In November, outspoken blogger and social commentator Li Chengpeng delivered a sharp speech entitled “Talk” at Peking University. The discussion, which went viral on weibo, was about the power of free speech, or rather the lack thereof in China.
“Chinese people are losing the power to talk,” Li told his audience. He went on to describe 1960s China, citing examples of how the disastrous Cultural Revolution forced citizens to keep quiet in the face of injustice.
The whole country lost its ability to communicate, Li claimed. “You couldn’t talk about your needs: I’m hungry; you couldn’t talk about your emotions: I love you; you couldn’t criticise your leaders; … you couldn’t tell the scientific truth.”
And today, Li reckons, Chinese “still haven’t recovered from our inability to talk” because of ongoing censorship.
“The most terrible thing about a country is not poverty [or] hunger… but people who have lost the right and the ability to speak.”
Last week Li got firsthand experience of keeping his mouth shut. Out promoting his latest book, Everybody in the World Knows, he was told by authorities that he could take “no questions from readers, no talking at all… not even ‘happy new year’ or ‘thank you’”.
At a book signing in Chengdu, his hometown, Li responded to the gag order with sartorial subversion, wearing a black mask over his mouth. The words “I love you all” were emblazoned on his shirt. The crowd roared its approval (and snapped up copies of his book by the armload).
But some of Li’s enemies seem to have thought the gag order didn’t go far enough. At an event in Beijing last Sunday, a man who identified himself as a Maoist tossed a wrapped kitchen knife at Li. (The weapon missed its target.) Another assailant then punched him in the face.
So why is Li so controversial? With 6.7 million followers on weibo, the former investigative journalist is one of China’s more trenchant social critics. His latest book is a collection of essays covering topics such as the shoddy school buildings that led to the deaths of thousands of children during the Sichuan earthquake of 2008, as well as the alleged cover-up of the causes of Wenzhou’s high-speed rail disaster of 2011.
Born in 1968, Li is nicknamed “Big Eyes” and started out as a popular football journalist and commentator. Even there, Li managed to push the limits, calling China’s football team “so beyond an embarrassment that it almost seems like a comedy” (a topic WiC has notably covered at some length, see issue 118).
In 2005, he published a series of articles exposing the inner workings of the Chinese football world, before publishing a book, Chinese Soccer: The Inside Story, on the same topic. He says that the book earned the wrath of trainers, players and government officials alike, and that he received personal threats to his family after it was published.
After Li had offended most of China’s footballing fraternity, he was forced to find a new job. He soon started blogging, this time writing a range of essays on politics and society. It was his writing on the struggles of the common people to recover from the Sichuan earthquake that brought his work to a whole new audience of young Chinese internet users.
In 2011 he went on to publish a novel called Li Kele Fights Demolition, telling the story of a group of residents who refuse to leave when their homes are scheduled for demolition. Led by the novel’s reluctant hero, the residents build concrete barricades and steal fireworks from factories, defying the authorities and fighting pitched battles against police.
Li’s novel was turned down by every publisher in Beijing, only getting into print via a tiny publishing house in the remote province of Gansu.
The book struck a chord with the public, with forced relocations and demolitions a politically sensitive issue (see WiC45). His descriptions of ordinary people uniting in the fight against authority also appealed to those who want wider social reforms.
Later that year Li announced that he would be running for office in the lowest tier of China’s multi-layered parliamentary structure – in Chengdu as an independent candidate (see WiC109). But his ambitions were quickly quashed, with the issuing of a statement that self-proclaimed independent candidates were not permitted to run for office without clearing a series of procedural hurdles first.
Meanwhile, Li has kept trying to reach out to larger audiences on his book tour. More than 3,000 people showed up at the latest event in Shenzhen, forming long queues, says the Southern Metropolis Daily. But signs of opposition to Li were apparent too, with some at the signing yelling, “Down with traitor Li Chengpeng.”
Others accuse Li of being an attention seeker. Cynics have even suggested that physical violence at some of the book signings is a publicity stunt, or encouraged by Li and his marketing team to generate buzz for his work, says China News Service.
If it is a publicity ploy, it is working. Shenzhen Urban Daily reported that 1,200 copies of the book were sold out at the bookstore signing, with many more pre-ordered.
Other attendees claimed Li’s treatment earlier that week demanded that he was shown support. “I would hardly be here to buy Li’s book if not for what happened to him [in Beijing] on Sunday,” one attendee told the South China Morning Post. “I just came here to show my support for Li, a liberal-minded critic.”
“Li loves the world; he loves this country. So his criticism and observation is an expression of that passion. He writes for dignity: dignity for writing, dignity for intellect and the dignity of expression… That’s because he doesn’t believe that a nation without dignity can be a powerful nation,” Xin Zhi Book, a publisher and reviewer, wrote on its weibo.
But his enemies say Li deserves what he gets. “A football newspaper reporter is writing about things that are none of his business and often calls himself a critic. To boost his own popularity, he hypes himself up by slandering the country… No wonder people have came forward to teach him a lesson,” one wrote on Tianya, an internet forum.
In response to the knife incident, Li insists that he won’t be intimidated: “I have fear but between writing and the knife, I choose the former. Writing is my job and I will continue to write,” he assured Xinhua.
Li also says he remains hopeful that the country will find a way to have more open conversation. “I hope that this nation is only temporarily without words,” he concluded in his speech at Peking University. “Although words have always been the easiest for power to control, they are always the last fortress to fall in war… I am always critical of this country yet I am always full of hope for this nation.”
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