Although human rights groups are calling the arrests a "crackdown," the determination of bestselling and controversial Chinese novelist Li Chengpeng shows that some critics of the government remain outspoken.
Mr. Li, a prominent blogger and the author of a novel that deals with the normally taboo topic of land seizures, says he's not afraid of the government crackdown. “As a man, if you’re going to do something, you have to face all the consequences.”
Amnesty International estimates that more than 100 journalists, writers, and activists have been arrested or detained without charges in the past three weeks, following uprisings in the Middle East and calls on the Internet for protests across Chinese cities.
The arrests of Mr. Ai and other artists were part of a widespread effort to rein in critical voices across traditional and new media. Corinna-Barbara Francis, an East Asia researcher with Amnesty International, says that although the detainees were not all democracy activists, what they have in common “is that the regime feels threatened by them.”
But the arrests represented only a change in tactics, not in policy aims, says David Bandurski, project researcher for the China Media Project at Hong Kong University. "The government has never relinquished control of the media, or control of the expression of public opinion generally," he says. "But there's no question that what we've seen in recent months is a tightening."
Despite that attempt at “tightening,” Li belongs to a new breed of Chinese authors who have to come to prominence in the era of the Internet. His novel brought confident and aggressive social criticism, widely available online, to a broad print audience – uncharted waters in a country with a vast and sophisticated censorship regime.
Li's novel, “Li Kele Fights Demolition,” seemed to strike a chord with the public by addressing the demolition and forced relocation of neighborhoods. After being rejected by every major publisher in Beijing, Li managed to sneak the book into print through an obscure publishing house in remote Gansu Province.
The book was an instant bestseller, making Li, a former journalist and popular blogger, an online hero. It also exposed him to attacks in the media, which he dismisses; “They're in the government's pay. They get a little bit of money each month, and they write these things. If people like that are criticizing you, you must be speaking for the people.”
A book about forced demolitions and ensuing popular demonstrations is unprecedented in today's China. Online news stories and blog posts about them are frequently censored within minutes. Official media resolutely ignore the topic.
The novel taps into strong feelings, telling the story of a group of residents who refuse to leave when their homes are slated for destruction. Led by the novel’s reluctant hero, the residents build concrete barricades and steal bayonets and fireworks from factories, defying the authorities and fighting pitched battles against local police.
He mocks national slogans, writing, “In China, there’s no such thing as real estate – at least, nobody knows if it’s really real. First they told us, ‘You can buy a house, it’s yours!’ But then they added another part: ‘But the government owns the land.’ And then they said, ‘And the house is part of the land.’ So who owns our houses, really?”
The novel has drawn attention from members of government-funded groups like the PRC Writers' Union, as well as a host of current and former government officials.
In a four-page tirade on his personal blog, Deputy Mayor Jiang Zongfu, of the town of Linxiang in Hunan Province, dismissed the issues raised by the novel as “a pack of lies.” “Reading it is painful,” he wrote.
Li – who says his next book will target the sensitive subject of China's one-child policy – is no stranger to testing government limits. In 2009, when he was writing a series of exposes on the Chinese soccer industry, he received threats. At one point, he said, he borrowed ID cards from his friends and used them to check into different Beijing hotel rooms every night, fearing retaliation from organized crime.
As a blogger, he has taunted his censors, reposting banned articles and writing, “The only way for you to delete this article is to delete my blog, and the only way to delete my blog is to delete me.”