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Jeff Rambin, December 11, 2018
“There is no word for the pain, sadness, humiliation and anger I feel in my heart.” After six years and four months of tweeting, Wang Jiangsong was forced to delete his account. Wang calls himself a “labor scholar,” but he is too modest. William Nee of Amnesty International calls Wang “arguably the most prominent labor academic in China.” This is due not only to Wang’s scholarship, but also to his connections, and most importantly, his compassion. Wang’s perspective has been relied on by the Associated Press, Foreign Policy, and Reuters. Last year, Wang became part of the news himself. As reported by Radio Free Asia, officials in a Beijing neighborhood used a November fire as a chance to evict migrant workers. With winter effectively underway, Wang and others not only set up shelters for the workers, but also penned an open letter condemning the evictions as illegal.
In a farewell tweet, Wang said that the deletion was “due to force majeure which you all understand.” Though he said that “the sun will continue to rise,” Wang spoke of the deletion of his account as an “obituary.”
5,614 tweets to more than 23,300 followers will be gone in a few hours.
[As of now Prof. Wang’s handle is still alive, and he’s subsequently tweeted an account of the police visit.]
This happened on Tuesday, December 11, 2018, the day after the 70th anniversary of the United Nation’s Universal Declaration of Human Rights. Article 19 states:
Everyone has the right to freedom of opinion and expression; this right includes freedom to hold opinions without interference and to seek, receive and impart information and ideas through any media and regardless of frontiers.
As followers of ChinaChange.org are aware, Wang Jiangsong’s story is far from isolated. It is part of a recent and accelerating crackdown on the use of Twitter by Chinese authorities. On November 9, 2018, Wu Gan’s Twitter account was deleted. That deletion carries concerns of its own, because Wu has been in prison since 2015. What is more, the deletion was unannounced. Yaxue Cao just happened to be online at the right time to see it go down. As with Wang Jiansong, Wu Gan used his Twitter account for the cause of the oppressed. Time and again, Wu rallied support to those who were ignored.
30,277 tweets from 2009 to 2015. Erased as though they never existed.
The list of names is rapidly growing. The campaign against Chinese Twitter users is being followed with increasing alarm on Twitter itself. It has been reported by outlets including Beijing Spring, the Epoch Times, the Hong Kong Free Press & Agence France Presse, and Human Rights Watch. As reported by Eva Xiao of AFP: “Despite being blocked in China, Twitter and other overseas social media sites have long been used freely by activists and government critics to address subjects that are censored on domestic forums — until now.” More and more Chinese Twitter users are receiving invitations to “drink tea” at the police station. To put it mildly, this is a consent issue. These accounts are not being deleted voluntarily.
What Wang, Wu, and so many others are up against is the “People’s Republic of Amnesia,” as described by former BBC and NPR reporter Lousia Lim in her book by that title. Indeed, the first rule of imposed political amnesia is that there is no amnesia; China has banned novelist Ma Jiang’s book China Dream, in which he describes both the efforts to erase memories, and the way those memories come back to the surface like a ball which has been held under the water.
The systematic campaign to erase history is now reaching out to Twitter users. Not via technological means, but by the knock on the door in the middle of the night.
This is loss on a staggering scale, and the worst of it is that there’s no way of knowing exactly how bad it is. How do you account for the damage done by severing the connections of someone like Wang Jiansong? How do you assess the impact of the collective body of free-minded people tweeting everyday acts of individuality? We can get some idea of their value from the extent to which oppressors are going.
Has the next Alexander Solzhenitsyn, Vaclav Havel, or Martin Luther King, Jr., been formulating ideas tweet-by-tweet? Purists might laugh, but I wonder if today’s Letter from Birmingham Jail, or at least its existence and how to access it, wouldn’t be spread via Twitter. Imagine such tweets permanently disappearing.
Imagine that the perpetrators of the June 4, 1989 massacre at Tiananmen Square had the ability to delete every image of Tank Man. No doubt they would.
That is not an armchair historian’s counterfactual. Through the deletion of Twitter accounts, we are losing the record of what is happening right now in the Xinjiang camps. We are also losing the record of non-Uighur Chinese who are trying to stop that atrocity. In other words, this is not only about a historical record. Twitter users are trying to save lives in the here and now.
The “Dual Key” System
What is Twitter going to do about this? Twitter may not have the resources to investigate consent in so many cases. Besides, determining whether a deletion was voluntary or under duress could embroil Twitter in political issues. Same for issuing a blanket order that no deletions will be permitted from China, or any other country. Twitter is by-and-large, what the users make of it.
Given what is at stake, though, Twitter should find a way to do something.
The point of a dual key system would be to protect the dissenter, the dissenter’s tweets, and Twitter. Twitter would not be involved in assessing consent.
The second key would be held by a person of the primary account holder’s choosing, most likely in another country. The second key holder would have no ability to tweet, only the ability to approve or veto deletions. The conditions under which deletion would be permitted would be determined up front between the keyholders.
Such a program presents moral quandaries. To state but one: If the ground rules between key holders are to never delete no matter the circumstances, do you abide by that as a second key holder?
The thing is, we are already in the moral quandary whether we acknowledge it or not. As things stand, when the knock on the door comes, Chinese Twitter users are alone. And we’re letting that happen, pretending that none of the responsibility falls on us. To my mind, though, as I’ve gone about my daily business, I’ve been a free rider on what Wang Jiangsong and so many others have done and are doing to fight darkness in this world. So in some way I owe this to him — even though we’re a world apart and we’ve never met. Perhaps others see things the same way. Perhaps Amnesty or Human Rights Watch or others would be willing to coordinate this with volunteers from around the world. Electricians, teachers, retirees, college students – the variety of volunteers will be surprising.
This is about connection and shared burden. When a Twitter user is sitting in an interrogation room facing a demand to delete their account, they should not be alone. The very existence of a second key holder changes the dynamic in that room. If a deletion request is made, the notification to the second key holder will be a pre-arranged call for help. A dual key system turns the table on the interrogator by shining a light into a dark place.
Please, Twitter, do something. Brave dissidents are already risking punishment by speaking. Give them the option of a dual key account to preserve their words. In these trying times give us reason to sing “All people become brothers where your gentle wing abides.”
Jeff Rambin is a father and attorney from Tyler, Texas. He is a lifelong student of history and politics. Years ago, he served as the chairperson of the foreign-policy focused Wiley Lecture Series at Texas A&M. Memories of 1989 have stuck with him. At some point he grew sick of reading books and watching the news and decided that he had to do something.
He can be followed on Twitter at @RespectHope.
China Steps up Nationwide Crackdown to Silence Twitter Users – the Unmediated Story, Yaxue Cao, December 5, 2018.
Liao Yiwu, December 10, 2018, International Human Rights Day, Berlin
I’ve so often said that my courage and everything about me comes from prison. This is how I differ from other Chinese writers. In prison, I was tortured ‘til I could no longer bear it, and tried to kill myself twice. But I learned to write secretly; and I learned to play the xiao (ancient flute) from an over-80-year-old monk. From the sound of his xiao, I realized that freedom comes from the soul.
A man of inner freedom is the natural enemy of a dictatorship. His political views come in a pale, second place.
The key is that, only after experiencing the horror, sadness, and pity of losing freedom and being trampled upon, does one fight for the freedom of others with all one’s heart, and moreover turns the fight for freedom into a kind of personal faith.
Most of the time, outside of writing, I’m a failure. For example, my friend Liu Xiaobo, four times jailed, was murdered in a cage on July 13, 2017. We did our best to rescue him, but it was all a failure. Although his wife, Liu Xia, was eventually released and allowed to come to Germany, the price was too painful and too great. And soon it will all be forgotten.
China is still the world’s largest capitalist market, and with the US-led trade war against China and the constant thrashings-about in the news, already the memory of Liu Xiaobo and his wife is being diluted and lost. It’s a vulgar and cruel world that no longer needs a martyr like Liu Xiaobo to strive and be jailed for the cause of democracy. I understand all this. I know that though the records already are numerous, I must continue to write. It’s just as, over 2,000 years ago, when Plato recorded the philosophical debates in Socrates’ cell before his death; without those words Plato left behind, Socrates would have been erased by time, and his death left a vague mystery. His words would no longer stir us so deeply.
Yes, I wrote “June 4: My Testimony” and “Bullets and Opium,” both of which are part of a single whole describing the victims of the Tiananmen massacre nearly 30 years ago, many of whom died, many of whom were destroyed by prison. (Although, even when released from prison, they went on to die in a larger prison without walls.) The idea that “the internet will destroy autocracy and open markets will lead to democracy ” has been a popular notion for American politicians, and coincided with the administration of then-US President Bill Clinton. It’s this phrase that lubricated China’s entry to the WTO, and helped grant it most-favored nation status over 20 years ago.
But it’s clearly not the case that “the internet undermines dictatorship.” Instead, it’s the authoritarian regimes that have made extensive use of Western network technology to comprehensively monitor the entire Chinese populace. No matter where you are, as long you’re a dissident, you’ll be tapped and tracked; all your trips to the bank and online speech will be recorded, and in a moment’s notice, all will become evidence of your intent to harm the state. At hotels, train stations, and airports, your face will be automatically identified by the police using their mobile phones and computers — technology invented by Westerners and augmented by the internet and open markets, all of which has given a tremendous boost to the dictatorship.
What follows naturally is that the dictatorship will challenge Western democracy. For instance, China has the Great Fire Wall, and if you circumvent it and visit foreign websites, this is called “illegal” and perhaps you’ll be arrested. Western countries have no firewall, and almost all overseas Chinese, and many foreigners interested in China, are free to use WeChat, Weibo, and Huawei cell phones — but then they’re silently monitored and tracked too. And if you say ‘extremist’, suspicious, sarcastic, or subversive remarks about China, WeChat administrators will issue a warning that your account may be cancelled — or simply cancel it without a word. Or maybe you’ll temporarily go “missing”, and your family and friends in the country may also find themselves under a cloud of trouble. Dictators not only borrow the propaganda of “counter-terrorism” to carry out concentration camp-style forced brainwashing of millions of Uighurs in Xinjiang, but also use the internet to prevent those in the free world from actually being free.
Many dissidents around me also use WeChat and accept the regime’s control and surveillance without really thinking it over. So today, I, a writer among dissidents, not only refuse to use Chinese-made smartphones, but I refuse to install any software from China, and I only publish my work in democratic Taiwan and the free West.
More importantly, I don’t flinch, I don’t succumb to silence, I continue to fight for the freedom of others, and in this oft-failed struggle, I’m drawing from a passionate need to make a record of this era.
Coming up next, I shall prepare another book; I shall get ready to turn defeat into victory in the history that will soon be upon us.
“1984” itself makes one hopeless — but the act of writing “1984” is already a flickering of hope from the depths of despair.
Also by Liao Yiwo:
‘Dona, Dona,’ Give Freedom To Liu Xia, May 2, 2018.
Acceptance Speech for the 2018 Annual Disturbing the Peace Literary Prize for a Courageous Writer at Risk, Liao Yiwu, September 27, 2018, New York City
China Citizens Movement Outstanding Citizenship Award Selection Committee, December 10, 2018
Today, we offer our respects to an outstanding citizen. She is a loving mother, a strong mother, and a great mother. She is eighty-five years old this year, an age at which she should have been enjoying a peaceful retirement with her family. Instead, at her venerable age, she has been thrust into a situation that no mother should be forced to experience: she has had to see her son imprisoned and brought to the verge of death for committing no crime at all. In her quest to protect and support him, she stakes out a trail of blood and tears upon the great but troubled land that is China.
Using all the strength that her frail person has to offer, she has stood up against constant harassment, surveillance, and intimidation from the state. She overcomes tribulations using gentleness, patience, and tolerance, acting with firm yet nonviolent determination.
Courageously, she persisted in seeking all possible help to gain her son’s freedom and is praised by all for her conscientiousness. She has demonstrated the best example for all citizens who are dedicated to justice, and will inspire more citizens to pursue justice.
Her pure love has awakened a humanity that is in shackles: no matter how society changes, no matter how cruel the world is or how deluded the people are, a mother’s love is the eternal light of spring that consoles the hearts of every citizen and illuminates their path.
This admirable mother is Ms. Pu Wenqing (蒲文清), and her son is Huang Qi (黄琦), a prisoner of conscience who is currently serving a third sentence for his unyielding determination to expose human rights abuses in China.
In thinking of Ms. Pu Wenqing, we are reminded of Themis, the Greek goddess of divine justice, and her son Prometheus, a hero who sacrificed his eternal freedom so that humanity could learn the secret of fire.
Today, we are honored to present this year’s Outstanding Citizen Award to Ms. Pu Wenqing in acknowledgement of her efforts to live as an upright citizen in the pursuit of her civil rights. In her extraordinary efforts, we see the warm strength of humanity overcoming the forces of tyranny, moving us ever closer to a society of freedom, justice, and love.
Here, on the International Human Rights Day, we express our sincere wishes: that Ms. Pu Wenqing may enjoy good health and longevity, and that Huang Qi may regain his freedom and be reunited with his family!
85-Year-Old Mother Fights For the Release of Her Son, Renowned Human Rights Defender, Yaxue Cao, October 15, 2018.
Deletion of Wu Gan’s Twitter Posts Reflects the Urgent Need to Protect Chinese Human Rights Activists’ ‘Data Ownership’
Yaxue Cao, November 11, 2018
Around 10:10 pm eastern time on Nov. 8, as I was browsing my Twitter timeline and taking a breaking from editing a website post, a tweet by Wu Gan (吴淦) jumped into my vision. Even though he has gone for three years and a half, his avatar immediately stood out. It’s an auto-generated tweet that reads: “I just activated @Tweet_Delete on my account to automatically delete my old tweets (is.gd/delete)!” Instinctively, I pressed the “prt src” key:
It was 11 am on Nov. 9, Beijing Time. Wu Gan, better known as the “Super Vulgar Butcher,” is serving an eight-year sentence in a prison somewhere in the mountains on the border of Fujian and Jiangxi provinces. He was detained on May 20, 2015, outside the Jiangxi High People’s Court where he had been protesting the court’s denial of lawyers’ access to case files in the “Leping Wrongful Conviction Case.” In December 2017 he was sentenced to eight years in prison for “subversion of state power” following secret detention, torture, and his refusal to admit guilt in exchange for lenient punishment.
I clicked his account. It was emptied out – all 30,277 tweets from Nov. 2009 to May 2015 were gone. The tweet announcing the deletion soon disappeared as well. The circumstances of the deletion are shocking to many Chinese Twitter users because of the scale of the loss.
Wu Gan’s Twitter feed is not just anybody’s feed. In late 2008 he began to actively surf Internet and frequent a vibrant forum called “Cat Eye Forum” (猫眼论坛) at www.tianya.cn, one of China’s earliest Internet portals. He wrote: “I learned of the earthquakes, the shoddy school buildings [that killed thousands of students]; I learned Ai Weiwei’s investigation into the school deaths. I was rather stirred. I began to write articles, and in 2009, I became an activist.”
In a remote town in western Hubei in May 2009, three township officials asked 21-year-old hotel waitress Deng Yujiao (邓玉娇) for “special services” and attempted to force themselves on her. Yujiao defended herself using a fruit knife, stabbing one of her would-be rapists to death and wounding another. She turned herself in to the local public security authorities, and was charged with intentional homicide.
The incident found instant resonance with netizens around the country. Compared to today, that time was still something of a “golden age” for online free speech, as the Great Fire Wall was not as fully developed as it is today and the Chinese government had yet to introduce a mechanism of effectively and thoroughly curbing public opinion on the internet.
The way the authorities handled Deng Yujiao’s case stirred outcry among masses of ordinary Chinese. They did not want to see a young girl be imprisoned as a murderess and possibly receive the death sentence for standing her ground against abusive officials. But help could only come from the people and the forces of public opinion.
Wu Gan, a 37-year-old Fujianese businessman who had served in the southern border troops, called upon fellow frequenters of the Cat Eye Forum to “take action to help this young lady who had defended her dignity with a fruit knife.”
A few days later, Wu Gan went to Hubei, spoke with Deng Yujiao’s family, and managed to meet Yujiao in hospital. A photo of the two together went viral. He persuaded the Deng family to engage lawyers for Yujiao, and made arrangements with two lawyers in Beijing. A month later, the local court held a public hearing for Deng Yujiao’s case and handed down a verdict exempting her from punishment.
The Deng Yujiao incident was seen as an encouraging example of how public opinion could lead to justice; at the same time, it became the starting point for Wu Gan to enter the public sphere and conduct online and offline activism. Next, Wu Gan got involved in the case of Shenyang street vendor Xia Junfeng (夏俊峰), who had killed two chengguan (城管) officers (note: chengguan are Chinese urban enforcers infamous for using violence and intimidation) in self-defense. Wu Gan travelled to Shenyang to help Xia’s wife and son get legal help, and rallied public opinion on social media and at the same time recorded his activities and reflections.
Sadly, Wu Gan and thousands of concerned netizens were unsuccessful this time. Xia Junfeng was sentenced to death and executed in 2013. Over the next six years, Wu Gan helped with hundreds of rights defense cases across China by mobilizing public opinion online and working directly with victims on the ground. Most of the people he helped were the socially disadvantaged, such as Deng Yujiao and Xia Junfeng, who had suffered humiliation and deprivation at the hands of the powers-that-be.
Wu Gan’s activism, which he styled “butchering pigs,” aimed to pressure local officials using public opinion, the law, and his unique performance art to pursue social justice in places where the rule of law did not exist. In order to popularize his experiences, Wu Gan, who lacked university education, wrote three handbooks: “Guide to Butchering Pigs” (《杀猪宝典》), “Guide to Drinking Tea” (《喝茶宝典》), and the “Guide to Petitioners Fighting Against Forced Demolition of Homes” (《访民杀猪宝典》). In these pamphlets, Wu taught fellow activists how to protect their rights by resisting the government and dealing with police interrogation and intimidation.
In China’s rights struggle over the last decade, Wu Gan occupies a unique position of seminal importance. He was the first detainee during the 709 crackdown; his steadfast resolve to expose torture and refusal to plead guilty in exchange for a lighter sentence is awe-inspiring.
In an editorial, the Washington Post quoted Wu Gan’s statement to the court: “For those living under a dictatorship, being given the honorable label of one who ‘subverts state power’ is the highest form of affirmation for a citizen. It’s proof that the citizen wasn’t an accomplice or a slave, and that at the very least he went out and defended, and fought for, human rights.”
Social media revolutionized Chinese citizen resistance, and Wu Gan was one of the most creative user of it. Not surprisingly, he quickly found himself in the crosshairs of the Chinese government’s censorship organ and was barred from domestic platforms like Weibo, so Twitter became a safe haven for him and other human rights activists. There, they didn’t have to worry about their accounts being deleted, and they expressed their thoughts freely and left a record of their activities and thoughts – Twitter was their open diary.
Wu Gan’s Twitter account was such a diary.
At the beginning of this year, when I was doing research for an article, I was able to download his tweets from May 19, 2015, going back to the same date in 2014, reaching apparently the limit Twitter set for retrieving archives.
Take May and June, 2014, as an example: in May, Wu Gan and lawyer Li Heping (李和平) were in the county of Mayang in Huaihua, Hunan Province (湖南怀化麻阳县), where they were assisting a family that had been expropriated of their land, had their house demolished, and relatives in detention. In June, Wu Gan organized a few dozen people to observe the trial of a political prisoner in Hunan, as well as paying attention to the sentencing of Jiangxi’s Liu Ping (刘萍) and the detention of three civil disobedience activists in Guangzhou. That month, Wu Gan also went to Jingdezhen (景德镇) and met with a group of lawyers to work on overturning the the death sentence against four peasants who had been wrongfully convicted of murder. There, he talked to the relatives of the accused about how to use and weaponize the internet. At the same time, he had followed the development of practically all political cases, including those of Guo Feixiong (郭飞雄), Pu Zhiqiang (浦志强), and Gao Yu (高瑜). Wu Gan also released information about donations he had received for completed activities, as well as his experiences, for instance in the Jiansanjiang case [involving rights lawyers beaten up for defending Falun Gong practitioners].
Wu Gan had some rather big ideas: he hoped that Chinese democracy activists overseas could set up a mock voting system for Chinese citizens to elect a Chinese president, as well as judges, legislators, and local officials.
As for current events, his views were often direct and insightful. He said, “If Taiwan still cannot take a hint from today’s situation in Hong Kong and continues to flirt with the Communist Party thinking that trade will lead to a good and risk-free future and think the wolf’s milk they’re drinking is free, one day the Chicoms are going to take back everything when they have an epileptic attack. No good can come of making a deal with the devil.”
In June that year he also said he was occupied with his marriage, fixing up his house, and family matters in his hometown. He said he had to deal with his family life and that [his work on] justice would have to take a back seat for the time being. But afterward, it seems that he had forgotten about this statement.
One of my favorite Wu Gan tweets is: “Some people fancy that after Xi Jinping finishes the anti-corruption campaign and consolidates power, he will return back to the right path. How many times were these people kicked in the head by donkeys to come up with this kind of idea?”
As you can see, due to his extensive contacts with various groups and his involvement in many incidents, his Twitter served as a veritable history of China’s human rights struggle between 2009 to 2015. Today, while he finds himself behind bars, cut off from any means of communication with the outside world, his tens of thousands of tweets have been deleted with just a single click.
This goes beyond Wu Gan’s personal loss; it is a huge setback for researchers and anyone who cares about the struggles of contemporary Chinese society.
What happened to Wu Gan’s tweets isn’t unique. In 2016, Sichuan human rights activist Chen Yunfei (陈云飞) not only had his Twitter posts deleted, but his entire account was closed and erased without any trace. There may well be more political prisoners who have been liquidated from online existence — it embarrasses me to admit that I have not paid the matter enough attention thus far.
The internet age has made information easier to produce and more convenient to circulate. However, It has also made it convenient for a highly sophisticated dictatorship, like the one in China, to wipe out the memories and records of people and even entire communities in an instant. They have been doing this all along, but in the last two or three years, the censorship has reached unprecedented heights in its scale and intensity.
For the Chinese government, it’s not enough to delete domestic social media content. They have been trying to extend their control to Twitter, Facebook, and YouTube — all of which are banned in China.
Like me, a scholar who studies the Chinese resistance movement was shocked and concerned about the erasure of Wu Gan’s Twitter record. She proposed the concept of “data ownership.” Chinese netizens are not only deprived of data ownership inside the Great Fire Wall; political prisoners and currently active Twitter users face threats to their data security as well.
The researcher urged me and my fellow human rights advocators to study methods of protecting Chinese netizens’ “data ownership” in foreign social media. The data security of those political prisoners who are in prison, or “sensitive people” who are not in prison but are strictly monitored and threatened by the government, is particularly urgent. Seeing the deletion of Twitter content belonging to Wu Gan and Chen Yunfei and the recent round of censorship targeting Chinese Twitter users (I will report on this in a separate article), we sense that the Chinese government will stop at no means to delete more content that they disagree with.
Large companies like Twitter should be held responsible for protecting the data security of political dissidents in authoritarian states. The researcher suggested that human rights organizations should negotiate with Twitter to develop a third-party mechanism to protect the social account data for Chinese political prisoners based on CECC’s relatively complete and constantly updated database (http://ppdcecc.gov/) of Chinese incarcerated for their dissident activities. This system could provide regular backups and prevent the prisoners’ account from being modified.
Right now, what is most urgent is that Twitter needs to know the shocking attacks on free speech that are quietly taking place. We ask Twitter to restore Wu Gan’s Twitter content and Chen Yunfei’s account from its backup database.
Ms. Wang Lihong (王荔蕻), another noted human rights activist and a close friend of Wu Gan, tweeted, “Can someone go talk with Twitter about this? We’re not in jail, and wouldn’t it be a shame if we couldn’t even protect the Twitter account of a prisoner of conscience?”
Yaxue Cao edits this website. Follow her on Twitter @yaxuecao
A Month Or So In The House Of Twitter, Yaxue Cao, January 23, 2012.
Yaxue Cao, October 18, 2018
Bard College in Annandale-on-Hudson, New York, is a small liberal arts college with around 2500 students. The Campus Center is the central meeting place with a bookstore, a cafe, a post office, computer terminals, a small auditorium, lounge areas and art exhibit space. On October 1, a photo exhibit was mounted along the hallways of the center. It is called, adopting a well-known Mao Zedong quote, “Weightier Than Mount Tai, Lighter Than a Feather: Human Rights Experience of Chinese Contemporary Art.”
Featuring ten artists (all but two lived in China), the exhibit includes photographs, conceptual compositions, negative images of Tiananmen Square in 1989, and photographs that depict a wide range of life in China: the student movement in Beijing, migrant workers in the slums outside Beijing, prostitutes and homesexuals. Photographs of the Umbrella Movement in Hong Kong in 2014 and the Sunflower Movement in Taiwan the same year are also on display. It is a traveling exhibit and was first shown at John Jay College of Criminal Justice in New York City. It ends on October 19 at Bard.
On October 3, Siyuan Min (闵思渊), who goes by the name ‘Frederick S. Min,’ a political science major and chair of the Chinese Student Organization on campus, wrote a long letter to one of the two curators of the exhibit, Patricia Keretzky. Keretzky is Oskar Munsterberg Lecturer in Art History and author of more than 10 books about Chinese art, religious and secular, medieval and contemporary. From his letter, we gathered that the exhibit stirred quite a bit of sentiment from a WeChat group that consisted of current Chinese students at Bard, recent graduates and visiting scholars from China. In his letter to Ms. Keretzy, Mr. Min summed up this “vibrant and highly intellectual conversation” on WeChat, China’s popular but heavily censored and surveilled online messaging platform.
The community of Chinese students (currently over 100) and scholars at Bard took issue with the exhibit on three points: the topic, the date and the offensiveness of it.
They objected to the sensitive nature of the topic, singling out “the images of protests,” “an armed person waving a gun in front of Mao Zedong,” and “a Statue of Liberty photoshopped to be on Tiananmen Square where the Monument to the People’s Heroes actually stand(s),” the last of which implying that the two symbols of struggle contravene each other.
They took issue with the date. Why launch the exhibit on October 1, our National Day, “the equivalent of July 4th”? When “a rather reckless man insisted on attending a military drill” on the Serbian national day, he said, a diplomatic crisis ensued causing World War I. He then walked back a little bit from the parallel between Archduke Franz Ferdinand causing World War I with his assassination and the two curators provoking Chinese students at Bard, but we get the idea: it’s a grievous provocation.
Mr. Min went on conveying how Chinese students felt: they feel ‘ambushed’ by such an exhibit at the student center; they feel embarrassed when asked questions by their curious American friends; their pride in their nationality is hurt; they feel “a certain sense of betrayal” because at Bard the atmosphere has been “pluralistic yet always respectful.”
So the photo exhibit is a deviation from the pluralistic and respectful atmosphere at Bard according to this junior. When Chinese students at the University of California San Diego opposed the Dalai Lama giving the commencement speech, they applied the same awkward, brain teaser logic.
Because of the exhibit, the Chinese students and scholars feel, Min went on, judged by “our nationality, our ethnics, the history of our country or the policies of our government.”
But isn’t it the case that the Chinese students and scholars have all these hurt feelings precisely because they themselves identify with the repressive regime, with the policies of the Chinese government and its political sensibilities? They do not seem to recognize that each and every Chinese citizen has the right not to identify with the government. As a political science student, young Mr. Min should know better.
In reply, Ms. Keretzky invited the junior and the Chinese students to come to the screening of dissident films by Chinese artists and a roundtable discussion afterward on Saturday at the Campus Center. None of them came. She also ask Mr. Min to post her response on WeChat. I don’t know whether this has been done. I doubt it, because the words ‘human rights’ and the name ‘Liu Xiaobo’ will not pass through the censorship, even if Min tries to. I doubt he would try in the first place.
“I want to have a dialogue with the Chinese students on campus,” Wu Yuren (吴玉仁), a participating artist, said on Saturday at Bard. “This is a serious exhibit. In 2015, Patricia met with us in Beijing and we had a discussion about it. We know why we do this. Today’s China is undergoing a massive transformation, and artists have the acutest sense it. As freedom of speech is being choked off and art creation faces more and more restriction, it’s only natural that artists are going to express such repression.”
I asked Mr. Wu what would happen to these artists living in China, he said, they are used to regular police summons known as ‘drinking tea,’ forced evictions, and shutdowns of exhibits. “Under dictatorship, artists who explore its manifestations face big dangers.” Wu Yuren himself was detained for ten months in 2010 for using what they called the “rights defense performance art” to oppose forced demolition of art districts in Beijing where he and hundreds of artists had their studios.
“By the way,” he said at Bard, “I want to state a common sense here: October 1st is not the birthday of our motherland.”
Yaxue Cao edits this website. Follow her on Twitter @yaxuecao, or follow China Change @chinachange_org