In late December, a foreign correspondent in Beijing emailed me to say that a four-page article on China I’d written for a special New Year’s edition of Newsweek had been carefully torn from each of the 731 copies of the magazine on sale in China. Now, friends and colleagues are telling me what an honor it is to have one’s writing banned in the People’s Republic.
In over forty years of writing about China, I have been subjected to many forms of pressure. But this has never happened to me. What had I said this time that attracted the attention of the official shredder? The article, titled “China: Richer but Repressed,” mentioned Ai Weiwei, the outspoken artist and designer of the Beijing Olympics’ Bird’s Nest stadium, who was detained last year for 81 days; Liu Xiaobo, the Nobel Peace Prize winner, now serving eleven years; the blind civil rights lawyer Chen Guangcheng, long under house arrest and prohibited contact with all visitors; and Wang Yi, who published exposes of tainted milk and enforced abortions, and spent a year in detention. I included quotes from books by Harvard scholars. Surely everything I wrote is well known in China, especially to the tiny number of English-reading urban people who buy Newsweek.
Then I learned that a few months earlier, on August 28, 2011, Ai Weiwei had also published a piece in Newsweek that the Chinese censors cut out. In it he called Beijing a “nightmare,” a city of “desperation” in which those who don’t have money or connections “hold no hope.” As for the authorities’ methods of suppressing information about those who are detained or made to disappear, he wrote:
They see you or they don’t see you, it doesn’t make the slightest difference. There are thousands of spots like that. Only your family is crying out that you’re missing. But you can’t get answers from the street communities or officials, or even at the highest levels, the court or the police or the head of the nation. My wife has been writing these kinds of petitions every day, making phone calls to the police station every day. Where is my husband? Just tell me where my husband is. There is no paper, no information.
Of course, as a Chinese citizen, Ai Weiwei risks another round of detention by saying such things. But what is the worst that can happen to a foreign writer who displeases the Party? In China, he can be threatened, even when walking in the street, or his phone can be tapped, deliberately audibly. He can be banned; this is very rare. (It has happened to Perry Link and to me.) Or, if he lives and writes abroad, as I do now, what he publishes in China can be expunged. There are two messages here: we don’t like your ideas, and nothing like this is going to be published in China if we can prevent it.
In so doing, however, the censors actually remind us how awful true censorship must be. After all, foreign writers like me only hear about, but do not experience, the kind of daily oppression experienced by Chinese writers—what Perry Link has described as
a giant anaconda coiled in an overhead chandelier. Normally the great snake doesn’t move. It doesn’t have to. It feels no need to be clear about its prohibitions. Its constant silent message is ‘You yourself decide,’ after which, more often than not, everyone in its shadow makes his or her large and small adjustments—all quite naturally.
That is the menace of what in China is called “ the system.” Take “Charter 08,” the document published in 2008 calling for what in the West are regarded as human rights, and stating, “We should end the practice of viewing words as crimes.” This was signed by several thousand Chinese, most of whom are still at large. But Liu Xiaobo signed it, and at his trial in 2009 the Charter was a major piece of evidence of his “subversion of state power. ”
The anaconda is a telling image. Hu Fayun’s novel Such is This World@sars.come, which was popular in China before it was suppressed, is stuffed with word-crimes. The old Teacher Wei, once a Party bigwig and policy-maker, who from the Fifties was persecuted in “strike hard” campaigns against intellectuals, describes how
fear…A people that is not afraid to suffer, that is not afraid of hardship, or famine, or freezing cold—yet some nameless fear grips every heart. This is the horror of it…writers endure the fear that comes with writing, and those who read them taste the fear of being readers.
More pointedly—and daringly—Teacher Wei observes, “We don’t have an untainted cultural vehicle with which to record our own lives.” He recalls that even during Stalin’s time, Akhmatova, Pasternak, Solzhenitsyn, and Shostakovich
made their voices heard, leaving works that gleam with everlasting splendor…The terror didn’t stop them from creating great art to enshrine their memories…In a few decades, we lost the ability to express pain and grief… That is why the authorities want third-rate crooners from Hong Kong and Taiwan to dominate the market, leaving no room for songs that could express the sufferings and aspirations of our people.
Young people in China today are graduates of schools and universities where the realities of China’s modern history—the occupation of Tibet, the famine of 1959-1961, the Cultural Revolution, and Tiananmen in 1989—have been blacked out. Teacher Wei says, “…the kids who beat and reviled me, were the products of the education I had crafted.”
Such is This World@sars.come has been abridged, bowdlerized and effectively banned in China; Hu Fayun, who lives and writes there, must hear the anaconda shift its weight every day. But he is not behind bars. This arbitrariness keeps everyone guessing.
Chen Wei, on the other hand, who lives in faraway Sichuan, has just been sent to prison for nine years for publishing Internet essays with titles like: “The Disease of the System and the Medicine of Constitutional Democracy,” “The Key to China’s Democratization is the Growth of a Civil Opposition,” “The Feet of the Rights Defense [Movement] and the Brain of the Constitutional Democracy Movement,” and “Thoughts on Human Rights Day Hunger Strike.” Also in Sichuan, Chen Xi is facing years in prison for writing thirty essays calling for political reform and human rights. This Chen has already undergone thirteen years of prison, beginning after Tiananmen in 1989. Both Chens signed Charter 08. For them the anaconda uncoiled and opened its jaws. My four pages ripped from Newsweek are barely worth mentioning—except to underline the Chinese Communist Party’s decades of war against words.