Yu Jianrong (于建嵘): “Everyone Has a Microphone”
In Southern Metropolis Weekly, social scientist Yu Jianrong discusses the difficulties of preventing forced eviction and the communicative power of microblogging. Yu is a professor at the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences and a long-time opponent of forced eviction and relocation.
The following is a partial translation of the profile of Yu in Southern Metropolis Weekly [translation by Don Weinland].
It seems as if Yu Jianrong is naturally adept in dealing with people. He laughs cheerfully without a scholar’s demeanor. He even jokes with petitioners just for the sake of joking, often leaving the upset and distressed in stitches of laughter.
Petitioners come looking for him in groups because Yu Jianrong is famous. “He speaks the truth, he’s fair and at the very least he will not make any adulterations.” A petitioner by the name of Xu from Nanjing said he hopes Yu Jianrong can help expose the demolition and relocation problem in his hometown. Old Yu takes down their information and them has them tell their stories in front of a camera. Seeing petitioners to the door, he always comforts them, saying those (officials) are too terrible and they will pay for what they’ve done.
All the information brought by the petitioners is taken into a “black information room” beside the reception room. Filling the two bookcases inside are reports from the masses archived by region, covering all 2,860 counties in the country.
Silencing those officials
During the past year, he suddenly became very popular. Yu Jianrong has held lectures across the country. These classes on “social stability and public safety” have won him uncountable ovation. He speaks on the dangers of “rigid stability,” on the “extreme evils of the petitioning system” and even on the hidden dangers of historically unprecedented large-scale demolition and relocation. He says, “I know all the tricks you use. I know the number of evictees, the number of people you prevent from petitioning and even how you detain people.” The audience laughs. Speaking to a point of excitement, he waves a hand, “Today you should remember, do not forcibly demolish or else you will pay the consequences.”
A sigh of embarrassment sounds among the audience. Then immediate silence. Yu Jianrong grabs the microphone and finds a spot on stage. Those officials who have spent a lifetime in meetings – stretching out their arms, bouncing their legs and falling in and out of sleep – have been silenced by Yu Jianrong. Like grammar school children, they follow every word, showing reluctant smiles of one whose true thoughts have been shown to the world.
When they finish listening, the cadres at least feel that the class was “worth it.” One cadre from rural Shandong province said he was happy and that the lecture concerned real working problems. One could say he really spoke to the hearts of the officials. One older woman chased down Yu Jianrong after the meeting, vehemently saying “You must awaken the people.”
On Nov. 28, Yu Jianrong gave a lecture to a class of cadres from Hunan province at Qinghua University. Halfway through the lecture, a leader responsible for demolition and relocation gave his assistant a call, telling him to put an immediate end to the forced demolition, even at the risk of losing a promotion. At the end of the meeting, the vice director of a court said publicly, “Rest assured teacher, we will certainly keep the people in our hearts. We will conduct business according to the law.”
These kinds of instantaneous results put a delighted expression on Yu Jianrong’s face. He returned home and posted the two scenes on a microblog. But there are also those who are perplexed. One day at Beijing University, he gave an all-day lecture to more than 50 rural party secretaries. The secretaries clapped excitedly off and on. After the meeting, one after another asked to take a picture with him. A few approached him and said “Teacher Yu, all that you said was true but there’s nothing we can do. We must go and do those bad deeds. We’re even scared you’ll come by and denounce us after you know what we’ve done.”
“Hearing this, I just feel tired,” Yu Jianrong said. “The greatest pain is seeing the problem but not knowing what to do.”
On the evening of Nov. 26, Yu Jianrong posted a microblog from Beijing’s West Station. According to his plan, he would take a train to Shandong that night to give a lecture. “I really don’t want to go. It’s not just because I’m tired, but because I increasingly feel that the effects of these kinds of lectures are too limited. Under the current system, wanting to stop them from forcibly demolishing the people’s housing and occupying peasants’ land is really too difficult. But if I don’t go and lecture, what other means is there? Other than calling for them to cease, I really don’t have any other way.”
Fighting the county committee secretary
On Nov. 11, Yu Jianrong responded to a lecture invitation from the chief of police in Wanzai, Jiangxi province. Before leaving, he searched for recent news from Wanzai County. He discovered what the County Committee Secretary Chen Xiaoping had mentioned at a meeting: petitioners from this county who go to Beijing will be reprimanded and fined the first time, detained the second time and be subject to labor reeducation the third time. This is greatly offensive.
Chen Xiaoping had no idea who Yu Jianrong was. But the chief of police highly recommended him, saying he “spoke very well.” Chen then instructed more than 700 cadres from the entire county to come and attend. Yu Jianrong analyzed the situation: “Actually, I think it was that the task of demolition and relocation was too big for the police department. They want to find someone to come and help them reduce the pressure that was on them.”
During the lecture, Yu Jianrong secretly inspected the whole audience, who nodded their heads understandingly. Only Chen Xiaoping’s expression was uncomfortable. “The longer I spoke, the antsier he became in his chair.”
It was already noon by the time the lecture ended. Chen Xiaoping persisted in inviting Yu Jianrong to lunch. The two sat side by side. Even before the dishes were served, Chen opened his mouth: “Teacher Yu, you are quite an expert. I didn’t know you would come today to talk about these things. It was really bad for me. I told the lowest level village cadres to come.”
“This small county of yours will build a 23-square-kilometer development zone. When the people petition you sentence them to labor reeducation. This isn’t reasonable. Preferably, you should develop a bit slower. It doesn’t make any difference.”
“Without development, would you have freeways? Could you stay in hotels?” Chen became excited. “If we didn’t do it like this, what would you intellectuals be eating?”
Yu Jianrong lowered his head in silence, raising his tea cup and waiting for the dishes to be served. Chen struck the table and repeated himself. A stern expression crossed Yu Jianrong’s face. Chen said it again: “Without us, what would you eat?” Yu Jianrong stood, pushing his chair away: “Go to hell! What would I eat!” When the police chief saw that Yu Jianrong was angry, he quickly stood and tried to calm him down. “Teacher Yu! Teacher Yu!” “Smash!” Yu was in a fit of anger and it didn’t matter who tried to calm him down. He swung a fist behind him and blood spilt from the police chief’s nose. As he stormed out he left them with one last word: “These birdbrains are not qualified to eat with us.”
Returning to the hotel, a still flustered Yu Jianrong posted the scene on a recently created microblog. “With county secretaries demolishing and relocating people, what would the intellectuals eat?” This sentence of highly effective communication was instantly reposted by many thousands of people. Chen Xiaoping met with a wide-ranging manhunt from netizens. “His (Chen Xiaoping’s) political career is already over,” Yu Jianrong asserted, laughing at the fact that Chen didn’t know the authoritative power of microblogs. After the Chen incident, Chen extended his apologies to Yu through a third party. “But once a microblog is posted, I have no way of taking it back,” Yu said.
The microblog is a new weapon Yu Jianrong discovered in 2010. As someone with eager demand for freedom of speech, microblogs have given him a 24-hour open mic. Within three days of creation, he posted nearly one hundred microblogs. It’s a stage from which you can’t see the audience. Yu Jianrong took everything he’s wanted to say for the past few years and let it all out at once. Today he already has 140,000 fans, with the number of fans increasing by 3,000 daily.
“I’m more and more of a strict believer that the age of information will change the course of China’s traditional political development.”
Southern Metropolis Weekly: How do you feel about your life now?
Yu Jianrong: I’m indifferent. I have a life. I’m not afraid of losing my job. I couldn’t care less what the Academy of Social Sciences thinks about me. They could fire me right now and I wouldn’t care. I don’t rely on my salary. I have never even seen my salary. I think I made all the money I needed for life 10 years ago. Twenty years ago, I made 2 million yuan. I think it’s enough to use for my whole life. At that time you only needed 34,000 yuan to by a car, and they were good cars. I only dare say this because I have no concerns or fears about life. Now if I write an essay, I can make 10,000 yuan. I never ask about my teaching pay. When they ask me to teach, I tell them it’s up to them.
Whoever wants to make things difficult for me, I don’t care. I care only about that little bit of something that’s in my heart. I can’t just go along with it. My only principle is not to join any organization. If I can teach for a day, then I teach for a day. If they won’t let me teach, then forget about it. But I won’t insist on speaking in the streets.
Southern Metropolis Weekly: Are you obsessed with the microphone? After starting a mircoblog, do you have a new understanding of the power of speaking and discourse?
Yu Jianrong: With a microblog, finally I have the same opportunity for expression as you. You can’t steal my microphone. Current technology has altered the social environment. Everyone has a microphone. Everyone is a news headquarters. Now it’s easy to find friends. You can instantly find a comrade when you post an essay.
For so many years, intellectuals have never had much power of speech. Or you could say, few people possessed that power. In the past, one had to gain a kind of status/identity in the system before getting some power in their words or writing. Now you can create an identity by doing something. Intellectuals can also solve the problems of their reliance on the system. I can make money through entirely different means.
I came to Beijing to speak. Speaking in Beijing has impact. I spoke and spoke in Hunan and no one listened. For 10 ten years I’ve spoken about what I want to speak about, not what others wanted me to talk about. After becoming known, many people start touting the official line, rhetoric and words not used in day-to-day speech.
Southern Metropolis Weekly: Have you ever stirred up trouble? Are you still confused?
Yu Jianrong: I think very carefully about what I talk about. My principles are speaking the truth and speaking less about ideology. Of course there’s been lots of confusion. The greatest confusion is that in the current situation, we can see our future direction but no one acts towards it.