Jonathan Mirsky: Banned in China

In the New York Review of Books, Jonathan Mirsky writes about having his article excised from Newsweek last month and about censorship in China more broadly:

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.