Wednesday, August 9, 2000

POET IN PRISON


BEI LING, PRISON 

(published in the South China Morning Post,  August 25, 2000


*****************************************
PHILIP
CUNNINGHAM 


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Going after writers and publishers with "political
problems" is not a new sport on the mainland, but it
is still an unfair one. Civil society has not yet
produced non-state actors strong enough to stand up
and call a "foul". Given the enormous strides that
China has made in publishing, from the newsstand to
the Internet, locking up poets and publishers is a
giant leap backwards. 

The arrest of poet Huang Beiling in Beijing on August
12 was reported by his brother Huang Feng, an
independent publisher, who was also arrested a week
later. Huang Beiling was detained for more than two
weeks before being put on a plane and expelled last
Saturday on a flight to the United States, where he
holds permanent residency status. His brother was
released on Friday but placed on a year's probation. 

The so-called "political problem" in which his
impounded literary magazine Tendency has become caught
up - and which led to these detentions - is related to
the Tiananmen Square massacre. Although President
Jiang Zemin was not directly involved in the
controversial crackdown, his hands are tied by it. His
mentor, Deng Xiaoping, got the mainland's dormant
economy jump-started, which bestowed him with a badge
of historic greatness, only partially offset by his
humiliating political miscalculation by letting the
troops run roughshod over Tiananmen Square on June 4,
1989. 

The legacy of that mad rampage is part of the
political package that Deng left for his successors to
handle. One reason why Tiananmen is still taboo, long
after the key rebels have gone to America to study and
make money, is to avoid rifts in the Communist Party
and the military that would emerge with any open
discussion of who did what to whom in 1989. 

Deng's fallen protege, Zhao Ziyang, famously supported
the student protesters at Tiananmen and remains
perhaps the greatest single rival Mr Jiang faces,
which is why Mr Zhao has been kept under tight wraps,
basically confined to house arrest for the past
decade. 

Mr Jiang's pact with the military has a hidden
Tiananmen clause as well. The PLA was a reluctant but
ultimately loyal servant of the party when called upon
to crack down on the students. The party still owes
the PLA for that one and generally it has been policy
to give the military more, more and then more. More
money, more power and maybe even Taiwan. Given all the
problems China faces today, it is surprising that the
police apparatus still has the time and motivation to
ruthlessly pursue minor references to the abortive
popular uprising. Tendency's problem is reportedly
that it printed a photograph of Tiananmen activist
Wang Dan, now at Harvard, and a poem by Tiananmen era
political prisoner Liu Xiaobo, who is an old friend of
the magazine's editor. 

When I met Huang Beiling at Harvard University where
he taught Chinese part-time to support his literary
habit, I was impressed with the elected poverty of his
lifestyle and his unwillingness to get too involved
with the Chinese dissidents and their many disputes.
He was quick to smile and friendly to all, but too
apolitical and art-oriented to be a dissident himself.
And when I first met his younger brother, Huang Feng,
at the China World Hotel in Beijing, he was eking out
a modest income as an independent publisher, which on
the mainland means he was working the grey market
between government propaganda and market-driven
content as a middleman, matching hot manuscripts with
obscure provincial publishers. The last time I saw
Huang Feng, he was looking for manuscripts about
Britain's royalty. 

At the very least, the arrest of the Huang brothers
serves as a warning to all writers and artists that
the party tolerates no political dissent. In the worst
case scenario, not only will Huang Feng serve an
insanely long sentence, but similar arrests in the
name of information control will terrorise the
mainland's crackdown-weary population. 

The heavy-handed information control raises questions
about Mr Jiang's vision of China as an information
society: is it more about the free flow of information
or digital control? Mr Jiang inherited more than the
legacy of stamping out democracy. Twenty years on, the
"open door" economic reform is synonymous with
corruption, and a widening gap between rich and poor.
Mr Jiang has tried to address this unwanted legacy
with a selectively brutal anti-corruption campaign. 

Such actions are starting to infect the general body
politic, and as a result, Tiananmen activists are
coming under the axe again as Mr Jiang, nervous about
what's lurking in the shadows, is over-reacting to
signs of dissent on all fronts. This is a shame,
because the President's background as a technocrat
(and computer geek) made him a prime supporter of the
Internet in China. His son, Jiang Mianheng, arranges
investment capital for Internet firms and even has a
hand in the irreverent Web site Chinanow.com. 

Chinanow enjoys a tactical press freedom at the moment
because of good guanxi, or connections, but it's not
as freewheeling as it appears, even though its English
home page is edited by the talented American writer
Kaiser Kuo, formerly of the Tang Dynasty rock band.
It's one thing to write salacious pieces about
groupies, gangsters and ganja, and quite another to
run a photo or poem that touches on Tiananmen. 

The business-savvy producers of Chinanow, Beijing
Scene and City Edition, leading e-businesses of the
moment, understand that self-censorship is survival.
With Chinese language sites, the censorship is even
more stark; Yahoo China is just one of many Web sites
that heavily filters the news to avoid offending the
powers that be. 

For the stubborn artist such as Huang Beiling,
however, the choice is more stark. Self-censorship is
a kind of artistic suicide, while failing to
self-censor can lead to incarceration. 

In the past few months, several conscientious,
law-abiding editors have been sacked, Web sites closed
down, and promising publications pickled. While the
sheer volume of information on the Internet defies
efficient policing, individuals guilty of producing
"inappropriate content" have been singled out to scare
others. Furthermore the technology that powers the
information revolution is a double-edged sword.
Certain search engines and key words help the
government selectively monitor individual e-mail and
individual online activity. 

Apparently alarmed at its own increasing irrelevance,
if not impotence, under the economics-first paradigm
that has put food on the table at the expense of books
on the shelf, the party is exhorting the nation to
"get ideological" again, but with a twist. Ideological
is whatever the party wants you to think.