Saturday, October 05, 2013

China: China's coerced culture


Canadian Journalists for Free Expression

Amidst the background noise of political posters in China's bus stations and on billboards, one constant is the face of Lei Feng; smiling docilely, rosy-cheeked and always carrying Mao's Little Red Book.

Lei Feng was catapulted into the national spotlight shortly after his death in a freak accident in 1962. He was only 22 when he died, and was quickly transformed from being an ordinary squad leader in the People's Liberation Army to a communist hero; a paragon of Party values. Photos of the most iconic moments of his life - from changing his comrade's socks in the field to studying Mao's writings - were widely circulated. Excerpts from his diary became mainstays of the communist campaign, containing such bite-sized Party aphorisms as "A person's life is limited but to serve the party is unlimited."

From time to time Lei Feng is trotted out more purposefully, as an embodiment of socialist morality in a concerted propaganda effort - think of a red Ronnie, the Bren Gun Girl or a communist Rosie the Riveter.

Earlier this year marked one of the occasions that he was brought back as a propaganda device, as the Communist Party of China commemorated 50 years since Chairman Mao first advised his people to "learn from Comrade Lei Feng," with three films depicting his life.

Despite the government's best intentions however, the hagiography missed the mark. Cinemas in large cities such as Nanjing and Taiyuan told the New York Times that they failed to sell a single ticket to the Party's films, while Les Miserables grossly outsold the trio of biopics in Beijing.

One of the ways the Chinese government has managed to maintain authority despite seismic economic, political and social changes in recent years, has been through a carefully choreographed national narrative and the tight control of information. The evolving role of the man and myth of Lei Feng within Chinese society - from national icon to box office flop - provides a window into the Party's attempts to integrate conservative tropes into a modern social fabric.

The question then becomes, how are we to understand the evolution of China's political culture in a society where Internet hotspots vastly outnumber copies of Mao's Little Red Book?

While political suppression and censorship, particularly the digital variety, garner far more media attention, these forms of oppression go hand-in-hand with the more insidious imposition of an orthodox culture in which art, music and movies all become battlegrounds in the struggle over ideas.

If the Orwellian-named Document Number 9 leaked in August is any indication, the battle lines of acceptable cultural expression are hardening as China's senior leaders fear subversive elements within the country - among them, pesky individuals committed to "Western" values, such as freedom of expression and an independent media.

The curtailment of freedom of expression is nothing new in China. Politics has long been a favourite topic for Chinese artists who have in turn been censored, harassed or jailed for broaching sensitive issues in their work. World renowned artist Ai Weiwei and Nobel Peace Prize winner Liu Xiaobo are perhaps the best known representatives of a larger group in China who walk the line between artist and dissident, provoking the ire of the Communist Party as a result.

Their strength in refusing to remain silent seems to have inspired others within the Chinese artistic community in recent months. Last April, with China's film elite gathered in Beijing to attend the Film Directors Guild awards, Feng Xiaogang took the podium to receive his honor as director of the year. Not usually known for his politics, Feng launched into a denunciation of the Communist Party's regime of censorship.

"For the last twenty years, every director in China has faced a kind of tremendous torment, and that torment is censorship," Feng said.

The event attendees, caught off guard by the rare acknowledgement of an issue the Chinese cultural elite knows better than to name, broke into applause. A video of Feng's speech soon went viral on Chinese social media and one post linking to the video was retweeted more than 10,000 times on Sina Weibo, China's answer to Twitter.

This speech marked the second time in as many years that a prominent Chinese director has openly challenged the authority of the State Administration of Radio Film and Television (SARFT), the department that operates China's censorship program.

In 2006, director Lou Ye's film Summer Palace was banned in China because it contained scenes depicting the Tiananmen Square massacre. Following his entrance in the Cannes Film Festival without official approval, Ye was prohibited from making films in China for five years. When his ban was lifted in 2011, Ye returned to China and directed Mystery, a film about a woman coming to terms with her husband's infidelity. Once again, Ye entered his film in the Cannes Film Festival but was forbidden from releasing the film in China.

Frustrated, Ye took to Sina Weibo, tweeting details exposing the inner workings of the SARFT censorship process and attracting support from fellow filmmakers and netizens. Mystery was released in the end - but with Ye's name removed from the film in a gesture of defiance.

Ye's actions are indicative of an emerging group of Chinese artists who are standing up to censorship.

Two years ago, Chinese novelist Murong Xuecun arrived in New York to receive a literary award. His planned speech was both an excoriating indictment of the Communist Party and a denouncement of the artistic malaise brought about by censorship.

"The only truth is that we cannot speak the truth. The only acceptable viewpoint is that we cannot express a viewpoint" he planned to say. "This is castrated writing. I am a proactive eunuch, I castrate myself even before the surgeon raises his scalpel."

Murong never delivered his speech. Instead, he posted it to the Internet and simply drew his hand across his mouth like a zipper in silent protest from the podium. He left without saying a word.

Earlier this year however, Murong reached his limit. In an open letter in the Chinese edition of the New York Times published in response to the deletion of his microblogs, he addressed "a nameless censor:"

I am writing you this letter because I believe your awesome powers are only temporary. You can delete my words, you can delete my name but you cannot snatch the pen from my hand. In the years to come this pen of mine will fight a long war of resistance, and continue to write for as long as it takes for me to see the light of a new dawn […] For far too long, you and your colleagues have devoted all your efforts to suppressing freedom of speech in China. You have created a never-ending list of sensitive words, deleted countless articles, and closed down thousands of microblog accounts. You have constructed the Great Firewall of China and kept the rest of the world at bay behind a wall of ignorance, turning China into an information prison. You censor articles and delete words. You treat literature as poison, free speech as a crime, and independent thinkers as your enemy […] I am fully aware this letter will cause me nothing but grief: I may not be able to publish my writings in China, my words may be expunged and deleted, and my future path may become even more difficult, but I must tell you: I once had fear, but from now on, I am no longer afraid. I will be here waiting for sunlight to brighten the world, to brighten people's hearts, and light up the place where you hide. That is the difference between you and me, dear Nameless Censor - I believe in the future, while all you have is the present.

The authority of the Communist Party of China has long rested on its ability to manufacture truth: history is what the Party says it is, and culture is only acceptable when the Party is responsible for creating it. While the artistic class is certainly not the first cadre of people who have challenged the Chinese government, they represent the most interconnected and highest profile dissenters - and therefore the greatest challenge to authority.

In the arts, as in new media and the Internet, the current trend in China is towards citizen-driven public discourse, which will only help to challenge the power of the censors over time.