Just when you think you fully comprehend the Chinese government's iron-grip censorship on the Internet and media, Beijing plays a card that surprises -- even dazzles -- the blogosphere.
Call this the twenty-first century Hawthorne Effect: A blogger -- named Ai Mi, though that is believed to be a pseudonym -- starts by putting up some blogs on a Chinese language site that portray a tragic love story that takes place during the yet more tragic Cultural Revolution, the 1965 to 1968 social and political upheaval unleashed by Mao, who aimed to bring a proletarian revolution in a China that was increasingly consumerist in his eyes.
To correct that -- and to humble the emerging management/technocrat elite -- Mao unleashed a wave of youth, the Red Guards, who challenged the proletarian authenticity of just about everybody. Fail the test and you could be in for a long stay in a corrective prison.
It was a period of immense ugliness, and a period utterly in contrast to today's China, which has created so many billionaires it now is second only to the US in the Forbes count of the super-rich.
Even so, the Ai Mi blogs -- now known as Under the Hawthorn Tree -- caught on in China, seemingly with tacit government approval. The author even won a traditional book publishing contract and has now sold over one million books in China alone. She also has inked deals for publication in some 15 countries, according to press reports.
This is stunning in a country that has a longstanding history of persistent and pervasive censorship, facts highlighted just this week as critics cautioned against too much jubilation in response to China's announcement
that it now has over 500 million Internet users. The number is valid, but critics quickly pointed out that the Internet Chinese users experience is far from free -- a reality the government readily admits.
As CNET reported:
"We are willing to work with countries and communicate with them on the development of the Internet and to work together to promote the sound development of the Internet," China Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Jiang Yu told reporters at a press conference last year. "But we do not accept using the excuse of 'Internet freedom' to interfere in other countries' internal practices."
Yet there is the government's apparent acceptance of Under the Hawthorn Tree. How can this be?
For one thing, the author has cleverly clung to anonymity. Press reports
say Ai Mi lives in Florida and is in her 50s or 60s (meaning she is old enough to have seen firsthand the Cultural Revolution). But for all we know, Ai Mi may be a man in his 30s living in San Francisco. We just do not know; and in that anonymity there is little for the Chinese government to get vexed about. The author could even be an agent of the Chinese military.
Does the success of Under the Hawthorn Tree augur a loosening of China's suffocating hold on the Internet and the nation's printing presses? (Wouldn't that be pretty to think!) But there is not a shred of evidence to suggest anything of the kind has happened.
This is a critical story about Chinese politics. Think about it: What could be more at odds with today's China -- a wealth-focused country where Western luxury goods
are the status symbols du jour -- than the Cultural Revolution?
Anna Holmwood, the English translator, told the Guardian newspaper that the novel "doesn't present a problem for the Chinese government." She said: "If you were to take a particular political line about the Cultural Revolution, that might be problematic. But nowadays people are very open about talking about what a terrible time it was."
But watch: The pro China spinmeisters will busy themselves pointing to the English language version of the book
-- and a movie that is slated to come to screens near us -- as proof of a loosening of censorship inside China.
Believe that and, yes, I have a Great Wall to sell you.
— Robert McGarvey has been online and writing about the Internet for nearly 25 years.