“I can choose a partner, I can replace him, and there’s ample resources out there. I don’t need to feel any responsibility towards them, nor do I need to spend any emotion. They can’t disturb me. Like a CD, if I want to listen to it, then I will. If not, then not a note is played.” – Muzimei
Chinese people have sex; you don’t get the world’s biggest population otherwise. They just don’t like to talk about it. Personally speaking, my parents never spoke on the subject until I left for college, when they imparted on me the all-important life maxim of “don’t get anybody pregnant.” Besides being cultural, the “problem” is also political. The Communist Party, in the past, did not encourage personal pleasures. And sex, being the most personal of pleasures, was at the top of the list. Of course, it’s easy to enforce such an ideal when everybody was starving and America was still the decadent capitalist empire to the West. It’s a whole different matter when the economic development makes the money roll in, American movies are available for 6 cents on the street, and everybody is eating Big Macs and wearing Nike. Not surprisingly, part of all this is the most American of things, self-centered confessional blogging.
It began with a woman named Li Li from Guangzhou. Either a publicity-hound or an aspiring writer, depending on who you ask, she started a blog titled “Love Letters before Dying” under the pen-name Muzimei (Wooden Beauty). Her blog, film-noir dramatic and exceedingly frank, talked about the lurid details of her sex life. For China, a country without Sex and the City to jade them to the idea of women in their 30s disillusioned by love and sex, such a thing was quite novel. Muzimei would often go on Carrie Brashaw-esque musings such as: “Sometimes, I think men are all the same when they are naked.” Mao would be proud.
At the height of her popularity, a third of the total number of Chinese who had Internet access read her blog. Part of her following, it turned out, was the Chinese Government. Li was fired from her magazine-writing job, and under pressure from her superiors, was forced to shut down her blog. She talked about sex, which was bad enough. She became popular, which was worse. And she named names of government officials, which made her dangerous. No one blames her for giving up the fight; it’s not in her job description to be martyr. With the Internet being the Internet, shutting her down was a brief stopgap, and a whole host of copycats came on the scene. They include Liu Mang Yan, the “Lost Sparrow,” among others.
Muzimei’s popularity propelled the blogging craze in China. China has 94 million Internet users, second most in the world. There are anywhere between half a million to 4 million blogs. They range from whiny livejournal blather, proving the universality of emo, to 20 year old yuppies reveling in their excess. If it is left at that, there is no problem. When the blogs become political, when they threaten to upset the apple cart, the government takes an interest. Dissidents have been arrested for posting articles on the Internet. Servers like blogspot.com have been permanently banned, while Chinese blog servers such as blogcn.com are periodically shut down when the government finds inappropriate material.
Thanks to the Evil Empire that we used to know as Google, Chinese censorship is in the forefront of American news again. In China, it is part of life. Newsstands in China are filled with magazines started up by aspiring entrepreneurs riding the wave of economic development. They all have one thing in common, a subject matter about nothing. You’ll find fashion magazines, celebrity gossip tabloids and everything in between. What you won’t find is anything with any political bent. It’s the implicit message in Chinese society. Want to make money? Stay out of politics.
Talking about sex is not politics. But it is openness. And openness can lead to societal instability when cultural ideals begin to drastically change. This is something the Chinese government wants to avoid. Change is unavoidable, but change is made as slow as possible. Homosexuality was only removed from the list of psychological diseases in 2001. In 2003, divorce and marriage laws were loosened slightly. The one-child policy is slowly being revised. But the ugly little truth is that when Shanghai’s bars close, 20 year olds will go home with other 20 year olds, no matter how many blogs are shut down. Young people will have sex with other young people; it is as unavoidable as the sunrise. But even for such citizens of major cities, sex education is woefully inadequate. And the unwillingness to open up is only exacerbating the problem.
The elephant in the room is AIDS. Africa is the hot zone right now, but the Asian AIDS problem is growing. There is a perception in certain communities in China that Asians can’t get AIDS, that AIDS is a “white” disease. The government, to be fair, has recognized the problem and has set up programs to provide free condoms and spread awareness. But there is still great reluctance to face the issue and people with HIV are afraid of the stigma attached to the disease, often refusing help. Intravenous drug users, prostitutes and other high-risk people are apathetic towards the problem. There are 20 year olds in major cities who have no idea what a condom is. The conservative attitude about sex and STDs still pervade. And the Chinese Government has not exactly had a sterling reputation when it comes to facing major epidemics (i.e. SARS). 650, 000 people currently live with the disease in China.
Censorship is not helping the problem. When Google launched google.cn, it faced heavy criticism, and justifiably so. Do a search on keywords such as “AIDS” or “gay” and you’ll find a conspicuous lack of the same articles that you would find when doing the same search google.com. The populace lacks the basic knowledge of sex that Westerners intuitively know simply from absorbing popular culture. Blogs, it seems, can have a role in leading the spread of information by pushing the envelope and testing the boundaries of governmental censorship.
Compared to 15 years ago, there has been remarkable progress in terms of the willingness of Chinese society to face issues such as AIDS, homosexuality, and sex education. An army of bloggers can’t fix these problems on their own. But it is the dream of the blogging nation to actually make a tangible difference, instead of being nothing more than idle Internet chatter. In China, where the fight for free expression needs to be fought on all fronts, there might be a chance.