With all our e-devices, why don’t we hear from more voices like Yan Lianke’s in China and Russia? + can The Guardian’s ‘membership’ scheme set an example?

Commenters on Yan Lianke’s poetic essay from China in Thursday’s New York Times — about the task of writers — spoke for many and maybe most of his readers in expressing fears for his safety. Why, in this age of magically flexible and ubiquitous post-Gutenberg communication tools — of which China is the leading manufacturer — do we hear so seldom from voices like his in China and Russia, supporting writers like him, and giving us essential information?

A small child who has only paddled in a bathtub can have no idea of what swimming in an ocean is like. Still, the experience of being immersed in water does supply an atom or two of useful comprehension. In this way, anyone in the liberal West whose thoughts typed into comment boxes on media sites have been stifled — persistently — by ‘community moderators,’ solely because they do not suit the politics and editorial policies of a powerful newspaper, has had a taste of actual censorship, and of refusing to let the fear of humiliation, punishment and banishment (deleting a commenter’s account) shut down the flow of words.

No one expects to have to be a heroic Yan Lianke in any proud Western democracy. Yet even in these, the suppression of inconvenient views in the most scrupulously polite debate gets hardly any attention. This week, The Guardian has again been promoting the paid, tiered ‘membership’ scheme it is offering readers. No one yet knows exactly what this club is going to do for free expression, and for reining in this paper’s notoriously trigger-happy moderators (of whom we at post-Gutenberg must admit that we have no recent first-hand experience, having decided to stop going there and say what we want to about The Guardian on this site, instead.) In a post here a few weeks ago — ‘Alan Rusbridger must please not let ‘Guardian membership’ mean bread-and-circuses, and prove that he is sincere about ‘mutualised’ journalism’ — we expressed our hope that there is substance behind the alluring advertisement.

No ‘membership’ scheme will be worth the attention of thinking people unless ‘members’ are allowed to help The Guardian’s policy-makers ensure that its ‘Comment is Free’ section lives up to its name. Yan Lianke’s New York Times contribution shows just how much thinkers like him count on the West for inspiration and support. Never mind China’s grand, ancient philosophical tradition. Confucianism was never about individual freedom.

With marvellous economy and a soulfulness rarely found in Western editorialising, he has reminded us of what we forget at our peril – the importance of unencumbered truth-telling. Please pass on the link to his piece after you have read the extracts below, and a sample of readers’ comments on them – including one from someone not fluent in English, who is owed our thanks for pointing out why some of his criticisms of China could be mistaken. We wish it was within our power to invite Yan Lianke to respond in this space.

BEIJING — China’s efforts to promote socialism in the late 1950s and early 1960s resulted in what is euphemistically known as the three years of natural disasters, during which more than 30 million people starved to death. One evening when I was a young boy, not long after the catastrophe, I followed my mother as she went to dump garbage outside the wall that surrounded our village, a poor and isolated town in central China.

Holding my hand, my mother pointed to the white clay and yellow earth of the wall, and said, “Son, you must always remember, when people are starving to death they may eat this white clay and elm tree bark, but if they try to eat that yellow earth or the bark of any other kind of tree they will die even faster.”

Mother went back inside our house to cook and left behind a long shadow. I stood in front of the edible clay gazing out at the sunset, the village and the fields, and an enormous sheet of darkness gradually approached.


China may boast of having several thousand years of civilization, but when an old man collapses in the street, everyone refrains from helping him out for fear of being implicated, even as the old man bleeds warm, red blood. What kind of society do we live in when a pregnant woman dies on the delivery table and all of the medical technicians flee in order to avoid responsibility, leaving behind a tiny soul uttering a feeble cry?

It is a writer’s job to find life within this darkness.

I am reminded of Job, in the Old Testament, who after experiencing countless misfortunes said to his wife as she was urging him to curse God, “Shall we indeed accept good from God, and shall we not accept adversity?” This simple response demonstrates that Job understood that his suffering was merely God’s way of testing him, and was evidence that darkness and light must exist together.

I don’t pretend that I have been uniquely selected by God, as Job was, to endure suffering, but I do know that I am somehow fated to perceive darkness. From these shadows I lift my pen to write. I search for love, goodness and a perpetually beating heart.

At a symposium last week, President Xi Jinping met with a group of artists, including the Nobel Laureate Mo Yan, and talked about the value of art in China. According to the official China Youth Online, he said, “For art workers to be successful, they must breathe together with the people, share their fate and feel their feelings, rejoice at their joy, grieve at their grief, and serve the people like a willing ox.”

But only the pursuit of true art, unencumbered by anyone, can help us find the delicate light, beauty, warmth and love that are hidden in the darkness.

Some comments by his readers (not in their original order):

William Hathaway

… Despite the unfashionable earnestness in this essay, I applaud its plea for cosmopolitan artistic freedom in the tradition of Romain Rolland. I’m sure that Yan Lianke will pay a real price for it.


I was hoping to read that his name was a pseudonym, but I didn’t. It is a beautiful and incredibly brave piece of writing. I just hope it doesn’t cost him his freedom, or worse.


Absolutely correct…. Confuciusm can’t mesh with the mordern global system… Neither can traditional Judaism/Christianity/Islam. Te only thing that meshes is money. It’s the new world order…

Tim McCoy

“…now that money and power have replaced socialism and capitalism…

Though Yan Lianke seems like writer of some brilliance, I think the above statement is fundamentally flawed. Capitalism is nothing if it is not about money and power.

Stranger [ someone apparently posting from California ]

The author only pointed out one side of the problem.

Why the old man fell on the street and nobody dared to help him? Because there was a famous lawsuit in Nanjing in which an old lady framed a young guy who actually helped her get up and the judge condemned him to pay about 12,000USD to that old lady.

And why the medical technicians flee when the pregnant woman died? She died from amniotic embolism which is difficult to diagnose and extremely dangerous. A hysterectomy surgery might have saved her life but unfortunately her husband refused this option because he was worrying about if his wife was going to be able to have the second baby. After the pregnant woman died, the family sent dozens of relatives trashed the hospital, that was why the doctors and nurses had to flee. IN china, every year several doctors died of medical disputes, most of them are stabbed by angry/crazy patients or their family members.

well, the other side of story only makes China even a worse country. That’s the reality of China. Democracy is not the medicine for its illness right now, seriously. With such a low level civil consciousness, democracy will just be abused. china has a long way to go. let’s take it slowly.

A Sincere but Puzzled Han Chinese Girl [ Guangzhou, China ]

Stranger, you speak out what i’d like to clarify here. Many thanks

Richard Luettge 

The author may be fated to perceive darkness, but if so, he would perceive darkness wherever men walk in numbers, and not merely in China. The challenges he writes of aren’t uniquely Chinese challenges but human ones and timeless ones. We study these challenges in every society, in part through art, in part through philosophy, and the purpose of such study is to find the “delicate light, beauty, warmth and love that are hidden in the darkness”. More, it’s to find purpose in the darkness.

Others labor elsewhere, but his challenge is to find these qualities in China.









Good Guardian, bad Guardian, and two more censored comments

The transatlantic conversation about the future of the media: growls of thunder answering across the sky

…[A]ny failure of the media affects all of us. At the heart of this inquiry therefore may be one simple question – who guards the guardians?

Lord Justice Leveson, opening an official enquiry into the ‘culture, practices and ethics of the press’, 14 November 2011

Audience reactions expressed as ‘comments’ on the internet have found their way into a literary novel, certainly for the first time in my reading. In Alan Hollinghurst’s tragicomedy, The Stranger’s Child, published earlier this year, he writes:

Raymond and his computer lived together in intense codependency, … On Houndvoice Raymond posted eerie little videos of long-dead poets reading authentic sound recordings emerging from the mouths of digitally animated photographs. It was clear from the Comments that some viewers thought they were really seeing Alfred Noyes read ‘The Highwayman,’ while even those who weren’t taken in were apparently impressed by the fish-like gaping of the poet’s lips …

I have recently heard journalists and editors in four countries say how much they detest comments sections, but these responses from the other side of the footlights are rightly classified by the Wikipedia as a category of citizen journalism. You can see reader reactions drawing our attention to matters of the greatest importance – as in a discussion last week on the web site of the Columbia Journalism Review, the journal of the Columbia Journalism School, a well-established institution in New York. A commenter, H. Barca, had a brief exchange with Emily Bell, who joined the Columbia faculty after some years as an editor at The Guardian.

Ms. Bell: […] [P]erhaps you can inform us how much you are getting from Alden Global Capital, the owners of Digital First, to “consult” on the vulture fund’s dismantling of a large part of the media landscape. Since Alden owns large shares in just about every major newspaper company in the country, your paid-for-view will be necessary reading for thousands of soon to be unemployed journalists. http://www.poynter.org/latest-news/top-stories/139303/how-alden-global-capital-has-become-a-major-player-in-the-media-business/

#1 Posted by H. Barca on Thu 10 Nov 2011 at 12:43 PM 

I was offered a spot on the digital advisory board by John Paton the chief executive of JRC in September 2010. The post is one which is not contracted, it is fully disclosed (I make a point of this) and editorially focused – it is not strategic in terms of deals or decisions on investment. My views though have been fairly consistent, and pre-date my arrival in the US.

#2 Posted by Emily Bell on Thu 10 Nov 2011 at 01:15 PM

Emily Bell: Your “editorially focused” work is the driver for Alden Global Capital to gut what’s left of its news operations and to spread the disease to the rest of the “distressed properties” it plans to gobble up. It’s at the heart of its “strategic” investment. I don’t care that you are willing to soil your own reputation. But you are dragging Columbia down with you. If Nicholas Lehman had any sense, he would ask you to pick one or the other.

#5 Posted by H. Barca on Sun 13 Nov 2011 at 12:16 AM

Lemann, not Lehman. My apologies, Dean.


Perhaps Emily Bell is right and there is no conflict of interest in working for a media conglomerate while she teaches at Columbia. I do not understand the distinctions she is making in her reply to H. Barca. I do not know what her use of the word ‘contracted’ means, or why she contrasts it with ‘disclosed’ and ‘editorial,’ or what any opinions she formed before she went to the  U.S. have to do with H. Barca’s objections.

Perhaps there is nothing inherently wrong with a professional journalist and journalism instructor serving a capitalist enterprise apparently playing a dual role as asset-stripper and saviour of failing newspapers – a puzzling combination I gleaned from an article in Monday’s New York Times.

But those of us brought up to believe in a 4th Estate serving, as Judge Leveson said this week, as ‘an essential check on all aspects of public life,’  are finding it hard to see how this responsibility can be met by a member of the profession paid a good salary to work in the ivory tower, yet seeking further profit from selling advice that should surely be given free of charge – for the good of the profession, if that really is Alden Capital’s mission.

Perhaps such idealism is now fogeyish and irrelevant. If it is, and journalism is just another business, the press has forfeited both the aura and special privileges of a high calling — just as the toil of scribes in the scriptoria of the Catholic Church lost its odour of sanctity in an earlier technological shift, the advent of printing.

Some questions for Dean Lemman to consider are:

• What is the likelihood that a journalism professor paid consulting fees by a corporation will draw students’ attention to  the ways in which companies can and do distort the coverage of certain industries — for instance, Steve Jobs’s effect on the record of who did what in computer research?

• What are the chances of such a teacher encouraging discussion of, for instance, the warning by the  ombudsman of The New York Times about the possibility that a section of the paper was getting too close to the financial industry?

• If, as in this case, the professor is a specialist in instructing students about the shift from print to digital publishing, how objective is she likely to be in weighing the relative pros and cons of future ownership structures — the most crucial topic in discussions of journalism’s future? Would not-for-profit or co-operative publishing models be treated reflexively as impractical and unrealistic by a paid consultant to a conventional capitalist enterprise?

What an Emily Bell does in America might seem to have nothing to do with a judicial enquiry into press regulation in Britain. In practice, her dialogue with H. Barca is part of a single conversation about the future of journalism in the English-speaking world – growls of thunder answering each other across a vast sky.

Many a seemingly trivial move in today’s chaotic media landscape demands a closer look. Friends of mine have been incredulous, reading through the comments censored by The Guardian that I posted here last week. They and I were accustomed to thinking of this newspaper as firmly on the side of the angels. But the true character of both individuals and institutions often emerges when they feel most threatened.

Alan Rusbridger told a story at his own expense in a lecture at the awards ceremony for the Orwell Prize in London last week, sounding like the ideal editor of the endearing, liberal Guardian. He mentioned someone’s description of him as looking ‘like Harry Potter’s lonely uncle’.

What would George Orwell make of the Guardian’s deletion of comment after comment filling in what has been missing from the debate about media reform – specific proposals for change, reflecting the new digital realities, other than the introduction of paywalls?

Because of its annoyance about a post here asking, ‘Will the calls for press reform during Britain’s Hackgate lead to action — or business as usual?‘, the paper’s site moderators have indiscriminately been deleting other, unrelated comments, like an enraged axe murderer. In this extension of last week’s selection of deletions by the Guardian on 30 October, the motive for censoring the second comment — a reply to several other commenters — is particularly incomprehensible:


Cynics’ distrust of e-petitions no longer serves democracy

Jackie Ashley


23 October 2011 8:56PM

This comment was removed by a moderator because it didn’t abide by our community standards. Replies may also be deleted. For more detail see our FAQs.’

What the censored comment said:


23 October 2011 8:56PM

Arguments against e-petitions range from the high-mindedly constitutional to the cynical. Ever since Edmund Burke, MPs have fiercely defended their role as independent-minded consciences, free to vote as they see fit, rather than as the mandated human tools of their electorates. Plenty would argue that the slow-moving, formal nature of parliamentary politics has saved Britain from foolish populist spasms and barbarities.

True about the value of moving slowly, but in the age of the internet, everything moves fast … so there is no really alternative to change.

Important to do it the right way:

Extreme democracy is not an impossible dream, but make sure you copy Switzerland, not California



23 October 2011 8:58PM

… sorry, that should be, ‘so there is really no alternative to change’ …


The deification of Steve Jobs is Apple’s greatest marketing triumph to date

Tanya Gold

‘postgutenberg‘s comment 22 October 2011 3:35AM

This comment has been removed by a moderator.’

What the censored comment said:


22 October 2011 3:35AM

mismeasure, 12.59 pm – a brilliant post all the way. TheCalifornia historian Kevin Starr has made the same point, in a closely related context. Indeed,

The apple product is experienced as an extension of the body. A prosthetic. […] I am my iphone: sleek, elegant, effective. I experience myself through a commodity– i.e., I am an object; this object has human qualities.

It’s reality turned upside down.


Your article has merit when it comes to the first graphical interface. But let’s take a broader view. After leaving Apple, Jobs founded NeXT Computer. NeXT Software, Inc. released WebObjects, ..]

NeXT was a disaster, as everyone paying attention knows. … Okay, he founded a string of companies, two of which were successful. So what? That supports summing up his achievements as: shrewd businessman with excellent taste in design.

He does not belong remotely – I mean, from galaxies away – in the same class as Johannes Gutenberg.

Gutenberg invented the first European printing press. His printing press has, over and over again, been voted – by Guardian readers, too, if I am remembering right, the single most important invention in history.

What he did and what his work accomplished need no qualification, no further explanation. … and needs no, ‘But let’s take a broader view,’ as you suggest for SJ.

And I am astounded to see you try to reduce Xerox PARC’s list of inventions to the graphical user interface. Here is the actual list (from the Wiki entry) :

Xerox PARC has been responsible for such well known and important developments as …laser printing,


…the modern personal computer,

…graphical user interface (GUI) — designed to work with the mouse (something else not invented by Jobs)

…object-oriented programming,

…ubiquitous computing,

…amorphous silicon (a-Si) applications,

…and advancing very-large-scale-integration (VLSI) for semiconductors.

Why am I posting here when I should be working? Because I am always defending the internet as a spreader of lies and half-truths by pointing out that when someone spouts nonsense, it will be corrected with the facts – sooner or later.

And yet, .. and yet ,… in spite of the net’s ability to set things straight, important people who should know better are as ill-informed as you are – David Cameron, Barack Obama … and with the Wikipedia under their noses.

The most effective marketing is indistinguishable from witchcraft. Well done for making that your subject, here, Tanya Gold.


Steve Jobs was not a super-rationalist. That would apply if he were a scientist. He was, like most talented marketing entrepreneurs, an intuitive psychologist.


Reader: how is the public interest served by acts of censorship like these? The answer to Justice Leveson’s question, ‘Who guards the guardians?’ is surely, us. Surely it is time for newspaper publishers to co-own their online comments sites with the readers behind them — or at least, experiment with such an ownership structure? This needs discussing urgently: ‘ Wanted: a brave newspaper, for an experiment in which readers become stakeholders’ .