Utopia website shutdown: interview with Fan Jinggang

The inspectors called on the Utopia bookstore in the early hours of Friday morning, April 6. There was one official from the State Council, one from the Municipal Network Management Office and another from the Public Security Bureau. An unusually heavy show of force, perhaps, but the Utopia website (currently down) associated with the bookstore is perhaps China’s most active Maoist commmunity and was accused of crimes of the highest order: violating the constitution, “maliciously” attacking the country’s top leaders and “speculating wildly.” The charges were tantamount to a ten-year prison sentence. The actual punishment was a mere scolding: the offending website would be suspended for a month-long period of “self-inspection.”

Shortly after the inspectors departed, I interviewed Fan Jinggang, co-founder of the Utopia website and manager of bookstore. Until the shutdown, he and his fellow web editors had cheerfully egged on leftist ideas and supported the Red revival in which Bo Xilai played an important role. Utopia’s online community of sentimentalists, Marxist intellectuals, nationalists and left-wing oddballs was enough to boast about 500,000 visits a day. But their nostalgic gonging, normally patiently endured, has lately been giving the Party a headache. Right now the authorities are trying to present a show of national unity and harmony after Bo’s fall, and Utopia has been gagged.

In the subsequent week, the Utopia website displayed an “under maintenance” message. Then on April 12, it suddenly displayed a message saying: “No matter if our website is blocked or shut down, Utopia supports Bo Xilai and the Chongqing Model” (see screenshot). But someone posting to Utopia’s Weibo account said that they had been hacked by forces seeking to harm them, and had reported the incident to the police (Weibo link, screenshot).

In the days immediately following Bo’s removal from his post as Party Secretary and head of Chongqing on March 15, Utopia had experienced connectivity issues. Fan said that this could have been a server problem – “judging from our server’s data, it was mainly caused by the sharp rise of visits that went beyond the system capacity,” but he isn’t shy of offering some vague conspiracy theorizing, adding that “it’s also possible certain forces, domestic or overseas, maliciously attacked our website.”

He was being disingenuous: at the same time that Utopia was having problems, other Maoist websites such as Mao Flag and Red China went offline or displayed “under maintenance” messages which is what Chinese websites often show when ordered to be shut down. But Utopia continued publishing – until Friday April 6, when the authorities paid Fan Jinggang a visit, shortly before we spoke.

Fan seemed unfazed by the encounter; a few days later, though, Fan told me he could no longer answer follow-up questions: Bo Xilai, it had been officially announced, was now under central investigation and the clampdown was in full swing.

Why is the government so concerned about a few small websites that seem to generally support the Party?

Aside from the Maoist websites, prominent nationalists and leftists such as Sima Nan, Liu Yang, and Zhang Hongliang have gone quiet. Rumors circulated online about Sima Nan being coerced into silence. It’s unclear what role the government has played in the quieting of leftists, but it is clear that it’s better for one’s health in China right now if you are not too red.

Some speculate that Utopia and the other Maoist websites were suspended by domestic authorities to prevent Chongqing netizens from organizing a mass rally in support of Bo, or more generally just to cool the online pro-Bo chatter. Fan denied all the accusations made to him by the inspectors that morning:

None of the three accusations was true. Our site has strictly abided by the Constitution and the Constitution of the Party since its foundation. We’ve never posted articles that named and criticized any national leaders — at most, we point out that some of their certain actions are against the constitution. But the constitution protects every citizen’s right to supervise the government officials.

Utopia has more typically been critical of liberal writers, public intellectuals and dissidents rather than government officials. In January 2012, Utopia hosted a poll listing 18 ‘traitors to China’ (hanjian) and asking readers to nominate the 10 worst. The list included several characters familiar to Western readers: economist Mao Yushi, history teacher Yuan Tengfei, ‘science cop’ and anti-academic fraud campaigner Fang Zhouzi, CCTV host Bai Yansong and, of course, Nobel Prize-winning dissident Liu Xiaobo.

Fan denies being responsible for the poll but supports the principle:

The poll was launched by some user on our website, but not the site itself… Spontaneous polls by individuals like this form a forceful public opinion and remind [those listed] to think about China’s public interests, rather than violating them.

The people listed on the poll are mostly public intellectuals who are usually called “rightists”: people who hold what we might call liberal values. In China, this type of political attitude is often associated with “universal values” such as Western concepts of human rights.

Despite Utopia’s pugnacious attitude towards liberals and the government’s current worries about the website, it’s worth mentioning how unthreatening Fan and his store appear. His small, sixth-storey bookshop — left out the lift, past the masseuse, hit the smell of mildew and you’re there — has nothing on its shelves to sound any alarms. The titles — The Secret of American Hegemony, The End of the American Century, China’s Prosperity About to Go Bust?, 25 Things They Don’t Tell You About Capitalism! — have the tone of harmless public eccentrics, buttonholing readers with cranky political theories.

Nor is Fan a elderly fanatic in Mao jacket, lapel badge and green cap. He’s a studious-looking 35-year-old with a round, sincere face, whose sturdy build is housed in an unassuming grey donkey jacket and black sweater. He answers questions quietly but at great length — my first question provokes a well-scripted ten-minute response.

Utopia’s full name is Wu You Zhi Xiang Culture and Communication Co., Ltd. and was founded in 2003 by Fan with Han Deqiang as “a patriotic website for the public interest.” Fan was born in Henan, one of China’s poorer provinces, in 1976, the year Mao died, but it was at university in Beijing in the 1990s that he noticed the growing income gap.

The 1990s saw China regain its economic footing after the inflationary era of the late 80s. It was in 1992 that Deng made his famous southern tour, reminding cadres that, “We must guard against rightism, but more importantly, we must prevent leftism.” But Fan says it was the market reforms that followed which “diverted from Mao’s strategy, and brought threats to China’s development.”

Fan talks of the forgotten casualties of reform: state-owned enterprise privatizations saw tens of millions laid off “and the country’s wealth controlled by powerful minorities”; health care and education “changed from a fundamental citizen welfare to an industrialized commodity,” and housing allocation was abolished. Today, access to all three are “major problems for mid-to-low income individuals and families.”

Fan sees Utopia as defending the “interests of the country and the people” against the self-interests of the reformers. Many are receptive to his ideas: Utopia claims 500 million total visits, and Fan says the site recently rose to being among the top 600 sites in the PRC. The 200,000 or so articles they have published were submitted by “big-city readers… mostly intellectuals who are concerned about China’s society and economy… 90 percent of them are supporters of our general idea.”

At the core of Utopia’s “general idea” is an unshakeable belief in Mao Zedong, a virtually infallible figure who presided over a lost age of prosperity:

People had more dignity, higher social status and better welfare… In Mao’s era, no one was out there alone; they always had a team to count on. If someone needed to build a house, he could turn to his workmates for help. But nowadays, it’s all different.

Fan doesn’t talk much about the famines and chaos that characterized several periods of Mao’s rule.
Although he didn’t live through those times himself, Fan has spoken to “workers, farmers, students, old leaders, revolutionaries and conservatives that experienced it, and formed my own opinions.” He talks about commonly cited Party theory that Mao was 30 percent wrong, 70 percent right:

Who can really comment on Chairman Mao? The so-called 3/7 theory was only a temporary one. Looking back, many people’s opinions are already changing. For example, war heroes like Chen Yun, Wang Zhen, Wei Wei, Ma Bin all agree the “right” (achievement) part is underrated and the “wrong” (mistakes) part exaggerated. On the other hand, some traitors in the Party betrayed communism and created all sorts of rumors to attack Chairman Mao. There’s a guy called Li Rui who claims to be Mao’s ex-secretary and another one called Xin Ziling. Mao, in their eyes, is probably more like “70 percent wrong, 30 percent right,” if not worse.

Our conversation moved on to land reform, the subject of Mao’s policy flip-flop — when the property seized from around 4.5 million murdered landlords was redistributed among the peasantry, only to be taken back, in the mid-1950s, in favor of collectives controlled by the Party. I asked Fan which policy was correct. He said:

I support both. The first policy was carried out in the ‘Strike the landlords and share their land’ stage of the revolution [from 1946]; the public wanted and needed the land, so it was distributed. After this, the nation was founded, and the country’s industrialised construction needed resources to be centralised and accumulated, so this was a helpful policy.

Yet Fan also asserts this was an era when “the working classes had more involvement in national politics and public affairs than today.” He is an unrepentant supporter of Mao era propaganda, but he does not approve of the recently launched revive Lei Feng campaign:

Lei Feng was a proletarian and his life was devoted to the socialist rejuvenation of the country and the people’s interests. Today when they promote “Learning from Lei Feng”, they focus more on ‘devoting yourself to jobs,’ which are mostly provided by capitalists, – the more devoted you are, the more profits you’re merely making for [them]. Promoting “Learning Lei Feng” today actually distorts the original Lei Feng Spirit.

How would he like to see China develop today?

First of all, we need to stop the blind trust in foreign models… China should develop independently under the guidelines of Mao’s theory. Chongqing, for example, is a good paradigm. Economically, we need to develop state-owned enterprises too, although not in the current neo-liberalist model, where management makes tons of money, while bottom-level workers work the most with the lowest salary: that’s impossible to happen in a Mao era… common labourers need to get involved with decision-making and supervising processes in companies.

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It’s very hard to dispute Fan’s concerns about corruption, inequality and the absence of a social-welfare system. But it would be equally hard to find someone less likely to address them than a slick princeling with a 24-year-old Ferrari-driving son, a man who came to Chongqing from Dalian, where he had established a reputation as a business-friendly mayor who encouraged Western and Japanese investment. Why does (or perhaps that should be did?) Fan and his fellow Utopians support Bo Xilai so slavishly?

Bo’s campaigns like ‘Sing Red Strike Black,’ ‘Officials making poor friends,’ ‘Visiting the grassroots classes’ after coming to power, and a series of actions like building low-rent houses, taking care of ‘empty nesters’ and left-behind children, narrowing the gap between the rich and the poor, follow the Constitution of CCP and the ‘Serving the People’ principle, and represent the people’s wish for common prosperity. That’s why I support him.

There are many who think Bo’s spectacular demise was due to his aggressive politicking, which intimidated the autocratic Beijing style; that he was running his own Chongqing fiefdom, seizing rivals’ assets to plug giant budget deficits; that his disregard for rule of law was shameless, even by Party standards; that his ambitions were boundless; he was gunning for the hot seat nominally reserved for Xi Jinping in the autumn. Certainly, it’s a telling sign that Utopia’s sympathies are now considered dangerous enough in Beijing to get it shut down.

Though commentators — Western and Chinese — will continue to speculate on the reasons, Fan sees a purely ideological schism. He says that the Party specifically rejected Bo’s “socialist” model in favour of the economic-reform model promoted by the World Bank, in their 430-page March offering, China 2030: Building a Modern, Harmonious, and Creative High-Income Society (PDF).

The worker-spirit campaigns of Bo Xilai, meanwhile, were independent and without central Party approval; in other words, unprecedented. The Party’s hand alone grips the tap of history. From 1991, “patriotic education” emphasized the ‘Century of Humiliation’ as a bedrock of CCP legitimacy, deflecting attention from the failures of both Marxism and Maoism. The blood debt of events such as the Opium Wars and War against Japanese Aggression emphasized the need for national cohesion in the face of ‘foreign black hands’ – those that once connived with feudal powers against China and also (implicitly) in the Tiananmen debacle.

As in all other aspects of culture, red or not, the Party presumes to own the country’s spiritual, historical, and political traditions, and to control the media through which they are communicated. That includes something as seemingly innocent as Utopian ‘nostalgia’ – though its original sense of being a mental illness, “a homesickness that causes pain,” offers, perhaps, a fitting epithet for the complexities of the Mao legacy.

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The author Robert Foyle Hunwick can be reach on foylehunwick -at- gmail.com. His previous story for Danwei was: Serial killers in China.

Links and sources
Utopia (currently not available)
China Heritage Quarterly: 1989, 1999, 2009: Totalitarian Nostalgia by Geremie R. Barmé
University of Westminster: Guiding Hand: The Role of the CCP Central Propaganda Department in the Current Era by Anne-Marie Brady
Seeing Red in China: Pro-Maoist site, Utopia, has been shut down – No reason to celebrate
Washington Post: Fans of Bo Xilai rally to ousted chief in China
Jinbushe.org: 中国最后的几家左派网站被一扫而空
Danwei: Utopia, Maoist discussion forum, shut down for a month
Xinhua: Screenshot of Xinhua home page, April 11, announcing Bo’s fall

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