Free expression grows in China (just don't talk politics)

Chinese intellectuals like Prof. Hu Xingdou relish their widening freedom to publish their opinions. But many topics remain taboo, and offenders are still subject to "reeducation through labor."

Raul Vasquez/Special to the Christian Science Monitor
Criticism: Economics Professor Hu Xingdou says the list of taboo topics has shrunk in the 30 years since ‘reform and opening.’
Andy Nelson/The Christian Science Monitor
Full of Ideas: A student in Beijing works on her laptop. The Internet has widened Chinese space for free expression.

China has been transformed beyond recognition since the ruling Communist party decided 30 years ago this week to abandon Maoism, build a market economy, and dismantle the "bamboo curtain" that had isolated the country from most of the world. This series explores what "reform and opening" has meant to the everyday lives of six individuals.

BEIJING – Sitting at a laptop in his sunlit study, a pair of studded massage rollers beneath his stockinged feet, Hu Xingdou knows that the most outspoken pieces he writes will never make it further than his hard drive.

But like thousands of other scholars, activists, and ordinary citizens in China, the owlish Professor Hu also knows that each critical political opinion he dares to publish – mostly on his website – pushes the door of government tolerance open a little wider.

"Just by what people do and say, they are enlarging the space for expression," Hu says. "Before, a lot of words could not be spoken in public. Now, one by one, they are becoming acceptable."

The continuing battle for intellectual freedom to match the economic freedoms that 30 years of "reform and opening" have spread in China has been long and hard fought. Victories have been won, but none has brought much political liberties in their wake.

Still, when Hu, a teacher of economics at the Beijing Institute of Technology, compares the course he took as a management student 30 years ago with the wide-ranging work he demands of his students today, he says he has no doubt that "intellectual life has been completely transformed in China."

As a member of the first class to enter university after the Cultural Revolution, Hu found Marxism and Mao Zedong Thought were the only theories being taught in economics, politics, philosophy and sociology.

He added a little spice to his intellectual life, he remembers, by reading 19th century Russian and English Romantic poets, whose works had not been purged from library shelves. Even today he does not need much encouragement to start reciting lines by Shelley.

The 1980s saw a period of what Hu calls "mental liberation," as professors and their students began discovering Western philosophers such as Schopenhauer and Kant, or economists like Hayek and Keynes, but it was not smooth sailing.

One man's "mental liberation" was another man's "spiritual pollution," and officials often launched campaigns against such innovation. In 1989, when the mood of intellectual and political exploration culminated in the Tiananmen pro-democracy demonstrations and the massacre that ended them, the whole process came to a sudden halt for several years.

Even today, references to Tiananmen are taboo in public debate, along with the Falun Gong religious group and senior officials' personal or financial affairs.

But Hu says he feels confident commenting on, and criticizing, pretty much any other aspect of Chinese life, at least on his website, to which other blogs link, and from which newspapers often lift articles.

"I got tired of submitting articles to editors that they found too politically risky," he says. "Now I just post them on my website, and if editors like them they can publish them."

Hu is well known in the blogosphere for his diatribes against the inequities of "reeducation through labor" – a punishment doled out by the police with no judicial review – or the residence laws that deny migrant workers social rights, or the petitions system that rarely overturns even the most egregious miscarriages of justice.

These, however, are the kind of "sensitive contemporary issues" that Hu has found book publishers won't touch. Even on the much freer Internet, he says he knows where to draw the line.

"If scholars directly question the legitimacy of the Communist Party ... eventually they will have problems," he explains. "And the government is quite tolerant of academics only so long as they are not involved in any political movement.

"They will tolerate words, but not actions born of those words," he adds. "That's the limit."

Those limits are enforced regularly. Last week police arrested Liu Xiaobo, a prominent dissident, and questioned several other people for their part in drawing up "Charter 08," a bold demand for political reform signed by over 300 intellectuals, artists, and others and posted on the Internet to mark World Human Rights Day on Dec. 10.

Hu fears that few ordinary Chinese care much about this sort of thing. "All the past political campaigns against intellectuals, the Cultural Revolution, what happened in 1989 have eroded a sense of justice in Chinese society," he laments. People have lost interest in ideas."

Thirty years ago, he says acidly, "people were focused on class struggle. Today they want to earn money. That's social progress of a sort, I suppose."

At the same time, Hu believes, the loosening intellectual atmosphere means that "peoples' thoughts are multiplying, their needs are multiplying, and civil society is taking shape, even though there are obstacles."

One such obstacle, he points out, is that "social stability is still the government's top priority, and they believe they have to control information that could upset that. Opening up freedom of information will be slow and gradual."

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