March 29, 2018
Pour one out for Li Ao, Taiwan’s most divisive public intellectual
by Michael Barron
“Gone contra” is not a phrase in any vernacular I am familiar with, and yet, I think it’s high time to coin it. By “going contra” I mean popular cultural figures who espouse views widely unpopular with their base. Killer Mike’s pro-gun comments? Gone contra. Kate Bush’s endorsement of Theresa May? Gone contra.
While the once-mighty Tawianese writer and political figure Li Ao—who passed away this past Sunday at the age of eighty-two—may have achieved international renown as one of East Asia’s most prominent intellectuals, he’ll be remembered for going contra, a gesture made when he began to lambaste the movement for Taiwanese independence.
Let’s back up a sec. Li Ao was born in Harbin, in northeast China, in 1934. At the end of the Chinese Civil War in 1949, Li, sixteen, fled to Taiwan along with many other members, when the Kuomintang, the Chinese Nationalist Party led by Chiang Kai-Shek, fled to island after their defeat on the mainland by the Mao Zedong’s Chinese Communist Party.
After graduating in history from National Taiwan University in 1959, Li went on to edit Apollo, a cultural magazine with pro-Western leanings that the KMT soon shut down. In 1971, he received a four-year prison sentence for helping dissident Peng Ming-min escape Taiwan. Confinement seemed to boost his popularity at home and prominence worldwide.
In a 1977 New York Times report, Fox Butterfield wrote:
The plight of the opposition is illustrated by the fate of Li Ao, once Taiwan’s best known young writer, who was released from jail late last year after being imprisoned since 1971. Mr. Li, formerly a voluble critic of the regime, has been given a small job in the Government-run Institute of International Relations.
But he has studiously avoided meeting or talking with old friends, even when he passes them in the corridors. A sign in his own handwriting on his house says, “No Visitors,” and some of his friends suspect that this was part of a deal’ he had to make with the Government to gain his release.
“Now he knows it’s useless to go to jail,” observed a friend who had been imprisoned with him and claims to have overheard Mr. Li scream during torture sessions. “There’s no reward for sacrifice in this society. Everyone else just goes on making money.”
Eventually, Li drifted back into writing scathing critiques of the KMT. He spent another six months in prison in the early eighties, on charges of misappropriating funds from Apollo. Upon his release in 1982, all his works were banned in Taiwan for the next ten years. Other voices that had emerged in his absence had begun to overshadow his influence.
After a period of dabbling as a TV personality, Li regained cultural prominence in 2000 with Martyrs’ Shrine: The Story of the Reform Movement of 1898 in China, a novelesque work that combined social and political history with a fictionalized romantic narrative. The work was rumored to have gotten Li shortlisted by the Nobel Committee in 2000, though that year’s prize would ultimately go to Gao Xingjian, a mainland Chinese writer in exile for criticizing the People’s Republic of China.
It was in the aughts that Li began to abandon his base. The first signs of his going contra emerged after the 2000 Taiwanese presidential election, in which Li vehemently opposed the Democratic Progressive Party on the grounds that Taiwan should seek to reunify with the mainland, and that the elected officials of the DPP were nothing more than goons for the CIA. “Everybody will call others a son of bitch when enraged,” a fawning profile published by the PRC’s state-run China Internet Information Center quotes Li as saying. “But I’m not satisfied with such curses. I’ll go further and offer evidence to explain they really are son of bitch. That’s why they say I’m a firm and pungent critic.”
In 2005, Li became a member of the Legislative Yuan, Taiwan’s parliament. That same year, he returned to the mainland for the first time in fifty-six years and embarked on a popular lecture tour. “We wish the Communist Party can live for a thousand years,” he told students at Beijing University, in a speech transcribed by Roland Soong for his English-language Chinese cultural blog EastSouthWestNorth. He goes on:
“We want to stay on its back, steer it, endure it and let it serve us. What is wrong with that? If we don’t like it and want to fight or play freedom of speech, you can’t beat them. If you want a revolution, you cannot defeat the tanks. If they say don’t do this, you go out and do it deliberately; if they say something, you do the opposite. You are only going to get upset with these unhealthy emotions while nothing gets done.”
Back home, Li had become so pugnacious toward the Taiwanese government that during one defense spending meeting he donned a Guy Fawkes mask and began spraying tear gas and brandishing a stun gun on the floor of legislature.
As Vincent Ni and Qiang Zhang writing for the BBC point out, Li’s death has been met with a variety of responses. “His courage to speak his mind and to act on it was exemplary,” one commentator said. “He was opposed to Taiwan independence and was resolute in his fight against separatists. For this, he deserves our respect,” offered another. Others in Taiwan remembered Li less fondly: “Li Ao never cursed anyone on the mainland but only cursed people in Taiwan, because it was safe,” one wrote. “Li Ao turned into a tool,” commented another.
If anything, Li Ao’s legacy will be cemented not by his stumping for righteous causes, but by the outrageousness of his contrarianism. But if there is one thing allowing him to rest in peace, it is that Taiwan remains unrecognized as an independent nation.
Michael Barron is an editor at Melville House.