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311 Imagining Dissent: Contesting the Facade of Harmony through Art and the Internet in China Patrick Shaou-Whea Dodge Living in China is like watching a play in a giant theater. The plots are absurd and the scenarios are unbelievable—so absurd, so unbelievable, that they are beyond any writer’s imagination. T his claim was made by Murong Xuecun, one of China’s most prominent and bawdy novelists, during his “Caging a Monster” speech, delivered at the Oslo Literary Festival in November 2011. In the speech, as in many of his novels, Murong depicts China’s “rotting ” system as the people’s problem, with Chinese citizens bearing the responsibility for improving the country, in part by “breaking the silence” and “speaking the truth.” In doing so, he calls on everyday Chinese people to “criticize the government if it does not do the right thing” and to “keep an eye on the government even if it is already doing the right thing.”1 In 2010, when he won the People’s Literature Prize, Murong planned to deliver a speech “calling for a more relaxed literary censorship,” but on 312 Patrick Shaou-Whea Dodge taking the stage he was “abruptly barred from speaking” and notoriously zipped his lips closed.2 As reported by the New York Times, “his speech on censorship had itself been censored,” thus providing yet another example of the ongoing restraints placed on free expression in Beijing and greater China.3 In scathing self-condemnation, Murong later called himself a “coward” and “word criminal,” describing his own complicity in China’s long-standing practices of censorship.4 Murong soon recovered from this self-described “cowardice,” however, and later released the banned 2010 speech—along with other speeches, essays, and books of his that have been censored in China, with the releases all taking place via online forums—in a bold move that has gained him international renown and increased scrutiny at home.5 Murong’s initial silencing and subsequent use of the Internet to reclaim his voice are indicative of an ongoing struggle between restrictions on expression in China, on the one hand, and the citizenry’s artful use of the Internet as a medium of resistance, on the other. For while the Chinese Communist Party (CPC or the Party) has ramped up efforts to repress messages of dissent, so have netizens increased their efforts to counter with indirect, and increasingly direct, messages of defiance in the face of censorship.6 Consider further the summer of 2014, when Murong wrote a New York Times opinion column announcing that he would surrender himself over to officials on his return to Beijing.7 At the time, Murong was in Australia for an academic residency, so he gave one of his works to a friend to be read at a meeting in Beijing commemorating the twenty-fifth anniversary of Tiananmen.8 Upon hearing that several of his friends had been detained and questioned for stirring up the old ghosts of Tiananmen right before the twenty-fifth anniversary—a deeply taboo subject in China—Murong surrendered himself over to officials and was interrogated for seven hours. In his own words, “the Chinese government has evolved to appear friendly, but in its heart of hearts it is still a dictatorial regime that will never accommodate someone like me who disagrees with it.”9 As Murong’s words and actions make clear, contemporary China is undergoing a wrenching process of reimagining the boundaries of dissent. Indeed, Murong’s experiences illustrate how an ongoing political game of cat and mouse plays out: whenever academics, lawyers, activists, Contesting the Facade of Harmony 313 or artists are suppressed by the CPC, netizens counter by inventing new forms of resistance. At stake in this rhetorical battle is the very platform of communication—what legitimately can and cannot be said, and how and where—in the evolving social landscape of contemporary China. As a contribution to this key question, I argue herein that to realize President Xi Jinping’s “great revival of the Chinese nation,” China will have to revise its national story to incorporate a diversity of perspectives and a plurality of voices.10 Such perspectives and voices are already proliferating , as netizens continue to push the boundaries of the sayable. This struggle to forge a legitimate platform of communication is also an effort by citizens to reimagine China’s national culture. By critically examining the censorship-expression dialectic playing out on the Internet in China, we glimpse...


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