Late last month, Wen Huang, the Chicago-based English translator of the great Chinese writer Liao Yiwu—the author of “The Corpse Walker: Real Life Stories: China From the Bottom Up”—sent good news: “The Chinese government has granted Liao Yiwu an exit permit for him to attend the Berlin and Hamburg literary festivals in September.” This was an abrupt reversal for the Chinese authorities. In March, when Liao was booked to appear at a literary festival in Cologne, Chinese agents pulled him off the plane that was to take him to Germany, where he is a best-seller. As I wrote here at that time, Liao was all too accustomed to being detained and imprisoned for his work in the twenty years since he first came to fame decrying the Tiananmen Square massacre. In prison, he took his beatings and learned to play the traditional Chinese flute, and each time, as soon as he got released, he went right back to raising his voice, honestly and clearly and in stubborn defiance of his would-be-muzzlers.
Even now, when he was told he was allowed to travel, he was reminded that he was not free. The public-security bureau attached various conditions (no participation in political events, no bad mouthing of China. But, a frequent flying Chinese friend says, such terms are boilerplate, “since those officials need those to cover their rear ends.” In fact just before Liao left China last week—at fifty-two, his first trip abroad—one of the public-security officers who keeps an eye on him sent him a text message wishing him bon voyage. Wen, the translator, said the officer told Liao, “It’s a hard-earned opportunity, hope you can cherish it,” and encouraged him to talk about China’s social progress to his foreign audiences. Liao replied: “I’m not a political activist. I’m a writer. I talk about what I see as truth.”