Li Chengpeng: why I signed in silence

Last week, a book tour by celebrity blogger and social critic Li Chengpeng (李承鹏) was hijacked by local authorities, and by vocal leftists who oppose his critical writings on China [Summaries by TIME and SCMP].

Ahead of his first signing in his hometown of Chengdu to promote his new book, Everybody in the World Knows, Li was ordered not to say a word. In a now widely known act of silent protest, Li appeared at the signing wearing a black mask and then opened his coat to reveal the words, “I love you all,” written on his undershirt.


[ABOVE: Li Chengpeng appears before thousands of readers in Chengdu wearing a black mask after he was ordered not to say a word.]

In Guangzhou, the final leg of Li’s tour, the signing was cancelled at the last minute because the building where it was being hosted was closed for fire safety inspections.


[ABOVE: An image posted to Sina Weibo shows the notice of fire safety inspections to be carried out at the offices of Tianya in Guangzhou, where Li Chengpeng's book signing was to take place on January 17.]

Li Chengpeng apologized to his readers for the Guangzhou cancellation with a tongue-in-cheek post to his Sina Weibo account playing on the title of his book: “Once again I apologize to everyone: Because fire safety inspections are happening at the Tianya Building, outsiders cannot go in, and therefore my book signing for readers is cancelled. I’m accepting this fact, because this place is really in need of a fire safety inspection. Everybody in the world knows, fire safety is really important.”

For all of its hitches and hijinks, Li Chengpeng’s book tour illustrates the limitations of control in the era of social media. Li’s “silent” signing in Chengdu was anything but silent — it was broadcast loudly across the internet. Every leg of his tour became the subject of fevered discussion online, pitting the values of speech and openness against controls that appeared foolish and anachronistic.

Yesterday, Li Chengpeng reflected back on his book tour with an interview published on Sina Weibo addressing some of the questions he has faced since it all began in Chengdu. The following is a partial translation:

There are some strange questions that deserve answers. These are not responses. They are not counterattacks. I just want to explain exactly what happened. I hope I can answer lingering doubts people have. Here are my answers:

QUESTION: I really don’t understand why the government would allow you to publish [your book], but not permit you to say anything at book signings. That seems like a huge contradiction.

ANSWER: This is what they call special characteristics (特色) [NOTE: Li is playing here on the Party term "socialism with Chinese characteristics"]. Here [in China] only publishing houses under the leadership of the Party can issue publishing numbers (书号). Because for many years they’ve been trained a certain way, many harmful works are refused publishing numbers and cannot circulate. But there are also some bolder publishing houses, the ones that haven’t been trained so well, that go against the grain and publish works [others will not].

But the publishing of a book is just the beginning. Because of the post-publication censorship, some books are banned from sale after they’ve been quietly published despite this high-pressure environment. For example, the book Urban Dirge (城市挽歌). There are also books that [authorities] got wind of only after they were published, and which to this day sit in the warehouse — for example, Mr. Yu Jianrong’s (于建嵘) True Account of Anyuan (安源实录). . . . There are plenty of examples like this. . . For a book to be published is just the beginning. After that there is still a tortuous road ahead. And who can say that one day someone might just deal the final blow [to your book]. Under this sort of situation, you have to understand the fact that although Everybody in the World Knows has been published I cannot speak at signings as a part of the normal process of publishing [in China].

Authorities in Chengdu were worried because I have a lot of readers, and [they thought] if they weren’t careful they might have a mass incident on their hands. So it was out of a concern for stability that they made their decision. It makes no difference that in my view there is no connection whatsoever between these two.

When the several heavy-fisted orders came down that I sign in silence, the poet Li Yawei (李亚伟) and the scholar Ran Yunfei (冉云飞) were both there to witness it. In case you suppose these two, who are my friends, might speak untrue then let me tell you I also have an audio recording. I don’t think recording the unreasonable demands of public power is a base act at all. In any case, it is a good way to avoid these strange questions I’m now getting.

In all likelihood, you will find it base of me to have done so. I can only say by way of comparison that after suffering a rape it is a shame if you decide to destroy the physical evidence.

QUESTION: If things were that unreasonable, couldn’t you just have avoided book signings altogether?

ANSWER: My first response was to not go through with it. Everyone who was there at the time can vouch for what I said — basically, that this was an insult, and one’s dignity is more important than the selling of books. Why, otherwise, would I have said no to a substantial advance of the kind Lu Jinbo (路金波) gets? Why would I have opted for the Xinxing Publishing House (新星出版社), which couldn’t offer a cent but could promise to preserve the draft in relatively complete form? However, one of my friends made the compelling point that avoiding the signing was improper, that I had to consider my readers. A sudden cancellation of the book signing, they said, was irresponsible to my readers. How many readers had come from other places to take part? (Indeed, there were readers from Xi’an, Chongqing and even Shanghai there).

I remember very clearly that that night when I posed this question on Sina Weibo and asked, “What should I do?”, the majority of readers supported signing in silence as a form of silent protest . . . Some people even suggested that I hold the signing instead on the side of the street next to the bookstore. When I considered that suggestion my feeling was that this would seem to the authorities like a provocation. There was the risk that readers could come to harm. And I couldn’t turn an ordinary book signing into a street movement. This just wasn’t my character. Late that night a reader from Shanghai even went to a hotel near the bookstore to see if the signing could be held in the lobby. I wouldn’t agree to that. It would impact the normal business of the hotel, and people with sensitive nerves would claim I had orchestrated it this way, wanting purposely to cause trouble . . . I worried this problem over until very late and finally sought the advice of Tu Jia Ye Fu (土家野夫), who was far off overseas. He said, first ensure that your book gets out there and your ideas reach an audience, then see how it goes from there. This is the most important work of the writer, he said. What do other indignities matter?

In the balance, my decision was to sign in silence (默签). I don’t have powerful backing from anyone. I don’t have the support of insiders. I don’t have high-level leaders giving me the green light. All I could do was sign in silence. . .

QUESTION: Even though they didn’t allow you to speak, I don’t believe that if you had said something they really would have done anything. I still think you were just trying to put on a show.

ANSWER: This question is logically unsound. The forces that be were very strong in their insistence that I sign in silence. How is there any problem in my complying? But another important reason was that the two people responsible at the bookstore repeatedly pressed us on this point: if we violated the orders, even speaking a single sentence, they would both be let go from their jobs. This was a hard order sent down from the leaders. I didn’t entirely believe it, so I said, look, it can’t be that serious. They said very seriously to me: you can’t say a single word. The leader is waiting . . . for your answer right now. . . Li Yawei and Ran Yunfei also asked me to consider their situation [as well--known local dissidents who could face punishment or intimidation]. At around midnight that night, I asked one final time whether I could just say, “Happy New Year!”, or just introduce [the poet] Liu Shahe (流沙河), [who planned to attend the signing]. We pledged not to say a single thing having to do with ideology. But this boss from the bookstore said: No, if you say a single thing I’ll lose my job. Brother, please consider my position . . .

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