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China: ‘Capitulate or Things Will Get Worse’

Ai Weiwei
Photograph by the Chinese artist and activist Ai Weiwei (middle) that he took in a mirrored elevator with two police officers and the Chinese artist and musician Zouxiao Zuzhou (right), Chengdu, China, 2009

The massacre of protesters in Beijing on June 4, 1989, and the harsh repression during the months immediately following put China into a foul mood. Among ordinary Chinese, the prestige of the Communist Party, whose leaders had ordered the brutal assault, fell to a new low. Western governments applied sanctions and (at least in public) distanced themselves from “the butchers of Beijing,” to borrow Bill Clinton’s phrase. Some China-watchers wondered how long the regime could hold on.

Then, it did hold on. Moreover, it grew stronger. Today China-watchers are writing about the regime’s “resilience” and “adaptability.” Sebastian Heilmann and Elizabeth Perry have published a conference volume called Mao’s Invisible Hand, in which they describe in detail this surprising resilience. They trace its origins to Mao Zedong, whose “guerrilla policy style” permitted flexibility in all things but one: Mao stayed on top. The approach, they write,

is fundamentally dictatorial, opportunistic, and merciless. Unchecked by institutions of accountability, guerrilla leaders pursue their objectives with little concern for those who stand in their way.1

In the years since 1989, the ways in which Deng Xiaoping and Mao’s other successors have continued the tradition have included (this list is mine, not Heilmann and Perry’s): (1) “political education” in textbooks that omit much of modern Chinese history and distort much of what remains; (2) stoking nationalism by staging events like the Olympics and a World’s Fair, using publicity that presents “China” and “the Party” as synonyms; (3) distracting attention from problems in people’s lives by magnifying rivalries with foreign countries and domestic “splittists” like Tibetans or Uighurs; (4) use of hundreds of thousands of cyberpolice to delete “unhealthful” posts from the Internet and to “guide opinion” by inserting pro-regime posts; (5) pouring a fortune (more than is spent on health, education, and social welfare programs combined) into “stability maintenance,” which includes, in addition to ordinary police work, monitoring people to stop “trouble” before it starts. Troublemakers are not only harassed; they are also cajoled, “invited to tea,” and advised “for your own good” to concentrate on moneymaking instead of wandering into such dangerous topics as fairness, justice, or clean air.

The methods work. It is possible, whatever one thinks of the regime’s goals, to admire its savvy. Western commentators sometimes laud the obvious efficiency. Things do get done. The economy booms.

A great virtue of Liao Yiwu’s new book, For a Song and a Hundred Songs, is that it suggests what we have to look at before crediting the regime with efficiency. It shows that not only cleverness but a beastly ruthlessness undergirds the resilience. Liao, who is well known for his essays on life from the bottom up in China,2 spent 1990–1994 in prison for a long poem called “Massacre” about Beijing in 1989 as well as a plan to turn the poem into a film called Requiem. The film was never made, but in 1997 Liao completed a prison memoir called Testimony, from which For a Song and a Hundred Songs is adapted.

The book shows what happens to people who ignore the regime’s gentler advice against causing trouble. Penalties increase as resistance increases. First permits of all kinds—business or law licenses, passports, and the like—are canceled. Next come loss of employment and placement under surveillance. Dare you persist? Next comes house arrest (which Liu Xia, wife of China’s Nobel Peace laureate Liu Xiaobo, now endures). If that fails, then detention, then prison. At each stage the choice is clear: “Capitulate or things will get worse.” Inside prisons, the gradations continue. There are fairly comfortable prisons, middling ones, and awful ones. Within each there are social hierarchies: the wardens rule the inmates, but among inmates there are chiefs who help the wardens and “enforcers” who help the chiefs. Even the people at the very bottom are ranked by those who must, and those who need not, for example, sleep next to the toilets or have last chance at the food.

Liu Xiaobo read Liao’s Testimony in 1999. Liu had already been imprisoned three times (his current incarceration, for eleven years, is his fourth) but the first three had been in relatively comfortable prisons, and the contrast between those and what he read about in Liao’s account brought mild embarrassment to Liu. He wrote to his friend that “I probably shouldn’t even say mine were imprisonments, compared to yours.” Liao shows us prison life in color and three dimensions: inmates being cursed, spit at, and kicked in the head; rivalries and snitching; endless and boring forced labor (gluing packets of painkillers, in Liao’s case); solitary confinement for special offenders that lasts for weeks, and sometimes as long as a year, in cells seven feet long but only three feet high, so that the prisoner cannot—ever—stand up; disease, the faking of disease in quest of respite, and faking much else as well, including language. Forced drudgery is called “socialist labor.” Wardens file the “appeals” of prisoners with not the slightest intention of making a genuine appeal but only to get it onto the record that they have filed appeals. Cynical language is so entrenched as to seem ordinary.

The extremes of both cynicism and ruthlessness are illustrated in the nicknames that prison authorities give to tortures. They liken them to cuisine. At the Song Mountain Detention Center in Chongqing, “the menu,” which Liao annotates for his readers, includes:

Tofu Fried on Both Sides: Two enforcers punch the inmate on the chest and back. The sustained blows sometimes cause the inmate to go into shock….
Stewed Ox Nose: The enforcer rams two fingers up the inmate’s nose until it bleeds….
Sichuan-style Smoked Duck: The enforcer burns the inmate’s pubic hair, pulls back his foreskin and blackens the head of the penis with fire….
Noodles in a Clear Broth: Strings of toilet papers are soaked in a bowl of urine, and the inmate is forced to eat the toilet paper and drink the urine.

The menu is hard to read, and it is lengthy. Liao lists thirty-eight dishes and comments on which of them could end in permanent injury or death for the inmate. Elsewhere, he notes how death-row prisoners live with the awareness that their organs will be harvested and sold after their executions. Somehow, though, Liao’s square look at painful and degrading treatment does not cloud his poet’s eye. Riding in a police car, he observes “the shops on both sides of the street blurring into a colorful sliding stage”; famished inmates “crammed chunks of rice into their mouths, stretching their necks like crowing roosters to help swallow.” The translator, Wenguang Huang, deserves much credit for keeping Liao’s art alive.

Released in 1994, Liao finds that China outside of prison “remains a prison of the mind: prosperity without liberty.” His book ends on that unexplored note. But here we can turn to Han Han’s This Generation, which shows, with wit and in remarkable depth, how Chinese citizens, especially the young, chafe under restraints. Han Han is careful (as Liao is not) to steer clear of explicit “dissidence”; the reward for this caution in China is that he can have hundreds of times more readers than Liao. Yet it is easy to see, with just a bit of reflection, that Han shares much with the explicit dissidents. Sometimes he penetrates even more deeply than they do. His writing lacks Liao Yiwu’s colorful metaphors, but it is delightful for its terse, droll irony, reminiscent of the great essayist Lu Xun (1881–1936). The translator, Allan Barr, apologizes that he cannot get every facet of Han Han’s wit into English, but his results are still wonderful.

Born in 1982, Han Han failed high school examinations repeatedly and eventually dropped out, but not before he wrote a searing indictment of the Chinese education system in a novel called San chong men (Triple Door). Published in China in 2000, that book was an immediate hit and eventually sold more than two million copies. Han also became a prize-winning race car driver and, in part because of his good looks, began to appear on magazine covers as well. He started blogging in 2005, and as of today his website has received more than 600 million hits. The blog essays collected in This Generation appeared between 2006 and 2012.

Han’s Internet hits would reach an even higher total if cyberpolice didn’t delete his more provocative posts shortly after they appear. Seeking to minimize the deletions, Han watches his words and frankly admits to his readers that “every essay has undergone self-censorship.” Foreign journalists sometimes frustrate him, he says, because they do not understand that he cannot—“at least, not now”—be as candid as he would like to be. He actually is “more expansive when responding to questions from Chinese reporters” because he knows he can trust them to do the requisite self-censorship for him. Yet he still gets his points across, and censorship sometimes even magnifies their force. The day after Liu Xiaobo’s Nobel Peace Prize was announced in Oslo, for example, Han posted a blog entry that consisted only of a pair of quotation marks: “”. A flood of comment followed. His readers had figured out that this was an open invitation to comment on something that was officially unspeakable.

Many of Han Han’s views, although artfully put, are unsurprising versions of what other critics of the regime have been saying for years. He writes, for example, that Mao Zedong regarded “the masses” as nothing more than “gambling chips in his effort to achieve power and prestige”; and that China’s current economic “miracle,” which allows “our politicians…to pump up their chests on the world political stage,” is hardly a miracle of leadership but simply “because of you, China’s cheap labor.” Are you injured or aggrieved? The only real function of China’s system of administrative appeal, Han observes, as many others have, is to induce troublemakers to report themselves to the authorities. Nor is Han the first to observe that Chinese law is a tool that lies on the shelf for on-demand use by people in power, not ordinary Chinese; that “our leaders” write “fake, pretentious, empty-headed essays”; or that educators have to inculcate “political allegiance” in their students or be fired.

But Han Han does more than just put well-known complaints into clever form. On some topics he is uniquely astute. For example, he defends China’s young people from the charge, which their elders sometimes level, that they are materialistic and do not “care about politics.” Han answers that the older generation may indeed have its record of being knocked around by politics, but

being [that kind of] victim is no decent topic of conversation, any more than being raped has a place in a proper range of sexual experiences. The era when one can care about politics has yet to arrive.

Elsewhere Han brings deep insight to the question of cultural insecurity. Several essays satirize what he sees as Chinese hypersensitivity to insult:

  1. 1

    Mao’s Invisible Hand: The Political Foundations of Adaptive Governance in China, edited by Sebastian Heilmann and Elizabeth J. Perry (Harvard University Asia Center, 2011), reviewed in these pages by Jonathan Mirsky, June 21, 2012. 

  2. 2

    See Howard W. French, “ A Hero of the China Underground,” The New York Review, October 14, 2010. 

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