May 30, 2016

Xu Zhiyuan at AWF 2016: Inside the real China

Simonne from Central City Library went to hear "cultural phenomenon" Xu Zhiyuan and came away with a lot to think about... and to tell us!


Xu Zhiyuan, named by Ai Wei Wei “the most important Chinese intellectual of his time”, did not disappoint. Journalist, editor and author, his latest book Paper Tiger is a collection of his journalism written over the last seven years. The Sunday morning session with interviewer Jeremy Rose was certainly challenging, requiring intense concentration to digest all he was saying in his strongly accented English.

Opening with a discussion of the looming 50th Anniversary of the Cultural Revolution, we get the first of many indications that what is commonly known and discussed in the West is, in contrast, just not talked about in China. The Anniversary is a taboo subject; discussion could reveal flaws so discussion is not condoned.

It is Xu’s opinion that the Cultural Revolution, wherein Chairman Mao tried to impose a totalitarian system into every facet of Chinese life, poisoned the country. The economic and political reforms of the past thirty years had largely reversed this position, but with significant income inequality and a slowing economy causing widespread uncertainty and insecurity, there seems now to be a nostalgia among many for the totalitarianism of the past.

There is however, in Xu’s circles, resistance to State control, and in 2006 Xu co-founded a bookshop in Beijing called One Way Street Library. Mirroring the likes of Shakespeare and Company in Paris, and City Lights in San Francisco, One Way Street (now called OWspace with three branches in Beijing and more to follow in other cities) hosts regular salons. These events, often led by well-known authors and artists, are aimed at stimulating conversations about topics relevant to today’s world.

Interestingly, he has never been harassed by the authorities but is very aware that what could be discussed four years ago is off the agenda now. Present day bookstore discussions revolve around the arts, whereas they would once have included hearty political debates.

This censorship, Xu tells us, is not laid down anywhere; there are no clear boundaries or guidelines – what may be acceptable one day may get you arrested the next. He shares a chilling metaphor of a snake wound around a chandelier. The shadow cast by the snake ensures you are always aware of its presence but most of the time it stays in position while you go about your daily life. However, it can strike at any time; you will have no warning and it will be fatal. It is this unpredictability which is so disempowering.

When asked about internationally acclaimed artist and strident political activist Ai Wei Wei’s release from prison Xu offers a few theories:

- Perhaps he was released as a result of both international and local pressure – he has rock star status in China.

- His use of social media (he has been hugely active on Sina Weibo, China’s biggest internet platform and more lately on Twitter) has ensured a widespread public profile.

- Perhaps his strength of character helped to sustain him throughout his imprisonment; he is of an earlier generation, who grew up in the Cultural Revolution and are consequently tougher than Xu’s generation and those following.

Again, the uncertainty, the lack of consistency, the ever-shifting ground is made obvious in Xu’s lack of clarity. The poet Liu Xiaobo, awarded the 2010 Nobel Peace Prize for “his long and non-violent struggle for fundamental human rights in China” while incarcerated, is still in prison today. Although internationally acclaimed, the tight media controls ensure Liu’s achievements are known by few in China (his name is censored). It becomes clearer as the session continues that the Chinese authorities today are influenced by popular opinion but they carefully control what the public knows.

China’s leaders know only too well how the general populace love to see an official or chief executive jailed for corruption; their collective morality is outraged that such people set themselves above the rest of society. Consequently, panaceas such as the Anti-Corruption Drive are offered to the people to serve as distractions, shifting focus from the real issues facing China. An independent legal system, the freedom of the press, human rights, freedom of speech and the right to make personal choices; these, Xu tells us, are the fundamental pillars of a healthy society but they do not exist in today’s China.

The next topic, China’s one child policy, casts more light on the mind-set of the post Cultural Revolution generations. Initially introduced in 1978 as a purely physical solution to the burgeoning population issue, it was made possible by a citizenry well accustomed to totalitarian edicts and terrified by the consequences of not abiding. Aside from the horrors of sex-selected abortion, abandonment and infanticide, and the now skewed male/female balance, Xu tells us of the unexpected social psychology phenomenon which has developed as a direct result of this policy. The two generations since, born as “only” children, have never had the balancing influence of siblings to toughen them up and ensure they recognise their place as part of a whole (the family) and not the epicentre. Commonly referred to as “little emperors”, many are, according to Xu, “self-centred, narcissistic, over-protected, narrow minded and ruthless”. They want only to protect their lifestyle so the enticing distractions consumerism offers, along with a fear of reprisal, ensures they will not make a fuss when a fellow countryman who dared to speak out about an injustice is imprisoned.

However, it is not only Chinese disinterest that is to blame for the human rights abuses. Western leaders have in the past, when Communism was a dirty word, spoken out strongly against such abuses but now that China is a super power their tune has changed. Today’s Western leaders want a chunk of that phenomenal growth and so conveniently refrain from noticing that which may require criticism.

Still, despite such bleak days, Xu is optimistic that many of the new generation are more enlightened and he lives in hope that China can do beautiful things again as they have for thousands of years before.

And so the session ended but over the weeks following I have found myself returning to my notes again and again to ponder what he said. Surely, the sign of a great event!

-- Simonne Le Masurier

Ditulis Oleh : Karen Craig // 16:44


  1. I like the idea of salons to discuss important topics of the day. Perhaps we should set these up in Auckland? Thank you Simonne -very informative stuff. Annette

  2. I agree - we'd be a richer city for it. Simonne.


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