x Abu Dhabi, UAE Thursday 20 July 2017

An unlikely voice calls for freedom

Wu Youming points to his blog and freedom as signs China is loosening up, but he expects no real change for 15 years.

Wu Youming is a police officer turned dissident writer/artist.
Wu Youming is a police officer turned dissident writer/artist.

BEIJING // Wu Youming was not your average cop on the beat. The 30-something police officer was a fan of Mahatma Gandhi, published his own literary journal, wrote a column for a punk rock magazine and had a blog in which he criticised police excesses. And for years his superiors either overlooked or were ignorant of his other life. But when he sent an open letter to the members of China's National People's Congress in 2007 about local government abuses, his bosses decided he had gone too far. Nine days later his badge was taken away.

Wu is an unlikely candidate for dissident hero or literary maven. After graduation from high school in Huangshi, a small town on the Yangzi River in Hubei province, he took a government job. Although he had dabbled in writing since middle school, he said he had no interest in going to university. "I don't feel you need a university degree to become a writer," he said, sitting in his small farmhouse in a rural Beijing suburb.

At the age of 20, his life took a dramatic turn when he was chosen for training as a police officer. His assignments were varied: traffic warden, vice policeman, patrolman and precinct officer - jobs he said took him to "the front lines with the masses". These experiences gave him an insight into the lives of people living on the lower rungs of society. Wu was soon facing moral dilemmas. He was bothered by police policies that required him to hand out a minimum of 9,000 yuan (Dh4,840) in fines each month to meet his quota. And in an interview with National Public Radio in 2007, he spoke about his distaste for helping family planning officials "kick in somebody's door and carry a six-month pregnant woman out by her arms and legs to have an abortion".

He was also reluctant to enforce the orders of local officials that violated the law, while powerful people broke the law with impunity. "I came to see that without fairness and equality, so-called law enforcement is just ripping off the weak," he said. In 1993, Wu began to write about his experiences, sending articles to publications - all of which were rejected. He persisted, however, and his writing gradually began to appear in magazines and newspapers.

In 2000, he started his own literary magazine, Water Bubbles, which he published about twice a year. It soon attracted a strong following among astute readers. He also began writing a regular column for I Love Rock Music, a magazine dedicated to punk music, and later launched his own blog. All the while his resentment toward unjust official policies, and the role he was asked to play in them, grew.

In Dec 2006, when Wu was put in charge of children born outside of the country's planned birth control system, which restricts urban Chinese couples to just one child each and which leaves the legal status of many children in limbo, he felt moved to confront senior officials with how negatively the policy was affecting people at the grassroots level. He wrote an article about the issue for a police magazine that was well received by his colleagues, and which was later published in Southern Weekly, China's most influential weekly newspaper.

But the last straw for Wu was when his bosses instructed him to stop people from petitioning a local government office. "I felt Chinese have the legal right to petition, but that the government wanted to cover up local violations of the law," Wu said. He wrote an open letter to the country's legislators in March 2007 complaining about the arrest of people petitioning the government. The open letter led to a number of interviews with the foreign media, putting Wu in the international spotlight. Nine days later, his career as a police officer was terminated.

Wu and his artist wife, Zhou Li, moved to Beijing, where they settled into a suburban artists' village. Unemployed, the couple turned to painting; the walls of their apartment are covered with their art. Zhou Li's paintings have the look of a trained painter, while Wu's have an almost childlike quality to them. Wu said he no longer has the grassroots experiences of a policeman and lacks firsthand inspiration to write about the problems in society. "I'm concerned about the things around me," he said, "but I lack the environment. I'm now in the art world, and I'm more interested in that."

He also finds it difficult to get his writing published as most publications are reluctant to carry stories on such sensitive political and social matters. He refuses to write under a pen name, as many controversial writers do in China, preferring to express his thoughts through the internet and his blog. "The internet is the only place where there is real space," said Zhou Li. "This is how it is in China."

When a popular novelist, Yu Qiuyu, in June urged parents who had lost their children in shoddy school buildings that collapsed in the earthquake not to blame the government and become "pawns of the foreign anti-Chinese media", Wu denounced Yu in his blog as "shameless". "I strongly opposed him," Wu said. "I feel it's very wrong for intellectuals to defend the government." Wu said his generation has diverse views, but most people are unwilling to voice opposition to the regime.

"People are afraid to speak out, they're afraid to lose their jobs, afraid of retaliation, they're afraid the government will grab them," he said. "People don't feel that if you tell the truth that any good will come out of it." He said it is the duty of an intellectual to take a stand. "If you know about something and you don't open your mouth, then you're just like everyone else." Wu said the media and freedom of expression are tightly controlled, adding that even under the worst days of the Kuomintang, or Nationalist Party, there was more freedom to speak out. "You could have a Lu Xun in those days," he said, referring to one of China's most outspoken writers, who died in 1936. "But not today."

Still, Wu said things are moving in a positive direction. "The people are getting better each year, and the government is getting better." He said he is "relatively lucky" because he suffered no serious consequences for his writing. "I still have my blog," he said, "and the fact that I've not been put in jail means there's been progress." Wu is not predicting democracy any time soon, however, arguing that real change may not come for at least another 15 years. He said democracy will be the result of "an accumulation of factors", which he said will lead to a peaceful evolution and which will force the Communist Party to change. "It can't stop the progress of society," he said.

And he is confident the party will be powerless to stop this trend. "It's not a question of the Party allowing this to happen. It's not up to them," he said. "When the fruit is ripe, it will fall." @Email:pmooney@thenational.ae