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.