Modern China is a place of incongruity. Gruesome political repression occurs alongside glitzy economic transformation. Massive corruption permeates the explosive growth in national wealth. Unprecedented environmental degradation coexists with the glamour and magic of ultra-modern metropolises.
This incongruity touches every aspect of daily life, and it is evident in the now widely reported case of the blind dissident Chen Guangcheng, who has been persecuted for his advocacy on behalf of women subjected to forced abortions and forced sterilization. China's incongruity is also apparent in that space between political dissent and silent submission, between open opposition to the regime and fearful acceptance of its edicts. Once, not too long ago, another Chinese dissident, one of China’s best contemporary writers, wrote about the anger, sadness, resignation, and desperation of this incongruity. Earlier this year, China chased him away.
Illustration by Barbara Kelley
This dissident writer, Yu Jie, likes to refer to himself as a nerd who stutters. In mid-January, he showed up in the United States on self-imposed exile. He revealed that the Chinese government had tortured him for his pro-democracy writings and activities. Additionally, the authorities had subjected him to detention and house arrest, tapped his phones, intercepted his emails, confiscated his computer and research, banned the publication of his work in China, and threatened to bury him alive. That China mistreats its citizens and abuses its political dissidents is nothing new, but Yu’s story magnifies China’s incongruities, and his departure offers a most potent reminder of the country’s tragedies.
For over three decades, the Chinese economy has grown at an annual average of nearly 10 percent, lifting more than 700 million citizens out of poverty and vaulting the country past Japan as the second largest economy in the world. As a result, foreigners have begun to marvel at China’s impressive record. Businessmen, and the bankers and lawyers who serve them, salivate at the country’s economic potential and are deeply flattered by their own participation in China’s quest for great power status.
Chinese authorities threatened to bury Yu Jie alive.
Simultaneously, Chinese companies dazzle the world with their impressive financial might. In 2011, fifty-seven Chinese mainland companies made the Fortune Global 500 list. To date, the state-owned Agricultural Bank of China holds the world title for the largest initial public offering in history with its $22.1 billion dual listing in Hong Kong and Shanghai in 2010. The Industrial & Commercial Bank of China, another state bank, comes in a close second with a $21.9 billion IPO in 2006. Even Facebook’s much-touted impending public debut pales in comparison.China’s economic miracle is undeniably impressive, but Chinese citizens know that something has gone amiss. About fifteen years ago, Yu began writing about precisely that. He wrote about the shallowness of a society that cares more about money and status than honesty and justice, the desperation of a people who cannot, and are not allowed to, think for themselves, and the tragedy of a country that mistakes wealth for glory, power for righteousness.
Across China, readers recognized in Yu’s essays the China they knew: a creature that was not, and could not, be whole. At a time when it was common for the wealthy to build villas for their mistresses and hire prostitutes, Yu wrote about the innocence of a girl who would always shed a tear for the indigent who beg for money by playing the harmonica at subway entrances. At a time when the youth of China appeared obsessed with consumerism, Yu wrote about the responsibility of intellectuals to speak the truth and the cravenness of those who do not. At a time when social mores, business practices, and basic expectations in China were changing rapidly, Yu wrote about an unnamed lake and a pagoda at Peking University that watched in silence as the modern age walked away from innocence. At a time when material goods were ever more abundant in China, Yu lamented that his fellow citizens’ souls were becoming ever more impoverished, and that the intangibles, such as liberty, truth, and ideals, were becoming ever less interesting.
Yu got into trouble because he did not stop there. Almost ten years ago, his writing and activities began to veer from social critique to outright democracy promotion. From 2005 to 2007, he served as the vice president of the Independent Chinese PEN Center, a non-governmental association of Chinese writers, editors, translators, and publishers and a grantee of America’s National Endowment for Democracy. In May 2006, he was one of three Chinese Christian dissidents who met with U.S. President George W. Bush at the White House and appealed for support for religious freedom and human rights in China. In 2010, he released a book in Hong Kong titled Wen Jiabao: China’s Best Actor, in which he argues that China’s premier merely pretends to care about the Chinese people in an effort to garner public trust for the Communist regime.
Making matters worse, the novelist converted to Christianity in 2003.
Making matters even worse, Yu also converted to Christianity in 2003. Instead of worshipping at a state-sanctioned church, he became a prominent spokesman for the “house church” Protestant Movement, whose participants worship at private residences in small numbers without seeking government consent.
Did Yu’s belief in truth and free thought naturally turn him into a political dissident who agitated for democracy? His answer is that his views evolved and became more political just as space for political speech and activities became more restricted when President Hu Jintao and Premier Wen assumed power in 2003.
Yet one wonders whether Chinese authoritarianism was the catalyst for Yu’s radicalization. After all, he is no stranger to its brutality. On December 9, 2010, the state security police kidnapped Yu and brought him to an undisclosed location with a black hood over his head. According to Yu’s account, he was stripped naked, forced to kneel, slapped, and forced to slap himself. The state police then spread his hands and bent his fingers backwards, saying, “You've written many articles attacking the Communist Party with these hands, so we want to break your fingers one by one.” Additionally, Yu was beaten on the head, kicked in the chest, and stomped on. He was finally sent to the hospital when he became unconscious.
All this authoritarian wrath just for a nerd who stutters.
Once, this nerd reflected on how Chinese citizens reacted—or did not react—to the limits that the state had set on their lives and livelihood. His writings gave voice to all those who do not openly challenge the ruling regime but who recognize the imperfections of their society. That recognition is not the same as political rebellion or opposition, but it represents the discontent of a people who cannot be all that they can be.
Yu’s second book, Screams from the Iron House (1998), sums up these sentiments poignantly. The title refers to an image of a group of people who are asleep in a locked iron house. One person realizes that they are left there to die. He screams to wake all the others from their deep slumber. Yet his screams have little chance of piercing through the iron house; no one outside can hear him, and death is nearly certain for all. The screamer’s fellow residents in the iron house panic, as the screamer’s screams get more desperate.
Today, foreigners marvel at how well built China’s iron house is, while numerous residents within the house prefer not to be awaken from their slumber. Meanwhile, Yu’s screams have fallen silent within China, even though the country’s incongruities and desperation grow by the day.