Forced Silence Amplifies Li Chengpeng’s Voice

At The Economist’s Analects blog, Sascha Matuszak profiles liberal writer and microblogger Li Chengpeng, from his exposure of corruption in Chinese soccer to his recent book tour dogged by enforced silence and political scuffles.

Seasoned at playing the provocateur, Mr Li moved from reporting on sport to writing essays on politics and society soon after the Sichuan earthquake of 2008, which killed more than 80,000 people. His writing on the struggles of common people after the disaster brought his work to a whole new audience of internet-savvy young Chinese. He went on to publish a novel in 2011, “Li Kele Protests Demolitions”. Mr Li’s “Li Kele” was an immediate hit; the descriptions of ordinary people who united together to fight faceless forces and venality propelled the writer into the arms of a more organized new audience: China’s advocates for social reform.

Later that year Mr Li announced that he would be running for public office in Chengdu as an independent. Although his election campaign was never allowed to get under way (candidates for office are carefully screened by the Communist Party and eventually Mr Li failed his background check), he gained a new degree of credibility. Here, it seemed, was a man who would back up his words with actions.

At the book launch in Chengdu, an elderly man named Liu Shahe sat behind Mr Li. Mr Liu is one of the signatories of Charter 08, the document demanding a list political reforms that Liu Xiaobo, the Nobel laureate, was jailed for drafting. Mr Li tweeted Mr Liu’s words to him—“You man of words, just keep writing”—and said the encouragement from the older man had reduced him to tears.

Li has answered questions about the silent signing in Chengdu on Sina Weibo, explaining why he opted to go through with the event, and why a book published through official channels had encountered such opposition. Introducing his partial translation at China Media Project, David Bandurski commented that the disruptions have only made Li’s voice louder.

In Guangzhou, the final leg of Li’s tour, the signing was cancelled at the last minute because the building where it was being hosted was closed for fire safety inspections.

Li Chengpeng apologized to his readers for the Guangzhou cancellation with a tongue-in-cheek post to his Sina Weibo account playing on the title of his book [Everybody in the World Knows]: “Once again I apologize to everyone: Because fire safety inspections are happening at the Tianya Building, outsiders cannot go in, and therefore my book signing for readers is cancelled. I’m accepting this fact, because this place is really in need of a fire safety inspection. Everybody in the world knows, fire safety is really important.”

For all of its hitches and hijinks, Li Chengpeng’s book tour illustrates the limitations of control in the era of social media. Li’s “silent” signing in Chengdu was anything but silent — it was broadcast loudly across the internet. Every leg of his tour became the subject of fevered discussion online, pitting the values of speech and openness against controls that appeared foolish and anachronistic.

See more about and by Li Chengpeng via CDT.


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