The works of playwright William Shakespeare have occasionally run into trouble with the authorities over the years. The English Puritans banned theatre altogether for a while. Stalin wasn’t keen on Hamlet (who was far too indecisive, he thought). More recently a few American schools kiboshed The Merchant of Venice (for the portrayal of Shylock) and even Twelfth Night (all that cross-dressing).
Still, the New York Times has reported something new from Beijing; a complaint from someone about having his phone cut off after he quoted Shakespeare on a call.
It seems that, while discussing where to go for dinner with his fiancee, a rather erudite bachelor opted for Queen Gertrude’s response to Hamlet: “The lady doth protest too much, methinks.”
He claims the second time he said the word “protest” the line was cut off. That’ll teach him to show off, you might think. But he wasn’t alone in his experience. Our Shakespeare fan was speaking in English, but another caller, repeating the ‘protest’ term on Monday in Mandarin on a different phone, was also cut off in mid-sentence.
What do such anecdotes say about the ongoing policing of mobile phone calls, email messages and other forms of internet communication? Certainly that the authorities show no sign of relenting in their monitoring efforts (and that one in their ranks sounds like a frustrated Arts graduate).
But the telephone tapping (if inddeed, it was) fits into a bigger picture of continuing jumpiness from officialdom about events in the Middle East – as does the enduring spat with Google, which last week accused the Chinese government of deliberately disrupting its Gmail service.
The claim was promptly derided by China’s Foreign Ministry as an “unacceptable accusation”. Still, a recent episode in Nanjing shows some of the limits of official control, especially in relation to weibo.
The latest showdown wasn’t about democracy – it was about trees. Here’s what happened. The city of Nanjing recently embarked on a massive expansion of its subway system: from two lines to 17 by 2030, in an attempt to deal with the growing gridlock on the city’s streets.
But to make way for subway construction, the authorities will first remove more than a thousand trees, many of them wutong. The Nanjing locals are very fond of their wutong, whose distinctive shape and foliage provides shade through the city’s scorching-hot summers (Nanjing is referred to as one of China’s “furnances”). Visitors are even said to marvel at the Nanjing’s green, leafy landscape (a contrast to the cemented sterility of so many Chinese cities these days).
News about tree-clearing programme even made headlines in Taiwan, when Chiu Yi, a leading Kuomintang legislator, expressed anger that saplings planted as a memorial to Sun Yat-sen, were now to be chopped down in their prime.
Others were annoyed too. Quanqiang, a resident in Nanjing for more than 15 years, told the China Daily: “The city administration owe people a convincing explanation for this. Have they considered the opinions of the residents? Do they have any respect for the history and culture of the city in making their urban development plans?”
“I was appalled to see dozens of thick plane trees get their crowns chopped off. My heart was bleeding at the sight,” wrote another netizen.
News from Nanjing quickly made its way onto weibo, with many microbloggers calling for action to save trees still waiting for their day under the chainsaw.
Pictures were posted of trees already beheaded. Soon, a few bloggers began calling for a peaceful demonstration to protect the remainder.
Most of those posts were quickly taken down, but not before hundreds of Nanjing residents had picked up on them. Many assembled outside the public library last Saturday afternoon.
At one point, police were deployed, and there were complaints of rough treatment. Not that these reports made their way into the state media, but various weibo provided updates.
Eventually even these were deleted too. So, an eventual triumph for the censors, although not without a struggle.
And meanwhile, better news for Nanjing’s arboreal advocates. The local government has announced that further tree-chopping is suspended, pending more study and further public input.
Keeping Track: Last week we mentioned protests in Nanjing about the cutting down of old wutong trees. After local citizens mobilised opposition using internet weibo, the city government – which says the trees need to be uprooted to make way for new subway lines – announced it would call a halt for further consultations with the public. But that victory has been followed by yet another defeat for tree lovers, says Shanghai Daily. It reported this week that “shocked locals” woke to discover 37 trees on Maoming Avenue had been removed overnight, again because of subway construction.
The city’s greenery bureau says they will be replanted elsewhere, but the newspaper pointed out local residents were annoyed by the 50 year-old trees displacement, as well as the surreptitious manner in which the latest logging had been completed. (Apr 1, 2011)
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