Nothing happens in China that can't be an allusion to something else, and the stabbing of the popular blogger Xu Lai over the weekend was no exception. Commenting on the serious, but non-fatal attack on Xu, one of China’s most popular and witty bloggers, one post asked the question: "Are we going back to the era of Wen Yiduo?" The reference was to a dissenting intellectual assassinated by China's Nationalist government in 1945. In other words, this commentator was wondering if China’s current system of censorship and repression was going vicious and undercover, like it was in the Nationalists’ day. Wen Yiduo, by the way, was killed after making a public speech; Xu Lai had also just finished a public talk when two assailants stabbed him in the abdomen in the bathroom of the One Way Street Bookstore in Beijing, then fled before they were able to carry out a threat to cut off his hand.
Xu headlined one post “Beautiful Electrical Outlets”—a satirical comment on the tradition by which Chinese men of wealth and power keep concubines.
It’s impossible to know whether China’s secretive public-security apparatus was responsible for the attack on Xu or not. My own reflex is to think that it wasn't, not that China's Public Security Bureau wouldn't stoop to such viciousness, but rather that it generally prefers to rely on at least an appearance of legal procedure—what is called Socialist legality—when it locks up dissidents. The technique is more to charge them with subverting state power, a catch-all legalism that covers pretty much anything the security apparatus wants it to cover, hold a trial on those charges, find the defendant guilty, and thereby put him or her out of commission for a few years.
But Xu Lai also represented a new kind of challenge to the authorities, the challenge not of open dissent but of suggestive humor and wit. It might be considered the younger, post-Tiananmen generation's way of needling the power. In fact, none of the printed information on Xu provides a date of birth, so it's not clear what generation he belongs to, but his pictures, showing a owlish, bespectacled man, suggest that he's in his 30s at the oldest. He was born in Jiangsu Province and worked as an editor and reporter for several publications in Shanghai and Beijing. But his fame comes from his blog, which led one Chinese magazine to name him among the 20 most-influential online presences in China last year.
Xu doesn't write much of his own commentary but instead posts bits and pieces that have appeared elsewhere, with his own headlines. He's commented in this way on China's tainted-milk scandal and on the fire that badly damaged the new Central Television tower in China. Among his steady subjects are official corruption, a delicate topic in China. Not long ago he reproduced a poll revealing that more than 50 percent of Chinese men would break the law for the sake of the most beautiful of the mistresses of Chinese officials. Xu headlined that post "Beautiful Electrical Outlets," which loses its edge in translation but is a satirical comment on what has been officially acknowledged to be a form of corruption in China—the revival of the age-old tradition by which Chinese men of wealth and power keep concubines.
In China, like in Elizabethan England, lese majeste is a serious crime, one that can easily land offenders in prison for subverting state power. But by sticking to themes already raised in the press and by keeping his commentary on the humorous side, Xu would seem not to break any laws. Still, witty comment on the sexual advantages enjoyed by Communist Party officials is the sort of thing not likely to endear him to the central authorities, which prefer to wage their own campaigns against malfeasance without outside interference. Xu has also posted items on China's as-close-as-lips-and-teeth friend North Korea, which are interpreted by some of his readers as indirect comments on the dictatorial ways by which China is governed, similar in many ways to the methods of the North Koreans.
How the censorship system is to deal with this between-the-lines, post-Tiananmen sensibility pioneered by bloggers like Xu Lai is probably a lively topic of conversation inside the security bureaucracy. Last year, censors blocked the site that carried Xu's blog, which was called "Qian Liexian Wants to Speak"—a play on words that can also mean “The Prostate is Enflamed." Xu Lai then moved his blog to another host, renaming it "Qian Leixian Still Wants to Speak"—or the Prostate Is Still Enflamed. Did the security police decide he had to be punished for his persistence, or was the knife attack in Beijing carried out by private vigilantes operating on their own? We may never know, but either way the effect is likely to be the same.
Richard Bernstein is a writer based in New York. He was a critic and foreign correspondent for the New York Times for 24 years. His new book, The East, the West, and Sex: A History of Erotic Encounters, will be published by Alfred A. Knopf in June.