The arrest of poet Huang Beiling in Beijing on Aug. 12 was reported by his brother Huang Feng, an independent publisher, who was himself arrested a week later. Going after writers and publishers with “political problems” is not a new sport in China, but an unfair one. Civil society has not yet produced non-state actors strong enough to stand up and cry “foul.” Given the enormous strides China has made in publishing, from the newsstand to the Internet, locking up poets and publishers is a giant leap backward.
The so-called political problem of QINGXIANG, the impounded literary magazine, touches on a historical event called 6-4 or the Tiananmen Massacre. Young kids in China can say without irony that June 4, 1989, is ancient history to them, but it’s obvious that the event continues to haunt their elders.
Given all the problems China faces today, 11 years later, it is surprising the police apparatus still has the time and motivation to ruthlessly pursue minor references to the abortive popular uprising. QINGXIANG’s problem is reportedly a photograph of Tiananmen activist Wang Dan, now at Harvard, and a poem by Tiananmen era political prisoner Liu Xiaobo, who is an old friend of the editor.
QINGXIANG is work of the heart, a low-circulation artsy magazine produced in Boston by a handful of men and women homesick for China. When I met Bei- ling at Harvard University where he taught Chinese part time to support his literary habit, I was impressed with the elected poverty of his lifestyle and his unwillingness to get too involved with the China dissidents and their many disputes. He was friendly to all, but too apolitical and art-oriented to be a dissident himself. Susan Sontag and Seamus Heamy weighed more heavily in his view than Wei Jingsheng or Harry Wu.
When I first met Beiling’s younger brother, Feng, at the China World Hotel in Beijing, he was eking out a modest income as an independent publisher. The last time I saw him, he was looking for manuscripts about celebrities such as Britain’s royalty.
In the very least, the arrest of the Huang brothers serves as a warning to all writers and artists that the party tolerates no political dissent. The two young men have been released, but similar arrests in the name of information control will accelerate and terrorize China’s crackdown-weary population.
The heavy-handed information control raises questions about Chinese President Jiang Zemin’s vision of China as an information society in the computer age: Is it more about the free flow of information or digital control?
Jiang inherited more than the legacy of stamping out democracy. Twenty years on, economic reform is synonymous with corruption and a widening gap between rich and poor. Jiang has tried to address this unwanted legacy with a brutal anticorruption campaign.
His reaction to Falun Gong’s protests is instructive because this was not a problem he had inherited from former leader Deng Xiaoping, but a new unknown, a peaceful yet terrifying challenge to his authority. The group, which Jiang later had officially designated as an “evil cult,” hit him hard without warning close to his power base, just as he was assembling the elements of a personality cult to put him on a par with Mao Zedong and Deng.
That’s why the personality cult of the great leader, admirably discarded by Deng after Mao, is being reintroduced with Nuremberg-style rallies and the ubiquitous smiling face of Mao-suited President Jiang in the state-run papers and TV.
Jiang’s reaction, though slow in coming, is farcical and overblown, as news programs have been ordered to heap praise on him and denounce in the most vitriolic way Li Hongzhi, the leader of the “evil cult.” Jiang chides the Chinese people for being superstitious and unscientific while asking to be regarded as a demigod himself.
This kind of over-hyped paranoid madness is starting to infect the general body politic, and as a result, Tiananmen activists are coming under the ax again.
This is a shame, because the Chinese president’s background as a technocrat (and computer geek) made him a prime supporter of the Internet in China. His son, Jiang Mianheng, arranges investment capital for Internet firms and even has a hand in the irreverent Web zine Chinanow.com.
Chinanow.com enjoys press freedom at the moment because of its political connections, but it’s not as freewheeling as it appears, even though the English home page is edited by the talented American writer Kaiser Kuo, formerly of Tang Dynasty rock band. It’s one thing to write salacious pieces about groupies, gangsters and ganja, and quite another to run a photo or poem that touches on Tiananmen.
The business-savvy producers of Chinanow, Beijing Scene and City Edition, leading e-zines, understand that self-censorship is survival. With Chinese language sites, the censorship is even more stark; Yahoo China is just one of many Web sites that heavily filters the news to avoid offending the powers that be.
For the stubborn artist such as Beiling, however, the choice is more stark. Self-censorship is a kind of artistic suicide, while failing to self-censor can lead to incarceration.
In the last few months, several conscientious, law-abiding editors have been sacked, Web sites closed down, and promising publications pickled. While the sheer volume of information on the Internet defies efficient policing, individuals guilty of “inappropriate content” have been singled out to scare others. Furthermore, the technology that powers the information revolution is a double-edged sword; NSA-style search engines and key words help the government selectively monitor individual e-mail and individual online activity. The rush to invest in China dot-coms has cooled, not just because of market woes, but Chinese insistence on authorizing content keeps popping up in discussions.
Apparently alarmed at its own increasing irrelevance, if not impotence, under the economics-first paradigm that has put food on the table at the expense of books on the shelf, the Communist Party of China is exhorting the nation to “get ideological” again, but with a twist. Ideological is whatever the party wants you to think.
In a time of both misinformation and too much information, quality journalism is more crucial than ever.
By subscribing, you can help us get the story right.