China is suffering its coldest winter in decades. But the chill didn’t stop some 10,000 fans from lining up in three cities to get a signed copy of Li Chengpeng’s latest book, Everybody in the World Knows. With 6.6 million followers on Weibo, China’s version of Twitter, the former investigative journalist is one of China’s most trenchant social critics — even if his latest book had thousands of words excised by censors. Yet on his book tour this month, Li was silenced by authorities who told him that he could take “no questions from readers, no talking at all — not even ‘happy new year’ or ‘thank you.’” At a book signing in Chengdu, the southwestern Chinese city that is his hometown, Li responded to the gag order with sartorial subversion, wearing a black face mask.
Li may have been momentarily hushed, but that didn’t stop his enemies from acting out. At an event in Beijing on Sunday, a man who identified himself as a Maoist tossed a wrapped kitchen knife at Li. (The weapon missed its target.) Li was also punched by another man who reportedly considered his book an attack on China itself. Soon after, a shaken Li contacted my colleague and me, wanting to talk that night in Beijing. (I have interviewed him before.) But just before we set off to see him, Li sent an apologetic text: “The police are taking me away to talk. Can’t meet you anymore.”
On Jan. 15, when Li had moved on to Shenzhen — the boomtown where Deng Xiaoping unleashed his famous economic reforms — he was finally able to talk by phone. More than 3,000 people had shown up that day at his book signing, the kind of adulation an author craves. But Li was dejected. Mysterious men snapped his photo, while others yelled, “Down with traitor Li Chengpeng.” His luggage, full of important documents, had gone missing. The knife-wielding man in Beijing has been released. “The excessive concentration of power in China has resulted in the law being controlled by the powerful,” says Li. “If there is not even freedom of speech, then I’m not optimistic about political reform at all.”
It has been just two months since China’s new leader Xi Jinping became the most powerful man in the world’s most populous nation. After a decade of paralysis under Xi’s predecessor Hu Jintao, hopes have proliferated that Xi — a grinning, vigorous figure whose father was a reformist Communist Party elder — might prove more open to political liberalization. To expect Xi to suddenly tear down the Bamboo Curtain just weeks into a 10-year tenure is unrealistic. But beyond the lip service the new Chinese Communist Party chief has paid to tackling corruption and promoting the constitution, there’s not much to indicate any major commitment toward reforming China politically. Hu himself talked an awful lot about reform when he first came to power. It didn’t happen.
Earlier this month, journalists at Southern Weekend, one of the most respected newspapers in the country, went on strike to protest mounting censorship. Their strike gained support from tens of thousands of Chinese, including a gaggle of pinup actresses, former Google China head Kai-Fu Lee and blogger Li. A last-minute deal brought the journalists back to the newsroom. But some have said privately that they are worried about retribution and continuing censorship. Chinese security agents have harassed celebrities who supported the Southern Weekend journalists.
The online support for Southern Weekend and the long lines at Li’s book signings prove that the Chinese public expects far more from its leaders than when Hu took power in 2002. A new stratum of middle-class Chinese has more to protect and recognizes the checks on unbridled power democratic reforms can bring. “We all hope our country can be stable and wealthy,” Li told TIME. “Our criticism is our expression of patriotism. We try to change, not to overthrow.”
Just as Li was in Beijing for his book event, pollution in the Chinese capital soared to record hazardous levels. The pall was so toxic it far surpassed the highest notch on the yardstick the U.S. uses to measure pollution, causing American monitoring equipment in Beijing to label the pollution “beyond index.” One of the reasons for the noxious air is a spike in people burning coal to keep warm during this freezing winter. Previously, Chinese authorities tended to underplay the smog, referring to it as “fog” and arguing implausibly that Beijing’s air has improved every year for the past 14 years. But this horrible air was hard to ignore. Even the People’s Daily, the Communist Party’s mouthpiece, ran a front-page story on the pollution. The capital will eventually defrost and winds always clear away the pollution for a time. But a Beijing spring that heralds lasting political reform? Don’t hold your breath.
— With reporting by Chengcheng Jiang / Beijing