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NOVEMBER 24, 2000 VOL. 26 NO. 46 | SEARCH ASIAWEEK


Fight for China
The people have new weapons: the Internet and the law, says Yu Jie

China's authorities have plenty of ways to stop writers like me from making a living. I learned that this summer, when I showed up for my first day of work at the China Association of Writers. I had just graduated from Beijing University, where I received a masters in contemporary Chinese literature. My first book, Fire and Ice, a critical look at modern Chinese history, was widely read, and I had since published four other controversial books. Suddenly the Writers' Association withdrew my researcher's contract. Though initially shocked, in my heart I knew the reason: I was being punished for my criticism of the Communist Party.

Persecution of intellectuals is nothing new in China. What's changed is that we have some weapons now, too. I am fighting back. First, I published two articles on the Internet, criticizing the way the authorities are suppressing intellectuals who dare to disagree with the party line. The articles sparked heated online debates. Before the Internet, this type of discussion was impossible. Publicly, I kept silent. But then I found another weapon: the law. After talking with lawyers, I decided to fight for my right to work.

China's future is unpredictable. But there is real and dramatic change underway. We Chinese, too, may witness upheaval like the turmoil in the former U.S.S.R. and Eastern Europe in the late 1980s and early 1990s and the drastic changes in Indonesia and, more recently, Yugoslavia. I hope mainland China will follow Taiwan's example and transform from autocratic rule to democratic constitutionalism in a peaceful way. But the serious political and economic problems facing China today worry every conscientious intellectual. Many are really pessimistic about the future.

The Internet and China's imminent entry into the World Trade Organization are real reasons for optimism. Trade will help cultivate a new sense of fair competition. Though the authorities are still trying to curb political speech on the Internet, they are finding it increasingly difficult. Some individual websites may get blocked. But the tempestuous trend of online free speech can never be stopped by any government. Only by returning to the isolation of Mao Zedong's era could China stifle the Internet. That would be catastrophic; no leaders would dare take that risk.

From the beginning of this year, the authorities have been tightening the reins on media control. Dozens of publishing houses have been "cleaned up" — meaning closed. China's publishing industry is facing dark times. During a book fair in October, there wasn't a single influential book on either sociology or the arts. Some official publishing houses, though suffering financial difficulties, dared not sign contracts with the independent book retailers for fear of being shut down by the Publishing Bureau. But an interesting thing is happening. Narrow-minded Chinese officials blacked out the news that Paris-based Gao Xingjian had won the Nobel Prize for Literature. But discussions on Gao and his works are everywhere on the Internet. The Internet police just can't do anything about it!

China needs its intellectuals more than ever. Since the crackdown on the student movement of 1989, the social gap between the rich and the poor has worsened. The fairness needed to maintain social stability has disappeared. The lower class is brewing bitter resentment against the rich. This anger could well turn to violence. The revolution isn't over. The crucial question will be how to transform this revolutionary rage towards positive political and social change.

I see two possible scenarios for China in the coming 25 years. One is to go the route of Taiwan. Like the Kuomintang, the Communist Party could slowly reform politically and allow for opposition parties. Then we could become a more well-rounded society built on a pillar of checks and balances. More likely, the Party's morals will deteriorate further, exacerbating corruption and widening the gap between rich and poor. That could lead to cataclysm. Nationalism could define the era.

Yet I believe this is the darkness before dawn. All the party needs to do is to embark on political reforms, open up the country politically, not just economically. I'm not optimistic about the outcome of my lawsuit. But I believe that if every citizen stands up and fights for his rights, real democracy will come to China.

Yu, 27, whose books have sold a million copies, is hoping to get his job back

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