Freedom of speech has always been a sensitive topic in China. But when a prominent commentator calls for the right to free speech in one of the most famous (and state-controlled) universities in China, it raises the stakes yet further.
On November 18, fresh off of a forced blogging hiatus coinciding with China’s leadership handover at its 18th Party Congress, outspoken commentator and blogger Li Chengpeng (@李承鹏) delivered a sharp and powerful speech called “Talk” at Peking University, directly criticizing the lack of free speech in China. On the same day, text of Li’s talk (shown below this article) was widely shared on Chinese blogs and social media, with thousands of reposts and comments showing support. One commenter wrote: “He speaks for many people’s hearts.” Yet some of the shared content on Sina Weibo, China’s preeminent microblogging platform, had been censored by the next day.
Li started with a bold statement: ” Chinese people are losing the power to talk.” He described the 1960s in China, citing examples of how the disastrous Cultural Revolution forced citizens to make a choice: Lie, or shut up. At that age, the whole country lost its ability to talk. “You couldn’t talk about your needs: I’m hungry; you couldn’t talk about your emotions: I love you; you couldn’t criticize your leaders; … you couldn’t tell the scientific truth.”
He went on to describe the “nonsense” Orwellian terms that the government has used to paper over excesses, including “vacation-style treatment,” (休假式治疗) “protective demolition,” (保护性拆迁) “bribery out of courtesy” (礼节性受贿) and “confirmatory election” (确认性选举). Li insisted that “we haven’t recovered from our inability to talk” due to strict censorship. ”Every time I see some department claim that our country has the largest number of books and newspapers in the world, I think, actually we can just say it produces the largest amount of toilet paper. ”
Li also cited the recent mass incidents in the cities of Qidong and Ningbo as pointing to further fundamental problems: ”These incidents don’t have a political purpose; people were just making their voices heard, but it got out of hand. I think the most fundamental problem is the system itself. There’s a huge bug in the design at the beginning, and in order to fix the bug, you use anti-virus software, but the software itself has a bug… the anti-virus thinks people don’t have the right to speak, yet it has the power to punish. [The government] is arrogant, sensitive, and closed-minded.”
Li ascribed a circular, theatrical quality to debate in modern China. He said, ”We [the citizens] know they [the authorities] are lying, and they know that we know they are lying, and we know that they know that we know they are lying, and they know that we are pretending that they did not lie …. This is the reality. Everyone lies to each other, and this is a lie to make ends meet. … The most terrible thing about a country is not poverty [or] hunger … but people who have lost the right and the ability to speak.”