Last weekend, I was telling audiences on the West Coast that my book would likely be banned in China for its scenes of peasant protests. “Does anyone have connections to publish it underground?” No one raised their hand; a few smiled.
That Sunday, Ai Weiwei, the famed artist that China’s government loves to hate, was taken away by authorities. Nobody has seen or heard from him; he’s effectively been disappeared. It’s a harsh reminder that my freedom to write as an American cannot be taken for granted. I wonder if I would really have the courage to push the boundaries of artist expression if I lived in China, where the personal is increasingly political, and art is seen as insurrection against the state. And if I published this blog in Chinese, on my native soil, would the authorities come after me, too?
It’s easy in the Internet age to attribute revolutions to Twitter, as if technology drives the irrepressible spirit of someone willing to speak the truth at all costs. But technology is hollow without human courage at the helm. Ai Weiwei has suffered for his outspokenness. After the Sichuan earthquake took the lives of so many schoolchildren, he dispatched citizens as investigators to collect the names of the deceased even as the government kept hush about the particulars of shoddy construction and lost lives. A year later, the police beat him so badly that he needed surgery for a traumatic brain injury.
In the U.S., we have no trouble speaking up. The blogs overflow with rants for/against the political parties, new taxes, old taxes, pensions, corporate bailouts. At the end of the day, nobody actually gets their head chopped off. It takes the courage of someone like Ai Weiwei to speak the unpleasant truths when no one else will dare to. He may have 70,000 followers on Twitter, but he’s one of a few sticking their heads above the line of fire.
The Communist Party is worried that the rash of protests in the Middle East would infect China. They know that below the veneer of prosperity, a deep discontent is stirring among the masses. And like an obsessive-compulsive, the authorities are tirelessly scrubbing out all the unwanted elements: artists, writers, human rights lawyers, and anyone guilty by association.
There’s another kind of courage that goes unrecognized. It’s the courage bred of necessity. We don’t hear much about the tens of thousands of protests that take place each year in China, and it’s often the poor who have no other recourse when their homes are seized for development and dam building. More than sixty years ago, my grandfather was targeted as a landowner by the Communists sweeping through China. He lost his land, and nearly his life, in the fervor of revolution. But over half a century later, the peasants are the ones caught underfoot in the name of economic progress. It is their stories that I want to tell, because the voices of the rich and powerful tend to drown out all else.
A sweatshirt worn by an Asian student caught my eye today. “Say no to evil,” it declared, alongside the cartoon of a sleeping devil, who appeared more cherubic than demonic. Perhaps oppression is not only an external force – the autocratic boss or government – but also the apathy that keeps us asleep while social ills abound. I’m not sure if I possess the raw courage of activists like Ai Weiwei, whose disappearance makes him all the more vivid in our minds and hearts. But I do know that I have the freedom to speak, and only by adding to the collective of voices can we hope for change.
~~ IN THE LAP OF THE GODS ~~
a novel by Li Miao Lovett
A massive dam rises, a million lives are thrown into turmoil...and a widower saves an abandoned baby girl from the Yangtze.