China: “Capitulate or Things Will Get Worse”

The massacre of protesters in Beijing on June 4, 1989, and the harsh repression during the months immediately following put China into a foul mood. Among ordinary Chinese, the prestige of the Communist Party, whose leaders had ordered the brutal assault, fell to a new low. Western governments applied sanctions and (at least in public) distanced themselves from “the butchers of Beijing,” to borrow Bill Clinton’s phrase. Some China-watchers wondered how long the regime could hold on.

Then, it did hold on. Moreover, it grew stronger. Today China-watchers are writing about the regime’s “resilience” and “adaptability.” Sebastian Heilmann and Elizabeth Perry have published a conference volume called Mao’s Invisible Hand, in which they describe in detail this surprising resilience. They trace its origins to Mao Zedong, whose “guerrilla policy style” permitted flexibility in all things but one: Mao stayed on top. The approach, they write,

is fundamentally dictatorial, opportunistic, and merciless. Unchecked by institutions of accountability, guerrilla leaders pursue their objectives with little concern for those who stand in their way.1

In the years since 1989, the ways in which Deng Xiaoping and Mao’s other successors have continued the tradition have included (this list is mine, not Heilmann and Perry’s): (1) “political education” in textbooks that omit much of modern Chinese history and distort much of what remains; (2) stoking nationalism by staging events like the Olympics and a World’s Fair, using publicity that presents “China” and “the Party” as synonyms; (3) distracting attention from problems in people’s lives by magnifying rivalries with foreign countries and domestic “splittists” like Tibetans or Uighurs; (4) use of hundreds of thousands of cyberpolice to delete “unhealthful” posts from the Internet and to “guide opinion” by inserting pro-regime posts; (5) pouring a fortune (more than is spent on health, education, and social welfare programs combined) into “stability maintenance,” which includes, in addition to ordinary police work, monitoring people to stop “trouble” before it starts. Troublemakers are not only harassed; they are also cajoled, “invited to tea,” and advised “for your own good” to concentrate on moneymaking instead of wandering into such dangerous topics as fairness, justice, or clean air.

The methods work. It is possible, whatever one thinks of the regime’s goals, to admire its savvy. Western commentators sometimes laud the obvious efficiency. Things do get done. The economy booms.

A great virtue of Liao Yiwu’s new book, For a Song and a Hundred Songs, is that it suggests what we have to look at before crediting the regime with efficiency. It shows that not only cleverness but a beastly ruthlessness undergirds the resilience. Liao, who is well known for his essays on life from the bottom up in China,2 spent 1990–1994 in prison for a long poem called “Massacre” about Beijing in 1989 as well as a plan to turn the poem into a film called Requiem. The film was never made, but in 1997 Liao completed a prison memoir called Testimony, from which For a Song and a Hundred Songs is adapted.

The book shows what happens to people who ignore the regime’s gentler advice against causing trouble. Penalties increase as resistance increases. First permits of all kinds—business or law licenses, passports, and the like—are canceled. Next come loss of employment and placement under surveillance. Dare you persist? Next comes house arrest (which Liu Xia, wife of China’s Nobel Peace laureate Liu Xiaobo, now endures). If that fails, then detention, then prison. At each stage the choice is clear: “Capitulate or things will get worse.” Inside prisons, the gradations continue. There are fairly comfortable prisons, middling ones, and awful ones. Within each there are social hierarchies: the wardens rule the inmates, but among inmates there are chiefs who help the wardens and “enforcers” who help the chiefs. Even the people at the very bottom are ranked by those who must, and those who need not, for example, sleep next to the toilets or have last chance at the food.

Liu Xiaobo read Liao’s Testimony in 1999. Liu had already been imprisoned three times (his current incarceration, for eleven years, is his fourth) but the first three had been in relatively comfortable prisons, and the contrast between those and what he read about in Liao’s account brought mild embarrassment to Liu. He wrote to his friend that “I probably shouldn’t even say mine were imprisonments, compared to yours.” Liao shows us prison life in color and three dimensions: inmates being cursed, spit at, and kicked in the head; rivalries and snitching; endless and boring forced labor (gluing packets of painkillers, in Liao’s case); solitary confinement for special offenders that lasts for weeks, and sometimes as long as a year, in cells seven feet long but only three feet high, so that the prisoner cannot—ever—stand up; disease, the faking of disease in quest of respite, and faking much else as well, including language. Forced drudgery is called “socialist labor.” Wardens file the “appeals” of prisoners with not the slightest intention of making a genuine appeal but only to get it onto the record that they have filed appeals. Cynical language is so entrenched as to seem ordinary.

The extremes of both cynicism and ruthlessness are illustrated in the nicknames that prison authorities give to tortures. They liken them to cuisine. At the Song Mountain Detention Center in Chongqing, “the menu,” which Liao annotates for his readers, includes:

Tofu Fried on Both Sides: Two enforcers punch the inmate on the chest and back. The sustained blows sometimes cause the inmate to go into shock…

Stewed Ox Nose: The enforcer rams two fingers up the inmate’s nose until it bleeds…

Sichuan-style Smoked Duck: The enforcer burns the inmate’s pubic hair, pulls back his foreskin and blackens the head of the penis with fire…

Noodles in a Clear Broth: Strings of toilet papers are soaked in a bowl of urine, and the inmate is forced to eat the toilet paper and drink the urine.

The menu is hard to read, and it is lengthy. Liao lists thirty-eight dishes and comments on which of them could end in permanent injury or death for the inmate. Elsewhere, he notes how death-row prisoners live with the awareness that their organs will be harvested and sold after their executions. Somehow, though, Liao’s square look at painful and degrading treatment does not cloud his poet’s eye. Riding in a police car, he observes “the shops on both sides of the street blurring into a colorful sliding stage”; famished inmates “crammed chunks of rice into their mouths, stretching their necks like crowing roosters to help swallow.” The translator, Wenguang Huang, deserves much credit for keeping Liao’s art alive.

Released in 1994, Liao finds that China outside of prison “remains a prison of the mind: prosperity without liberty.” His book ends on that unexplored note. But here we can turn to Han Han’s This Generation, which shows, with wit and in remarkable depth, how Chinese citizens, especially the young, chafe under restraints. Han Han is careful (as Liao is not) to steer clear of explicit “dissidence”; the reward for this caution in China is that he can have hundreds of times more readers than Liao. Yet it is easy to see, with just a bit of reflection, that Han shares much with the explicit dissidents. Sometimes he penetrates even more deeply than they do. His writing lacks Liao Yiwu’s colorful metaphors, but it is delightful for its terse, droll irony, reminiscent of the great essayist Lu Xun (1881–1936). The translator, Allan Barr, apologizes that he cannot get every facet of Han Han’s wit into English, but his results are still wonderful.

Born in 1982, Han Han failed high school examinations repeatedly and eventually dropped out, but not before he wrote a searing indictment of the Chinese education system in a novel called San Chong Men (Triple Door). Published in China in 2000, that book was an immediate hit and eventually sold more than two million copies. Han also became a prize-winning race car driver and, in part because of his good looks, began to appear on magazine covers as well. He started blogging in 2005, and as of today his website has received more than 600 million hits. The blog essays collected in This Generationappeared between 2006 and 2012.

Han’s Internet hits would reach an even higher total if cyberpolice didn’t delete his more provocative posts shortly after they appear. Seeking to minimize the deletions, Han watches his words and frankly admits to his readers that “every essay has undergone self-censorship.” Foreign journalists sometimes frustrate him, he says, because they do not understand that he cannot—“at least, not now”—be as candid as he would like to be. He actually is “more expansive when responding to questions from Chinese reporters” because he knows he can trust them to do the requisite self-censorship for him. Yet he still gets his points across, and censorship sometimes even magnifies their force. The day after Liu Xiaobo’s Nobel Peace Prize was announced in Oslo, for example, Han posted a blog entry that consisted only of a pair of quotation marks: “”. A flood of comment followed. His readers had figured out that this was an open invitation to comment on something that was officially unspeakable.

Many of Han Han’s views, although artfully put, are unsurprising versions of what other critics of the regime have been saying for years. He writes, for example, that Mao Zedong regarded “the masses” as nothing more than “gambling chips in his effort to achieve power and prestige”; and that China’s current economic “miracle,” which allows “our politicians…to pump up their chests on the world political stage,” is hardly a miracle of leadership but simply “because of you, China’s cheap labor.” Are you injured or aggrieved? The only real function of China’s system of administrative appeal, Han observes, as many others have, is to induce troublemakers to report themselves to the authorities. Nor is Han the first to observe that Chinese law is a tool that lies on the shelf for on-demand use by people in power, not ordinary Chinese; that “our leaders” write “fake, pretentious, empty-headed essays”; or that educators have to inculcate “political allegiance” in their students or be fired.

But Han Han does more than just put well-known complaints into clever form. On some topics he is uniquely astute. For example, he defends China’s young people from the charge, which their elders sometimes level, that they are materialistic and do not “care about politics.” Han answers that the older generation may indeed have its record of being knocked around by politics, but

being [that kind of] victim is no decent topic of conversation, any more than being raped has a place in a proper range of sexual experiences. The era when one can care about politics has yet to arrive.

Elsewhere Han brings deep insight to the question of cultural insecurity. Several essays satirize what he sees as Chinese hypersensitivity to insult:

The virtues that we celebrate here in China—modesty, sincerity, diligence, simplicity, helpfulness, warmth, unity—are, in fact, the qualities that we most lack. We’re actually quite hopeless at these things…[but] of course, we Chinese always rate the Chinese people very highly. We should be content with that. After all, a full one-fifth of the world’s population thinks we’re wonderful.

He goes on to cite examples of a very low tolerance for any publicly expressed view that China is not wonderful and, analyzing the problem a level or two more deeply than most people do, concludes that “the reason why we Chinese so often feel insulted is that we have so little self-respect.” He finds this malady extending into the government, which for many is the public face of China’s pride. “The government often lies,” he writes, yet sometimes, on the other hand, it does not lie. But whether lying or not, it “always handles issues as though struggling with a guilty conscience.” One could write a book about that insight.

Han is especially perceptive on how language is used in Chinese politics. The word “correct” (zhengque) is a central concept in Communist jargon, but what exactly, he asks, does it mean? The sarcasm of his answer is a cover for a very serious and accurate point:

Everything that bolsters their interests and their power is, of course, correct, and everything not conducive to promoting their interests and enhancing their power is naturally incorrect. As soon as you have grasped that principle, you’ll never have to tie yourself in knots wondering what is right and what is wrong.

Han observes that, in officialese, statements about the people supporting the government are not empirical claims but true by definition. This is because anyone who withholds support automatically is not one of the “people” but some other category—“reactionary,” “bad element,” or whatever.

He argues that, to ordinary Chinese, the “news” in the official media, even if it is true, always seems phony after its official packaging, because of its official packaging. But—and here his remarkable perspicacity appears again—that doesn’t matter, because the regime does not ask credence from its citizens, only the pretense of credence. As long as your outward behavior respects our power, we don’t care what you believe. (Here Han echoes Václav Havel’s famous line in “The Power of the Powerless” about a regime that pretends much but “pretends to pretend nothing.” I do not think Han has borrowed from Havel; this is a case of two sharp intellects perceiving the same thing.)

Han goes on to argue that the Party actually prefers that people not be too sincere about loving the Party. After all, where might that lead? To cleaning up corruption? To telling the truth? To the other things the Party says it wants? A person should not do such things, Han advises, “because among a bunch of people who don’t believe any of this stuff and just want to use their position to get some benefits, [you are] going to stick out like a sore thumb”—and eventually come to no good end.

Some of Han’s readers have wondered how such a young man—a high school dropout—could have written such penetrating observations on Chinese society and history. In 2012 some bloggers claimed that Han’s writing—or at least some of it—was ghostwritten by his father, and a firestorm of controversy ensued. The accusations against Han are far-fetched, in my view. But there is an important sense in which the answer doesn’t matter.

The insight and wisdom of the Han Han essays are the same regardless of who wrote them, and the immense popular response to them still says something of great importance about popular thinking in China today, regardless of where the thoughts originated. In one essay Han Han addresses the relation between his writing and Chinese popular thought. “I don’t think it’s the case that my essays have influenced readers’ tastes,” he writes. “Rather, they have simply been consumed by readers who share the same tastes.” I think Han Han is right about that, and, if he is, this is a portentous fact for the Communist Party’s struggles to maintain “resilient authoritarianism.” Han Han’s large readership is the best evidence we have of a broad survival of common sense in China.

Liao Yiwu and Han Han both grew up in families of modest social standing, and neither had been abroad until Liao made a visit in 2010 to Germany (where he returned the next year as a political refugee). Ai Weiwei—a sculptor, architect, installation artist, filmmaker, artistic photographer, and what might be called an “artistic activist” (“Everything is art. Everything is politics,” he says)—has a different background. His father, Ai Qing, was a distinguished poet who joined the Communist Party at its revolutionary base at Yan’an in 1942. In 1957, the year Ai Weiwei was born, the Mao regime began a persecution of Ai Qing that lasted two decades. But long-standing Red pedigrees such as the Ai family’s could survive Mao, and by the time the young Weiwei began his career as an artist in the late 1970s (Mao died in 1976), he could draw upon an inner confidence that derived from his family’s Red legacy.

Then, between 1981 and 1993, he lived in the U.S., mostly in New York, where he attended Parson’s School of Design, lived in the East Village, and was fascinated by the art of Marcel Duchamp and Andy Warhol, among others. Three decades later Ai’s own exhibitions have appeared in New York, Tokyo, Munich, Venice, Sydney, and many other places around the world. His international reputation protects him when he voices political criticism and broadens the range of what he knows he can get away with. He is the best example in China today of an explicit dissident who can avoid both jail (although he did suffer two months of detention in 2011) and exile.

Ai’s following inside China is smaller than Han Han’s but still numbers in the millions and is stoutly loyal. Hundreds of people hand-painted 100 million bits of porcelain for a 2010 installation that Ai called Sunflower Seeds. When the government accused him of tax evasion in 2011, tens of thousands of people sent him the equivalent of more than U.S.$1 million to help out. His fans pardon him even when he chooses, à la Warhol, to paint “Coca-Cola” in red across a Neolithic (5000–3000 B.C.E.) Chinese vase.

Ai began writing blog entries in 2005 and by 2008 had crossed into explicit dissidence. He satirized the government’s political exploitation of the 2008 summer Olympics even though he had been one of the artistic consultants of the Olympic stadium called the Bird’s Nest. The themes of his blog posts overlap with the thinking of Han Han and Liao Yiwu. On cheap labor as the “secret” of China’s economic miracle, Ai asks, “Who doesn’t see the inevitable relationship between the dirt, the chaos and [the poor] to the superwide highways and the luxury shopping plazas?” On harvesting organs from executed prisoners, he remarks that the practice shows that it really is true that “everyone is born equal” in China—not during life, to be sure, but at the moment of death, when every kidney and liver becomes salable. Disgusted by a plethora of taxes, Ai makes satiric suggestions about what other taxes could be considered: these include a “sobriety tax” (in addition to the alcohol tax) on people who discover that their alcohol was fake; a noncompliance fee “for cadavers unable to discharge waste”; a “Chanting Fee” for Buddhist pilgrims, “levied for occupying intangible space”; and a “First-Time Fee” on the purchase of sex with virgin women, to be “used for the retirement pensions of women and for research on mental illness in men.”

Ai’s creativity seems to come in bursts. He lacks the reflective mood that allows Han Han to achieve analytic depth, and his essays are not as carefully written as Han Han’s. But his intuitive eruptions sometimes yield stark, profound perceptions. On the inner malaise of China’s population today, he writes:

Years of abuse, crudeness, and wantonness have caused the people in [China’s] cities to walk with a quickened pace, and to see with lifeless eyes. They have nowhere to go, and nowhere to hide…. They aren’t attached to their homes, villages, or cities, and they become strangers in permanent exile.


Invisible and immeasurable psychic disasters [have taken] place deep within our psychology… What happened? What caused the hurt? Where is the source of the shock? These questions are always avoided…

Ai’s strongest work is performance art, and he is peerless at fusing art with political resistance. He films his confrontations with the police, berating them in ways no American cop would tolerate, and filming everything that happens, including, camera to camera, their filming of him. He will expose everything on the Internet. The police seem to know what he is up to and that they are bound to lose; one almost feels sorry for them. When the regime ordered that Ai’s studio be bulldozed, Ai responded by calmly videotaping the bulldozing. Everything is art.

The combination of Ai’s fame, his cleverness, and the Internet seems too much for the police. They can—and certainly do—continue to abuse less famous dissidents, but even there Ai’s example helps. Drawing on his experience, workshops for “rights defenders” include drills on how to use cell phones to transfer images to the Internet as a tactic in forestalling police abuse.

Perhaps the pinnacle of Ai’s politics-as-art is a photograph of himself leaping into the air, stark naked except for a stuffed animal that he holds over his genitals. The animal, famous on the Chinese Internet, is a “grass mud horse”—in Chinese the word for it is caonima, a near homonym for “fuck your mother.” The placement of the caonima is crucial. It “blocks the center,” in Chinese dang zhongyang, a homonym for “Party Central.” The image thus invites Ai’s viewers to imagine the full sentence “Fuck your mother, Party Central.” The elegance of Ai’s art is that he can produce this thought in viewers’ minds without uttering a single syllable. To the police he can say, “You said it, not me.”

Will China’s one-party rule, however “resilient,” hold? The power of an artist like Ai Weiwei, the broad appeal of an essayist like Han Han, and the continuing growth of the Internet raise important questions about the spread of dissent. But we need to remember that Han Han’s readers, although likely the largest blog readership in the world, are still not a majority of the Chinese populace. Many young people in China today, reading state-approved textbooks and watching state-approved media, do not know the history of C.C.P.-led disasters in China and do not understand the underlying mechanics of today’s “miracle.”

Older Chinese, many of whom do understand these things, have learned long ago that it is wiser to pretend that they don’t. Party leaders for their part often argue that “you cannot do without us”—if we were to exit, chaos would follow. This is a disgusting argument, enough to nauseate a stone Buddha, but in an important sense it is true. After six decades of Communist Party rule, potential rivals of the Party have been so thoroughly devastated, the ground of society so thoroughly scorched, that the question “transition to what?” indeed is frightening. There may be good ideas, like those in Charter 08 that appeared a few years ago, but no institutions to implement them.

In an essay called “Speaking of Revolution,” Han Han warns of the possibility that, in a post-Communist era,

a Chinese-style leader is going to be nothing like the kind and humane person that you imagine when you sit there in front of your computer. A Chinese-style leader most likely will be arbitrary and imperious, selfish and crazy, vicious but also an effective demagogue.

For examples of “Chinese-style leaders,” Han points to the White Lotus uprising (1794–1804) and the Taiping Rebellion (1850–1864), in which millenarian and egalitarian ideologies attracted followers to regimes that turned out to be hierarchical, secretive, and brutal. Han Han adds the wily line, “Hmm, yes, that does sound a bit familiar, doesn’t it?” to invite readers to think of Mao as well. Han wrote this essay as the Communist “princeling” Bo Xilai, “singing Red songs” in Chongqing, was exploiting the same time-tested techniques combining crude populist appeal and authoritarianism. The pattern has deep cultural roots, and the success of the Communists in blocking the growth of modern institutions in education, media, and law leaves the nation still highly vulnerable to it.

In a 2006 essay, Liu Xiaobo wonders whether “the Communists [will] succeed in once again leading China down a disastrously mistaken historical road.” No one—certainly not Liu—wishes this. But it is far more possible than most people in the West assume.

  1. Mao’s Invisible Hand: The Political Foundations of Adaptive Governance in China, edited by Sebastian Heilmann and Elizabeth J. Perry (Harvard University Asia Center, 2011), reviewed by Jonathan Mirsky in “China: Politics as Warfare” (The New York Review, June 21, 2012).
  2. See Howard W. French, “A Hero of the China Underground,” The New York Review, October 14, 2010.