HKFP History Opinion Politics & Protest

In China’s digital era, the humble bulletin board still attracts readers… and secret policemen

Looking at Twitter on May 1, I found this short video, alerting to an easily spotted number of plain-clothes policemen, trying to make sure that no feminist protester against sexual harassment was bold enough to post a flyer at San Jiao Di:

San Jiao Di, or “Three Corners Place,” is a small triangular spot on the campus of Peking University, fenced off by bulletin boards.

It has been sitting there for decades: when the university was braving the Cultural Revolution storm, the bulletin boards got covered in “Big Characters Posters,” or “Dazibao,” that announced struggles and irretrievable falls from grace for anyone that the Red Guards deemed not revolutionary enough, or not revolutionary in the right way.

As that madness blew over, and universities across the country reopened, the billboards at San Jiao Di would simply carry the national newspapers, all under the control of the Party.

On occasion, one could find something more interesting: during the “Democracy Wall” months, from 1978 to 1979, San Jiao Di too would sport some provocative essays – even if most of these were kept for the Xidan Street brick wall in central Beijing, which has long since been torn down. After that, most fliers were pretty tame, and the occasional interesting one would be talked about by many.

By the time I arrived in the Chinese capital, in the summer of 1988, San Jiao Di didn’t have many protest posters at all. It mostly gave notice of private classes, meetings for various types of students’ “shalong” (or “salons” – independent gatherings to talk about history, art or literature, society or politics, depending on who was organizing them) or dancing “di-se-ke” (disco) parties to be held at the campus gymnasium.

After April 1989, though, San Jiao Di became an unmissable space. Protests taking hundreds of thousands of people down to Tiananmen Square were happening every day, but many felt that Beida (the contraction of the Mandarin name of Peking University,) and San Jiao Di in particular, was where you had to go to to understand what was motivating the protests, and who was theorizing what.

1989 posters supporting students

Posters in 1989 supporting students. Photo: Apple Daily.

Of the hundreds of journalists who were covering the demonstrations, some went regularly to Beida to interview the students on campus, and to have a look around the bulletin boards. It had its moments of hilarity.

I remember an American TV crew, with a rather diminutive reporter, going around with a stool he would stand on top of before the camera started filming, because, as he said aloud, “back home people think the Chinese are short so it’s better if I stand above them.”

Another TV reporter, with an Australian accent, was at San Jiao Di pronouncing carefully into the microphone that “We are standing here at Peking Uni… no wait, start again: We are now at Peking University… no, another one: This, is Peking University, the San Jiao Di bulletin centre…” and then interrupted himself again, deciding to undo his tie and top-most shirt-buttons because, he told the cameraman, “who goes to a revolution with a tie?”

Peking University students supporting the 1989 movement.

Peking University students supporting the 1989 movement.

It was all quite amusing – until, of course, it wasn’t any more. After the crackdown on the protests, when a still impossible to determine number of people got killed by the People’s Liberation Army in the streets leading to Tiananmen Square, San Jiao Di fell silent.

Nothing at all got posted — not even the official newspapers, with their upside-down version of events.

As term started again, Beida felt very empty – the first-year students were not on campus, since they had been sent off to do a year in the military, to work on their ideological understanding of things. San Jiao Di was as dull as a dumb insult.

The occasional Xiaozibao, or “Small Character Poster,” would advertise an English language class, or the visit and skills demonstration by a Daoist master. In one, a Daoist master promised a demo of himself turning into a wild duck in the campus gymnasium, but that attracted too much interest and the university administrators decided to cancel the show.

In 1990, for the first anniversary of June 4, the day of the crackdown, San Jiao Di was eerily quiet. Men with crew-cuts were walking around keeping an eye on everybody as lots of students were doing the same – strolling by with a friend or by themselves, looking to see if anything was happening.

peking university

Peking University. Photo: Wikimedia Commons.

As evening came, the number of students just happening to go by had become so massive that, from a distance, it nearly looked like a demonstration. But nobody chanted slogans, and everyone made sure not to look like they had gone out of their dorms to join a crowd.

Dorm administrators were walking around calling students by name and warning them not to do anything “foolish” if they didn’t want to fail their exams. After midnight, however, little bottles started to fall down from the dorms’ window-sills — little bottle, or “xiao ping,” being a homophone of the name of Deng Xiaoping, the most powerful political figure in China at the time.

Some people gathered enough courage to shout a few slogans and stage a small protest. But it was soon brought under control. The campus remained quiet.

Still, all sorts of rumours flew around for a few weeks. The army was back in town. This or that general had been arrested. This or that general had killed himself. Or he had resigned. Deng had died. Deng was ill. Deng had fired this or that politburo member. People’s hopes and fears were reflected in the rumours, but hardly a single fact.

San Jiao Di, too, went back to the lone flier, advertising computer and English language classes, and less preposterous Daoist masters’ demonstrations.

Peking university

An open letter supporting student sexual harrassment activist Yue Xin posted at Peking University.

Now, it has come full circle again. San Jiao Di is where plain-clothes policemen are patrolling at night, this time looking for feminist activists and students sharing in the #metoo movement. You may think that in the WeChat era, with ubiquitous blogs and mobile phones from which to access them, a bulletin board would have become redundant: but digital surveillance being at the levels it is now, the humble bulletin board has again become a tool of expression – and a target for policing.

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In China's digital era, the humble bulletin board still attracts readers... and secret policemen