One night in September, three hundred people crowded into the basement auditorium of an office tower in Beijing to hear a discussion between two of China’s most popular writers. One was Liu Yu, a thirty-eight-year-old political scientist and blogger who has written a best seller explaining how American democracy works. Her fans call her “goddess”—for her writings and her stylish looks.1
But this evening, Liu was just a foil for the other writer: Peter Hessler, a low-key New Yorker journalist. Based in China until 2007, he later wrote on the American West and now lives in Egypt. Hessler has written three books on China and a collection of essays, all published in the US, and been recognized with a MacArthur fellowship.
In China, however, he has been transformed into a writer of cult-figure proportions whose fans analyze his love life, his translator’s finances, and his children’s education. An enthusiast has written a book imitating his prose style and retracing his career, while a men’s fashion magazine flew a team from London to his summer home in Colorado to shoot a three-page photo spread. China has had celebrity authors before, but never a foreigner who writes on its most sensitive subject: itself.
I’ve known Hessler for fifteen years, but sat somewhat befuddled in the audience. As much as I enjoy his work, I couldn’t help wondering why people in the audience seemed so impressed when he said his daughters were learning Arabic (not Chinese!), or clasped each other when he said he hoped to return to China one day (what mysteries about us will he unveil?).
Organizers had asked people to register for the event ahead of time, and more than one thousand signed up for the three hundred seats. People stood in the back of the room holding copies of his books, or milled around in the hallway hoping to catch a few words. Suddenly the evening began to have something rare in this staid city of twenty-odd million: the electricity of a genuine public event.
The authorities had done their best to prevent this. The talk was supposed to have been held at a nearby university, but administrators there had canceled at the last minute after receiving instructions that they weren’t supposed to hold public events, especially one involving a liberal intellectual like Liu. As China’s ideological atmosphere has tightened recently, she has curtailed her blog and seldom appears in public.
Liu seemed eager to make the most of this rare public forum. She pointedly discussed many of China’s most sensitive issues: the democracy movement in Hong Kong, the Communist Party’s recent decision to…
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