Censors and Sensibility: Writing In and On China

On the Sinica podcast, Ian Johnson joins Kaiser Kuo, Jeremy Goldkorn, and David Moser to discuss foreign writers’ coverage of China, with a specific emphasis on the works of , the author of three acclaimed on the country.

If you happen to live in the anglophone world and aren’t closely tied to China by blood or professional ties, chances are that what you believe to be true about this country is heavily influenced by the opinions of perhaps one hundred other people, the reporters who cover China for the world’s leading media outlets and the who build a narrative to encompass it beyond the frenetic drumbeat of current affairs.

This week, Kaiser Kuo, Jeremy Goldkorn and David Moser are joined by accomplished writer to talk about this phenomenon at first generally, but then specifically with regards to a piece Ian recently authored in the New York Review of Books called An American Hero in China, a look into the way China has embraced Peter Hessler and his writings on the country. We try to make sense of how exactly reporting is done here, what sorts of editorial decisions are made that affect coverage, and how the voice of the author struggle to make China intelligible to the outside world. [Source]

Last week, Foreign Policy’s Alexa Olesen reported on the unauthorized edits often suffered by Western authors who publish in China, and the acquiescence of many among them:

I heard about cuts to self-help, poetry, fiction, history, and reportage. The missing material usually involved Tibet, the 1989 Tiananmen crackdown, or some shameful chapter of Chinese history like the Cultural Revolution or the Great Famine. (Sex could also get a book censored.) As the anecdotal evidence started to accumulate, it became clear that though cuts tended to be surgically precise, they were also extremely common. Only rarely was there outrage. Many were fatigued by the idea of having to police all their overseas editions. With international , they argued, something is always going to get lost in translation. Many had simply decided to not worry about it.

On top of the lack of concern, there was also an Escher-like chain of deniability, with authors deferring to agents, who deferred to publishers, who deferred to foreign rights agents, who deferred to Chinese co-agents and publishers who said they were following their gut, trying to conform to a set of unwritten but implied government guidelines. The opacity and the web of shared but poorly delineated responsibility lets many people off the hook. In the case of Brooklyn-based writer Paul Auster’s censored Chinese version of Sunset Park, his latest novel, I was struck by the bold honestly of the Chinese publisher, Peng Lun, deputy editor at Shanghai 99, which co-published the book. Peng took full responsibility for his decision to edit out any mention of the jailed activist Liu Xiaobo from Auster’s book; it wasn’t what he wanted to do, he said, but what he had to do to stay in business. [Source]

Hessler and his successor at The New Yorker, Evan Osnos, discussed their differing views on accepting cuts on the magazine’s Out Loud podcast earlier this year. At The New York Times, Indiana University professor Elliot H. Sperling argues that writers and artists outside China need to stand up to Chinese censors not for their own benefit but for the sake of their counterparts working within China:

Shouldn’t common sense automatically prescribe that authors and artists living in liberal, democratic societies not submit to Chinese of their work?

Stunningly, a good number of people do, and their excuses and/or apologetics ring very hollow. Perhaps the most self-serving (and often narcissistic) is the argument that if even a portion of one’s work is seen or heard in China, it will have a beneficial effect.

[…] But what is most distressing is that those who deploy such excuses seem willfully resistant to acknowledging the most obvious and salient point about the whole issue: It’s not about them. It’s about those writers and artists in China who have neither the name recognition nor the cachet of their foreign counterparts. When those outside China acquiesce to censorship of their work — regardless of how they excuse such behavior to themselves and their colleagues — they are actively contributing to the further constriction of the space available to many brave writers and artists inside the country who (as yet) have none of the renown of their foreign counterparts with which to attempt to leverage the restrictions upon them. [Source]

Foreign Policy’s Isaac Stone Fish and David Wertime asked publisher Bao Pu and writers Guo Xiaolu and Murong Xuecun (Hao Qun) for their views on the effects of censorship:

FP: What does the world lose because of this censorship?

BP: Censorship, if you tolerate it, becomes a breeding ground for prejudice and ignorance. The average mainland Chinese perception of the United States, Japan, and the West is different from the rest of the world. And that’s actually a direct result of censorship.

MX: Look at the TV shows about the War Against Japanese Aggression [a common Chinese name for World War 2]. Because of strict censorship in television, there’s so many of these shows. And they have influence. If you look at websites popular with young people, like [nationalist military fanboy forum] Tiexue, you will see so much about ‘kill all the Japanese,’ ‘exterminate Japanese dogs!’ ‘If there’s a war between China and Japan, let’s have a contest to see who can first kill 10,000 Japanese!’ [Source]

Murong Xuecun was among the writers who gathered to protest against Chinese censorship at the New York Public Library last month, after a government-sponsored Chinese publishing delegation appeared prominently at this year’s BookExpo America in Manhattan. Alexandra Alter at The New York Times reports:

The juxtaposition was striking. This week, thousands of booksellers, librarians, publishers and authors mingled at BookExpo, at the Jacob K. Javits Convention Center, where Chinese publishers were being feted as international guests of honor. To mark the event, the Chinese government sent a 500-person delegation from 100 publishing houses, and 26 of its top authors. Chinese publishers claimed close to 25,000 square feet of floor space at the hall and planned 50 events around the city, including poetry readings, film screenings, author panels and presentations from its largest publishers.

Not many blocks away, Mr. Murong stood on the library steps and read aloud from an open letter he had written to Chinese censors in 2013, after his social media account was blocked and its contents deleted. “You treat literature as poison and free speech as a crime,” he said. (Mr. Murong is also a contributing opinion writer to The International New York Times.)

He was joined by prominent American writers like Jonathan Franzen, Paul Auster, Francine Prose and A. M. Homes, and by the China-born novelists Ha Jin and Xiaolu Guo. They took turns reading works by Chinese authors who are in prison or under house arrest for their , including the Tibetan poet Tsering Woeser, the writer and her husband, the poet and Nobel Peace Prize winner Liu Xiaobo, who is serving an 11-year prison sentence for subversion. [Source]

Christopher Beam reported on the two events for The New Yorker:

The backlash did not surprise B.E.A.’s organizers. “This is not specific to B.E.A., and this is not specific to China,” said Ruediger Wischenbart, head of international affairs for B.E.A., who has also worked at the Frankfurt Book Fair. Such events, he stressed, are always coming under fire for their invitees. In 2001, four weeks after September 11th, the Frankfurt Book Fair hosted a number of radical Muslim publishers. “People would ask, ‘Why are they here?’ ” he said. “I would say, ‘That’s the role of the book fair.’ ” At the Frankfurt fair in 2009, which also featured China, two dissident writers were invited to speak at an event, then disinvited, then re-invited after German journalists and diplomats protested, prompting Chinese officials to walk out and the fair’s director to apologize to China. In 2013, B.E.A. invited Russia; two years before that, Book World Prague hosted Saudi Arabia. These events, Wischenbart said, are not forums for literary or political debate. “Fairs are very practical things.”

The PEN protesters argued that the Chinese government was exploiting B.E.A.’s pragmatism for political purposes. In a speech at the rally, Suzanne Nossel, executive director of the PEN American Center, called the expo “an opportunity for China to spread its soft power and show that creativity and literature are flourishing despite repressive one-party rule.”

That may indeed have been China’s goal when it accepted B.E.A.’s invitation. But when I visited the Javits Center, a massive glass complex on the Hudson River, China’s soft-power push didn’t seem to be making much headway. If anything, the China-themed events highlighted the failure of Chinese publishers to sell books abroad, and reflected the challenges the country faces as it tries to improve its public image and export its culture around the world. [Source]

At ChinaFile, Ouyang Bin spoke with author Liu Zhenyun about the Chinese writers of his generation:

What distinguishes our generation of writers is that we have lived through relatively rich historical periods. We all have in common that we have risen from poverty. Many of us grew up in the countryside, including me, Mo Yan, Yan Lianke, and so on. We all lived through years of not having enough to eat, of starvation, of almost starving to death. So above all, we share a kind of terror of the world. Because the world almost abandoned us.

On another note, we spent our childhoods and youth in a turbulent and especially politically unstable society. We lived through the Cultural Revolution, for example. At the same time, we have witnessed other formidable social transformations. Dramatic changes have occurred in this society since the Cultural Revolution.

[…] Thirty years on, the most significant change in Chinese society is that it has gone from being homogenous to very diverse. It is still a power-driven society, and it is also a money-driven society.

[…] What’s more, the subtle and illicit connection of power to money gives rise to shadowy, intricate, ironic, complex, and all kinds of bizarre and grotesque sights. Witnessing this transformation has had a definite impact on this generation of writers and their sensibilities. The kind of knowledge they have accumulated as a result is somehow richer as a result. Their work is more layered. It’s no less profound than the work of the May Fourth generation writers. [Source]