The Anaconda and the Elephant

Society & Culture

When censorship transforms from being a python curled overhead to an elephant that leaves one numb.

This essay by Xu Zhiyuan 许知远 was first published in January 2016 in its original Chinese. In June, China Heritage published an English translation by Callum Smith together with the original Chinese and an introduction by the scholar Geremie R. Barmé.

Barmé notes that in this essay:

Xu describes his own dilemma, a split personality wending a way through the regime of increased ideological vigilance and party-state censorship under Xi Jinping and his deadening apparat. Zhiyuan acknowledges that the system also worked under the previous regimes of Jiang Zemin and Hu Jintao (1989–2012), but writers like him could negotiate a viable relationship with the state’s soft cultural authoritarian… Today, however, the suffocating embrace of “the anaconda” (an image taken from the scholar Perry Link) has become all but intolerable.

Do refer to China Heritage to illuminate the context to Xu’s piece, which is published here with kind permission from China Heritage.
— Jeremy Goldkorn

The Anaconda and the Elephant

‘So, do you plan to write two different versions, or just the one?,’ Miklós Haraszti asked. We were sitting in a noisy restaurant in the center of Vienna shrouded in cigarette smoke. The obsession with personal health hadn’t made it there yet; people were talking loudly, drinking and smoking as the spirit moved them. A copy of Haraszti’s classic, The Velvet Prison: Artists Under State Socialism, lay on the table between us. It’s a modest volume, a mere 163 pages, including the preface and an author’s profile. The dust jacket had long since disappeared, revealing a red cloth hardcover embossed with a gilded imprint of the author’s signature — a flourish hinting that the author had been a poet.

“Sightseeing Highlights of Vienna: Café Central.” This café-cum-salon was once a center of the city’s intellectual and cultural life.

The Velvet Prison is about the relationship between state censorship and artists and intellectuals. When Haraszti wrote it in the late 1970s [it was circulated as a samizdat in the early 1980s], a kind of Hungarian model was on the rise. In the mid-1960s, the Hungarian Communist government had introduced a market economy and gradually relaxed its social controls; in the process, it came to a tacit understanding with the average citizenry: I’ll improve your material life if you give up your challenges to us. The fundamental Communist system hadn’t changed, but compared with other, more unwavering Eastern European countries (including Poland, Czechoslovakia, not to mention Romania), Hungary was paradise, wealthier and more liberal. Some dubbed it “Goulash Communism.”

Artists and intellectuals also occupied a new kind of space, albeit one that was inherently dangerous. Artists relinquished their independence, and not only did they reach a compromise with the system but over time it evolved into codependence. Over time, with the bars of the prison cell sheathed in velvet, people forgot they were still in a prison.

[Although introduced to the book years earlier,] I’d happened on a copy of The Velvet Prison at a small library in Cambridge. Initially, I found the style difficult, lapidary; it was a work comprised almost entirely of declarative statements, no questions, just resolute and decisive judgements. Apart from one mention of John Milton the author doesn’t quote anyone else; it’s as though the book exists in a vacuum. Yet it had a particular force; reading it, I felt as though a veil had been torn aside, like accumulated filth had been scoured by a potent disinfectant. The author illuminates chaotic reality with unflinching certainty. For a Chinese reader, however, he’s not describing the Hungary of three decades ago; it is as though he is describing things right now.

Rebellion Is Passé, Long Live the Censor

It was the winter of 2009, and China was reveling in her new international brand. Owing to the success of the Beijing Summer Olympics the previous year, and given the fact that the United States and Europe were embroiled in a financial crisis, it seemed as though Beijing had successfully developed a “China model,” one that married political repression to economic growth. No more was the Chinese Communist Party to be seen as a moribund remnant of the 20th century, rather, it was a revitalized historical force. But Beijing wasn’t satisfied with mere material strength or military might; it also yearned to have cultural influence. The Beijing Olympics Opening Ceremony — an extravaganza that involved many of the country’s most famous directors and artists — was symbolic of this effort.

I recognize my own world in Haraszti’s The Velvet Prison: a place where artists and intellectuals crowded under the banner of nationalism and were rewarded with official approbation, popular acclaim, and material benefits. The traditional system of censorship was withering away; seldom did we now witness direct confrontation between the state and its artists and intellectuals. Rebellion was passé: with a nod and a wink, everyone knows what can be exhibited and published.

When Miklós Haraszti asked if I was going to “write two versions,” I knew I’d been caught out. Over the past 10 years, I have consciously policed myself. Nearly everything I’ve written has been allowed to appear in the People’s Republic; I know just what strategies I need to employ so I can get away with saying the almost unsayable. Even when criticizing the regime, I know just where the line is, or at least I think I do. There are obvious things: Best avoid naming names; don’t be too specific in your critiques; and, when you make sweeping statements about the regime, the government, society, and suchlike, be sure never to mention Tibet, Xinjiang, or June Fourth.

A self-censoring reflex is not just about the terror generated by political power, it is equally rooted in the temptations of new social realities. China is not merely an autocracy, it is also a booming economy with an ever-expanding urban population. There’s no dearth of pressing, non-political issues worth writing about. And, of course, there’s the ever-present anxiety that you could end up becoming a dissident. The genuine dissidents I know are fixated by the forbidden zones; they ignore all other major social issues. In effect, they impose another, insidious form of self-censorship on themselves.

But then there are glaring examples of increased political intolerance. As early as the summer of 2009, a widely respected rights lawyer — a friend of mine — was incarcerated for helping social activists. This man was no criminal; he was mild and his behavior was constructive. His crime for assisting education equality activists was to dare advocate in support of the growth of a healthy civil society. When a trusted friend is arrested, you can’t avoid taking a stance. I started writing regularly for magazines in Hong Kong and Taiwan, and I soon discovered the delight of being able to discuss political issues directly and frankly, and the need to protest the arrest of an innocent friend in public.

I became aware of my previous self-deceit, of having wasted time and energy honing an ambiguous writing style, part and parcel of my self-censorship. Up until then, I’d imagined I was wrestling with an anaconda. I’d tried grabbing it by the throat and pushing it away. Instead, I found myself entangled in its coils. I’d now woken with a start.

Encountering Miklós Haraszti in Vienna ushered in a relatively freewheeling period in my writing career, one that was in stark contrast to my previous apolitical writing. I started publishing many things critical of Beijing authoritarianism. It was something of a late blossoming for me, something akin to a middle-aged adolescent rebellion against my past obedience and meekness. Needless to say, my new work could only appear in Hong Kong and Taiwan.

In the winter of 2013, I published a book in Taiwan about political protesters on the mainland, Taiwan, Hong Kong, and Macau — from Taipei’s Shih Ming-te 施明德 to Hong Kong’s Kwok Hung Leung 梁國雄 and Beijing’s Liu Xiaobo 劉曉波 — each of them rebelled against the system in which they lived. In my book I tried to find some “Chinese commonality” in their stance. Inspired by Albert Camus’ The Rebel, it was more about literature than politics. In fact, I’m not all that interested in political resistance as such or in its practical outcomes; rather, what fascinates me are the life choices people make when facing momentous challenges, and why, despite their solitary stance, they manage to stay true to their beliefs. The book couldn’t be published on the mainland.

A Question of Balance

Over the last few years, I’ve developed a kind of balance between censorship and self-expression. In the global Chinese world, I write freely and publish politically sensitive work, while in mainland China I produce non-political prose. For a time I thought I could straddle these two worlds, to be the kind of author Miklós Haraszti described as “writing two different versions.”

Yet I soon found myself experiencing a different kind of anxiety. Following on from what is euphemistically called the “transfer of power” in Beijing from late 2012 [when Xi Jinping became party-state leader], the intellectual shackles had been brought out once more. The phony freedom enjoyed by the Chinese for nigh on two decades gradually faded. Previously, so long as you didn’t challenge the regime directly, there was at least the possibility of measured public discussion. Now you either pledged unequivocal loyalty to the authorities, or you shut up. All kinds of issues, from constitutional rule to civil society and the environment crisis, were no-go zones.

My Taiwan publishers organized several symposia. The participants included prominent Taiwanese democracy advocates, men and women often labeled “Taiwan independence activists” on the mainland. Both the publication of my book and participation in those gatherings increased my anxiety; I wasn’t sure whether I would suffer “unintended consequences”: I might be given a warning by the authorities, or be blacklisted. That would mean I would no longer be able to publish on the mainland. I’d never been entirely certain just where the line was, but I did feel I was inching closer to it.

During that particular trip, I met Perry Link. He is one of the most admirable sinologists of the past three decades. His Evening Chats in Beijing is one of the best accounts of intellectuals in the 1980s. In 1989 [following the Beijing Massacre], he helped the astrophysicist Fang Lizhi 方勵之 secure political asylum in the U.S. embassy in Beijing, and he was one of the founders of the Princeton China Initiative, which provided refuge to some of the intellectuals forced into exile after June 4. He was also one of the editors of The Tiananmen Papers, a controversial book widely regarded as important primary source material for understanding 1989.

One rarely encounters foreigners with such a passion for China. He speaks Chinese with a Beijing accent, knows Hou Baolin 侯寶林 crosstalk, is enamored with Cui Jian’s 崔健 rock music, and declares that his best years were spent in 1980s China. Perry was blacklisted by the authorities in 1996 and he hasn’t been able to visit the People’s Republic ever since.

Despite being deprived of direct contact with the mainland, his acute observations still garner admiration. I recall in particular an article of his from 2002 titled “China: The Anaconda in the Chandelier.” In it he says:

…[T]he Chinese government’s censorial authority in recent times has resembled not so much a man-eating tiger or fire-snorting dragon as a giant anaconda coiled in an overhead chandelier. Normally the great snake doesn’t move. It doesn’t have to. It feels no need to be clear about its prohibitions. Its constant silent message is “You yourself decide,” after which, more often than not, everyone in its shadow makes his or her large and small adjustments — all quite “naturally.” [11 April 2002, The New York Review of Books; reprinted by ChinaFile, online here.]

The image of the anaconda stayed with me. Today, the anaconda is more active; you can see its flicking tongue. In Taipei, the creature haunted my dreams. Later, in Hong Kong, it appeared again; one night when I was staying at Robert Black College at Hong Kong University I was even startled out of my sleep. The anaconda was slithering through the corridors.

My nightmare can be interpreted in a number of ways. The anaconda might be symbolic of the censorship system, the coils of which I’m scared with entangle me. But perhaps it also represents political authority. China’s dominating rulers have traditionally derived their mandate to govern from the notion that they are “descendants of the dragon.” Their dragon is merely a distorted representation of the anaconda that they really are. Having been independent of China during the second half of the 20th century, Taiwan and Hong Kong enjoyed freedom and independence; it was a transient experience. In its ceaseless efforts to enforce compliance, the anaconda evinces no interest in their sense of estrangement.

A Cloak of Invisibility

I remember the day well. It was the first Saturday of November 2014. I was feeling gloomy and depressed, sitting in a café recovering from a hangover. Outside, it was a drab Beijing day, though you couldn’t tell if it was a sandstorm or just smog pollution.

On a clear day you can see forever. A view south over the Palace Museum from Prospect Hill.

That’s when I got the call: It was a friend; he told me my name was on a list of banned writers. Suddenly, I was trending on Chinese social media along with the historian Yu Ying-shih 余英時, the economist Mao Yushi 茅于軾, the essayist Zheng Shiping 鄭世平 (better known by his nom de plume Ye Fu 野夫), the Hong Kong television presenter Leung Man-tao 梁文道, and the Taiwanese director Giddens Ko 九把刀. According to a Weibo posting by someone au fait with the inside news from the State Administration of Radio, Film, and Television (they’d taken part in the Administration’s latest meeting), our books would either be banned from sale or unpublishable.

Many people got in touch over the following days, both friends and the media. They were anxious to find out if knew why I had been banned; whether I had been notified; and how I felt about it. Since I only learned about it via social media I was, like them, at a loss. There was no official notification, let alone a phone call or a formal document announcing my censure. All I knew was it wasn’t just a rumor.

One version of the story claimed that this latest list of outlaws consisted primarily of liberal intellectuals, as well as critics of the Beijing authorities (although this made the inclusion of Giddens Ko problematic). Another version of the story held that we were all tainted for having gotten involved in the recent “Occupy Central” movement in Hong Kong. (“Occupy Central” was the first political crisis in the territory since its return to China in 1997, and it signified the bankruptcy of the “One Country, Two Systems” model.) In the eyes of Beijing, Hong Kong was now to be listed along with Tibet and Xinjiang as being subject to “separatist” tendencies.

But this was all just speculation. Censorship in China is like a black box, no one really knows how it works. At the same time, it’s remarkable how preposterous and pitiless it is. Unlike the Soviet Union and Eastern Europe in the past, and even 1980s China, being banned in China today makes you feel neither anger nor despair as such. Rather, you feel like you’re in a farce. Being banned makes you fodder for the entertainment industry — although after the allotted 15 minutes, you’re no longer newsworthy. When absurdity is so commonplace, and ceaseless, nobody cares about a few writers. Some people might even suspect that it’s all part of the marketing strategy of a clever publisher.

The Diary of a Nobody

For me at least, two metaphors have been reconfigured: The velvet has worn thin as the cold iron bars of the prison have been exposed; and the anaconda has slithered out of fantasy and into reality.

The irony is that even if the ban on me is never officially confirmed, no one will dare publish me, even the writing I do that is completely apolitical. I’m simply taboo. It doesn’t matter that nobody knows how the taboo came about, or how it might end.

But that’s not the end of the story. Along with the atmosphere of oppression, fear, and silence, China has been enjoying an unbroken tidal wave of entrepreneurship and consumption. Countless young people ride high on it and Chinese consumers travel the globe for pleasure and shopping opportunities. You get the sense that China is a place of boundless opportunity. I, too, am caught up in this paradoxical situation: I’m a persecuted writer, but I’m also riding the wave of entrepreneurship. I’ve formed a social media company with friends and I can avail myself of it to explore a new avenue for self-expression. The banned intellectuals of Warsaw, Prague, Berlin, and Yangon never dreamed of such a thing. Today, we the oppressed have our own opportunities.

There’s another unsettling fact: I’m concerned that, at some point in the future, my status as a public intellectual will hurt our brand. I’m no longer just me, I’m responsible for a whole team and a company. In China, everyone knows that to be successful in business, you need to be politically submissive.

The cover of Xu Zhiyuan’s book The Protesters.

As a result, in effect I’ve abandoned my critique of politics and current affairs, and I’ve even distanced myself from some of my dissident friends. In late 2013, I had some reservations about publishing my book The Protestors 抗爭者 in Taiwan with Gūsa 八旗文化 [literally “Eight Banners Culture,” derived from the Manchu term “Eight Banners,” jakūn gūsa]; now, I’m fearful that some of my pointed opinion pieces might attract the attention of mainland censors. And there’s another side effect of my being banned: I’ve become insensitive to political violence in China. Since I can’t criticize or analyze it, I’ve come to pretend that it simply doesn’t exist. It seems that I’m content with this new kind of self-deception: I turn a blind eye to China’s authoritarian system: the “elephant in the room.”

Over the past two years, China’s locked-in syndrome has gotten worse. Not only has old-style ideological censorship become increasingly obvious by the day, the government has also achieved remarkable successes in controlling the internet. What’s also evident is that average Chinese people have accommodated themselves to only having access to a restricted network. They accept the limited horizon with which they are presented. Such an environment can all too readily engender the cult of personality, statism, nationalism, and bellicosity.

I feel humiliated; I’m ashamed of my cowardice. For the first time in my life, I’ve started keeping a diary. In it I try to record my alienation from myself; I hope that this might act as a balm to my sense of alienation. Sometimes, Miklós Haraszti’s question comes to mind. If I see him again, I’ll tell him that I’m trying to write just the one version, but it’s hard.

Translated by: Callum Smith

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