Wandering China

An East/West pulse of China's fourth rise from down under.

China’s disappearances are difficult to stomach [The Age]

Australia: Were the Chinese really behind the disappearance of Yang Hengjun? Has China’s intent on managing its public image gone too far? John Garnaut, the Fairfax China corespondent who has actually met Yang sheds some insights into his disappearance –

‘Yesterday, Yang’s legions of online followers voiced hope that this increasingly brutal system would not be so irrational as to ”disappear” him, when it would have been simple to send him back to Sydney or gently warn him that the censor’s red line was closing in. Bizarrely, Yang’s writings were yesterday still on the Chinese internet.’

– – –

China’s disappearances are difficult to stomach
John Garnaut
Source – The Age, published March 30, 2011


Illustration: Dyson Source - The Age

An Australian blogger is the latest to vanish without trace. Is there no limit?

You might think it would get easier to stomach the news of a good friend or terrific individual ”disappearing” in China, given the rate at which it has been happening.

But Yang Hengjun’s vanishing from Guangzhou’s Baiyun airport hits deeper into the abdomen and rises further up the throat, I think, because it comes with an added feeling that the ground is shifting fast beneath our feet.

Nobody has heard from ”Henry” Yang since Sunday, when the Australian writer phoned a colleague to say he was being followed by three men.

Australian diplomats, already struggling to cope with the growing list of detained ethnic Chinese Australians, say they are urgently trying to find him.

Yesterday, Yang’s legions of online followers voiced hope that this increasingly brutal system would not be so irrational as to ”disappear” him, when it would have been simple to send him back to Sydney or gently warn him that the censor’s red line was closing in. Bizarrely, Yang’s writings were yesterday still on the Chinese internet.

But if the system really has swallowed this hugely popular commentator, as it has done to dozens of lower-profile Chinese lawyers and activists in recent weeks, then are there any longer any limits?

Yang’s Fatal Weakness political spy thrillers are riveting works of fiction and commentaries on the workings of modern China.

”We can’t keep up with demand,” says the receptionist at a preserved corpse factory in Qingdao, in the opening stanza of the first novel, explaining how her customer base has moved beyond traditional medical schools. ”Many companies have started placing orders and now even individuals like to buy them as decorations for their homes.”

But Yang really made his name after turning to political affairs. I first caught up with his online commentaries during his one-man campaign to persuade ethnic Chinese patriots to put down their red flags and abort an embassy-supported march on Canberra’s Parliament House to ”defend the sacred Olympic torch”.

”I’m sending a friendly message to the Chinese government that this is very serious,” Yang told me. ”And I’m telling Chinese students here that they are dumb: if you really want to show your patriotism, then go to Tiananmen Square.”

Yang foresaw the Chinese ethnic firestorm and international backlash that was about to be unleashed well before officials in either country. He lost that battle, but shrugged off labels such as ”Han traitor” and even a ”running dog” that needed to be shot.

He continued to divide his time between an apartment in Guangzhou and his wife and two sons in Sydney and never ceased his efforts to rechannel the patriotic impulses of China’s internet-savvy youth.

”The best way of being patriotic is seeking liberty, rule-of-law, and democracy,” he told a forum in December.

He watched how civil society and democracy worked in the West and wrote about how they could in China. ”The true wonder of America and other Western countries is that all their flaws and ills come from the facts that are exposed by their people and even the government itself,” he wrote.

Yang is a former Chinese diplomat and his classmates from Fudan University’s department of international relations are now spread through the bureaucracy and business. His most important teacher was Wang Huning, who now accompanies President Hu Jintao on every overseas trip.

These connections provided endless fodder for his fiction and sources for his views. And they partly explain the miracle of how he has been allowed to survive so long and attract the phenomenal following that he has on the Chinese-language internet.

Yang also stood at the centre of a network of writers, intellectuals and activists.

Each time the Chinese state lurched towards a tougher line, Yang retained his optimism that China would continue to evolve away from its former totalitarian path. He believed there really was no other option.

”I believe China has two choices now, political reform and democracy or cultural revolution,” he said in his talk in December. ”The first is a path of life. The latter may be a path of life for some, but for the nation it is a road to death.”

In recent days, Yang has critiqued a new surveillance system at Peking University aimed at identifying potentially ”radical” students.

He lamented the ”burden” carried by China’s intellectuals after dissident Liu Xianbin was sentenced on Friday to 10 years in prison for inciting subversion.

Yang’s disappearance deprived him of the opportunity to comment on Monday’s formal arrest of another writer, Ran Yunfei, for subversion.

The last time we met, at a Korean restaurant in Beijing, Yang laughed at how a government publishing house had agreed to print a compilation of his writings, including several pieces that Chinese language websites in Australia had opted to self-censor.

On Sunday, while still in Guangzhou, Yang posted possibly his last micro blog. It apologised that publishers had scrapped the Beijing book launch scheduled for later that day.

For China’s sake, as much as Yang’s, I hope the gap between being laughingly legitimate and subversive is not now so arbitrary and so narrow.

John Garnaut is China correspondent.


Filed under: Australia, Beijing Consensus, Charm Offensive, Communications, Culture, Democracy, Human Rights, Influence, International Relations, Mapping Feelings, Media, People, Politics, Social, Strategy, The Age, The Chinese Identity, The construction of Chinese and Non-Chinese identities, Yang Hengjun

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