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OCTOBER 23, 2000 VOL. 156 NO. 16


Liu Jin/AFP.
It's hard to tell exactly what will anger the authorities--art like Ju Yi's "Kiss of My Pets" made China's cadres squirm.
How Far Can You Really Go?
The state keeps its grip—in part by not specifying what's allowed
By SUSAN JAKES

ALSO
Getting High: Ecstasy becomes the urban drug of choice

Tu Cheng and his friends still don't know when they crossed the line. Their plan was to bring a couple of Beijing rock bands down to a lake island near Dali in Yunnan province, where they could play with local groups, have a barbecue and sleep out under the stars. Advertisements for the so-called "rave" were posted throughout China and online. Only 40 people showed up on the first day, but Beijing punk rockers Anarchy Jerks played a typically hyperkinetic set anyway.

The next day things got more crowded. At 3 p.m. more than 20 local police landed on the island, searching people's bags, confiscating the speakers and hauling everyone down to a nearby police station for interrogation. "They asked us the strangest questions," Tu, 21, recalls. "They wanted to know what a DJ was and whether 'raves' were subversive. They asked me whether I considered myself a reactionary element and, most bizarre of all, whether the wallet I wore on my belt had political significance. Then they told me the rave was over." The cops did find freshly picked marijuana in the bags of three of Tu's friends, but that shouldn't have caused too much alarm in a region where the drug grows wild on the side of the road. (The three were not charged with a drug offense.) Tu wonders whether his mistake was not notifying the local government in Dali, or if he should have obtained sponsorship from the Ministry of Culture in Beijing. The authorities never explained why they canceled the festivities. But Tu will think twice before throwing another party.

And that, no doubt, is precisely what Beijing wants Tu and other kids to do. This generation of Chinese enjoys a range of personal freedoms unprecedented in the history of the People's Republic; one can safely presume Mao would not be caught dead in the moshpit at an Anarchy Jerks show. Explanations for the liberalization are numerous: the demise of communism as the country's dominant social ideology, the ever-increasing influx of foreign goods and ideas, the explosion in Internet usage, the government's growing acquiescence to the demands of a market economy.

But there are limits. Anything that might be construed as a challenge to the Communist Party's stranglehold on power is still taboo. That means Chinese kids continue to face fairly strict constraints on their behavior. "The government has struck a kind of unspoken deal with today's youth," says Dai Qing, a journalist whose reporting has long tested the limits of what the state will tolerate. "The authorities say, in effect, 'We've given you a huge tract of land on which you can do as you please. Entertain yourselves. Make lots of money. But see that we don't ever catch you trespassing on the little piece of turf reserved for such subjects as politics, history and religion, or you'll be in trouble.'"

The boundaries of that piece of turf, however, are often unclear, to both trespassers and enforcers. This means that people from all walks of life, from writers and publishers to artists and Netrepreneurs, are often hamstrung by uncertainty as to when the authorities might crack down. The violent suppression of protests by the banned spiritual movement, Falun Gong, the arrest of the U.S.-based poet Bei Ling, the demotions of outspoken liberal intellectuals like He Qinglian and this month's announcement of new restrictions on Internet content are all meant partly to serve as warnings. "It's not that I can say for sure that the police will show up at my door as soon as my name appears in a foreign magazine," says a former journalist, explaining a reluctance to talk to Time about her experiences with censorship. "But it's impossible to say how, a month from now, three years from now even, this could affect my chances of publishing a book, getting a job, or anything else. It's impossible to say who might be paying attention."

When feeling politically threatened, authorities have long tended to focus inordinately on the cultural arena. The young Shanghai writer Wei Hui's autobiographical potboiler, Shanghai Baby, sold like hotcakes for almost nine months and spawned a rash of imitators with titles like Chongqing Baby and Guangzhou Baby. But in April of this year, without warning, authorities pulled the raunchy sex-and-drugs memoir off the shelves, shut down the publisher and demanded that the book's editor resign. Wei Hui's rival Mian Mian, who had set the tone for the genre, had her equally racy novel Candy banned the same month.

Observers say the authorities acted after Wei Hui's ribald antics at a book signing in Chengdu caused such a stir in the national media that they could no longer ignore her. "Imagine you're an aging cadre who hasn't read a novel since the 1950s," says a veteran of the Beijing publishing industry, "and one of these books lands on your desk. It's bound to make you think society has gotten totally out of control. So you try to get rid of it as quickly as you can."

But uprooting such "poisonous weeds" is no longer as straightforward as when China felt it could ignore world opinion. Now when officials want to ban politically questionable artistic content, they often cite the offenders for technical violations. When acclaimed actor/director Jiang Wen took his latest film, Devils on the Doorstep, to the Cannes Film Festival without securing official permission, China's Film Bureau seized the excuse to ban the film, which explores the touchy subject of Japanese-Chinese relations during World War II. Reports that Jiang is now forbidden from shooting another movie in China have circulated in the foreign press. But so far Jiang has received no official notice of his current status and is uncertain of what to do next. Young directors with fewer credentials can't help but see Jiang's misfortune as a reminder of the precariousness of their own position.

A Shanghai art exhibition, "Art for Sale," met a similar fate in April 1999. The installation-and-performance show, organized by a group of artists mostly in their 20s, was held in a Shanghai supermarket. The displays included a performance piece involving two scantily clad artists seated in a sweltering room, smelling each other's sweat, and a player piano that performed a score based on a cardiogram readout of an artist masturbating. The organizers closed down the show after a couple of days, when police complained that they had failed to register each piece of art beforehand—a procedure that is rarely followed or enforced. Most likely the cops themselves weren't sure if the material was too risquE, but decided to take no chances.

Until recently Chinese youth have enjoyed the greatest protection from this kind of censorship by turning to the Internet. That's not because the commissars don't want to control Net content, but rather, as U.S. President Bill Clinton once warned Beijing, because policing the Internet is about as easy as "nailing Jell-O to the wall." That hasn't stopped Beijing from trying: firewalls block foreign news sites, including the websites of the New York Times and cnn, as well as overseas Chinese-language pro-democracy and human rights sites.

But the Internet is more about possibilities than limits. Most of the approximately 20 million Chinese online—the majority of whom are between the ages of 18 and 35—aren't interested in visiting foreign news sites anyway. When they are, it isn't difficult to circumvent the state's firewalls by using offshore or Web-based proxy servers. At home, users are becoming increasingly savvy when it comes to evading state controls. Politically sensitive articles by banned authors and dissidents are frequently posted under pen names. Often, by the time authorities pull them off of Web bulletin boards they've already circulated widely via e-mail. "All sorts of subjects you'd never expect to find in Chinese offline media appear on the Web," says Duncan Clark of Beijing-based Web consultancy BDA. "There are articles on consumer rights, discussions of corruption in local politics, advice on dating, debates on the nato bombing of the Chinese embassy in Serbia, etc. The Internet in China is a much freer place than most people think."

So the government has changed tack somewhat: its new set of Internet regulations puts the onus of censorship on content providers themselves, holding them responsible for "subversive content" without explaining exactly what that means, and requiring that they hand over lists of offending Web users to the police. Internet analysts expect that this will only increase the pressure on Web administrators to second-guess what is and what isn't acceptable.

The top Chinese portals already employ teams of "quality assurance editors" whose duties include both ordinary editing and removing personal websites and postings that include politically sensitive content. At Sohu.com, editors employ an algorithm designed to detect the names of high-ranking Chinese leaders as well as other potentially inflammatory words. "This is simply a reality of doing business in China. We want to be a good corporate citizen," says Victor Koo, a senior vice president of Sohu. Even with the new regulations, though, it's still not clear what being a good citizen entails—other than being more careful than ever.

Write to TIME at mail@web.timeasia.com

government ALSO IN YOUNG CHINA: GOVERNMENT
National Pride: Patriotism makes a comeback

Sport: The basketballer denied an outside shot

Invisible Fences: Authorities keep a rein on kids partly by not telling them what is and isn't allowed

Getting High: Ecstasy becomes the urban drug of choice

Country Girl: A villager moves to the big, bad city

Getting Green: Activists seeking to avert an environmental disaster are tapping the ranks of the very young

Home Sweet Home: Citizens now aspire to buy a flat

Looking Inward: Today's artists are beginning to explore individual rather than collective themes

Big Think: Intellectualism did not die with the 1980s

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