Interview: Jumping the (fire)wall

Despite the Chinese government’s attempts to control online information, the Internet has forced the Chinese Communist Party to change the narrative it presents to its citizens, says scholar Perry Link

By Catherine Shu  /  Staff reporter

Mon, Oct 22, 2012 - Page 12

Considered one of the foremost Western experts on China, Perry Link’s research has spanned the country’s politics, culture and language.

In 1996, Link was blacklisted by the Chinese government after co-editing and translating The Tiananmen Papers, a collection of documents leaked by a high-level official detailing the Chinese Communist Party’s response to the 1989 protests. Since then, Link has been denied entry to China, but keeps a close eye on the country and maintains friendships with dissidents via Skype and the Internet, which he calls “the first medium in the history of the People’s Republic of China that the Communist Party cannot control.”

Despite the government’s attempt to censor information online by erecting the “Great Firewall of China,” Link says the Internet has forced the CCP to dramatically change the narrative it presents to the Chinese people, as evidenced by the charges leveled against disgraced former official Bo Xilai (薄熙來). Instead of corruption, the party used the murder of British businessman Neil Heywood and accusations of illicit sexual relationships with women to bring about Bo’s downfall.

“The way I explain the difference is that by now in Chinese popular opinion, especially on the Internet, it is taken for granted that the top is so thoroughly corrupt that if you pull out one leader on the grounds of corruption, public opinion is just going to say ‘Well, all of you guys are corrupt,’” says Link.

In a phone conversation with the Taipei Times, Link discussed the power of Chinese netizens despite the firewall, tensions surrounding the CPP’s upcoming 18th National Congress and how fear of being blacklisted has affected scholarship on China.

Taipei Times: Can you tell me about how the Internet is currently shaping Chinese people’s views of themselves and of their government’s policies?

Perry Link: It’s made a big difference. It changes the way ordinary people view government and that is strictly inside the [Chinese firewall]. It’s now possible for people to do two things that they couldn’t do before. The first is to get information on local events, if there is a fire or train crash or a corrupt official bullying someone. That could only be passed orally before. Now it can be passed on the Internet and it goes faster, much faster. Freedom of local information has expanded in a way that the government can’t control.

The other thing is that the Internet has given to local people a forum to express themselves. People can sign petitions and discuss outrages without being in the same place. This makes it much harder to control from the government’s point of view, and much easier for ordinary citizens to organize public opinion in a focused way.

I’ll make up a hypothetical example. If there is a crash between a Mercedes-Benz and somebody pulling a vegetable cart in some rural part of China, this will get on the Internet and immediately all netizens will just naturally sympathize with the vegetable cart puller. That is, popular resentment of the privilege and wealth associated with officialdom is very automatic and very quick and, on the Internet, it can be focused.

There are a lot of cases over the last three or four years where resentment centered on an event got strong enough where it forced local leaders to make amends, change policies and sometimes even pay reparations to victims. If you go back 10, 20 years, that just wasn’t possible.

TT: I wanted to ask about China’s next leadership, including Xi Jinping (習近平) and his associates. Since the Internet is becoming a problem that is increasingly out of the government’s control, how do you think the next administration will respond to that?

PL: I don’t think there is any difference to speak of between Xi Jinping and Hu Jintao (胡錦濤). They are both functionaries. Their function is to serve the power elite of which they are a part, but it’s wrong to view either of them as anything like Mao Zedong (毛澤東) or Deng Xiaoping (鄧小平). Those days are gone. They are functionaries that take turns being party secretary. Their duty is to maintain the power and the privilege of that group. They don’t have any independent policies or strong ideas or so on.

I don’t know Xi Jinping, but my impression is that he is completely mediocre as an example of a person. He is, after all, the son of a famous revolutionary comrade of Mao Zedong. That’s why he’s there. It’s not because of meritocracy. I don’t think he will try and I don’t think he has the resources to try anything different from what the current regime is doing.

The reason why the [CPP’s 18th National Congress] in the fall is interesting is not because we can anticipate some policy changes, but because it is a laboratory for the infighting that goes on in the top to see whose person gets the top spot, and the second spot, and the third spot. That has been going on for at least a year now. The Bo Xilai scandal is only one part of it.

The instability that is right under the surface at the top is something that most of the world doesn’t adequately question or appreciate. I think Hu Jintao’s mentality is to try to keep the lid on so that nothing disastrous happens on his watch. He can hand the baton to Xi Jiping in the fall and then Xi Jiping tries to cope. There is instability right now and there will be through the fall. We don’t even know if Xi Jiping will be officially anointed in the way that the current leaders want.

TT: What is popular opinion among the Chinese people about the Gu Kailai (谷開來) case? As we discussed, the Internet firewall is permeable and there is a lot under the surface of that particular case. It’s obvious to anyone. So what has the discussion among the public been?

PL: That’s a huge question. My impression is that the details of the complexity of the Gu Kailai story are only known to a minority of the people on the Internet in China. That is, what you and I have been talking about with corruption and top-level power being the real issues, only Chinese dissidents and maybe — I’m just guessing now — 10 to 20 percent of netizens are discussing things at that level.

In fact, a lot of commentary takes the official Xinhua News Agency as “the story,” quote unquote. They are still very critical of it, but those people are raising questions like “Why would she resort to murder just because she was afraid Neil Heywood would kidnap her little boy? Why would she invite him all the way to Sichuan in order to do it? Could it be that it was really cyanide? Maybe there was another poison.”

They are very skeptical and very few believe the story, but they are poking holes in it as a murder mystery and not discussing those deeper questions of corruption and power struggles in the background.

TT: You can’t enter China now and that’s something other academics face, that if you write something that the Chinese government doesn’t like, you risk being blacklisted. Has that influenced what academics abroad say and write about China publicly?

PL: Yes, it does influence what they say, there is no question about that. They either scale back criticisms or coach things in certain ways that otherwise they wouldn’t. For example, here we are in Taiwan, the phrase taidu (台獨, “Taiwan independence”), is radioactive in Beijing. You aren’t even supposed to utter those words, Taiwan independence. So even American academics when discussing cross-strait relations, or the so-called Taiwan problem, will find euphemisms, so that those radioactive words don’t get thrust in front of the Chinese government.

There is a large range on this question. Some are more cautious than they need to be and others are cautious for understandable reasons, especially young scholars who need to worry about access to China in order to do fieldwork. If they go on a blacklist and can’t go to China, then their PhD dissertation might not be as good as it otherwise could be and they might not get a job.

I get asked maybe two or three times a month, in one way or another, by young scholars “What do I need to do or not to do in order to avoid getting on a blacklist?” Usually these people are censoring themselves more than they have to. I think they are too afraid. That said, they do have a legitimate reason to be afraid if they do get on a blacklist. I’m old enough and I’m tenured and so forth. It doesn’t matter to my career. It does matter to their career and it could be a disaster. They censor themselves for legitimate reasons. Older scholars have tenure and security, and they don’t have that. I think it’s a little bit shameful for older scholars to censor themselves when they do have tenure.

TT: Has being blacklisted had an affect on your work? Do you feel more freedom?

PL: Yes, I do. I feel more freedom than I otherwise would, especially at my age. I am 68 years old and for me being on a blacklist and being my age, there is no reason at all not to say things exactly as I see them, including stuff I said to you on the phone today. If I were a 28-year-old looking to find a job as an assistant professor, it would look different to me, I think. But it does make me feel free to just say whatever I want, because it can’t have a catastrophic effect on my work.

But your question has a subtler level: does it affect my work? Of course it affects my work in some way because I study modern Chinese language and literature. On the trips I took to China back when I could go, I learned a lot firsthand. I would have examples of the way people speak on the street. I have a book coming out later this year called An Anatomy of Chinese that analyzes ordinary, daily-life Chinese language from several points of view. A lot of my examples are taken from things I heard on the street and in daily life when I lived in China. I can’t do that anymore and of course that’s the cost.

Yes, it’s at a cost, but no cost that I begrudge. If you were to ask me if I regret doing the things I have done to get on the blacklist, would I prefer to censor myself and be able to go back to China, no way. I feel very comfortable with where I am and what has happened.

Link’s book An Anatomy of Chinese analyzes conceptual metaphors in Mandarin Chinese and is scheduled for release in February by Harvard University. This interview has been condensed and edited.