WASHINGTON—An event meant to celebrate China’s literary life provided occasion for criticizing the regime’s censorship.
This year in New York City on May, 27-29, China was the featured country in the BookExpo America (BEA) 2015, held at the Javits Center. As the publishing industry’s largest U.S. trade show with 600+ authors, hundreds of new titles, and hundreds of exhibitors, BEA is the “largest gathering of booksellers, librarians, retailers, and book industry professionals in North America,” states its website.
Dissident writers, publishers and human rights organizations held an alternative “Shadow Expo,” as a counter to the BEA, on the steps of the New York City Public Library on May 27. In Washington, D.C., events were held at the State Department, Capitol Hill, and the White House, according to Suzanne Nossel, executive director, PEN American Center. Nossel spoke May 28 in Washington, D.C. at Freedom House, a human rights organization.
Nossel said that the Chinese authors available at the BEA, were “all hand-picked.” They are “not those who have challenged the system and stood up for human rights assertively.”
As a continuation of the Shadow Expo, three of China’s leading literary dissidents—Bao Pu, Xiaolu Guo, and Murong Xuecun—participated in a discussion about censorship and creative freedom in China at Freedom House. The same three had appeared a day or two before on the steps of the New York City Public Library and at the Council of Foreign Relations.
PEN America and Freedom House jointly sponsored the Freedom House event.
‘Censorship and Conscience’
Just a week before the BookExpo America, PEN released “Censorship and Conscience: Foreign Authors and the Challenge of Chinese Censorship,” which describes China’s massive censorship system and is available online.
As book sales in China grow, foreign authors writing in a non-Chinese language will be enticed to publish in translation. The PEN report raises concerns about the censorship and the compromises made. It wants authors to be aware of the options available when engaged in the translation and publication process.
PEN is the world’s leading literary human rights organization and PEN American Center, with 4,000 members, is its largest branch, according to its website. PEN defends writers and journalists who are persecuted or threatened in more than 100 countries.
Murong Xuecun Faces Hard Choices
Murong Xuecun, 41, the pen name for Hao Qun, is one of China’s first internet‐based writers. His Weibo account, China’s equivalent to Twitter, had 8.5 million followers before being shut down by the communist regime in May 2013. His debut novel, “Leave Me Alone: A Novel of Chengdu,” was published online in 2002. The print version sold more than a million copies. The Atlantic described him as one of China’s brightest literary stars.
Although an acerbic critic of China’s censorship, he also wants his works published in China. Seven of his eight books have been heavily censored, according to the PEN report. He told PEN that he needs the income generated from sales in China; so, he is highly conflicted.
His views on censorship were powerfully expressed in “An Open Letter to a Nameless Censor,” that appeared in the Chinese-edition of the NY Times in 2013. Here is a passage from the piece:
“You treat literature as poison, free speech as a crime, and independent thinkers as your enemy. Thanks to your efforts, this great nation of 1.3 billion people does not have a single newspaper that can express objective views, nor a single TV station that broadcasts objective programs, or even the smallest space where people can speak freely.”
A prominent advocate for free expression issues in China, Murong is a contributing opinion writer to the International New York Times.
One Chinese author, who spoke anonymously to PEN, said he would agree to tone down the wording so long as it doesn’t alter the overall narrative. He said, “Most censorship will be quite subtle, for example, changing ‘the Soviet dictator Stalin’ to ‘Soviet leader Stalin.’ In my opinion, the benefit [of getting the work published in China] outweighs the loss.”
Xiaolu Guo Stops Writing in Chinese
Xiaolu Guo, 42, an expatriate who lives now in the UK, is an award‐winning novelist and filmmaker. Her latest novel “I Am China,” written in English, deals with the consequences of the Tiananmen Square massacre through the love story of a musician and poet. Obviously, with a topic like Tiananmen, her novel is not going to be a candidate for publication and translation into her native language.
“If you’re a writer and want to write a novel about life in modern China, you must steer clear of the following periods: the great famine from 1959 to 1962, the Cultural Revolution from 1966 to 1976, and the Tiananmen incident of 1989. Otherwise, you will find it difficult to get your book published,” Murong wrote.
Guo’s feature films and documentaries are also unwelcome to the China censors. They include “She, A Chinese, Once upon a time a Proletariat,” and “The Concrete Revolution (2004),” which received the Grand Prix at the 2005 International Human Rights Film Festival.
None of her books or films is available in China, according to an interview Guo gave to The Guardian in May 2014. At the Freedom House event, she said that she is compelled to write now in English, her second language.
Guo commented on the outcome of the communist censorship and political control for the damage it has done to the average Chinese. She remarked that most people in China have not heard of the most famous Chinese novel in the West, “Wild Swans,” the story of three generations in twentieth-century China, by Jung Chang. If told about it, they assume it must be shameful, she said.
Bao Pu Publishes Banned Books
Bao Pu is a publisher based in Hong Kong. He founded New Century Press, which publishes books that have been banned in China, including memoirs of former party leaders. He is also the editor and translator of “Prisoner of the State: The Secret Journal of Premier Zhao Ziyang.”
He is the son of Bao Tong, who was a top aide to Zhao Ziyang, and became the highest-ranking Chinese official to go to jail for resisting the crackdown on pro-democracy protesters in Tiananmen Square in 1989. Bao Tong is under house arrest.
In a sense, Bao Pu benefits from the communist censorship because he publishes the books banned on the mainland, and the banned books get noticed, he said. However, the business has been in decline in recent years, he said, due to stepped up censorship from the communist regime.
Mainlanders may come to Hong Kong to buy books and even take away large quantities, presumably to sell and disseminate up north. Today, in Xi Jinping’s China, when Chinese citizens reenter the mainland, they pass through scanners at the port of entry where books are often confiscated.
Apparently, there is no master list of banned books, which makes life very difficult for Bao. The customs officer makes a subjective assessment of a book, and removes it if it is deemed subversive.
Writers and publishers have to be mindful of content that the regime finds objectionable, including references to controversial Chinese historical details, Chinese politics, and facts about Chinese leaders, according to the PEN report.
“Books that deal directly and heavily with politically sensitive topics such as the Tiananmen Square massacre, Tibet, and Taiwan are almost inevitably censored, but works of poetry, fiction, memoir, and even self-help texts are not safe from the editor’s scalpel in China…. Often the writer is never consulted about the censorship of their work and is completely unaware of it,” states the report.
PEN investigators spoke to Chinese writers in Hong Kong and China in January, who described the “historical amnesia” on the mainland, and lament that young people, including young adults, “have no idea that the Tiananmen violence ever took place.”
Ideally, it would be best for foreign writers not to cooperate in any way with this censorship, but authors may be willing for the sake of getting the main message of their book disseminated on the mainland.
Ezra Vogel, renowned East Asian historian allowed the translation of his biography of Deng Xiaoping to be partially censored. Vogel said, “To me the choice was easy. I thought it was better to have 90 percent of the book available here [in China] than zero,'” states the report.
Thus, it breaks down into some foreign authors who argue that “getting new ideas into China, even if they are in a diluted or distorted form, will help advance the cause of free expression in China” and provide some viewpoints and materials that would otherwise be inaccessible.
On the other side are those who argue that agreeing to Chinese censorship, encourages the censorship regime that is not a choice for Chinese writers and further restricts freedom of expression in China, states the report.