How would you react if you received a visit from the police only because you posted a joke on your blog? I bet you wouldn’t be very happy. Most especially if you lived in a country where you might be sentenced to five years in prison.
Well, this is exactly what was going to happen to Wu Hongfei (吴虹飞, pinyin: Wú Hóngfēi), the vocalist and leader of the Chinese rock band Happy Avenue (幸福大街; pinyin: Xìngfú Dàjiē). Last month she was arrested because of a post that appeared on her Sina Weibo micro-blog.
On July 21st, Wu Hongfei threatened to blow some government buildings in Beijing. This threat came only a few hours after a man had detonated a home-made bomb at Beijing International Airport.
Although Wu deleted the post soon afterwards, it had already circulated and it prompted the authorities to arrest her. She didn’t imagine that her post would cause her to be detained for a total of eleven days and face criminal charges for “posing a threat to public order and safety”.
In an interview with the Sunday Morning Post (August 18, 2013, p. 8), Wu Hongfei explained why she posted that threat. She stated that she was having a bad time because she had quit her job to pursue a music career, but things had not gone well with her producers. On that day, the word ‘explosion’ recurred three times on TV – The Big Bang Theory (in Chinese: Life’s Full of Explosions), Stephen Hawking’s Universe (in Chinese: The Universe’s Big Explosion), and the explosion at Beijing airport. Because of her stress and frustration, she wrote that joke which, however tasteless it might have been, was never intended as a real threat.
At the beginning, Wu didn’t think that her arrest was too serious a matter. She believed that the police would release her after a couple of days. But when the police informed her that she might face a sentence of up to five years, she broke down in tears.
She shared a cell with 20 other women. Her glasses had been taken away, so she couldn’t see properly. Every day the detainees would get up at 6 am, have breakfast at 7 am, and then attend to tasks such as sweeping the floor and cleaning the toilet. Sometimes she was interrogated by the police. They asked her if she could make dynamite. “I had never set off a firecracker in my life,” she replied.
According to Wu, the police had already understood that her threat was nothing more than a sham. Still, they made clear that if she didn’t fully admit that she had made a mistake, she might face consequences.
Before she was released at 3am or 4 am, a few police officers interviewed her. “They looked straight at me and told me to write a letter of repentance,” she stated. And she complied.
What I find most interesting about this letter of repentance (writing such self-criticism seems like an old-style Communist practice) is that apparently the pressure from the police was aimed at breaking her, at making her accept social norms. In fact, in her letter Wu said she was wrong, and she apologised “to her country”, but also to her parents, “because I had not got married”, as she said.
From a Western point of view, the reference to country and family seems quite out of place. It has actually very little to do with the charges raised against her. However, if one looks carefully one will soon realise that this letter reflects the traditional Chinese interconnection between state and family. Throughout Chinese history the family and the state had been interdependent, and filial piety was considered the highest of all virtues. In imperial China there was a saying that “a loyal minister can be found only in the family of filial sons” (read my post about filial piety in Chinese culture).
Apparently, Wu found it appropriate to testify that she is a good citizen and woman by stressing nationalism and filial piety. Traditionally, filial piety was a proof of high morality in China, and since getting married and having children was the most important filial duty, Wu’s apology for not getting married reiterates this discourse.
Unfortunately, Wu’s detention has had repercussions far beyond those eleven days spent in prison. After her release, she was notified by her landlord that she must move out. And her band can’t find work in Beijing any more due to her bad reputation.
Some Western media interpreted Wu’s arrest as a case of repression of free speech. According to the Telegraph, “[h]er supporters said the singer would never have carried out her threat and is being targeted for her critical views.” Democracy Digest even goes as far as to call her a “dissident” and an “activist”, words in my opinion used too often in Western media.
I don’t know if one can ascribe her arrest to a crackdown on freedom of speech. Nevertheless, there is something quite unsettling about a person jailed for a simple joke written online, most especially if the whole life of this person is negatively affected by the subsequent social stigma attached to him or her. Chinese netizens indeed have to be extremely careful when they express their thoughts online. In fact, the PRC has a so-called Internet Police, whose job is to patrol the internet. Even netizens who are accused of “spreading rumours” can be prosecuted.