|Li Chengpeng (file photo)|
Chinese intellectuals might have something to learn from the pages of Chuck Palahniuk, as it seems that China's online debate circles are turning into a Fight Club.
Last month, outspoken writer and social critic Li Chengpeng's nationwide book tour stirred up a storm as his new volume, Everybody in the World Knows, presents a collection of sharp essays of his critical thoughts about the country.
At Li's first stop in his hometown of Chengdu, Sichuan Province, on January 12, he said he was ordered not to say a word. He decided to sign the books in silence as a form of protest. Li turned up at the bookstore wearing a black mask before suddenly opening his shirt to reveal the words "I love you all" written on a T-shirt. The crowd roared in applause as tears came to Li's eyes.
The next day, his reception in Beijing garnered an opposite and explosive reaction. First, a man punched Li in the face, called him a traitor and tried to run away. Then another man threw a kitchen knife at him which thankfully missed. The book signing dissolved into chaos.
Wu mao or not wu mao?
The incident highlights growing ideological tension online between the left and the right in China. The former are those who allegedly blog for the government, also known as the wu mao, or 50-cent party due to a rumor that they are paid that amount for each post they make, and the latter are those who pose as challengers of the authorities.
The popularity of Weibo has greatly expanded the participation of pubic intellectuals in social affairs in recent years. However, the online debate between the two sides has spilled over into real life and often brought about physical fights.
Li called for no revenge on his blog afterwards. "Our country is going through a time period when sunshine and fog coexist," he wrote. "I hope both sides can present their views in a rational way. Fighting or hurling knives is no good for finding the right direction for the country."
Newspaper columnist and social commentator Yao Bo writes under the pen name Wuyue Sanren. He witnessed Li's chaotic book tour and warns of another potential Cultural Revolution.
"I am really worried about the current situation," He wrote on Weibo. "Once both sides reach a certain stage where there is no talking and only fighting, then we would be close to another Cultural Revolution."
A self-claimed patriot who calls himself Hu Yanglin on the Internet told the Global Times he never thought his "gift," a meat cleaver, would cause such a stir at Li's signing.
"I never thought I would help him attract more attention, I just wanted to give him a gift," he said.
It was November last year when sharp items such as kitchen knives and pencils were reportedly pulled from stores due to the 18th CPC Party Congress. At the time, Li posted on Weibo jokingly asking for a cleaver.
Seemingly out of curiosity, Hu decided to give it a try and bought one in a supermarket. He posted a picture of the cleaver on Weibo and re-tweeted the picture to Li.
When Hu learned that Li would do a signing in Beijing, he knew it was time to go. This time, Li replied to his message, telling him to come. On January 13, Hu wrapped the cleaver, put it in a bag and headed for the reception.
"I remember I was standing in front of him, took out the cleaver slowly and said softly 'this is for you.' I didn't sound threatening at all," he said.
The crowd did not agree. Hu was immediately seized and dragged away by security. In a bout of desperation to "present his gift," Hu decided to throw it at Li. The cleaver sailed past Li, who threw back a wu mao coin at Hu.
"I never meant to hurt him. I am the real victim here. I was beaten down by the crowd, my glasses were gone and my clothes were covered with shoe-prints," he said.
Hu was arrested but soon released without being charged. But he is now demanding an apology and financial compensation from Li.
"I am not a supporter of violence," he said. "But I want to tell Li's young supporters to think and act rationally, their generation is luckier than ours, they should appreciate what the country has given to them."
Wu Danhong, an assistant professor at China University of Political Science and Law, who writes under the name of Wu Fatian, said Hu committed no crime.
"He had no intention of murdering Li, he just wanted to prove Li was wrong about the bans, and Li knew he was coming," Wu told the Global Times.
"Li's book signing was more like an entertainment show, public intellectuals should speak through their works, not performance art," Wu continued.
In response, Li said publishers told him that there was no way this book could be published. "And now I made it. I feel as if my child finally got a hukou. That's why I was angry and cried," he said.
Planned book signings in Shenzhen, Guangdong Province and Changsha, Hunan Province, were canceled at the last minute. Li was informed that the building in Shenzhen which was meant to host it was closed for fire safety inspections.
"The more you write, the more pressure you face," he said. "But I will continue writing, even though there may be more cleavers thrown at me."
His last stop in Kunming, Yunnan Province, on January 26 went off without a hitch although more security was in place.
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