I’ve said before that online writing is the power of the powerless. When you’ve written for a period of time and have a definite readership, you develop a degree, albeit a small degree, of power as a result.
Of course, all power must be kept in check. Well then, what is it that keeps me in check once I possess this sort of power as a writer? Do I rely on my knowledge and my conscience? Do I rely on the readers who thoroughly enjoy what I write? No, that’s not enough to keep me in check. And if I operated that way, how would I be any different from those I criticize? No matter how much I might believe in my own rightness and perspicacity, and even if my readers are scrupulous beyond comparison and stand on the right side of history — power relies nevertheless on opposition to keep itself in check.
It’s true that website editors and managers already serve to a large extent as checks on my work. They can choose not to promote my writings, and they have the power to remove them altogether. But this is insufficient, at least as far as I’m concerned. After all, I have many platforms for posting my work, overseas as well as domestic.
It was by mulling over this question that I came to alter my attitude toward criticism of my own work online. Before this, I outright ignored those criticisms that bore an aggressive and confrontational attitude. Web users who helped me manage my blog would tell me what sort of irrational or boisterous comments were being made (because I decided from the beginning that I would not delete any comments whatsoever), but I would never myself thumb through the comments attacking me.
Why didn’t I bother to read these criticisms? Actually, my motives were selfish and pragmatic. Before my attitude toward criticism changed, comments attacking me had the power to affect my mood to the extent that I was unable to “forge courageously ahead” with my writing.
After my attitude adjustment, I would set aside a bit of time to browse through the critical posts, and when I really didn’t have the time I’d ask friends to put together brief summaries of the attacks and share them with me. Gradually, I came to realize that all of these criticisms, even those that many web users identified as posts made by [government] posters for hire, or “50 Cent Party” folk, touched me in some way or another, inspiring or helping me.
Today I’d like to share not those constructive and well-meant criticisms of my work, but only those posts that web users characterize as poisonous attacks and share my views about them.
Shortly after I started blogging, a number of weblogs appeared that were especially devoted to criticizing my writings. There were also blogs opened to support my writings, but I’ll focus on those launched with the express purpose of making attacks against me more convenient.
At Netease, for example, there is a well-known web user called Zhou Xiaomi (周小米) who has had a blog devoted to criticizing me for more than a year now. As soon as I make a new post, there is a flurry of activity at this blog. That nickname of mine, the “democracy huckster” (民主小贩), is a favorite target of their ridicule.
For this blogger nothing about me is spared criticism and ridicule — my appearance, my wardrobe choices. Judging from his language, he not only fails to recognize me, but has not even bothered to carefully read my work.
However, it’s exactly this sort of blog that, once I changed my attitude to criticism, provided me with a great deal of help. He often poked fun at my appearance, and very eloquently. And perhaps no one out there realized that this cut me where it really hurt, because I’ve always lacked confidence about my appearance.
I’ve always felt my eyes are too small. I’m not even quite 1.75 meters tall. My waist is too thick, my legs too thin, and my neck too short. (^_^) . . . When I first launched my blog I posted a photo that looked really bookish. I didn’t think too many people would read the blog, but later when more and more came, I took the photo down.
But after this Zhou Xiaomi began heaping ridicule on my appearance, I began to reflect more about how I am who I am. My parents gave me this appearance. Why had I, just like this cynical person who attacks me, been so unsatisfied with my natural appearance?
Everyone can go and see for themselves that ever since I had this epiphany I’ve posted all sorts of photographs, because suddenly I have self-confidence. This homely fellow, this is me, the “democracy huckster,” Old Yang. And thanks to Zhou Xiaomi’s back-handed support, I am now recognized by my readers when I go out in public.
On my Sohu blog, which has already been shut down, there was a reader who would throw the Eight-Power Allied Forces [if the West] into any discussion, and would ask me accusingly how much money I had received from the Americans, what exactly my connection was to the Eight-Power Allied Forces, how much money I received from them for each piece I wrote, etcetera . . .
Any rational person might suppose that this reader is still a child, mentally challenged, or suffers from acute paranoia. But the lessons I took away from this reader’s barrage of attacks and accusations will probably have significance for me throughout my life.
His constant reversion to the Eight-Power Allied Forces was wearying. But then again, so many of my own blog entries dwelt on America and democracy, and wouldn’t people find that wearying too? Everyday he accused me of taking money from Americans (or Westerners), but then again, should I not ask myself: have you taken money or not? Has money on any level influenced your blog writing?
Given my qualifications and experiences over the years, I have to be honest with myself. If I wanted to apply for funding from Western countries or government-financed programs, it might be easier for me than almost anyone. Moreover, a number of programs have sought me out in the past. To be honest, these programs don’t apply restrictive conditions, and its not a bad thing to participate in them (please note, I don’t oppose to other people taking advantage of them).
But I want to tell everyone — I have never in my life taken a cent of financial support from Westerners, and I have never taken part in any program or event financed by Western governments. I have never had so much as a cup of coffee on the tab of Western governments . . .
These are just two more extreme examples. But criticisms and attacks of this kind all became useful to me once I changed my attitude toward them, and my critics became my teachers and friends, goading me to greater purity and simplicity.
As an online writer, my greatest hope is that when you enter my name into Baidu or Google, what comes up are the articles I’ve worked so hard to write. But still I have a special place in my heart for the words that are critical of me, and many times I’ve asked those web users who help me manage my sites to aggregate posts criticizing me so that they’re not lost. And if we have to, we’ll set up our own platform for this purpose.
If I can continue to write I’ll write several hundred thousand words a year. This is something I’ve demanded of myself. But without the strict oversight of editors, how can I guarantee I don’t commit major errors?
It’s because of this problem that I’ve come to look on those posts and blogs that criticize and attack me as beneficial to me. I believe that if my work continues to improve, this owes a great deal to the readers who support me, but also to those who attack and berate me.
Now, to return to the subject of my title. In the eyes of those anonymous web users, I’m definitely a person of some “power.” But for all of us Internet users, the government is not just powerful, but has a complete grip on real power.
So what attitude should the government have toward web users who criticize (and even attack) it? They too can choose two responses. The first is to feel “wronged and angered” and to act accordingly. That means not just attacking back online as I might, but really striking back, going across provinces if necessary to hold them criminally responsible.
The other possibility is receptiveness and acceptance, correcting your errors if you’ve made them or guarding against them if you’re not in the wrong. By taking this second approach, the government might win the understanding of the people, and even their support and regard. And general social progress will be faster.
Everyone knows about the open letter I wrote to Hubei’s party secretary, Yu Zhengsheng (俞正声). At the time my mother had just passed away, and her work unit had pocketed a portion of the government required funeral allowance. Just imagine them delinquent in paying her wages going back more than a decade.
With a mix of grief and anger, I wielded my pen with feeling. My letter was full of hot satire and cold irony toward the party secretary. Not long after, the provincial authorities sent an investigative team to my home town to resolve the issue, and later I learned that not only had Yu Zhengsheng not suppressed the letter, but in fact had passed it on to a number of local leaders.
Afterwards my father and I discussed the matter, and once we had gotten my mother’s funeral allowance back we agreed to drop our campaign for her unpaid wages. This was around 80,000 yuan, no meager sum as far as my father is concerned.
Our reasoning was simple. In our situation, if we continued to make a fuss it might be possible to get mother’s wages back. But in Suizhou City (随州市), my hometown, there are thousands upon thousands of old people who like my father and mother are owed back wages. Because I was able to write an open letter, I drew the attention of provincial leaders and was able to get a portion of our own money back.
But what about the rest of the old people in Suizhou who are owed money? Considering Yu Zhengsheng’s attitude toward resolving this issue (some things take time to resolve), we cut our losses and stopped seeking the rest of mother’s back wages. Of course, in my writings afterwards I never stopped helping out the rest of those people in a weak position who seek the money they deserve.
I believe other government leaders should learn from Yu Zhengsheng’s attitude toward my critical open letter. And could the government not, in the same way, benefit from my own “bitter experiences” online?
A version of this post appeared originally in Chinese at Yang Hengjun’s blog.