As China has held its all-important 18th Party Congress over the past week to choose its new leadership, dissidents have been removed from Beijing and in some cases ordered to keep their mouths shut. For the duration, there have been no posts on Sina Weibo, China’s Twitter, from prominent (and usually loquacious) blogger Li Chengpeng, and only innocuous pictures of food from pseudonymous Weibo celebrity Zuoyeben. That changed earlier today, when Zuoyeben published an essay on patriotic education. In the succinct piece, which has already been re-posted over 10,000 times, Zuoyeben wrote, “I don’t need to tell you whether I love this country, but I do feel for this country deeply.”
Earlier in the day, Zuoyeben had reposted the image of kindergarteners in Hangzhou province carrying guns and wearing military uniforms as they participated in a “Defend the Diaoyus” competition intended to teach them “patriotic thinking.” China and Japan have hotly debated ownership and control of the Diaoyu Islands, also known as the Senkaku. “Poor kids,” Zuoyeben remarked. “They don’t even know where the Diaoyu Islands are, why on earth would you make them pretend to protect and defend them?”
In a longer essay several hours later, Zuoyeben first took aim at patriotic education in kindergarten, expressing his “clear opposition” to the practice. “Even if you think your patriotic beliefs are correct, that’s just your opinion. You can’t then force others to also be patriotic. If you do that, then why do you love your country? So you can make everyone sing the same tune that you do?”
He then recounted his own experience growing up in the same education system, how he felt such love for the red scarf of the Young Pioneers and travelled to Beijing after graduating college to watch the flag-raising ceremony in Tiananmen Square. “I don’t need to tell you how my more than two decades of patriotism disappeared,” he continued, “What I want to tell you is that I regret those decades…the best twenty years of my life vanished as if they had never occurred.” In the final turn of his essay, he hints at ties that still bind him, even now that he has rethought many of his previous positions. “Today, I’ve discovered the saddest part is that I can’t speak my new thoughts aloud. When I have tried to express myself, I’ve been attacked.”
The problem Zuoyeben addresses is not ideology or emotion, but the use of force against those helpless to defend themselves. “Children are like blank sheets of paper; you shouldn’t go writing all your rules on them,” he concludes, “As long as your decisions can be your own, it won’t matter whether they are right or wrong, they’ll at least be clean.”
Ideological force is not limited to the classroom. Coverage of the 18th Party Congress has been heavily controlled, with Beijing even indirectly hiring a foreign reporter to ask softball questions, potentially misleading those unaware of the government’s hand in the matter. In a way, many Chinese find that the party congress and its coverage, guided by the government’s restrictions, requirements, and instructions, acts as a kind of continuing patriotic education for a largely disillusioned and disinterested audience.
Many comments on Zuoyeben’s essay echoed this widespread sentiment. “Loving the country and loving the party are two separate matters,” wrote one, while another more cynical Weibo user wrote, “All Communist Party members are monsters.” A more hopeful user called for true change: “Patriotism isn’t about saying everything is fine and dandy. It’s about criticism and advice. Let our country admit its shame so that it can be truly brave. Make our country better.”
Even if a great number of Chinese have become jaded by the disconnect between the national narrative and personal experience, Zuoyeben’s return to blogging after weeks of silence shows that however controlled, debate continues on controversial issues. It may also be a sign that the conclusion of the 18th Party Congress means a return to a more moderate form of censorship for China’s critics.