Controversy Pursues Li Chengpeng Book Tour

A series of book signings by writer and 6.5 million-follower weibo celebrity Li Chengpeng has become a lightning rod for tensions between leftists and liberals. In an incident at a signing in Beijing on Sunday, two men threw a punch and an ominously gift-wrapped knife at Li. This apparently encouraged a strong showing by both sides in Shenzhen on Tuesday, with at least three clashes taking place during the event. From He Huifeng and Choi Chi-yuk at the South China Morning Post:

“I would hardly be here to buy Li’s book if not for what happened to him on Sunday,” one young man said. “I just came here to show my support for Li, a liberal-minded critic.”

[…] Meanwhile, dozens of protesters, most in their 40s or 50s and some wearing Mao Zedong badges, gathered outside the building.

One of the protesters said he was outraged by some of Li’s recent comments, such as labelling those who took to the streets in anti-Japanese demonstrations in Shenzhen “brain damaged”.

“Li is a typical traitor who does nothing more than distort history and mislead the public, particularly the young,” he said.

Also at the South China Morning Post, Laura Zhou had previously described Sunday’s altercation, over which Li is reportedly considering legal action.

Li Chengpeng, a former journalist, was punched in the head during an afternoon signing of his new book for readers at the Zhongguancun Bookstore in Haidian district, and another man was filmed throwing a packaged kitchen knife at Li.

The man who punched Li claimed to have a strong aversion to the content of Li’s new book, The Whole World Knows. The assailant was taken away by Beijing police, according to a post on the public security bureau’s microblog that night.

The new book is a collection of essays that include sensitive topics such as the shoddy quality of school buildings that collapsed and killed thousands of students during the 2008 Sichuan earthquake and the alleged cover-up of the 2011 Wenzhou train crash.

The knife incident, in which a man waited in line to present Li with the threatening “gift”, and then threw it at him when it was apparently rejected, was caught on video (via SCMP’s John Kennedy):

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In contrast with the action in Beijing and Shenzhen, Li’s signing in Chengdu on Saturday was markedly subdued. Li had been ordered not to address the audience and wore a mask over his mouth in protest. Global Voices Online translated a weibo post Li sent before the event, together with a selection of other users’ reactions:

Someone just delivered a strict order: at my book signing event, I’m not allowed to talk; the readers are not allowed to ask me any questions; I can’t even introduce myself or say “ Happy New Year, Thank you”. I’m not even allowed to introduce the names of other guests at my event; they are not allowed to talk or answer any questions. They can only sit in the corner. I deeply feel it’s against my understanding of dignity. They are crazy.

王金明小伙[zh]: It’s the most depressing signing event I’ve ever experienced. There were many people on the spot but no sound. The policemen were guarding each corner. Li wore a mask and signed his book with the wrong date. His guests only appeared very shortly before being asked to step down. There were tears on Li’s face.

I suddenly discovered that the Communist Party has made creating a buzz into an art. Li Chengpeng’s book signing was just a small ordinary event, but after the Communist Party’s handling of it, it became a work of performance art that has spread throughout the world.

Bruce Humes and Sascha Matuszak blogged their accounts of the Shenzhen and Chengdu signings, respectively.

Scuffles between leftists and liberals also broke out outside the offices of the Southern Weekly newspaper, during protests over censorship of its New Year greeting. Li was particularly outspoken about the Southern Weekly affair. From an interview at Japan’s Asahi Shimbun:

To me, this feels as if the insult toward freedom of speech has been lifted up a level. I cannot stand it, and I believe many other people feel the same.

China’s Constitution recognizes freedom of speech. The new party leadership advocates the rule of law. It should therefore sponsor freedom of speech–but doesn’t. The reality is different.

[…] I’ve felt pressure. I’ve been braced to see my blog shut down. Yet, we are not challenging the government. We just want China to become a better country.

The fact that many people have raised their voice this time has great significance. This is the first step on a long road toward achieving freedom of speech.