A Writer's Ordeal in China

My father survived the Cultural Revolution. He was not a revolutionary rebel. He belonged to the "protect the emperor faction."

That did not mean protect Mao Zedong, rather, it referred to the leaders who were already in power, that is, he supported preservation of the status quo. The revolutionary rebel faction pursued him relentlessly, so I saw very little of my father during that period.

He was by no means a conservative, yet he chose the "protect the emperor" faction because he was forced to make a choice. It was either join the revolutionary rebels or protect the emperor. He found himself in the cruelest dynasty in Chinese history, one that curtailed the freedom to ignore politics.

Having lived through an era in which every choice was predestined to be wrong, my father continues to live in fear. Luckily, nowadays a person can avoid being dragged into politics and still survive.

When my father first saw my writings in print he was so scared he couldn't sleep. A few years earlier, he said, I'd have been at the very least branded a counter revolutionary rightist. Indeed, the rightists of the 1950s never uttered anything counter-revolutionary. They actually worshiped the communist party and wanted the best for the party.

In my father's eyes what I'm doing is incomprehensible. He was dead against me writing and indeed for many years I was unable to publish anything at all. I began to write in the 1980s but I was incapable of producing in the genre of "sing praise and extol virtue" that the government desired.

The requirement was that even if a bad official were described it could only be a deputy, never the chief. And a positive ending was mandatory. I was once instructed to rewrite a story and set the negative elements in Hong Kong or Taiwan. I refused, and for 20 years was virtually unable to publish anything. Eventually, when I was published, it was only after extensive cuts and changes. To this day all my works have been cut and altered. Some were banned after publication and four are still banned.

My publishers are jittery, too. I once asked the editor of a literary magazine, are there actually any regulations that stipulate what can and cannot be written about? According to him, sometimes there are, but mostly there are not.

Publishers have to exercise their own judgment. First they do an internal review, then, after publication the censors review it again – yes, China does have censors. To avoid trouble publishers make their internal reviews very severe. This is an even more dangerous invisible threat.

My blog is frequently excised. I took my on-line editor to task about this, pointing out that they have a "sensitive word" filter. Just tell me what the sensitive words are and I'll avoid them. He replied that despite the filter, for people like me the authorities also allocate someone to review the whole article, and they can order cuts to articles that do not contain sensitive words.

The president of the Chinese Writers Association, Tie Ning, proclaimed to the world that China does not have a censorship system. If China does not have a censorship system, then how do these things occur?

My experience of 2007 is another slap in the face to the president of the Writers Association. In 2007, Book of Offences was published in Taiwan. The copies posted to me in China were confiscated by the customs.

The reason was that the book contained the novella, now available here in English as I Love My Mum. I protested and initiated a court case.

Let me return to my father. When he learned of this incident he thought I was out of my mind. Innumerable books have been banned since 1949, including my 2006 novel Irritation and very few authors had ever raised any objections, including me. There was never any discussion and you were lucky not to be exterminated.

But then I complicated matters by starting a court case. They all thought I was just asking for trouble.

The officials who banned my book do not understand what I'm doing, either. A customs officer once shouted at me, "Don't push your luck, we've been pretty lenient on you because you're a writer and a university lecturer." And a senior supervisor in the customs brusquely said to me, "This is the way we've always handled things. Stop making a fuss, it's useless."

I responded, "Just because you've always done this doesn't make it right. It's useless? Well let's see what happens when I make a fuss."

They say things like that because they really can prevent me from making a fuss. For example, the party's propaganda department instructed the media to not report the case. Moreover, the court decided against an open hearing because the case involved "state secrets." They prohibited public attendance and held the hearing in camera.

At the hearing I asked the customs why they confiscated my book. That's a pretty basic question but they had never told me the reason. I thought the court was a proper forum for checking the facts of the case.

But the customs responded, "This is a state secret that we cannot reveal to you. We will inform the court." I then asked the court, "Why did they confiscate my book?" The court responded, "It's a state secret. We cannot tell you." That meant the discovery stage of the proceedings could not continue.

I then asked, "If it is a state secret, as you claim, then according to the State Secrets Law there must be a classification of the level of secrecy, the scope of secrecy and a time limit–can you please inform me about those issues?" No one was able to answer me. But they still ruled that I had lost the case. I appealed to a higher court but the result was the same. I felt I had been assassinated.

I wrote to the National Peoples' Congress but received no response.

If those in power are going to be like that then they could have dismissed case. But the strange thing is, they accepted it. They are obviously dictators yet they want to masquerade as ruling by law.

In China today we constantly hear them go on about the rule of law. It was obviously a black box operation yet they permitted me to go through legal proceedings. Why do they insist on this charade?

Interestingly, while they did not even dare to reveal the reason for the ban, they said an assessment had been made. The assessment was, "It's a state secret." But who made that assessment? They would not reveal which arm of government did it, saying only that it was made by the relevant authority, which itself was also a state secret.

Later, I learned through discrete inquiries, that the relevant authority is the most secretive of all. I was informed that although they made the assessment they had ordered the customs not to reveal their identity. The customs also complained of injustice. They were pushed up on the stage but were gagged.

From this we can see that although we are dealing with a dictatorship, this dictatorship has become fragile. The world is undergoing awesome changes – go with the flow and flourish, go against it and wither – and China cannot be the exception. Actually, the rulers of China know this, which is why the relevant authority is afraid to show its face.

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So the courts go through this charade, and the propaganda departments forbid the media to report the case with a telephone call, fearful of leaving a paper trail. And the agency responsible for banning the book is wary of revealing the reason for the ban.

Actually, they did reveal something: they initially pointed to sexual content. Is that a reason for banning a book? As everybody knows, China is now one of the most sexually open countries in the world. Sex is everywhere, and publications with sexual content are openly and legally on sale without restriction.

Occasionally, the government runs anti-pornography campaigns, but in China they are always accompanied by a campaign to crack down on illegal publications.

Every province and city has an office in charge of the campaign against pornography and illegal publications. Pornography is the pretext but the true target is illegal publications. And these illegal publications are invariably political in nature, and inevitably the books that are banned contain dissident ideas. The campaign against pornography has become a tool to oppress dissent.

In fact, what made them most uncomfortable about I Love My Mum was the passage saying that prostitution is the driving force in some local economies. That is to say, China's economic model is frequently a prostitution economy. All you need is money. From top to bottom, people are debauched.

The authorities actually encourage this because people are preoccupied and do not have time to think about social justice. That is the harmonious society the government espouses. But if debauchery damages their rule, it cannot be tolerated, so they are forced to prevaricate with an excuse of state secrets.

It is noteworthy that during the court proceedings the customs official who confiscated my book smiled at me. After the trial he even tried to greet me. This reminded me of something else that had recently happened: three netizens who had voiced a grievance on behalf of someone else were arrested for slander.

At their trial, the court house was stacked with police officers to prevent the public from auditing the trial. The public was stopped outside the courthouse and the police obstructed the public. But the police officers were all smiling. The officers said surreptitiously, "Please be understanding, we're here to protect our jobs, we didn't have a choice."

Nowadays in China no one is willing to risk their personal reputation to support the system, and everyone is fed up with it. Government officials actually complain more vociferously than ordinary citizens. They actively declare that this evil is not their doing, that they are actually victims of it. They hope that come the day of reckoning they will be able to claim they were forced to do things against their will and thus evade legal responsibility.

But they cannot evade legal responsibility. In my court case, if I had sought a powerful backer or had been able to make some well placed bribes, they would have been lenient on me. They actually are not particularly concerned about legal niceties. For them laws and regulations are like a chamber pot. They only consider their own interests, not the law.

I cannot play that game because I am not wealthy and I have no connections, nor do I want to play that game. And so they dealt with me "according to the law." They can abandon principles for their own benefit, but will not abandon their own interests for justice or social progress. So they remain guilty.

Even at the highest levels no one is willing to take responsibility for the system, let alone for the actions of past leaders. For example, no one is willing to touch the issue of the June Fourth incident.

As the current leaders don't want to be entangled in past issues, there is hope, though there needs to be public pressure. Unfortunately, there is no momentum, only a shirking of responsibility.

The driving force should be intellectuals, including writers. But what is the situation of our intellectuals, and especially our writers? When Liu Shaobo was sentenced, Cui Weiping did a telephone survey of some intellectuals and the response of several writers leaves me ashamed.

Many writers have suffered under the censorship system. When my Book of Offenses was banned and I protested against the censorship system a Peking publication asked some writers for their views, but not a single writer besides Yan Lianke was willing to take a stand. Are they innocent or guilty?

We are not incapable, we just do not act. Resistance will deter the authorities. But if you don't resist, the authorities will not change of their own accord. We cannot wait for them to bestow rights, we must fight for them. It is clear that the human rights movement in China is actually propelling the government forward.

Of course, I'm not hugely optimistic and I cannot guarantee that I can stay out of jail. But if I do find myself in jail, times have changed. It is the era of give-and-take.

Of course this new game has rules. The rules are the legal system. I am well aware that the people enforcing the law are good with their tricks When we use the law they will resort to thuggery, if we try thuggery they will take legal action.

But when we use the law they have to face the public. And if the public is watching closely, the people enforcing the law cannot be completely unscrupulous, because they too are afraid of public opinion. China is in an explosive situation and the government has its concerns.

I have heard that they rather regret confiscating my Book of Offenses. They regret that they had the misfortune of doing a spot check on the package posted to me. A scholar from Chicago University recently interviewed the customs and was told that if only I had the package sent to my university, rather than my home, the customs would have been more careful and not done a spot check.

They seem to have remembered my name, because soon after that the French galley proofs of my book Irritation arrived without a hitch.

This is the power of public opinion and that power is also in your hands.