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Ashley Sun

Lin Zhao’s Young Ghost Still Haunting China, Online and Off

Lin Zhao’s grave (Via Flickr/auess)

On April 29, 1968, a young Chinese dissident named Lin Zhao was secretly executed by firing squad. In 2013, on the 45th anniversary of her execution, her name resurfaced in the public sphere, as news broke that police had prevented people paying tribute to her at her grave.

Lin Zhao was an ardent Communist in her early years, but she was labeled a “rightist” while studying at the Peking University during Mao’s 1956 “Anti-Rightist Movement.” This movement followed the “Hundred Flowers Campaign,” during which the intelligentsia were invited to criticize the Communist Party and then persecuted for doing so. As Lin became more and more outspoken in her criticism of the regime, she was expelled from school and founded an underground publication, which earned her a prison sentence of 20 years. She served only eight years of that sentence before being secretly executed in 1968 at the age of 35.

Lin’s story is moving, not least of all because of the fine prose through which Lin spread her ideas. Her inability to stay silent was such that when deprived of a pen and paper in prison, she used her own blood to write on walls, clothes and white sheets, compiling a total of 200,000 words.

In an official paper advising authorities to prolong her imprisonment, it was reported [Chinese] that “during her imprisonment, [Lin Zhao] used hair clips and bamboo sticks to pierce her skin, using the dirty blood to write extremely anti-revolutionary, extremely vicious letters, notes and diary entries …openly smearing the socialist system as a bloody totalitarian system that plunders all it takes to be a human being…[while] she talked about herself as ‘a freedom warrior fighting against tyranny and a young resistant.’”

A picture of Lin Zhao circulated widely on Weibo, with the caption, “If one day we are allowed to speak again, don’t forget to tell everyone, there was once a person named Lin Zhao who was killed for loving them too much.”

Lin was shot during the height of the Cultural Revolution. The epilogue of her story added a touch of farce to her tragedy. Two days after the execution, two policemen appeared at the door step of Lin’s mother, demanding that she pays the five cents that she “owed” the government for the bullet used to execute Lin.

A martyr in the making

Despite the theatrical nature of Lin’s story, she remained in obscurity for twenty years following her death. The Shanghai High People’s Court officially cleared her name in the early 1980’s, and her letters written in blood were put on display for a brief period of time before they were permanently archived.

It was not until 1995 that a cameraman at the state-run Xinhua news agency named Hu Jie heard about Lin’s story and was captivated by it. He secretly worked on a documentary of Lin until he was fired, perhaps because of the project.

The making of the film was a race against time, as the prospect of arrest by the Ministry of Security was more than a remote possibility. Hu interviewed Lin’s schoolmates, her uncle, and her lover, who kept a collection of Lin’s prison writings, which were written first in blood and then transcribed by Lin into paper after she obtained it from the prison authorities. Others contacted by Hu declined to appear in front of the camera, including two of Lin’s guards at the prison. The film was finished in 2003 and circulated underground.

In 2004, Hu Jie’s film was covered by Freezing Point, a progressive Chinese journal shut down in 2008 for its liberal positions. Since then, several mainstream media organizations – none of them state-run – have covered Lin’s life in one way or another. However, Lin Zhao remained far from a household name.

Later in 2004, a grave site containing a piece of Lin’s clothes and a bit of her hair – Lin’s body was never recovered – was constructed in her hometown. The site gradually became a small shrine, and an increasing number of people began to go there to pay homage to Lin. Authorities became aware of this, and installed a surveillance camera near the grave. On April 29 of this year, around 120 mourners gathered at the grave, and were met by 200 security officials.

Changing public sentiment

Several years ago, many wanted to look forward and put aside the ugly parts of China’s history, as can be seen from a comment on Hu’s documentary on YouTube: “Mr. Hu is still living in the past. Let us move on. China is changing, changing fast, and changing for good…Mr. Hu, pay a visit to Shanghai. You will be surprised how advanced and modern Shanghai is now.”

The comment was posted in 2008, when most prevalent narrative in society was one of growth. Economic development brought about improvement in living conditions for most people, or at least most city-dwellers, fueling optimism about the future and reluctance to face the past. But over just a few years, this narrative was shattered by skyrocketing real estate prices, shocking corruption scandals, and startling food security crises.

The tricky part of silencing activism in China today is that whenever the authorities try to obstruct it, the obstruction itself makes the news. The news of police obstruction spread online via microblogging platforms that afternoon, and generated waves of eulogies, postings of Lin’s poems, and personal reflections on online forums. On the anniversary of her death, posts about Lin Zhao were retweeted tens of thousands of times, and trended on Sina Weibo, a widely used social media platform.

That Lin’s criticism of the regime has resurfaced is due in part to the nature of her writing. Her poems and prose often promoted universal values such as freedom, democracy and justice, which remain relevant to this day. When the silencing of Lin in prison was reenacted in the suppression of the memorial at her grave, the resemblance to history became too obvious to ignore.

In a certain sense, people living in today’s China may be more drawn to stories like Lin’s now than in years past. It is hard to say whether public sentiment led to massive sympathy for Lin, or whether Lin herself fueled the ever-increasing outcry for freedom – both may be true. Written in blood, Lin’s story has had an impact that she herself could never have foreseen.

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Ashley Sun

Ashley's life up to now has been divided between Beijing and Hong Kong. She is an occasionally vocal observer of China. Two years ago, she published a collection of essays in Chinese on the life, politics and society of Hong Kong with Joint Publishing.