The Freedom and Perils of Internet Writing in China

The following is a translation of the public speech given by Yu Jie (余杰) at the 2005 Asia-Pacific Regional Writers' Forum in Melbourne, Australia

The Freedom and Perils of Internet Writing in China. By Yu Jie (via ObserveChina; backup copy here)

In 2005, the number of Internet users on mainland China went past the 100 million figure.  China now has the second largest number of Internet users in the world, behind only the United States.  Based upon a growth rate of almost 20% per annum, China will go past the United States in two years' time to lead the world.

Of course, like other countries in the world, most of the Chinese Internet users are Internet game players, information browsers and chatterers.  The number of people who actually write on the Internet is only a very small fraction.  But because the denominator is so huge, this small fraction actually numbers in the millions, which is many more that the "privileged" "writers" in the traditional sense.

In ancient China, only those people at the top of the pyramid -- those who have received elite education and mastered the complicated linguistic system -- can become "writers."  When the Chinese Communists gained power in 1949, they imitated the Soviet Russian ideological and cultural system.  Thus, the government took care of all the "writers" who obey the national ideology, paid their salaries and offered them healthcare and travel privileges.  The Writers' Association became a massive government bureaucracy, and the "writers" system became an important component of the planned economy.  Under these circumstances, a writer must become a member of the official Writers' Association before he/she can become a 'writer.'

In the 1990's, the Internet appeared and changed this historical pattern.  Up to now, the Chinese newspapers, periodicals, publishers, television stations, radio stations and other media are under the strict control of the "Party."  The Central Propaganda Department is a special organization that is above the law and firmly controls the right to publish all information and works.  It is like an omnipresent pair of black hands that at the throats of the writers.

It can be said that the Chinese writers had no basic freedom to create, but this freedom can be said to be nearly realized with the advent of the Internet as a new communication channel.  During the past ten years, many young writers habitually post their writings directly on the Internet without going through the evaluation and selection processes by traditional editors.  The freedom of publication brought along the freedom of thought and the freedom to write.  The concept of 'writing' now has new meanings and extensions.  Various types of forms of writing have broken through the boundaries, and various types of untouchable 'taboo' subjects are being broached.

In my view, the Internet writings in China can be divided into Internet scholarship, Internet literature and Internet political commentary.

As far as Internet scholarship are concerned, one can use the example of the website "State of Thought" (思想的境界) that was around in the late 1990's.  This website was started by a single person, the young law doctor Li Yonggang.  Within a brief two years, its academic level and thoughtful content had exceeded those of the official scholastic publications.

With the ossified academic system, there is the domination by the "core periodicals."  The granting of doctorate degrees and promotion of teachers depended on publishing in these "core periodicals."  This caused the pages in these periodicals to be treated like advertisements, and the "core periodicals" are the breeding ground of academic corruption.

By refreshing contrast, a scholarly website such as "State of Thought" had no obvious profit or special interest motives and it pays no writer's fees.  Therefore, it is supported and appreciated by authentic scholars who forwarded excellent essays directly to the website.  This then became a piece of clean earth for the study of the humanities and social sciences in China.

Later on, "State of Thought" was closed down by the government for publishing certain essays that addressed the concrete problems of China.  But this scholarly model for a website has been imitated by many others, and there are now a group of similar scholarly websites maintained by individuals.

As far as Internet literature goes, the overall level has not yet surpassed that of traditional literature, even though there has been a huge impact already.  In spite of the huge, rough and jumbled output of Internet literature, a small number of works have the quality of first-class literature already.

Here is the example of Zhang Yihuo who won the 2004 Independent Chinese PEN's Freedom of Writing Award for her book "The Past Is Not Like Smoke."  Ms. Zhang was a researcher in classical operatic singing and had few ties with the contemporary literary scene.  When she wrote about her forebears -- a group of "democrats" who held firm liberal ideas while being squeezed between the Nationalists and Communists -- and their sad experiences and tragic lives under the Mao Zedong regime, it was only for the "forgotten memories" for her own sake.  She never imagined that those words would have such value and impact.

Some friends read the essays and recommended some of them for publication in certain relatively marginal journals of literary history.  Nobody paid much attention.  Then some friends posted the essays onto the Internet, whereupon it got spread around from person to person, and so those words became the hottest topic on the Internet.  Later, those words attracted the attention of the publishing editors who formally published them in book form after excising some portions.  Within a few months, more than a million copies of the memoirs were printed, with possibly another two to three million pirated copies.  This became the literary book with the largest circulation in China for the year 2004.  Then Zhang Yihuo was given the Freedom of Writing Award by the Independent Chinese PEN.  But at the directive from the highest level of the government, "The Past Is Not Like Smoke" was banned.  This particular piece of history with all the twists and turns showed clearly how the Internet has impacted the traditional form of communication channel and their interrelationship.  It also shows the serious case of "allergy" that the Central Propaganda Department has.

As far as Internet political commentary goes, there are several hundred political commentators who are active on the Chinese Internet today.  These people have decided to "live in freedom and reality."  Among them are members of the Independent Chinese PEN.  The special political environment in China made the formation of the members of the Independent Chinese PEN quite different from that in PEN for other countries.  Those writers who continue to enjoy the privileges as members of the official Writers' Association as well as the fame in the publishing market will not usually express any critiques, because those kinds of speeches may cause them to lose their privileges and markets.  The writers who express political opinions on the Internet have usually been stripped of their right to express their works in the traditional media, but they enjoy greater inner freedom inside.

Among the members of the Independent Chinese PEN, there are more Internet writers than traditional writers.  But the Independent Chinese PEN is not a political organization.  Rather, it is the spiritual home for a group of writers who live under special conditions.  Today, the Internet has provided a broad space for those who "insists on holding on to their own views."  Liu Xiaobo, the President of the Independent Chinese PEN, once furnished this small detail:  In the 1980's, he wrote political commentary for western media.  When he finished his writing, he would ride a bicycle to traverse half of Beijing to the home of the foreign reporter's apartment in the foreigners' compound to use the foreigner's fax machine to send the writing overseas.  The entire trip may take two to three hours.  Today, all he needed to do is click on the mouse in front of the computer, and in a few seconds, innumerable readers will be reading his writing simultaneously.  This is the freedom brought about by the Internet.

Of course, this type of freedom contains some dangers.  The Chinese government issues regulations and orders to control Chinese websites, and its has shut down thousands of websites.  Within the past year, the popular SMTH website at Beijing University and the Yannan forum have both been shut down without explanation.  As for overseas websites, the Chinese government sets up a firewall to prevent Chinese netizens from reaching them.  Except for a few netizens who know how to use special software, most people cannot directly access overseas websites.

At the same time, there is also a realistic danger for Internet writing and Internet writers.  In recent years, dozens of Internet writers have been arrested and sentenced for "endangering state security" and "leaking state secrets."  The Writers In Prison Committee of the Independent Chinese PEN has made an detailed investigation.  Among these, the most representative example is the case of Independent Chinese PEN member Shi Tao: He is a journalist and poet, and he was sentenced to 10 years in jail for disclosing news to overseas websites about the information that could not be published on the eve of the 15th anniversary of the Tienanmen Square massacre.  Such dangers come with the freedom, and are present for every Chinese Internet writer.  Therefore, overcoming this fear is a pre-condition before any Internet writer can begin to write.  This is the biggest difference between Chinese and western Internet writers.

Yes, as Czech democratic vanguard Havel said in "Living in Truth," we are a group of writers who want to live in truth, we come from a country where lies are overflowing, we choose to reject the lies and we consider it our mission to vanquish the lies.  We are enjoying the freedom brought about by the Internet, even as we are immersed deeply into the dangers brought by the Internet.  I am willing to share the experience of myself and my compatriots with the people of different cultural backgrounds and living conditions here today.  To use an ancient Chinese saying, "People who know each other through words are closer than blood siblings."  I believe that along the path of defending freedom and pursuing the truth, we are brothers and sisters who will support each other on the way forward.