Chat Corner: Hyde Park, Chinese style

by    /  February 13, 2013  / No comments

If the government does not offer a space for free expression, the people will make one.

Chat corners in China

Chat corners in China provide a public platform for discussion and information. This chat corner in Fuxing park, Shanghai features a 'book bench' where people can buy articles and uncensored books. Photo: Yu Lam Chan.

It has an innocent name: Liaotianjiao, or chat corner, but the police know that it is not a harmless chess or tea corner. At the chat corner, emotions are stirred up, curiosity is awoken, and the spearheads point to the authority.

  1. Blind Chess, a column by Tienchi Martin-Liao
  2. During the Cultural Revolution, people were sentenced to death or outright murdered because of one wrong sentence. In China today writers do not lose their lives over their poems or articles; however, they are jailed for years. My friend Liu Xiaobo for example will stay in prison till 2020; even winning the Nobel Peace Prize could not help him. In prison those lucky enough not to be sentenced to hard labor play “blind chess” to kill time AND TO TRAIN THE BRAIN NOT TO RUST. Freedom of expression is still a luxury in China. The firewall is everywhere, yet words can fly above it and so can our thoughts. My column, like the blind chess played by prisoners, is an exercise to keep our brains from rusting and the situation in China from indifference.
  3. Tienchi Martin-Liao
  4. Tienchi Martin-Liao is the president of the Independent Chinese PEN Center. Previously she worked at the Institute for Asian Affairs in Hamburg, Germany, and lectured at the Ruhr-University Bochum from 1985 to 1991. She became head of the Richard-Wilhelm Research Center for Translation in 1991 until she took a job in 2001 as director of the Laogai Research Foundation (LRF) to work on human rights issues. She was at LRF until 2009. Martin-Liao has served as deputy director of the affiliated China Information Center and was responsible for updating the Laogai Handbook and working on the Black Series, autobiographies of Chinese political prisoners and other human rights books. She was elected president of the Independent Chinese PEN Center in October 2009 and has daily contact with online journalists in China.

Yet, somehow there is acquiescence from above. The government realizes that the accumulated dissatisfaction of the people needs to have some kind of release valve. If they shut down the facilities serving as that release, an explosion would be inevitable. Of course, chat corners are monitored by cameras, plainclothes police are everywhere, and the organizers are warned from time to time.

Despite the surveillance, chat corners have flourished in many large cities in China. They provide ordinary citizens a way to get uncensored information and allow them to express their opinion publicly. Indeed, the existence of these self-made facilities in a totalitarian country is a paradoxical phenomenon.

Chat corners emerged in Shanghai about eight years ago, first in Fuxing Park, in the city center, and then spread out to several other parks. The most popular and hilarious corners are in Fuxing and Hongkou parks. People come every Sunday, rain or shine, and even in snowy December. The early birds are so involved they arrive before 7 o’clock and begin to arrange chairs for the audience.

My friend Mr. Chen has said that the chat corners differ from one another. For example, the one in Fuxing Park has set up a book bench, in which good articles from local and Hong Kong-based newspapers or magazines are copied and laid out. They are for sale, at one to three Yuan ($0.48) a copy. Banned political books can be found here, too. Most of the time, the items are sold out within short period of time. Beside these two parks, there are a handful of others in Shanghai. Cities like Beijing, Chengdu, Jinan, Xi’an, and Guangzhou all have parks with chat corners as well.

The Chinese people are creative and practical; if there is a demand, there will be a supply. In the past, people used certain areas in the parks to serve their personal needs. Those looking for a marriage broker, a new apartment, jobs, or a foreign language tutor used the park as a community center. Parents of kidnapped children even used the parks to beg the public for help.

So when the official apparatus failed, the people organized their own space for support. Today, the chat corner has developed into a place where public speeches are held; they are not about daily necessities, but about politics, history, economics, and philosophy, among other topics. Public opinion is formed here. The audience not only listens, but also gets involved in the discussion and debates.

This reminds me of the speakers’ corners in London’s Hyde Park about 100 years ago when freedom of expression was not yet guaranteed in England. Such inner anxiety drives people to get together to speak out about what has suppressed their conscience. The 64-year-old Liu Wenzhong is an example of this. In the beginning, he only wanted to tell his own story, but now he has become a main, popular speaker in Fuxing Park and his analysis and commentary on politics and society have won him hundreds of fans.

Liu was 19 when the Cultural Revolution broke out. He helped his older brother pass out flyers that opposed Mao Zedong, the leader who launched the mass movement. The result was bitter—Liu was sentenced to 13 years in prison and his brother Wenhui was executed as a “counter-revolutionary.” Liu was tortured and abused in prison, and after serving the full sentence, his health was ruined and he was handicapped by a broken leg. With a strong will, however, he became a successful businessman. Now retired, his passion is his mission: Tell the world the truth.

On the first Sunday of the New Year, Liu spoke about the wealth of China’s princelings, an elite class within the Communist party.

People were enthused and agitated; they all knew that The New York Times had reported on Premier Wen Jiabao and his family members’ huge fortune. For most Chinese, this exposure was like a thunderstorm—they had believed Wen was relatively honest and clean. If this man was also corrupt, whom could they trust? A result of living under censorship is that people take all kinds of rumor and gossip seriously, not to mention The New York Times. Now that Liu had picked up such a topic, it’s no wonder that the corner was packed with hundreds, despite the cold weather.

In 1978, when the Communist Party of China started deregulation and took the first step toward reform policy, young people put up dissident posters at the Xidan Wall in Beijing—also known as the Democracy Wall—and began to discuss taboo topics like social, political, and judicial injustice. It was tolerated only for a couple of months. When Wei Jingsheng and his comrades pasted a poster calling for a “fifth modernization” and demanded the democratization of politics, he spent 18 years in prison.

But the tradition of the Democracy Wall has been transferred to the newer generations. Today, there are diverse forms of aspiration for freedom, democracy, and human rights: Democratic forums, salons, and chat rooms or corners sprout out of the ground and can be found in many large cities. They are the modern manifestation of the Democracy Wall.

The chat corners in the parks echo this growing movement in Chinese society. People are bold nowadays; if their rights are abused, they try to defend them and seek sympathy and solidarity from other people. A critical turning point is when people go to the street to protest, not for personal or private purpose, but for a higher goal. There are enough examples in the past—the Monday Demonstrations in Leipzig, the collapse of the Berlin Wall, the Velvet Revolution in Czechoslovakia, even the Jasmine Revolution—which all show that when the time is right, a street protest is the fuse that ignites change. The Chinese proverb, “Rain comes from wind,” is a good annotation of the current uncertain and paradoxical situation in China.

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