In an age without heroes: China’s hidden subversive poets

For a country accustomed to the world’s second-highest GDP, worth over 10 trillion dollars and growing annually at over seven percent in the last decade, Monday’s stock-market crash was especially nauseating in China. Traders around the world formicated like ants under a magnifying glass, as the Shanghai composite index lurched and heaved to an eventual loss of 7.6 percent at the end of trading hours on Tuesday.

The nascent crash, along with China’s exclusion from the Trans-Pacific Partnership and American allegations of cyber theft, likely will be a talking point during Chinese President Xi Jinping’s visit to Washington next month. A hardscrabble issue that likely will see less—if any—debate in the summit, however, is China’s inveterately privative human-rights record.

Granted, Xi, who assumed leadership of the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) in 2013, has indeed made limited reforms in the areas of urban registration—often used to restrict the civil rights of rural migrants—and the draconian “Re-education through Labor” program.

Nevertheless, the global-advocacy group Human Rights Watch explained in its 2015 World Report that despite the reforms, “authorities have unleashed an extraordinary assault on basic human rights and their defenders with a ferocity unseen in recent years … Rather than embrace lawyers, writers and whistleblowers … the government remains hostile to criticism, [targeting] activists for harassment, arbitrary detention, legally baseless imprisonment [and] torture.”

In this technological age, the most effective tool for highlighting political grievances is clearly the Internet. In order to pinion the Web’s wide-stretching democratic wings, the CCP has continued to fortify the legal mortar binding together its so-called “Great Firewall,” which censors and criminalizes any speech that disparages or criticizes the Communist Party. In fact, the New York Times reported last month that an oil-field worker named Nie Zhanye of Dunhuang, a town located in the Gobi Desert, was recently detained for posting poetry online that honored the victims of the 1989 Tiananmen Square massacre.

Nie was imprisoned, and eventually sentenced to three years in prison, under a law that forbids “picking quarrels and provoking trouble”—an unambiguous code for political protest. Rarely, however, has this statute targeted online protesters. Instead the Chinese government normally has used it to ensnare pamphleteers and public demonstrators.

Yet, subversive poetry—Nie’s allegedly “criminal” behavior—has especially suffered trenchant constraint in the last decade from the CCP’s Internet-censorship apparatus. Three years ago Zhu Yufu, a member of international association of writers known as the Chinese PEN, was sentenced to seven years in prison. Zhu received the sentence for publishing his protest poem online, “It’s Time.” The BBC indicated that part of the work read: “It’s time, Chinese people! / The square belongs to everyone / the feet are yours / it’s time to use your feet and take to the square to make a choice.”

Protest poetry itself has a rich, albeit hidden, history under the authoritarian confines of Chinese Communism. In “China Avant-Garde: Counter-Currents in Art and Culture,” Sabine Peschel explains the founding of Beijing magazine Jintian (Today) in 1978 by Chinese poets Bei Dao and Mang Ke. It was their response to the massive deprivations and staggering death toll (estimates range from 20 to 50 million) of the Great Leap Forward and the Cultural Revolution of 1966-1976. Jintian served as an open medium for polemical poetics. With the exception of Mang, all of the poets associated with Jintian eventually went into exile after the government blacklisted the periodical in 1980. Although the generation that succeeded Bei and Mang eventually revived Jintian, it exists solely outside of China.

Moreover, the lack of significant protest poetry being published in China today suggests that the nation’s hidden subversive poets in the Internet age essentially have three options: quit, flee or risk severe prosecution. Out of plain duress, the hidden poets seem to prefer the first two. In fact, Zhang Zhen, a Shanghai exile who contributes to the now foreign-produced Jintian, speaks for many of China’s poets when she writes in “Homeland”: “I won’t swim here; / the Asian-blood-happy mosquitoes would chew me up. / … —as if that place would ever let me return.”

The cost of artistic sublimation into the amorphous Totality of the State is clear: Without artists and without protest, the People’s Republic of China will continue to suffer the abuses of its government, with the horizon of redress always waning in the distance.

Of course, I am under no illusions that the freedom of expression of China’s heroic, yet hidden, dissident poets will receive significant—or any—attention during the upcoming talks between Presidents Xi and Obama. There are too many diplomatic infirmities between China and the U.S. and too many international proto-catastrophes, such as the pallid economy, for serious talk of human rights to take center or even backstage at the summit. Yet, in the interest of poetry’s capacity to open up the world to universal truths, freedom and hope, I would encourage Obama, when he engages Xi next month, to consider the seemingly hopeless but still defiant lines of Nie’s “Defiance”:

Perhaps the final hour is come
I have left no testament
Only a pen, for my mother
I am no hero
In an age without heroes
I just want to be a man

The still horizon
Divides the ranks of the living and the dead
I can only choose the sky

I will not kneel on the ground
Allowing the executioners to look tall
The better to obstruct the wind of freedom

From star-like bullet holes shall flow
A blood-red dawn.

Phil Hoffert is a senior studying political science and English with a minor in Italian. He has an unhealthy obsession with Puccini (especially Tosca), bad puns and post-post-post-modern fiction, but, to tell you the truth, he’s not too down about it.