A frequent topic of conversation among my friends here has been: Who will be arrested next?
Some of us met recently for dinner and started a list of potential candidates. We included outspoken scholars, writers and lawyers who have discussed democracy and freedom, criticized the government and spoken out for the disadvantaged.
Some of my dinner companions nominated themselves for the list. We agreed that the social critic Xiao Shu (the pen name of Chen Min) and Guo Yushan, a friend of the blind lawyer Chen Guangcheng (now in the United States), should top the list. I’m right behind them.
Almost of all of us are active microbloggers. Some of us qualify as Big V, the widely used label for influential bloggers with millions of followers. (V stands for “verified account.”) It is our online activism that makes us prime targets of the government.
In August, the authorities launched the most severe round yet in their “campaign against cybercrime.” Ostensibly to curtail online “rumors,” they are rounding up and jailing outspoken netizens across the country. Judging from official media accounts and police reports, the number of arrests is in the hundreds, and many of us believe it may be in the thousands.
Charles Xue, a government critic and a Big V blogger with 12 million followers, who writes under the name Xue Manzi, was arrested as an early high-profile example. He was detained in August for allegedly hiring prostitutes, but the state-run news agency, Xinhua, made clear the true reason: “This has sounded a warning bell about the law to all Big V’s on the Internet.” The most infamous case was the arrest of a 16-year-old boy in Gansu Province. In early September, he posted two short messages commenting on the police’s handling of a mysterious death. His message included the phrase: “All officials shield one another.” He was arrested a few days later.
Meanwhile, the state media have published a steady flow of articles warning microbloggers to tone down their commentaries. An Aug. 24 editorial on Xinhua’s Web site said that popular bloggers who “poison the online environment” should be “dealt with like rats scurrying across the street that everyone wants to kill.”
It’s easy to see why the government feels threatened. The most popular microblogging service, Sina’s Weibo, has more than 500 million registered members and 54 million daily users, and has become the most important space for citizens to participate in public life — and expose government lies. Microbloggers dare to question the legitimacy of the one-party state. They expose corruption. They shame criminals.
And Big V bloggers don’t just express opinions; we act as information hubs. When we discuss issues online, people take notice. In 2010, I re-posted a news item about a protest against a forced eviction in Jiangxi Province in which three people resorted to self-immolation. The story was re-posted thousands of times and became one of the hottest news items of the year.
The vast state censorship apparatus works hard to keep us down. But posts race through Weibo so quickly that it’s difficult to control them with technology. Hence, the government is resorting to detainment.
The effect has been chilling. Since August, the Weibo community has collectively cooled down the political speech. The historian Zhang Lifan and others have dubbed the crackdown the “Internet anti-rightist campaign,” an echo of the anti-rightist campaign instigated by Mao in the late 1950s to crush dissent. Nearly 550,000 people were arrested or sent into exile. Just over a half-century later, the term “anti-rightist” still triggers fears that Chinese people have been trying to forget. And that is one of the government’s aims: to instil fear.
But these are different times. In 1957, Chinese intellectuals were on their own. They were defenseless and received no public support. In 2013, the Internet is like a giant public square where citizens can hear and support one another. Otherwise powerless people join together. When a courageous person steps forward, others follow.
I have been asked if I’m afraid. A couple of years ago, in the early days of my blogging, I was scared. Now I am not. I think my shift is representative of that of many popular bloggers, who have been emboldened by the freedom we’ve found online, as my friends have.
My friends and I channel our lingering anxiety into jokes about being on a government hit list. But of course this is a serious matter — and really all we can do is prepare for the inevitable.
For example, Xiao Han, a legal scholar in Beijing, has prepared a statement to be released in the event of his arrest, and sent a copy to his friends overseas. And he has preemptively decided on a courtroom strategy: If he is charged with disturbing public order or manufacturing rumors, he says he will counter-sue the government for its crimes and declare, “This is my court, too.”
The most I’ve done in preparation for arrest is to back up all my writing and give a copy to friends overseas.
As we contemplate the government’s next target, I keep my fear in check. I understand that for China to change, some people will have to pay a price. Wang Xiaoshan, a publisher who was among my friends at the dinner, put it best when he said: Start with me.
Murong Xuecun, the pen name of Hao Qun, is a novelist whose books include Leave Me Alone: A Novel of Chengdu and Dancing Through Red Dust. This article was translated by Jane Weizhen Pan and Martin Merz from the Chinese.