Li Chengpeng, the author who signs his books wearing a stab-proof vest

PUBLISHED : Tuesday, 05 March, 2013, 12:00am
UPDATED : Tuesday, 05 March, 2013, 4:17am


Once a football commentator who drew a huge following in China as he rooted out corruption in the sport, Li Chengpeng is now one of the government's fiercest critics - and lives in fear for his own safety.

Li symbolises the breadth of opinions among ordinary Chinese, with seven million followers on his blog and his books on the bestseller lists, while hardline Communists brand him a traitor.

His latest book tour saw him punched in the head, a packaged knife thrown at him and scuffles between liberals and leftists.

"I wear a stab-proof vest now for book signings," said Li, in a rare face-to-face interview with the foreign media, sitting in his hometown of Chengdu .

Li, who acts and looks younger than his 44 years, was one of the country's most popular football commentators.

But everything changed with the May 2008 Sichuan earthquake, which killed more than 80,000 people in his home province.

Li travelled to the disaster zone to try to help. And the carnage he witnessed at Beichuan High School, where more than 1,000 pupils died, affected him profoundly.

"This made me realise that life is precious," he said.

In his new work, entitled The Whole World Knows, he writes that Beijing's policy of drafting youngsters into the sports system and training them intensively to produce champions amounted to taking over their lives.

But as Li's writings focused more on political corruption, freedom of speech and the lack of other rights in the country, he began to polarise views, supported by mainly young, liberal-minded Chinese, but hated by Communist loyalists. There may be signs that the authorities are beginning to tolerate his brand of patriotism.

Publication of his book was allowed - albeit with some censorship - and this week it was at No4 in the bestsellers list.

But in a one-party state, tolerance only goes so far.

Li was ordered not to speak in public on his tour, and instead appeared with tape over his mouth.

He remains defiant. "It is a writer's glorious job to criticise his society," he said, adding with a grin that the state broadcaster was his benchmark for reform.