Self-Censorship a “Potent Poison” for China’s Writers

For The New York Times’ Latitude blog, Eric Abrahamsen highlights Chinese novelist-in-exile Ma Jian, who once called out writers within China for complying with the country’s repressive political system, and explores the issue of self-censorship in China:

Commenters have borrowed Ma Jian in writing vigorous — sometimes caustic — attacks on the Chinese government. And even those inclined to feel sympathytoward Chinese authors seem disappointed that they’re not pushing harder. Everyone seems to be waiting for the writers to speak with the kind of courage and moral clarity displayed by political dissidents like Liu Xiaobo and Chen Guangcheng. What’s holding them back? Asked directly, most will say that they have perfect freedom to write but imperfect freedom to publish — namely, that self-censorship is not an issue.

I don’t believe this for an instant.

Since 2005 or so I’ve worked as a translator and promoter of Chinese literature, and — to borrow the grand language of the London Book Fair — I’ve generally adopted a “strategy of engagement” toward Chinese writers. What this means is that for several years I tried coaxing writers into confessing to me how oppressed they felt, perhaps with the aim of encouraging them to buck up somehow.

This went over poorly. While a few agreed boisterously with my arguments, usually over beer or baijiu, most just squinted at me or let their eyes wander, then changed the subject. Others, even though I was sure they shared my point of view, would lean back and smile Sphinx-like at the ceiling. Eventually I embarrassed myself enough to give it up.

As Abrahamsen notes, Ma Jian appeared last month at the London Book Fair and smeared red paint across his face in protest of the choice of China as the “Market Focus” country. A video of Ma’s demonstration is on YouTube (he breaks out the red paint about 5 minute into the clip):

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