By Emma Lupano — As the internet has grown rapidly in China in recent years, there has been an attendant upsurge in cases where ordinary citizens (公民), or “netizens” (网民), are arrested, jailed or otherwise punished for things they dared to write. The latest case to have Web users up in arms involves the alleged sacking of a substitute professor at Hubei University for Nationalities after the teacher wrote an entry on his personal weblog criticizing the school’s anniversary celebrations. [Frontpage photo by Amy Pony available at under Creative Commons license.]
The case, involving 50 year-old teacher Guo Guanglin (郭广林), has drawn a flurry of coverage in the commercial media over the last week, and it has once again resurrected that age-old term denoting the violent repression of speech — “to incur guilt by one’s words,” or wenziyu (文字狱).
In Chinese, the three-character phrase has great economy of meaning. Packed inside is the basic notion, very much a reality during China’s dynastic past, that one could incur guilt simply by virtue of inferences the emperor and his associates might make from one’s writings. Guilt, in other words, could be read between the lines.
“To incur guilt by one’s words” is now an increasingly popular buzzword denoting official action taken against ordinary citizens who speak their minds in spaces — like blogs, chatrooms and SMS messages — where the line between the personal and the public is blurred. But the term can also be used to point generally to more egregious examples of censorship.
A related and more direct phrase in Chinese is “incurring guilt by one’s words,” or yin yan huo zui (因言获罪).
A decision by China’s General Administration of Press and Publication (GAPP) in early 2007 to ban eight books was vigorously attacked by journalists, scholars and others, and “wenziyu” was tossed around. The incident was highly embarrasing for GAPP’s man-in-charge, Wu Shulin (邬书林). [Click here for Wu Shulin’s comments on the ban from the SCMP via].
One of the most classic “wenziyu” cases in recent years was the arrest in 2006 of government worker Qin Zhongfei (秦中飞), who wrote a satirical poem about local leaders in Chongqing and distributed it by SMS to personal friends. The case is often referred to now as the “Pengshui SMS case.”
The first Chinese newspaper to run with the story of substitute professor Guo Guanglin was Hebei’s commercial Chutian Metropolis Daily (楚天都市报). In a page four story on November 7, the paper reported that Guo was dismissed after writing a post on his personal weblog in which he criticized the way Hubei University for Nationalities had managed a celebration of the school’s 70th anniversary.


The Chutian Metropolis Daily story said that on October 9, when Guo was still under the employment of Hubei University for Nationalities, he made a blog post called something like, “Dubious, Unclear and Superficial” (不明不白、不三不四、不痛不痒), in which he said essentially that the anniversary ceremony had veered from its purpose and served only as a narrow money-making ploy. “Seeing it made people sick,” Guo allegedly wrote. 
As soon as the post hit the Web, other blogs and websites began republishing it, often giving it conspicuous placement, according to Chutian Metropolis Daily. The post also drew waves of comments from web users.
Guo was subsequently dismissed by the school, and the Chutian Metropolis Daily report quoted him saying he believed he had been dismissed because university officials were unhappy with his post.
Earlier this week, CMP fellow Zhang Ming, himself a well-known Chinese blogger, wrote an editorial for Southern Metropolis Daily in which he criticized the Guo Guanglin case, relating it to the Pengshui SMS case, what he called “incurring guilt through SMS” (手机短信文字狱).
An outspoken critic of China’s higher education system, Zhang Ming also condemns the habitual subordination of university professors to school officials. He expresses the hope that more people will stand up and say “unpleasantries” (不中听的话): “But to be perfectily honest, if we had more of these death-seekers [who speak unpleasantries] in our universities we could at the very least lessen the pace of their decline,” he said.

[ABOVE: Zhang Ming’s editorial on the Guo Guanglin case and “wenziyu” at Southern Metropolis Daily, November 10, 2008.]

“Once Again, Guilt by Blog” (又见博客文字狱)
The idea that one can incur guilt by one’s words is something all emperors relish. As we know from our history books, the Chinese empire as an institution ended with the Xinhai Revolution back in 1911. And yet, emperors in disguise, particularly local despots, have never as a race disappeared. In the information age, we’ve seen case after case of guilt incurred by SMS . . . and now we have guilt by blog (博客文字狱). A substitute teacher at Hubei University for Nationalities was sacked recently for criticizing on his own blog the overwrought luxury of a ceremony held in honor of the school’s anniversary.
Last year, when I criticized the chief of a school on my personal weblog, many friends told me I was fortunate not to have been sacked after my post created such a big stir. Actually, I had mentally prepared myself at the time for dismissal. Had the school sacked me, I feel certain they would have found a proper pretext, just like these other instances of guilt by SMS. Even though they didn’t dismiss me, I know the school and related departments were very unhappy with my exposure of the institution’s darker side.
Officials are only human, and they like hearing pleasantries. If something negative happens one day in their own courtyard, their first instinct is to stave off reporters, afraid that their dark secrets will be revealed to the outside world . . . Whoever the leader, they all talk about how opinions should be expressed through the proper channels. But what if you do voice [your opinions] through the proper channels? Speaking from my own personal experience I can say that this is as worthless as dropping a stone into the sea, except that if you do things badly it can have the exact opposite effect. As soon as you make a report, the guy on the receiving end of the criticism knows it, and because leaders at the top tend to trust leaders at the middle, you’re the one who has to go fleeing for the hills like a bandit.
Compared with the stir I caused last year, this professor from Hubei University for Nationalities caused no harm and revealed nothing untoward. And still the school’s leaders were unhappy. An anniversary is an occassion when school leaders flaunt their achievements. You can pass by not flattering them, but saying ugly things, now how is that acceptable? And so this teacher of ours can only head down the road of dismissal.
Cases like this of incurring guilt by words at a university has to make us ask ourselves: what kind of places are our universities? Are they yamen‘s like these county-level bureaucracies, where we see cases of “SMS wenziyu” happening all the time? What kind of relationship do university teachers have to the leaders who control them at various levels? Is it a simple hierarchical relationship [like that in the official bureaucracy]? In other words, can we say that professors are subordinate and department heads and school officials their superiors? In my opinion, according to the past norms and international practice, professors should not be subordinate to school managers.
But this personal opinion is regarded in Chinese universities as anathema. Without exception, school officials believe professors are their subordinates no matter how knowledgeable they may be, or how strong their connections are. Actually, I believe the vast majority of professors think this way too. This is to say, within universities the relationships between the professor and the department head, the department head and the colleage head, the college head and the school president, is like those between lower-level county government functionaries and department heads, department heads and the party secretary — relationships of superiors to subordinates. Separated by professors with so many levels of bureaucracy, school leaders already regard it as a mark of respect, of regarding your expertise, that they do not see you as a mere slave.
Regardless of how resentful we feel, we have to admit that incurring guilt for one’s words, no matter what the form, is understandable within the government bureaucracy. In circumstances when there is such a storm in a government department, (where) power implies everything, which means that if you have the power you can control even the words of your people, (to speak) unpleasant words does not mean to take risks? To tell the truth, if in our universities there were a little more people taking risks like this, then at least the decline of our university would slow down. In such vertical hierarchies of officialdom, power means everything. Isn’t it like asking for death to speak curses or unpleasantries about the person who controls you? But to be perfectily honest, if we had more of these death-seekers in our universities we could at the very least lessen the pace of their decline.

[Posted by Emma Lupano, November 13, 2008, 4:14pm HK]

David Bandurski

CMP Director

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