviews are thoroughly unscientific, but I have always found them revealing. In the past, most of the responses I got were along the same lines: We don’t really love the government, but it gets things done, and anything it sets its sights on doing will happen. In general, this is a good thing. We don’t love our government but we support it and are proud of our country.

During the run-up to the Olympics I heard more positive things about the government than ever before. People defended it aggressively in light of the riots in Tibet, and national pride seemed to be at its zenith, which wasn’t too surprising. Along with Tibet, this was when AntiCNN began its successful campaign to convince China it was the victim of a vast media conspiracy to make them look bad. Everyone seemed to close ranks and display their love of China, even placing a “heart China” alongside their names on MSN.

Has there been a sea change? Again, this is not scientific in the least, but all I heard this time, from taxi drivers to old colleagues to new friends, was harsh criticism. The one word that permeated each discussion was “Weibo.” Something about the Wenzhou train crash and its harmonization on Weibo seemed to have struck a nerve with many Chinese (and foreigners, too). Finally, suddenly, censorship moved from being a nuisance to outright repression.

The reaction to the cover-up was across the board: the government had lost the trust of its people, and all the glory they were claiming for its new high-speed rail system was built on sand. Some said they would never ride the fast trains now that they know they are unsafe, and they place the entire blame for that on the government. A government that pledged the trains were safe, and then covered up its flaws. And then censored all conversation about it. This was one whammy after another, and the Chinese people seemed to reach a breaking point. And I don’t see how their trust can be re-won.

With sites like Weibo, it’s becoming impossible for the Chinese government to hide under a cloak of secrecy. They can try to stamp out conversations but it will be like whack-a-mole; one will flare up as the other is extinguished. And the more they censor, the more outraged the public will become.

People might be furious at the government, but that doesn’t mean they’re optimistic. The vibe I got was one of outrage mixed with resignation. And for the umpteenth time, I know this was not a representative sample. But it seemed so prevalent, it couldn’t have just been a coincidence that everyone wanted to complain about the handling of Weibo.

The CCP faces a rocky road as it seeks to repair the damage it created for itself. Millions of their people will be watching them, and attempts to silence them all on the microblogs will be an exercise in futility. China’s relationship with its own citizens seems to have entered a new phase, and it will be fascinating to see how it unfolds.


Richard Burger is the author of Behind the Red Door: Sex in China, an exploration of China's sexual revolution and its clash with traditional Chinese values.

The Discussion: 119 Comments

Crybaby one moment, bully the next.
The many faces of ccp Face.
F$%#%^ pathetic.
The economic hegenom of the 21st century. Forget it. Manufacture for export is slowly constricting. Land reclamations for r/e are accelerating in order to pay off provincial debt….increasingly pissed off peasantry. Obstreperous social media. Massive income divide. Fearful neighbours.Food supply a few steps from croaking a province. Infrastructure with a very short term life span.

Crikey, I though Europe had problems.

September 26, 2011 @ 2:02 pm | Comment

Shit. Reading this blog it’s like being in a bar argument in Harlem. The knives gonna come out prutty soon. Nasty.

September 26, 2011 @ 6:26 pm | Comment

“bar argument in Harlem”

Random and fascinating at the same time. Please, tell me exactly what a bar argument in Harlem is really like.

September 26, 2011 @ 11:26 pm | Comment

a bar argument in Harlem

Don’t know either – but I think John Lee knows, and would like to turn this thread into one.

September 27, 2011 @ 12:01 am | Comment

Is a bar argument in Harlem fundamentally different from a bar argument anywhere else? I was not aware of that.

September 27, 2011 @ 12:52 am | Comment

It’s more relaxed in most Dutch coffee shops. Have a reefer, John Lee. Should be good for you.

September 27, 2011 @ 1:01 am | Comment

Ha ha now yo talking. See, yall need some black mutha come sort yo guys shiit out. Yowsa!

September 27, 2011 @ 1:52 am | Comment

An thats John Lee as in Hooker, not some fortune cookie my ass chow mein yellow Lee. Tho Yao Ming he cool. Harlem y’dig. Where Globetrators comming from y’all.

September 27, 2011 @ 1:58 am | Comment

I think JR has mistaken Harlem for Haarlem. JLH was a great musician, never bettered although I’m sure KT has his own views on this.

September 27, 2011 @ 2:41 am | Comment

@FOARP. Woke up, made coffee, turned on the medium and confronted by a JLH connundrum.Well, just can’t help it, but the four metres of rare vinyl I sold off in a hurry a few years ago to a specialist collector included twenty or so JLH slabs going back to his first in 1948.

Despite the critics negative views, my favourite was the double acoustic album on Ralp J Gleason’s Fantasy label produced in the mid 60s. Incredibly strong songs, my favourites being Declaration Day and You’r So Nice and Kind Della Lou.

Other than listening to silver/gold age reggae/dub (thus KT), The Who and trashy mid-sixties Garage bands, I take a post-modernist position today, preferring to read about music than listening to it.

Have you been spying on my I Spy for the FBI piece?

@ JR. With the new legislation going thru the Dutch parliament, your days of tripping over the border to destabilise your mind are coming to and end. Smiley.

@Mr John Lee. I’d trade your three posts in for a visit to the Appollo Theatre anyday.

Say a 1963 big bill. Jackie Wilson (for the ladies), Lorraine Ellison (because she was hot) and Bobby Bland (because he is my favourite vocalist with a massively diverse discography).

Thanks FOARP.

September 27, 2011 @ 3:44 am | Comment

@ Richard, comment 99
Loved it! I’ll put that in my “Bingo” list with “5000 year history” and “the Opium War”

@KT – read this?
Loved this reply

Today 02:08 PM

This incident certainly did really happen, it is an outrage, wholly inexcusable and is correctly condemned by all right thinking people the world over. Unfortunately, it’s not just China where the authorities can get heavy handed with the wrong guy, as a certain Brazilian electrician could perhaps tell you, if it weren’t for the fact that he rather inconveniently had 7 hollow-point bullets pumped into his head at point blank range. In the instance nobody lost their job at all, and the officers involved were prosecuted for Health & Safety breaches.

This is an ugly story, and rightly condemned. It is not, however, evidence of a mafia state any more than is Rupert Murdoch controlling both the Metropolitan Police and the Government of the day. Fortunately the guy appears to have survived the ordeal, and – far from “nobody batting an eyelid” – the perpetrators have at least been called to account. I certainly agree that the punishments meted out appear ridiculously lenient in the context of a crime of this nature.

“So when you read about rising levels of “social unrest” in China, this kind of business is part of the reason why”

Unfortunately, it doesn’t make the allegations of increasing unrest true; there is simply no evidence of this whatsoever, no matter how much some people might like it to be the case, and Peter Foster’s attempt to extrapolate from a specific incident to a wider generalisation is simply lame. The stats he refers to include every reported breach of the peace – including domestic incidents, brawls in pub carparks, drunk & disordely arrests, and car accidents involving vehicles registered outside of the area where the collision took place.

His concluding remark typifies the agenda underlying this report – the story (and indeed the ultimate fate of the unfortunate victim) is subsidiary to the more important message – China is uniquely and uniformly bad. It’s simply not the case.

September 27, 2011 @ 4:47 am | Comment

@ JR. With the new legislation going thru the Dutch parliament, your days of tripping over the border to destabilise your mind are coming to and end. Smiley.

@ KT. Just to clarify, I do smoke an extra cigarette once in a while, but I’ve never smoked one in the Flatlands. Pepernoten are fine with me (the season is nearing again), but I distrust their greenhouses and farms.

September 27, 2011 @ 4:56 am | Comment

Can’t resist here.

The Robin Hood syndrome hits Sino land.

And for those who cut their teeth on CS:

The US may be in the cart financially, but Sister Feng, now a manicurist in Brooklyn, has yet to get the message.

Read more:

‘America is still a place where anyone can succeed. I can open a small business, develop into a big business, take it public and then global,’ she continued.

@JR. The old Clinton did not inhale alibi.

Look, lets be honest for once. China would be a much happier social formation if all manner of drugs were readily available at the corner kiosk, plus providing a major boost to rural family incomes.

September 27, 2011 @ 5:20 am | Comment

Deleted – this guy is a serious troll and has a potty-mouth to boot.


September 27, 2011 @ 12:27 pm | Comment

@ KT

@JR. The old Clinton did not inhale alibi.
No. It’s about quality. You wouldn’t inhale Dutch tomatoes either.

China would be a much happier social formation if all manner of drugs were readily available at the corner kiosk, plus providing a major boost to rural family incomes.
Yes. But that would weaken the motherland. The only aim by the East Indian Company was to weaken the motherland. After all, they weakened Britain too – prior to 1868, anyone could legally trade in opium products.

The US may be in the cart financially, but Sister Feng, now a manicurist in Brooklyn, has yet to get the message.
At least, Sister Feng’s demands are transparent. Besides, there will always be people with an Ivy-league degrees in America.

My educated guess: John Lee had issues with your links, KT. Yo needle him too much.

September 27, 2011 @ 12:59 pm | Comment

@JR – Be careful, I do not want to read about a teacher being arrested crossing the border with a a shipment of pepernoten!

@KT – Saw it, read it, spent a morning hooked on Motown as a result. Still don’t buy the conspiracy theories though.

As an avid collector of books, I’ve always seen collectors selling off their collections as something of a betrayal, however, my bro, who is a vinyl fanatic, freely engages in it. If I had some JLH rares you’d have to drag them from my cold, dead hands though, even though all I’ve got is a Best Of and The Healer. Do you have the name of the acoustic album BTW?

On a random tangent, my old stomping grounds of Brighton and London always were the best both for second hand vinyl and books, Amsterdam is the only place outside the UK I’ve ever been that was close to that. Does anyone have any tips as to where’s good in Oz or elsewhere to get second hand books/vinyl? I dearly hoped that HK would have somewhere like that, but in this area, as with a few others, HK was a disappointment.

September 27, 2011 @ 8:00 pm | Comment

You been in China too long, Foarp. When I say pepernoten, I mean pepernoten.

September 27, 2011 @ 9:41 pm | Comment

@FOARP Don’t comment on the fire sale of my vinyl or I will publicly off myself on this forum, okay. Circumstances beyond my control.

Re JLH. Look up his discography. There is only one double disc on Fantasy label. Also get Bring me your pillow to cry on….great obscure one.

Now, outside the States, the best city in the world was Melbourne. Probably something to do with the crap weather. I notice that vinyl prices have exploded in the last few months as has the sale of high end turntables.

Analogue is unquestionably a superior sound. Digital does crap things to piano and saxaphones.

If of course you are collecting jazz (nyself 56 to 66 inclusive), you obviously buy japanese pressings for their superior pressings (or laser cutting now) and cover art.

Desirable vinyl is now a very expensive habit.

Re. Conspiracy. See my second latest on Custers site.

Having seen The Who, Bob Marley, Led Zep and others when they were at the peak of their power, and mostly front row seats alongside the grouperatti, I can comment with a vastly superior smirk on my face.

O/T Thanks Richard.

September 28, 2011 @ 4:25 am | Comment

Aaah, jazz. Have my father’s old collection – bought a turntable to play the stuff I used to buy when at uni. Was listening to the Dave Brubeck Quartet last night – 1958 Newport Jazz Festival
Nice, mellow sounds 🙂 And all the records made in England.
I’ll be having a look to see what my fair city of Auckland has to offer in vinyl – probably not much.

September 28, 2011 @ 7:00 am | Comment

RSS feed for comments on this post.

Sorry, the comment form is closed at this time.