Mei Fong

China had no protest mechanism

Chinese Journalist Mei Fong broke into international fame through her Pulitzer Prize winning report on ‘the adverse impact of China’s booming capitalism on conditions ranging from inequality to pollution’. Fong has for long been a constant voice against Chinese atrocities, from recounting China’s attempt at social engineering to standing up against its abominable One Child Policy, on which she has authored an extensively researched book One Child: The Story of China’s Most Radical Experiment. On her visit to India during a literary festival Book Link Correspondent Mathew M Philip asked Mei Fong, ‘How effective do you think force and coercion is as opposed to embarking upon an awareness programme?’
Mei Fong: Well the problem with force and coercion is that you might get quick results, but it comes with its side effects. And the analogy I use for this is going on a diet for weight loss; do you do it sensibly by having a balanced diet along with exercises or do you just stop eating food altogether? By the second method you see quick results but it has long-term consequences on your health. It’s the same with population control issues. Many countries have been able to lower their population by basically giving women choices, educating them on contraception etc. Such an approach also helps in reducing population, though not as quickly as coercion does. But then you don’t have other problems like population imbalance or gender issues which we see in China these days.
What are the social consequences of taking away people’s power to make their own choice?
I think taking your choices away had a much more severe impact on women in China than men. This was reflected in the fact that for a long time China, I think, was the only place where suicide among women was higher than among men. One of the reasons for this was because of the One Child Policy; women only had one shot at having a child, and therefore the pressure of having a boy was even more on them. Giving up your baby or infanticide were actual problems they had to deal with and these were tremendous pressure for women. So you can imagine the waves of depression and suicides which followed. But the flip side of this is, two generations later, it’s now the men and older men who are facing depression because of gender imbalance in the Chinese population.
There were a number of cases of forced abortions, one particularly disturbing being Feng Jianmei’s case in 2012. How powerful is the civilian voice in China with such government supported atrocities going on?
I think there are very few mechanisms in China for outright rebellions and protests. When India had the forced sterilisation programme going on (in the 1970s), the government basically suffered huge political losses, but China does not have the same kind of mechanism. There you mostly see a kind of passive resistance where people secretly try to work their way around the One Child Policy, like hiding their relative’s children or secretly having fertility tests done. But these were mostly ways to work around the problem and not retaliate against the government.
How hard is it to be critical of China from within?
Privately yes, you talk among each other and there is a lot of chit-chat. But the system in place to scrutinise anything you publish or is made public is very severe. There are cases of publishers and booksellers known to publish books which are critical of the government who have disappeared from Hong Kong and Taiwan and ended up in mainland China, and you don’t know what they went through. Even messaging apps like WeChat are monitored. If you are an influencer, like a blogger, or have a huge following anywhere, you are tracked and may face severe repercussions if you are critical of the government. So what happens when you build such a system overtime is, you don’t even need to employ preventive mechanisms because people have self-censored.
What ways can you employ to work around such censorship?
Well I personally gave my books away for free, but I’m not saying mine is the perfect solution. Other people will see other ways depending on their circumstance. So I don’t have a prescription in terms of what you should do, but what I do have is a recommendation,or at least an urge that no one should settle and accept things the way they are. You cannot let it enter into normative behaviour, because it is not normal.
Does clamp down on publishing and only serving that which the government wants affect people’s ability to think beyond what they are being fed?
To some degrees yes. I mean there still are ways to get around the state censorship on internet and people do get access to news which the government does not want them to know. But the consistent application of filters does make a difference. If you look at what people access the internet here for, it’s mostly for enjoyment—people watching movies and K-pop. So it’s not so much that you are just filtering the news but also saturating content for the people—give them circus and bread and keep them happy. And this has a certain type of drudgery effect on people, I think.