Perry Link teaches at the University of California at Riverside. His translation of the autobiography of the Chinese dissident astrophysicist Fang Lizhi, The Most Wanted Man in China: My Journey from Science to Enemy of the State, was published in February. (April 2016)
At the annual meeting of BookExpo America that was held in New York last May, to which most leading US publishers sent representatives, state-sponsored Chinese publishers were named “guests of honor.” Commercially speaking, this made sense. China’s book industry, with sales now reported at $8 billion annually, is the second-largest …
Can writers help an injured society to heal? Did Ōe Kenzaburō, who traveled to Hiroshima in 1963 to interview survivors of the dropping of the atomic bomb on that city eighteen years earlier, and then published a moving book called Hiroshima Notes, help his compatriots to recover? Did Primo Levi, …
It can be embarrassing for a China scholar like me to read Eileen Chang’s pellucid prose, written more than sixty years ago, on the early years of the People’s Republic of China. How many cudgels to the head did I need to catch up to where Chang was in 1954 in understanding how things worked, beneath the jargon? In Naked Earth, Chang shows how a Communist land-reform campaign descends on a village like a giant cookie cutter. Eventually the farmers, like everyone else, figure out that their personal interests depend on correct verbal performance.
During the four hundred years since it appeared, Chin P’ing Mei has been known in China as an “obscene book.” Governments have banned it and parents have hidden it from children. One widespread anecdote—a false story, but a true indication of the book’s reputation—is that it originated as a murder weapon: the author applied poison to the corners of the pages and presented it to an enemy, knowing that his foe would need to wet his fingertips with saliva in order to keep turning the pages fast enough.
After nearly eight months in detention, Chinese human rights lawyer Pu Zhiqiang has been informed that formal charges are now being considered against him. The crime? “Picking fights and causing trouble” on his microblog. It may seem odd to detain someone first and then go look for the reasons for the detention, but this is a well-established pattern.
In the late 1970s, when the passing of Mao made it possible for foreign journalists to work in China for the first time in three decades, the first reporters to get in wrote wide-ranging books that addressed nearly everything they could learn.1 Later books by journalists tended to be …
Why are these protests happening now?
Hong Kong’s people have been striving for democracy for over two decades, and the desire is now so strong that if Beijing breaches its promise and fails to deliver democracy in 2017, Hong Kong will likely become ungovernable.
It is crucial to understand what happened to Cao Shunli, a Chinese legal rights activist who had a chronic liver condition when she was detained last year. She died on March 14 after being denied treatment in prison—a pattern that has emerged with other Chinese detainees.
Deng Xiaoping, the man who said “go” for the final assault on thousands of Chinese citizens protesting peacefully for democracy, has died. But what happened in and around Tiananmen Square twenty-five years ago haunts the memories not only of people who witnessed the events and of friends and families of the victims, but also of those who stood, and still stand, with the attacking side.
A casual visitor to China today does not get the impression of a police state. Life bustles along as people pursue work, fashion, sports, romance, amusement, and so on, without any sign of being under coercion. But the government spends tens of billions of dollars annually (more than on national …
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 …
For China’s Internet police, message control has grown to include many layers of meaning. Local authorities have a toolbox of phrases—fairly standard nationwide—that they use to offer guidance to website editors about dealing with sensitive topics. The harshest response is “completely and immediately delete.” But with the rapid growth of difficult-to-control social media, a need has arisen for a wide range of more subtle alternatives. For stories that are acceptable, but only after proper pruning, the operative phrase is “first censor, then publish.” For sensitive topics on which central media have already said something, the instructions may say “reprint Xinhua but nothing more.” For topics that cannot be avoided because they are already being widely discussed, there are such options as “mention without hyping,” “publish but only under small headlines,” “put only on back pages,” “close the comment boxes,” and “downplay as time passes.”
In China in the 1980s, the word renquan (“human rights”) was extremely “sensitive.” Few dared even to utter it in public, let alone to champion the concept. Now, nearly three decades later, a grassroots movement called weiquan (“supporting rights”) has spread widely, and it seems clear that China’s rulers are helpless to reverse it. Even people at the lowest levels of society demand their rights. No one brought about this dramatic change single-handedly, but arguably no one did more to get it started than Fang Lizhi, the Chinese astrophysicist, activist, and dissident, who died a year ago this week. We were friends for many years; here are eight of my favorite memories of him.
There is a problem with the arguments made by Mo Yan’s defenders, and that is what the Chinese call xifangzhongxinzhuyi. This phrase does not translate easily, so please pardon my awkward rendering as “West-centrism.” What if Solzhenitsyn, instead of exposing the gulag, had cracked jokes about it? Would we have credited him with “art” on grounds that his intended audience knew all about the gulag and appreciates the black humor? Or might it be, sadly, that only non-whites can win Nobel Prizes writing in this mode?
Every serious Chinese writer and artist in the post-1989 era has had to face the choice of whether and how much to stay “inside the system.” Many, like Mo Yan, stay unambiguously inside, making larger or smaller accommodations to official guidelines even as they publicly preserve the fiction that they are doing no such thing.
Over the past few days, angry crowds in more than thirty Chinese cities have trashed Japanese stores, overturned Japanese cars, shouted “Down with Japan,” and carried banners that demand Chinese sovereignty over the uninhabited Diaoyu Islands in the East China Sea. Japan also claims ownership of these islands, which it calls the Senkakyus. Chinese protests have reached some peculiar extents. A Chinese clothing store called Pattad offers a 15 percent discount to anyone who enters and yells, “The Diaoyu Islands belong to China!” (You get 20 percent off if you yell “Japan belongs to China!”) A boy interviewed on the street says, “When I grow up I want to build tanks to annihilate Japan.” Many have ascribed the vehemence of the protests to deep-rooted anti-Japanese sentiment linked to injustices committed by Japan eighty years ago. But there is little evidence to support this. Rather the protests appear to have everything to do with the interests of China’s current rulers, at a moment when the top leadership in Beijing is in turmoil.
The word “embarrassment” has been used around the world in press reports about the murder charges against Bogu Kailai, the wife of disgraced Chinese official Bo Xilai. But I doubt that anything as mild as embarrassment is what fills the minds of Party leaders in Beijing. Much more is at stake. What did Bo Xilai’s police chief Wang Lijun tell the Americans, and what agreement did the Americans make with Chinese authorities when they released Wang to their custody? Normally the Communist Party completely suppresses news of murders and other “embarrassments.” The fact that it decided to make a public announcement in this case must be, at least in part, because the Americans hold information that they could, if they wanted, divulge.
I do not know what US officials are saying to Chinese rights lawyer Chen Guangcheng, who escaped house arrest and is believed to be in US custody in Beijing. But I can report first hand what they said in a strikingly similar case twenty-three years ago, when the physicists and human rights advocates Fang Lizhi and Li Shuxian took refuge at the US embassy following the Tiananmen Square massacre.
Fang Lizhi, a distinguished professor of astrophysics, luminary in the struggle for human rights in contemporary China, and frequent contributor to The New York Review, died suddenly on the morning of April 6. At age seventy-six he had not yet retired, and was preparing to leave home to teach a …
Fang Lizhi’s path through life observed a pattern that is common to China’s dissidents: a person begins with socialist ideals, feels bitter when the rulers betray the ideals, resorts to outspoken criticism, and ends in prison or exile. Liu Binyan, Wang Ruowang, Su Xiaokang, Hu Ping, Zheng Yi, Liu Xiaobo, and many others have followed this pattern. Most have been literary figures—writers, editors, or professors of Chinese—who base their dissent in the study of Chinese society and culture. Fang was a natural scientist, and this made him different in important ways.
The first time I tried to go to China was in 1967, the year after I graduated from college. My father was a radical leftist professor who admired Mao Zedong. And that influence, along with the Vietnam War protests—a movement in which I was not only a participant but an activist—led me to look at socialist China with very high hopes.
On June 3, 1989, Deng Xiaoping ordered tanks into Beijing to suppress students who were demonstrating peacefully at Tiananmen Square. On the night of June 5, Raymond Burghardt, political counselor in the US embassy in Beijing, came to the hotel where my wife, Li Shuxian, and I were temporarily staying and invited us to “take refuge” in the embassy as “guests of President Bush.” He said we could stay as long as we needed. The matter soon became a point of contention in US–China relations.
The student-led political movement that arose in April 1989 at Tiananmen was peaceful in its approach and aimed to accelerate the reform of China’s government. I therefore completely agreed with it and supported it.
Chinese authorities have done what they can to stop news—and worse, from their point of view, any influence—of Tunisian and Egyptian people-power from spreading to China. They have been worrying especially about what social media like Twitter and Facebook can do to political power in the Internet age. On the …
In an NYRblog post on February 17, I discussed Chinese government efforts to block news of the democracy uprisings spreading across the Middle East and speculated how China’s rulers might view those uprisings. I have now received news that resolves much of that speculation and that may also help explain the unusual show of force by Chinese security officials this weekend in response to a call for street protests to support a “Jasmine Revolution” in several Chinese cities.
Chinese authorities have done what they can to block news of Egyptian people-power from spreading to China. Reports about Egypt in China’s state-run media have been brief and vacuous. On February 6, at the height of the protests, the People’s Daily informed readers that “the Egyptian government is continuing to carry out its various measures to support restoration of social order.” But on the Chinese Internet, which despite vigorous policing is hard to stifle, Mubarak has received a drubbing: “autocrat,” “corrupt thug,” and so on. Thus, while Chinese censors have declared the word “Mubarak” (along with “Egypt” and others) to be “sensitive” and have set up filters to delete any message that contains it, Chinese Web users, in their usual cat-and-mouse game, have invented witty substitutes. These include “Mu Xiaoping” and “Mu Jintao”—which, by playing on the names of China’s own autocrats, get around the censors and up the ante at the same time.
Each year around the “sensitive” anniversary of the Beijing massacre of June 4, 1989, Ding Zilin, a seventy-four-year-old retired professor of philosophy, is accompanied by a group of plainclothes police whenever she leaves her apartment to go buy vegetables, or to do anything else. Her son, Jiang Jielian, was killed in the massacre by a bullet in the back, and very soon thereafter Ding decided—unlike other parents who had lost children—to defy the government’s demand that the families of victims keep quiet and absorb their losses in private. She organized a group called “Tiananmen Mothers” and, in her speaking and writing ever since, has essentially said to the regime: say what you like, and do what you will, but my mind belongs to me and you cannot have it.