The Gray Zone

In the New York Times, Louisa Lim and Jeffrey Wasserstrom write about the ways Chinese writers work around censorship restrictions:

Exactly how Chinese writers navigate this complex political landscape can be seen in a single tweet inspired by a speech by Ma [Jian] at Oslo’s House of Literature during a special “Chinese week” conference last November. In his talk, Ma described how “tanks crushed Chinese people’s bodies and crushed their morality to death” on June 4, 1989. But Murong Xuecun, China’s latest literary bad boy, made the line censor-friendly by changing “tanks” to “tractors.” On the Chinese version of Twitter, a politically neutral word like “tractors” will probably be ignored by censors for several hours, while “tanks” would be deleted immediately.

This is the confusing world of the People’s Republic 2.0, with its sliding scale of dissidence, a gray zone where authors are constrained but can flout the official rules without their work necessarily being banned. They carefully calibrate what can be communicated in English but not in Chinese; in Hong Kong but not in Beijing; online but not in print; via allegory but not direct exposition. The tank-to-tractor substitution — as well as related techniques, like taking advantage of Chinese’s rich store of homophones to substitute a sound-alike anodyne term for a politically charged one — illustrates how the ever-present censorship machine turns Chinese writers into verbal acrobats. Put more bluntly, it forces them to lie to get their voices heard.

When Murong himself spoke in Oslo, he sounded unequivocal: “In my country, writing is a dangerous occupation. Writers are not allowed to talk about history, or to criticize the present, let alone fantasize about the future. Many words cannot be written, many things cannot be spoken.” But even this verbal assault carefully avoided hot-button words like “politics,” “Communist” and “party.” Perhaps more important, it contained no direct or implied call to action.

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