Excerpt from We Have Been Harmonized by Kai Strittmatter, plus links to reviews, author biography & more

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We Have Been Harmonized

Life in China's Surveillance State

by Kai Strittmatter

We Have Been Harmonized by Kai  Strittmatter X
We Have Been Harmonized by Kai  Strittmatter
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  • First Published:
    Sep 2020, 368 pages

    Oct 2021, 320 pages


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Some woke from the madness earlier than others. Young people like Gu Cheng, Mang Ke, Bei Dao, or Yang Lian were city-dwellers sent into the countryside by Mao. They knew nothing of each other, yet they were united by a common desire: to purify the language that had been beaten and gutted by propaganda, and fill it with new life. They did something unheard of, writing poems that used words like sun, earth, water, and death. The public, fed with nothing but slogans for ten years, was taken aback. Sun? Earth? Water? The young writers became renowned as the "Misty Poets" (menglong pai). In their poetry at least, the Chinese language was reborn in the People's Republic.

In everyday usage, the vocabulary of propaganda can travel a winding road. In the China of the late 1990s, xiao zi (or petit bourgeois), a group against which Mao had railed, suddenly became an aspirational term among the new middle classes: everyone wanted to be a xiao zi. In the new China, this was someone who could order a cappuccino in one of the recently-opened Starbucks; who knew that red wine should be drunk neat and not mixed with Sprite (as most of the Party functionaries and the nouveau riche did at their banquets); who sometimes took holidays to London and Paris. To be a xiao zi was suddenly cool.

From time to time, both words and citizens fight back. Many of the Party's "warlike" words have fallen prey to irony. Tongzhi, for example—comrade. Suddenly it wasn't just China's ardent communists who were addressing each other as comrade: it was also members of the gay community. Or the phrase I have been harmonized. For many years now, this has meant: I have been caught by the censor, and my online comment—even my entire account—has been deleted. When the police invite someone in for a cup of tea, it is interrogation rather than a hot beverage that awaits them. Sometimes a well-known intellectual, author, lawyer, or other inciter of unrest might be traveled: this creative verb-form denotes a person's involuntary removal from the city, while the Party has its conference or the foreign leader pays a visit.

China's propaganda incessantly spits out new words and phrases. Today's China is a fantastical realm of contradictions, a society rapidly branching out and exhibiting a pluralism that goes against the unification of all things and all actions so vehemently pursued by the Party. For such a country, the Party attempts to create terms that unite all contradictions, and thereby do away with them. "Socialism with Chinese characteristics" is one of these. Or the "socialist market economy." These formulations contain left and right, up and down, Maoist and neo-liberal all at once. Language has overruled logic and in doing so believes itself untouchable. Of course, in reality it is becoming ever more empty and absurd, but in a country where what matters is power and not letters, that doesn't really make a difference. Here, more often than not, the function of words is to convey an order rather than a meaning: Nod! Swallow! Forget! Kneel! And so the propaganda machine feels perfectly free to compare the Dalai Lama with Adolf Hitler, and at the same time to warn the country's newspaper editors never to confuse "truth and lies, good and evil, beauty and ugliness." The true, the good, and the beautiful are always the Party and its Word.

Naturally the Party doesn't stop at interpreting reality; it also creates it. "There are no dissidents in China." All you have to do is say it often enough. These words were spoken in 2010 by a foreign ministry spokesman in connection with the writer Liu Xiaobo, who had just been sentenced to 11 years in prison. In 2017, Liu became the first Nobel Peace Prize winner to die in prison since Carl von Ossietzky at the hands of the Nazis in 1938.

At the time, the artist Ai Weiwei was still one of the most active Chinese micro-bloggers on Twitter. His analysis of this declaration appeared on his Twitter account:

  1. Dissidents are criminals
  2. Only criminals have dissenting views
  3. The distinction between criminals and non-criminals is whether they have dissenting views
  4. If you think China has dissidents, you are a criminal
  5. The reason [China] has no dissidents is because they are [in fact already] criminals

However, as Ai Weiwei was at that point a dissident himself, his blogs on China's own social networks had long since been deleted, and so hardly any of his fellow countrymen could reply. Twitter is blocked in China. Just one year later, Ai Weiwei spent three months in prison himself, supposedly for "economic crimes."

Excerpted from We Have Been Harmonized by Kai Strittmatter. Copyright © 2020 by Kai Strittmatter. Excerpted by permission of Custom House. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.

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