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Yaxue Cao, December 31, 2016
If it wasn’t for the “Safety House” in which he was hiding as he wrote, the opening paragraph of Lam Wing Kee’s personal account would be beguilingly insouciant: there he stands at the window, painting his view of the Lei Yue Mun bay in the dazzling late afternoon light, with precise, unhurried sentences.
It is with this dissonant scene that Mr. Lam begins his narration of eight months of secret captivity in mainland China.
Doing what he had for years – hauling suitcases of tabloid-style exposés about Chinese leaders and politics to mainland China, and then mailing them to clients – he was stopped at customs in Shenzhen one day in October 2015 and pulled aside for questioning. It wasn’t his first time, but this time it was different. A Central Government Special Investigation Team (中央专案组) had been formed to target the book publishing and mailing business, newly seen as “a veiled attempt to overthrow the Chinese government.”
Handcuffed and hooded, he was taken to a two-story building in Ningbo on the coast. There were mountains on three sides, and fog shrouded the area in the morning and evenings. He discovered his whereabouts by squatting on the toilet and looking out through cracks in the window.
The room was padded to prevent suicide, a thought he briefly contemplated. Three surveillance cameras and two guards on rotation watched his every move. He was interrogated between 20 and 30 times about the Causeway Bay bookstore he worked at, the authors of the books, his clientele, and his boss, Gui Minhai (桂民海) who was abducted from Thailand and is still in custody. The interrogations must have been thin on substance given the number of sessions involved, so Mr. Lam’s account of them is at best sketchy.
On the third day of his abduction, he began to mark time by secretly pulling a thread off his orange jacket and tying a little knot each day. By the time he was removed from Ningbo there were 124 little orange knots.
He sought to communicate with his guards, but only one young man risked discovery to speak a few furtive words. A doctor who came to check his vitals took pains not to say any more than necessary, but nonetheless brought him some snow from outside — something he, a Hong Konger, had never touched before. He fancied that his main handler, Mr. Shi, might be above the others and the system he served, because he is “educated.” But humanity is a scarce commodity under terror.
They forced him to waive his right to notify relatives and hire lawyers. He signed. They presented him with a false confession, that he had committed the crime of illegally selling books. He signed. They forced him to write a statement of repentance. He did, according to their precise instructions. They made him confess on camera, several times. He was shocked to find that a “witness” at one of those sessions was played by a female cop. He did everything they made him do, because he saw that he had no choice.
In March 2016, they took him to Shaoguan, a city in northern Guangdong, and gave him a job in the local library. He reshelved books during the day and reported to his minder in the evening. From the cell phone they gave him he devoured every bit of news about the five booksellers in Hong Kong, and began to realize, from statements by the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, that what he was embroiled in was a big deal.
One night in April, two prostitutes knocked on his door. He saw that it was a noose to be tied around his neck and declined their company.
Having deemed him sufficiently conditioned and ready, in June the Special Investigation Team sent him back to Hong Kong to fetch the company computer that stored client information. He was given one day in which to do it, and also visit his relatives and an old teacher whose declining health was preoccupying him.
At the immigration check point he did what he had been instructed: he told Hong Kong police that he was back to close up the case. He’s safe and needs no help. Then he checked into a hotel designated by his minders.
He had planned to obey every command. “In any case,” he figured, “I’d go back [to the mainland] for a few more months, then everyone would be able to come back to Hong Kong and live peacefully like before.”
Things began to unravel after he boarded the MTR, going to the office in North Point to fetch the computer:
“Standing in the subway car were chattering students with smiles on their faces. Some passengers stared at their phones with their heads bowed. A pregnant woman boarded, and someone offered their seat. A courier had put his bags down and was squatting in a corner to sort his deliveries. Everyone was untroubled, except me, being followed and manipulated. What’s wrong with me? I’m in Hong Kong, and yet I still have no freedom.”
He began to feel a sense of repulsion at their plans, and the role he was assuming in them:
“What is even scarier, as the man named Shi told me, is that I have to continue working in the bookshop after they allow me to return to Hong Kong. He’ll keep in touch with me, and I’ll report what’s going on, through writing or photographs. They want to know about Hong Kong, especially those who are buying books about political affairs. I’ll be their eyes and ears. Good heavens, I’ll not only lose my own freedom, but betray others. If I yield today, I’ll be an accomplice tomorrow, forcing more people to submit. If I sell my soul today, I’ll be forcing others to sell their souls tomorrow.”
He was able to extend his stay for one more day, because he picked up the wrong computer.
He felt his love for Hong Kong acutely: the venders, the fortunetellers, the sidewalk food stands, and the crowds. He roamed Portland Street and went by Langham Place. From Shanghai Street, through Portland Street again, he walked towards Yau Ma Tei. He couldn’t bear the thought of leaving Hong Kong and going back to his captors. At dinner with his older sister, he dismissed the notion that only Christians were capable of doing good, and was stuck by an inscription on the homescreen of his brother-in-law’s phone: “When your attitude is right, happiness will come.”
At Festival Walk around noon the next day, where he was supposed to board the train and head to the border, he stopped and sat smoking in the bright sun. He was late, and the people on the other side of Luohu Bridge were waiting for him. He had stayed up all night reading news about the booksellers and the protest of six thousand Hong Kongers and pro-democracy legislators.
At the MTR entrance, he began to hesitate. He wanted another cigarette. Then a little poem that he had read when he was young came to him: “I have never seen / a knelt reading desk / though I’ve seen / men of knowledge on their knees.”
Then he made up his mind. He stubbed out the smoke and turned around. The rest of the story is now well known.
At the end of 2014, I was heartbroken that so many of the people I know or have reported on have gone to prison. I started to think that there weren’t too many left to put in jail. What did I know? Over the past two years, more people have been abducted, jailed, or secretly detained. More have been tortured. Harsher – much harsher – sentences have been handed down. The country is now on lockdown under a set of laws designed to restrict freedom in all areas. A narrative is being fostered that there is a U.S.-led conspiracy to bring down the communist regime.
At the end of 2016, however, the consensus among the people I work with is that, looking back some years later, we’ll find that 2016 is far from being the worst. The worst is yet to come.
I first read Mr. Lam’s account in August in a quiet cabin in the mountains of West Virginia, and read it once again on the eve of 2017. The power of his testimony is amplified by his considerable literary deftness. I have been wanting to capture that moment, on June 16, 2016, at the Kowloon Tong Station, when he put out his cigarette and turned around. To me, it’s one of the most important events of the year. In it is the kernel of hope I’m bringing with me into 2017, and beyond.
Yaxue Cao edits this website. Follow her on Twitter @YaxueCao
December 15, 2016
Yaxue Cao spoke with Chang Ping in Toronto on December 2, 2016.
YC: You used to be the director of the news department of the famed Southern Weekly and a columnist there, and you belong to a community of journalists who distinguished themselves in the 25 years of “market-oriented” media that coincided with the period of soaring economic development from early 1990s until recently. I’ve been wanting to hear your story, because I sensed that your trajectory as a journalist has also been the trajectory of China’s “market-oriented media.” So I’m very happy to see you. First of all, congratulations on receiving the CJFE International Press Freedom Award. They made a great choice.
Chang Ping: Thank you.
YC: I knew you were a 1989er, but I only learned yesterday, from watching the CJFE video, that you were detained for a month after the June 4th Massacre. Tell us a bit about your experience in 1989. Where were you?
Chang Ping: I was a sophomore at Sichuan University, majoring in Chinese Literature. In Chengdu, as in Beijing, college students took to the streets to protest, staged hunger strikes in the public square downtown, and held dialogues with the provincial government. I was involved in organizing some of these activities. After the crackdown, I was detained for a month and severely disciplined.
YC: How did you become a journalist?
Chang Ping: I wanted to be a novelist, and never thought much about journalism. I didn’t have a job after the June 4th protest, nor did I care for a career in the system. I stumbled on my first media job by accident: in Chengdu, a boss and I, just two of us, started a business intelligence magazine. That was 1991, the year before Deng Xiaoping’s Southern Tour. With scissors and glue, I cut out what I thought was useful business information and arranged it in categories such as policy, law, overseas information, etc. Back then it was still hot metal typesetting, and I had to go to the factory to set the characters with workers. In Chengdu region, small and medium businesses really needed that kind of information. Very soon we had a lot of subscribers. I had first-hand knowledge that, before Deng’s Southern Tour, the commercial impetus at the bottom half of society was already bubbling up. So for me, it wasn’t a surprise at all when, in 1992, the economy kickstarted after Deng’s tour. I also edited a book with the title “The Swelling Commercial Tides.”
After a while I quit the magazine and wrote short stories that were published in a journal called Young Writers. Some were recommended to the then-famous literary magazine Harvest. An editor asked me to revise my story, but I was so proud back then that I told him I wouldn’t change a word. At the same time I also compiled historical storybooks for young readers.
After 1992, the government began to push for market reforms. Some government-owned publications were outsourced. I leased a paper called Market Herald (《市场导报》), I was the deputy editor-in-chief, but the de facto editor-in-chief. But I loved reporting on everyday life, so I went out and wrote about, for example, Chengdu’s river channel improvement project, the living conditions of the blind, etc. The paper wasn’t making any money, so after two months it couldn’t go on. Right around that time, Chengdu Commercial Daily (《成都商报》) was founded by He Huazhang (何华章), and I joined as part of the earliest team, in charge of social reporting. Later I also edited the front page, and was one of the editorial managers.
Chengdu Commercial Daily pursued a vernacular style. Our reports, even some headlines, were written in everyday Sichuan dialect. When reporting the annual Two Sessions in Beijing, all newspapers had the same headlines as the People’s Daily, something like “The National People’s Congress Solemnly Opens in Beijing,” while our headline was simply, “NPC Held Meeting.” We were criticized for being not serious.
YC: Indeed, revolt often begins from aesthetics and taste.
Chang Ping: Chengdu Commercial Daily was an immediate success and made a lot of money. A year later, the municipal Party propaganda department took it into their hands as their own cultural achievement. Later, the paper formed a media group by consolidating with the Chengdu Evening News, which had been the leading paper of the city, a radio station, a TV station, and literary magazines, and was listed on China’s stock exchanges.
As Chengdu Commercial Daily became more and more mainstream, meaning more and more like the Party’s mouthpieces, my difference with other editors widened. I remember in early 1998 when the rock singer Cui Jian (崔健) issued “The Power of the Powerless,” I sent a reporter in Beijing to interview Cui and he talked about the difficulty of revolt. The propaganda department was very unhappy about it and chided me harshly. My commentaries were also criticized for “promoting a capitalist view of the press.”
Another event was the death of Deng Xiaoping in 1997. We had never experienced anything like that and didn’t know how to report it. But all Chinese held the wisdom that you can’t mess around with this, and you must do whatever People’s Daily does. You have to use the standard script issued by Xinhua News — but how do we design the page? We studied how papers reported Mao Zedong’s death, what font and what size of font were used for headlines. As the Party’s mouthpiece in Sichuan, the Sichuan Daily had no pressure; they simply waited for the phototypesetting of People’s Daily that was sent to all over the country — at that point it was phototypesetting printing. Our pressure came from the market. We wanted to publish early. So the editor-in-chief came up with an idea. He went to the printing factory and cheated out the phototypesetting of the People’s Daily. The next day, Chengdu Commercial Daily was the first paper in the city with the news. We were so happy about our cleverness!
About a week later, I saw a weekend paper from Guangzhou. On the left it was a large photo of Deng Xiaoping, on the right the headline was simply “Mr. Deng Passed Away.” The text below was also Xinhua’s standard announcement, the same as everyone else. I was rather shocked: what we thought was creative and smart was really nothing; we were just toadying.
I didn’t want to stay in Chengdu anymore. I met with Shen Hao (沈灏), the news director of Southern Weekly (《南方周末》), who was in Chengdu on business. He wanted me to join the rising Southern Weekly. So I did.
YC: Shen Hao was sentenced to four years in prison last year and paraded on CCTV giving “self-confessions.”
Chang Ping: He Huazhang has also been also detained. He was working at Sichuan People’s Publishing House in 1989. His career stalled because he joined the protests. He left the state system to found Chengdu Commercial Daily. The success of the paper catapulted him to hero status in China’s market reforms. He returned to government and became head of the municipal Party propaganda department and deputy mayor. He was taken into custody by the CCDI, the Party’s disciplinary committee, following the fall of Zhou Yongkang (周永康). He’s been in detention for a year or two already without trial. Many Party officials are in the same situation: no legal procedures are applied to them, and there’s no news reporting on them.
YC: Southern Weekly attracted a lot of young and idealistic reporters.
Chang Ping: At Southern Weekly, I reported on local government corruption, and environmental degradation. In 1998, there were floods across China. Jiang Zemin (江泽民) and Zhu Rongji (朱镕基) stood in the Yangtze River and reporting abounded. Southern Weekly made a plan to investigate the cause of the flood along the Yangtze River, beginning from the Tibetan plateau. Most of our series were observations: deforestation and soil erosion. I wrote similar things too, but I wasn’t satisfied. I wanted to look for stories. In Barkam (马尔康), northern Sichuan, I found a tree feller who had been honored for years as a model feller. He told me, “Now I feel the flood has something to do with me.” I wrote a report titled “The Last Model Feller,” because my sense was that there would be no more model fellers anymore, and it was a big success.
But soon Southern Weekly was “rectified.” Shen Hao was removed, and columnist Yan Lieshan (鄢烈山) and editor Cao Xihong (曹西弘) were censored.
YC: Why the rectification?
Chang Ping: Shen Hao organized a lot of reporting on the dark side of society — for example, publishing illustration of the varieties of torture police used to extract confessions. Yan Lieshan was an essayist well known for incisive criticism. Cao Xihong was the first to investigate the dark secrets of the railway and communication industries that the state monopolized.
After the rectification, I was appointed first the deputy director, and then the director, of the news department. I was responsible for news planning, page layout, and the deployment of reporters and editors. I also edited the front page, the Reporter’s Observations page, and the investigations page. Almost every weekend, I’d go out for stories, and I reported on judicial corruption, pollution, women’s rights, gay rights, and more.
At the time we tried to record changes in Chinese society using methods from anthropology and sociology. For example, we chose a village, a township, and a street in the heartland, the West, and the coast respectively — our plan was to revisit the same place at the end of every year for ten years to record its changes. I was forced to leave Southern Weekly three years later, but the editors and reporters continued and completed the plan. Ten years later, they published a book titled Here and There: A Report on the Transformation of Grassroots China (《这儿与那儿:中国转型期基层调查》).
YC: I’ll find that and take a look.
Chang Ping: I’ve always wanted to be an independent voice. At that time the majority of the journalists and commentators with dissenting views went about it by latching their own ideas onto those already in the air. For instance they’d take the “Three Represents” (三个代表) and try to explain the positive aspect of the theory, and then add in their own understanding: “Only by moving towards democracy, rule of law, and liberty will the will of the people be truly represented.” But I look at things differently. I am extremely sensitive to language. Words are not just a means of expression, they are the expression in and of itself. So if you even use “Three Represents” or similar slogans, you’re doing propaganda for it, no matter how much you try to smuggle in your own stuff. Also with Falun Gong — we were required to write about it as a political task, but we stubbornly resisted. We basically didn’t do any reports, whether good or bad. I got accused by some people of “rejecting the mainstream.”
In the spring of 2001 there was the case of Zhang Jun (张君), who for a while was a notorious triad boss. He robbed banks, killed cops, and had a record throughout Hubei, Hunan, and Chongqing, and of course had numerous mistresses. It had all the ingredients of a Hollywood movie. He was caught by Chongqing Public Security Bureau led by Wen Qiang (文强). In a photo, Wen had him on the ground, one foot on his face, and announced: “Zhang Jun is under my foot.” Wen Qiang, of course, was later executed by Bo Xilai (薄熙来) for protecting the mafia.
YC: And then Bo Xilai was himself jailed by Xi Jinping. In the Communist Party’s autocratic politics, anyone in the system can just be peeled off like a layer of cabbage — no one’s safe. Who’s to say that, in a few year’s time, Xi Jinping won’t be the one in jail?
Chang Ping: The capture of Zhang Jun was a big grand achievement for Chongqing public security — a chance for them to really bignote and back-slap themselves. They organized a lot of interviews, and a CCTV crew also went to interview Zhang Jun face-to-face in the detention center. I was mulling over how we should cover the case at Southern Weekly. Media around the country were running the story front page every day, and we were a weekly publication, so we were already a bit behind. I sent journalists to write a piece about how Zhang Jun grew up. It was titled: “Exploring the Zhang Jun Case: The Rise of a Brutal Syndicate” (《张君案检讨 – 一个极端暴力集团的成长》). It traced the story of how a simple village kid who left home to become a migrant worker in the end became the head of a triad group. It also scrutinized the operations of China’s criminal justice organs. As Zhang Jun himself put it, every time he entered prison, he came out worse. The article sent shockwaves through Hunan and Chongqing. Party bosses there wrote a letter to the Central Propaganda Department, saying Southern Weekly could even turn such a monumental achievement of law enforcement into a smear against socialism, against rural policies, and against the public security agencies.
In the autumn of 2001 Southern Weekly was “rectified” once again, after four articles we published were specifically called out and criticized. Editors and journalists were moved on and sacked. One of the four was the Zhang Jun investigation, and of the other three, one was about a cemetery for Red Guards who died in the Cultural Revolution, called “A Chongqing Cemetery Buries the Cultural Revolution’s Young Warriors” (《青春墓地埋葬重庆文革武斗》). Another was about a massive explosion in the city of Shijiazhuang, where the censors thought we’d just reported too many details. The last was a commentary about the situation in the Middle East, which made the key point that dictatorship is the source of turmoil in that region.
After those four articles were specifically named as problematic, I was removed, the editor-in-chief Jiang Yiping (江艺平) was transferred, and the deputy editor-in-chief was also transferred out. That was also the biggest turning point for Southern Weekly. I was transferred to be the deputy general manager of the circulation department — so I hadn’t actually been fired. They gave me a job title and salary, but no work.
YC: So it was just about two years after the previous “rectification.”
Chang Ping: Right. It was a time when independent voices won an unprecedented level of prestige for Southern Weekly, and it brought so much space for the imagination in freedom of speech and political reform in China. The paper also became a model that journalists and editors around China aspired to emulate. Many pro-reform scholars and lawyers were also very supportive. But it was all along also a target of repression.
YC: How many pages was the newspaper then?
Chang Ping: At the beginning it was 8, then we doubled, and then went to 24 pages. Sometimes we also added pages, and there were also experimental pages. On the professional side, Southern Weekly was really at the vanguard for trying new things, and it brought together so many people in the industry who had ideals, in particular many brilliant writers in the field. Our reports were very carefully done, and the writing was always well-crafted. Layout was exceptional, too — when I became the director of news, I put a lot of energy into photography and page design.
I left soon after I lost my editorial position. CCTV had just begun a new channel, 12, and I was invited to be the editor of a talk show. I did that for two months, so I gained some understanding of CCTV. But I simply couldn’t stand the culture there. I had to get out. In 2002, with friends from Chengdu and Guangzhou, we founded The Bund (《外滩画报》) in Shanghai. Shanghai is a city with extremely strict ideological controls — there’s a certain lifelessness about it. We hoped to inject some vitality into the place, but from the beginning we were put under strict monitoring and control. We hardly had space to operate. In 2003 I accepted an offer from the University of California, Berkeley, for a one year visiting scholarship. After I returned I went back to The Bund as deputy chief editor. In 2005 the propaganda department was unhappy with the job our official supervisor, the Shanghai Literature and Art Publishing House (上海文艺出版社), was doing keeping us in line, and they forced them to sell us to the Wenhui Xinmin United Press Group (文新集团). They didn’t want to buy, and we didn’t want to sell, but the deal went through regardless.
YC: It sounds similar to what happened recently with Yanhuang Chunqiu.
Chang Ping: Right. The Bund is still around, though it’s now turned into a fashion magazine. In 2005 I returned to Guangzhou and rejoined the Southern Group, running Southern Metropolis Weekly (《南都周刊》) as the deputy chief editor in charge of daily operations.
Southern Metropolis Weekly is a magazine of urbanized China — it focuses on civil society, the environment, women’s rights, and issues related to rights movements, ideas, culture, and so on. It’s relatively moderate in tone compared to Southern Weekly, but it’s still been hit with a lot of criticism by the authorities.
In the midst of all this, I also started writing a syndicated column, commenting on current affairs and culture. In April 2008 I published a commentary in the Chinese version of Financial Times titled: “Tibet: Nationalist Sentiment and the Truth” (《“西藏：真相与民族主义情绪”》). This was after the March 14 unrest in Tibet, where official media failed to carry any substantial reports, while social media and a number of websites let loose with a barrage of criticism against CNN, BBC, and other foreign media, accusing them of false reporting. In the piece, I wrote that if their concerns were really about news values, they shouldn’t be exclusively focused on exposing the misreporting of the Western press, but should also be calling into question the information found in the Chinese media, and the strict controls over the press in China. The latter deals far greater damage to the media environment than the former, the column argued. I also suggested that the narrow-minded Han nationalism common in China should be carefully examined. That article stirred up a tempest, and websites like China Online, KDnet, Utopia, and a few other Han nationalist sites pinned it on top of the page, and went into overdrive hyping it up. Just a single one of these forum posts got several hundred thousand hits, with tens of thousands of comments, most of them attacking me. Some people even threatened that they’d harm me and my family.
At the time too there was a Duke University student, Grace Wang (王千源), who during a campus demonstration was accused of supporting Tibetan independence. She was attacked by Chinese students at Duke, and her parents in China were attacked too. Her parents had to move into a hotel for their own safety, after attackers left feces at their door.
Beijing Evening News (《北京晚报》) took the rare step of publishing an article directly attacking me, called “Chang Ping Is a Rumormonger” (《造谣自由的南都长平》). The author, Mei Ninghua (梅宁华), writing under the pseudonym “Pen Spear” (文锋) was the president of Beijing Daily [the official mouthpiece of the Beijing municipal propaganda department]. His article caused an uproar. This dispute was the opening volley in a five year-long running debate about universal values, which Xi Jinping shut down in 2013.
Because of this I was again removed from my post, and prohibited from doing any work in the newsroom. They transferred me to the Southern Media Group’s research institute. But I kept writing columns for Southern Weekly and Southern Metropolis Daily (《南方都市报》). After six months those columns were also brought to a halt. They told me that if I agreed to stop writing, I might be able to keep my job. I refused, and kept publishing current affairs commentary in other outlets. At the end of 2010 the propaganda department demanded that the Southern Media Group completely cut off all association with me.
Newspapers, websites, and publishing houses around the country were from that point on prohibited from publishing or printing my articles or books, and websites were ordered to delete my previously-published articles and author information. At that point I had a large number of readers, and a lot of websites syndicated my blog, even real estate websites carried my column. It wasn’t me updating them. I saw myself disappearing from the internet before my own eyes — they weren’t only not publishing me, but erasing my existence. For a while, it was hard to even find my name online.
YC: It’s terrifying when you think about it. As long as they want to do it, they can make someone disappear. They can also make history, or reality, disappear. Even a journalist such as yourself can turn into such a nightmare for them, so much so that they want to expunge you completely.
When the wave of arrests in spring 2011 took place during the so-called Jasmine Revolution, what were you doing?
Chang Ping: I was a visiting scholar at Hong Kong Baptist University, and like a lot of mainlanders who came to Hong Kong to study, I went home on the weekends. Someone said to me at one point: You shouldn’t go back. Apart from writing my columns, I don’t do anything else — so should I follow this instruction and not go home? I didn’t want to be intimidated. It just so happened that right at that time I received an invitation to go to France for a forum. A number of others, including Yu Hua (余华), Zhan Jiang (展江), and Yu Jianrong (于建嵘), also participated. When I was in Paris, police in China came to my home to arrest me.
When I went back I remained in Hong Kong and helped found iSun Affairs (《阳光时务》.)
YC: iSun Affairs was a publication with serious ambition, and it brought together so many talented people, including yourself and Cheng Yizhong (程益中), who also worked for years in the Southern newspapers. iSun’s reporting on Wukan (乌坎), in particular, left a deep impression on me. You were chief editor at the time, but a lot of people may not realize that you were in Germany and had turned your schedule upside-down to work remotely. What happened there?
Chang Ping: I never expected it, but the Hong Kong government dragged out the approval of my work visa for two years (and in the end, rather than say that they had “rejected” it, they simply said that they “were no longer processing it.”) They came up with all sorts of reasons for investigating me, including an absurd attempt to establish whether or not I had taught illegally when I was a visiting scholar at Hong Kong Baptist University. As soon as they did this, it was clear that I couldn’t return to mainland China. With a PRC passport I could stay in Hong Kong for seven days at a time, so every weekend I flew to neighboring countries for “vacation,” including Malaysia, Indonesia, and Cambodia. After two months of that, Hong Kong immigration personnel told me that I couldn’t stay in Hong Kong like that — I would have to return to China or else the next time I arrived, there’d be trouble. So I never went back. After I received an invitation from the Heinrich Böll Foundation, I went from Cambodia to Germany.
Thanks to the support of my Hong Kong colleagues, I was able to stay on as the chief editor of iSun Affairs, working from Germany, for the next two years. But it also was extremely difficult, and the magazine was banned in China. In the end, we parted ways. I stayed in Germany and continued writing commentary for publications in Germany, Hong Kong, and Taiwan, and continued to address the Chinese authorities’ repression.
YC: So in that case you haven’t been able to return to China since 2011. iSun Affairs had to shut down after a little over a year; one of the main investors, Chen Ping (陈平), was violently attacked in Hong Kong, Cheng Yizhong relocated to the United States, and you went to Germany. Later you wrote a column for Deutsche Welle and South China Morning Post, and got into an intense debate with another Deutsche Welle columnist, Frank Sieren, about the June 4 massacre. After SCMP was sold to Jack Ma, they immediately shut down your column. Earlier this year when the letters urging Xi Jinping to resign came out, your family in China was harassed.
Of course, the storied Southern Weekly is no more after the “Southern Weekly Incident” in January 2013. A great experiment has ended.
In 1999 “Southern Weekly” published a very famous New Year’s dedication, titled “There is a power that moves us to tears,” which said in part: “May the powerless be empowered, and may the dispirited continue forward.” This line inspired a generation of aspiring media figures. Now in 2016, press freedom in China has not only failed to progress, but has regressed dramatically. Please share some final thoughts for our interview today.
Chang Ping: Many years ago we were very optimistic. At that time I believed that every step made in the news field would promote progress in Chinese society, and that every word we wrote contained power — even if it could only be measured in milligrams. Looking back now, I often feel quite dejected. China is going backwards in so many areas. But I have never doubted the value of fighting for freedom of expression. Even if there’s no tomorrow, we still need justice today. It’s just as I put it in my acceptance speech for this award in Toronto: freedom of expression is not merely necessary for all other freedoms, but speech itself is freedom.
I made the following line the signature for my blog and social media accounts for many years: “If criticism is not free, praise is meaningless.” A friend and I translated it from the French: “Sans la liberté de blamer, il n’est point d’éloge flatteur.” It became popular and widely quoted in China, and made many people come to see how meaningless the Chinese government’s self-flattery is once it has gone around crushing all dissenting views. It makes us also see the value of critique, which was the goal of my being in the news and commentary field for so long. Now, I could disappear, but these ideas are already deeply rooted in the hearts and minds of the Chinese people.
Chang Ping (长平) lives in Germany. Follow him on Twitter @chang_ping
Yaxue Cao (曹雅学) edits this website. Follow her on Twitter @YaxueCao
China’s ‘Freedom’ Cage, by Chang Ping, 2015.
‘Speech Is Freedom Itself’ – Chang Ping’s Acceptance Speech for the CJFE 2016 International Press Freedom Award, December 1, 2016
The Virus of Censorship, by Cheng Yizhong, 2012.
Huang Simin, October 13, 2016
“If you want to understand your own country, then you’ve already stepped on the path to criminality.” — Ai Weiwei
“Do you think there is dignity in living a good life in this country?” — Li Tingyu
Born and raised in Guangdong, Li Tingyu (李婷玉) was a student at Sun Yat-sen University in Guangzhou where she majored in English but dropped out in senior year. She had been working with her boyfriend Lu Yuyu (卢昱宇) on the self-published media known as 非新闻 (“Non-News”) until the couple’s detention on June 16 this year. The two were charged with “picking quarrels and provoking trouble” and are currently detained in the Dali Detention Center, Yunnan.
Li Tingyu and Lu Yuyu have become well-known online in recent years for their dogged work, through the Non-News blog, in searching, collating, and publishing information about mass incidents around China.
As Li Tingyu’s lawyer, I came to understand her personal background and history in the course of representing her and meeting her in custody. She gave her permission for me to set it down.
Childhood Encounter with Migrant Workers
The question “How’d you end up here?” sounds like the beginning of an interrogation. When I asked Li Tingyu, she wasn’t put off. She laughed, then told me her story.
Li was born in 1991 in a small, well-off village in Foshan, Guangdong Province. She grew up in complete comfort, attended elementary school in the village, and had not the slightest understanding of the outside world. The village had a large number of “migrant workers,” however, and her best friend was from Chongqing — the daughter of a migrant worker. The girl’s mother collected trash for a living, and her father worked in a factory. They had to pay very high tuition — a few thousand yuan, which was a big chunk of household income — for the daughter to attend school in the village. The girl one day invited Li Tingyu to her place to play, and Li was shocked by the overcrowded ghetto of shanty houses. She couldn’t understand why the other villagers, of which she was a part, could do nothing but collect rent and lead a life of leisure, while migrant workers had to wear themselves down with arduous manual labor. In the end the friend from Chongqing had to go back home to continue her studies.
Later on, her readings exposed her to the issues of the Hukou system and workers’ rights, and she grasped at once what was going on — the experiences and observations of her childhood had left her with a deep impression.
A Petite Rebel
When she was in junior high school in the early 2000s, Li developed an appetite for devouring books and news stories online, mostly on politics, society, and the economy. She was fascinated by pedagogy, and after learning about the educational systems elsewhere in the world, penned an earnest letter to her headmaster demanding that he not “ruin us students with exam-oriented education.” Of course, the principal of a middle school in China is not going to follow this sort of advice. But at that age Li Tingyu was already developing independent ideas about how things were, and making her own choices. She managed to spend the minimum effort to get through the exams and still got grades near the top of her class, and used the rest of her time to read what she wanted. It was a boarding school, so Li would often burrow under the blanket with a flashlight and a book deep into the night.
By the time Li Tingyu was in high school, the atmosphere online was fairly liberal [the years leading up to the Olympics in 2008] — at least, much better than it is today — and blogs were all the rage. Li read them avidly, and gained an ever deeper understanding of Chinese society. She said that this period was a kind of awakening for her.
Li recalled her politics teacher in senior high school — he personally participated in the 1989 student movement, was punished by local authorities, and in 1991 left his hometown and came with the son to Guangzhou, finally winding up in this small town teaching high school. This teacher wasn’t like the others, forcing students to woodenly parrot political texts — instead, he often ended up speaking about his experiences in the student movement. He encouraged students to go and read up about what really happened. This teacher left a deep impression on the students. Luckily — and unexpectedly — the teacher wasn’t reported to the authorities.
Li Tingyu also recalled how her classmates would pass around Zhao Ziyang’s memoirs on QQ, a Chinese messaging app. Through all this, her understanding of China continued to evolve.
The GoAgent ‘Savior’
At some point during senior high school Li read an essay by Zhang Ming, a well-known academic and liberal intellectual, analyzing the wreck that is China’s university system. From that point on Li held a low regard for life at university. She chose English for two reasons: she was good at it and she saw English as a tool for assimilating more information. Knowing that books in Chinese were often censored in facts and interpretation, she often went straight to English. The Sun Yat-sen University library had a number of English volumes on the June 4 movement, and she read them all.
Li says that, to a large extent, the internet changed her life — especially in the third year of undergraduate studies, when she learnt how to “jump the Great Firewall” with a VPN called GoAgent. She had installed GoAgent on the computers of at least 50-60 of her friends. There were teachers at the university who asked her help to install the software. Li said that through all this she experienced an ineffable “savior”-type feeling: only through being able to access free information was it possible to understand the reality in China. Even if her fellow students only wanted to read celebrity news to begin with, as time went on, they’d start paying attention to social issues. She was once reported by a fellow student for “politically incorrect” speech, and her school counselor urged her to be a more careful about who she revealed her thoughts to.
A ‘Good Life’ Without Dignity
Li recalled a conversation she once had with a friend online about the “reincarnation party” (an internet term, primarily used on Weibo, that refers to individuals who have had their accounts deleted, and who then re-establish a second, third, or fourth ‘life’ on Weibo to continue their protest). The friend was a graduate student of sociology at Peking University, doing research on the topic. The friend remarked, with an obvious sense of superiority, about how the internet at Peking University wasn’t restricted, that he can find find out whatever information he wants easily, and how he would emigrate to live a better life.” I interjected that there are plenty of people who think like this. Li recalled, still indignant, “he didn’t care about fighting against the information restrictions; instead, he bragged about his privilege of having more access than others.”
“Do you think there is dignity in living a good life in this country?” she asked him.
I fell silent. Indeed, having a true life of dignity in China comes at an enormous cost. In a society that lacks the most basic rights, the “dignity” that most people enjoy is as false and fleeting as soap bubbles. In reality, it’s the Li Tingyus of China, now in jail, who are actually living with dignity.
The Turning Point
Everyone has a turning point at some time in their lives — the episodes that drive us to do what we do now. A few years ago I was in the office of lawyer Li Heping, looking over files and documentary materials on the “Leping death penalty case,” when I violently broke into tears. In the end, I forgot I had to catch my train. From that point on things inside me changed. Li Heping, though, is now in detention for supposed “subversion of state power.”
I asked Li Tingyu whether she had a turning point. She mentioned a few episodes that did it. Once, doing homework on media studies, she stumbled across a website in India that contained an account of self-immolations in Tibet. The news stunned her. During the “Southern Weekend incident,” in which her friends from senior high school went along to support, and in the end were taken into custody. She and her friends used Weibo to get the message out about the friends’ detention. That was the first time that Li had been that close to a specific act of resistance. Later, she encountered activists, and that also brought changes to her life.
I asked why she quit university when she was in the fourth and final year. She responded, earnestly, that she’d figured it out years ago that the diploma meant little to her. I responded that I’d also been something of a rebel, but I couldn’t do something like that — especially given that it only requires sticking at it for a few more months until graduation.
She thought quietly for a moment, and said she grew up with her grandparents, and after they died she moved in with her mom and dad, but they never really communicated. “No one really looked after my life,” she said.
I didn’t probe further. So many of our feelings are so deep inside. How much solitude and suffering must one silently bear to gain that level of resolve and courage? All I can say is: I wish you well, Li Tingyu.
September 5, 2016
Huang Simin (黄思敏) is a Hubei-based lawyer.
What Do Lu Yuyu’s Statistics of Protest Tell Us About the Chinese Society Today, by Wu Qiang, July, 2016
By Tsering Woeser, published: December 30, 2014
On December 26, 2014, I reposted on my Facebook page a video of Tibetan Buddhist monk Kalsang Yeshe’s self-immolation that occurred on December 23 [in Tawu county, Kardze Tibetan Autonomous Prefecture, Sichuan province, China], accompanied by an excerpted report explaining that self-immolation is a tragic, ultimate protest against repression. A few hours later, my post was deleted by the Facebook administrator. I was rather shocked when a Facebook notice of deletion leapt out on screen, which I tweeted right away with the thought, “It’s been more than six years since I joined Facebook in 2008, and this is the first time my post was deleted! Does FB also have ‘little secretaries?’”
“Little Secretaries” refer to censors hired by Weibo, the Twitter-like microblog in China, and their job is to delete posts that are deemed “politically sensitive.” In China, that means content not welcomed by the ruling Chinese Communist Party. As the government’s foot soldiers to suppress expression, the Little Secretaries are roundly loathed by Chinese Internet users and regarded as enemies of freedom. In China, my posts had been constantly subjected to censorship on domestic social media platforms that took orders from the Party’s propaganda department, to the point that my accounts were repeatedly removed altogether. To avoid censorship, I took the trouble, like many Chinese netizens, to scale the Great Fire Wall to visit websites outside of China, including Facebook. You can very well imagine then my moment of disbelief when I realized that Facebook had censored my post: Have Big Brother and his Little Secretaries taken over the world?
The incident attracted a lot of attention. It made rounds in Twitter’s Chinese community; media outlets such as the Voice of America and the New York Times reported on it. Today, VOA’s Chinese website published Facebook’s response:
Facebook has long been a place where people share things and experiences. Sometimes, those experiences involve violence and graphic videos. We work hard to balance expression and safety. However, since some people object to graphic videos, we are working to give people additional control over the content they see. This may include warning them in advance that the image they are about to see contains graphic content. We do not currently have these tools available and as a result we have removed this content.
The VOA report also said that, “a Facebook employee familiar with operational details at Facebook who prefers to remain anonymous told VOA on December 27 that Woeser’s post was reported by users but the number of users who reported the post cannot be revealed to the media out of consideration for protecting sources. He said that Facebook evaluates a post even if it is reported by only one user. He iterated that the post was deleted because of graphic content, not out of political motivation.” The VOA report further reported that, “In response to what Woeser pointed out, that Facebook allowed video of ISIS executions of hostages, the anonymous Facebook employee said the ISIS video didn’t show the moment of beheading. He said that he believes Woeser could re-post the video on Facebook if she excises it.”
While I appreciate Facebook’s response, as censors in China never bothered to answer my inquiries, it has not expelled all my questions.
This particular self-immolation occurred outside a police post. Whoever videotaped it took great risk to do so. Anyone involved in taping, photographing or disseminating videos or photos of self-immolation, once caught, would face severe punishment. Over a hundred Tibetans have been imprisoned for these acts. Tibetans who burn themselves to death are not seeking death for their own sake but to call attention to the plight of the Tibetan people. They die so that the Tibetans as a people may live in dignity. Those who took tremendous risk to videotape the self-immolation and to upload it online know perfectly that such videos will not be able to spread on Chinese websites, and they must be posted on websites in free societies such as Facebook for the world to see. When Facebook decides to delete the video to get rid of “graphic content,” it renders the sacrifice of the self-immolator and the risk taken by the videographer as nothing. Is that what Facebook wants to accomplish?
It seems that Facebook defends its deletion of my post from a professional, technical and neutral point of view. My question is, if the self-immolation video I posted is deemed “graphic,” what about the photo of Vietnamese monk Thich Quang Duc burning himself to death in 1963 in protest of government persecution that was widely published in papers worldwide? Similarly, photos of exiled Tibetan Jamphel Yeshi running down a New Delhi street on March 26, 2012, during Chinese president Hu Jintao’s visit to India, were also widely published and viewed. Should these photos be censored too for being “graphic”? What could be more graphic than terrorists crashing airplanes into the World Trade Towers and victims jumping out of windows of the skyscrapers? In all the cases here, the very “graphicness” bespeaks the evil and the terror, and it calls for a moral response.
Western democracies have recently resolved to strike ISIS, and the public support for this is largely the result of the Jihadist videos of beheading hostages that have been disseminated online. Facebook defended its inclusion of these beheading videos which it claims do not show the graphic moment of beheading. But I, for one, saw videos of the beheading moment on Facebook. I even saw footage of the executioners putting the severed head on the torso of the dead. Even with a video without the moment of beheading, does it not “involve violence” and is it therefore not “graphic?” Terrorists want to terrify people, but instead, they have rallied the world to eradicate them.
If Facebook, out of professionalism, deletes content about dark realities and makes them go away from in front of our eyes, is it making “each Facebook user safely communicate with each other and with the world” as it claims? The fact of the matter is, such self-imposed blindness will only numb the mind and feelings, emboldening, even encouraging the evil.
It is not enough for Facebook to have Face; it must also have Faith. When evaluating content, it should not be content to skim over the mere surface. It must see and understand the meaning and value of an image. When professing neutrality, I hope Facebook remembers the words of Jewish writer and Nobelist Elie Wiesel: “Neutrality helps the oppressor, never the victim. Silence encourages the tormentor, never the tormented.”
When I discussed the matter with friends, they thought, by limiting my questioning of Facebook to whether technical neutrality helps or hinders justice, I am in essence accepting Facebook’s claim that the deletion of my post was not politically motivated. They think that the incident is not as simple as that, and that I need to question whether Facebook was trying to curry favor with Beijing. On Facebook, videos of Tibetan self-immolations have not been censored before, and my friends argued that we have reason to worry that Facebook founder and CEO Mark Zuckerberg is compromising on defending users’ freedom of expression as he seeks China’s permission to allow Facebook in China, given that he visited Beijing two months ago and met with high-ranking Chinese officials, and that a couple of weeks ago, Mr. Zuckerberg received Lu Wei, China’s Internet czar in Facebook’s headquarters where he ingratiated himself to his guest by showing that he and his employees were reading Xi Jinping’s writings to learn about China.
This chain of logic, should it really exist, shows how dictatorial power can directly limit freedom of expression in the free world through indirect manipulation. This is what’s most sinister and what the liberal democracies need to be vigilant about.
December 28, 2014, Beijing.
Tsering Woeser is a Tibetan writer and poet born in 1966 in Lhasa, Tibet Autonomous Region, and lives in Beijing. “She writes to both a Han (Chinese) and a Tibetan audience, and her writings are said to give public expression for the first time to the emotions and experiences of a people and a culture previously hidden from the mainstream.” Read more about Woeser here.
Facebook Deletes Post on Tibetan Monk’s Self-Immolation, The New York Times sinosphere blog, December 27, 2014.
Nudity, Graphic Imagery Pose China Questions for Facebook, WSJ, December 30, 2014
(Translated by China Change)
By Chang Ping, published: August 30, 2014
(This is Chang Ping’s third rebuttal, declined publication by Deutsche Welle, to Frank Sieren’s defense of the Tiananmen massacre and the “right to forget“ (links in German) in the Sieren vs. Chang Ping debate earlier this year in DW about the June 4th massacre in 1989 in China. Read Tiananmen Massacre not a “Passing Lapse” of the Chinese Government, and Without the Right to Remember There Can Be No Freedom to Forget, Chang Ping’s first and second rebuttals to Sieren. – The Editor)
In his article, “From Tiananmen to Leipzig,” Frank Sieren reproaches Western media with “unilaterally exaggerating the facts in reporting the incident,” the “incident” in question being the Tiananmen massacre. After Chinese commentators, including myself, raised objections, the example Sieren gives in response turns out to be brainwashing. “I would like to re-explain what I meant. I believe that titles such as ‘Communist Party Succeeds in Brainwashing,” or ‘Unprecedented Brainwashing of the Chinese People,’ and “Imposed Collective Oblivion’ are all complete exaggerations of the facts.” In other words, he tosses out a completely new topic.
It is quite difficult to quantify the level of success the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) achieves at brainwashing, and reasonable people may well differ in their estimates. However, from Mr. Sieren’s reasoning, we can gather that he is completely ignorant of the brainwashing juggernaut at the service of the CCP and its significant evolution since 1989. From where he is sitting, he sees some people travel freely and have access to diverse points of view from around the world, and concludes that brainwashing is impossible. Acknowledging that the Internet is under tight controls in China, throwing up “multiple barriers,” he believes that “nonetheless, people can easily and cheaply get around censorship using VPNs.”
“Scaling the Great Firewall” Is neither Easy nor Cheap
A Chinese online commentator retorts that Mr. Sieren’s conclusion is not too far from claiming that “the Berlin Wall is no big deal, since East Germans can just dig tunnels around it.” Mr. Sieren may see this as another “unfair accusation against the Chinese government,” given that using VPNs is necessarily “easier and cheaper” than digging tunnels. The only problem is that this is not true. VPNs regularly break down during upgrades of the Great Firewall – some of the most sophisticated censorship mechanisms around. Technical interference is common, and in the worst cases VPNs put their users at risk of arrest. In addition, the authorities may camouflage viruses as popular circumvention software, and hapless users who install them find their computers hijacked or broken down.
Nor should we ignore the psychological impact of political taboos. Once censorship makes such terms as “Tiananmen massacre,” “Taiwanese independence” and “Falungong Sect” politically sensitive, even in safe personal conversations, people tend to steer clear of them. The same dynamic is at work when many people turn down offers of free VPNs, seeing circumvention of censorship as something the government does not allow them to do.
The Immense System Engineering of Brainwashing
It is even more important for us to realize that the blocking of foreign websites is but a part of the immense infrastructure devoted to brainwashing, whose mission is the unabashed engineering of hearts and minds. Its other parts include education, propaganda, publishing and pop culture.
With regard to education, as early as kindergarten, children are taught to sing songs that are either nationalistic or inculcate love of the Communist Party. They are directed to draw pictures of Tiananmen Square and the red flag, symbols of New China. Elementary school curriculum, in order to meet political needs, contains so much fabrication that several scholars have published research to enumerate the fallacies. A main subject on which the all-important college examination depends, Political Thought, focuses on developing unquestioning patriotism in aspiring students.
It is a well-known secret that the CCP propaganda organs issue a variety of customized, up-to-date censorship orders on a daily basis. Again, this is only one part of the whole. Ranging from industry access, operating permits and certification to shadowy controls on the personal and professional lives of Communist cadres, the workflow of news censorship, and financial penalties, the infrastructure is integrated and well-coordinated. The system did come under strong challenges when the Internet first entered China, but ultimately proved resilient after thoughtful tinkering, and now manages the Internet in a highly effective way.
The curbs placed on publishing are even stricter. One comparison would suffice. We all know that underground publications known as samizdat played a vital role in the expression of dissent during the Soviet era; this is altogether impossible in today’s China. While some websites with a critical bent are allowed to operate, there is little to rival the unfettered rebellious spirit of the samizdat.
Mr. Sieren may have an inkling of what goes on inside the notorious censorship of broadcast media and films. The insolence of this particular form of censorship is, moreover, quite arbitrary. Before May of this year, Chinese Internet users would never have believed that the powers that be would bar them from watching American dramas that are neither political nor pirated.
“Justice-free Education” After Tiananmen
The evolution of awareness among those of my generation took a drastic turn in college [in the 1980s]. Coming into contact with Western culture for the first time, we realized that we had been consistently lied to, and felt great anger. However, both education and propaganda have been transformed since then in a process of what I call “justice-free.” To summarize, if the government had posed as righteous upholders of justice, now they openly swagger as nihilistic thugs, teaching Chinese people that nowhere else are things any different.
To further these trends, thinkers were sidelined and eggheads given the limelight in the intellectual arena, and the distribution of university research funding also toes the party line. The consequence of political pressure and bribing is a degraded educational system focused on utility, weakening the capacity of the youth for critical thinking.
Spinning on Truth, not Just Blocking It
This vast, cumbersome and complex system is not without internal contradictions. For example, even as it preaches the need to “cast off the baggage of history and look forward,” it shows no aversion to the seeking of truth, busying itself with frequent “unveiling of the hypocrisy of Western democracies” where “the truth about the US/Germany is told.” Therefore, even those under its influence are not necessarily as anxious “to forget history” as Mr. Sieren portrays.
The brainwashing juggernaut solves its crisis by a selective and interpretive approach to the truth, which it deems more important than simply blocking information. Just how successful this strategy proves is clear when we see how many Chinese graduate students abroad continue to show sympathy towards the government even after seeing the gory documentary evidence of the Tiananmen massacre for the first time. They have accepted the spin from the government, namely, that China’s rise as an economic powerhouse is contingent upon the crushing of lives under tank treads twenty-five years ago.
Chang Ping (长平) was the former chief commentator and news director of Southern Weekend (《南方周末》). He writes columns for the South China Morning Post, Deutsche Welle, and a number of Chinese language websites. Forced to leave China and then Hong Kong, he currently lives in Germany.
(Translated by Louisa Chiang)