British Indian author Salman Rushdie became an icon of free expression after his 1988 novel The Satanic Verses garnered him a fatwā from Ayatollah Khomeini, followed by countless death threats. Coinciding with the release of the PEN International report on China, The Atlantic gets the award-winning author’s take on Chinese censorship and citizen resistance:
Nearly a quarter century has passed since you were forced into hiding by the Ayatollah’s fatwa. In the ensuing years, how would you assess the worldwide climate for censorship? Have things generally gotten better, or worse?
I’d say that, in general, they’ve gotten worse. But one of the things our report highlights is that people have more tools to resist censorship using new media. For instance, in China, while there’s increased repression in the form of arbitrary arrests, artists held incommunicado and put under house arrest, and increasing hostility towards literature and free expression, there is at the same time a growing willingness of Chinese citizens to find ways to express themselves. In spite of all the repression, there’s been a growth of independent, non-state publishers to print things that wouldn’t be approved by state houses, and people have shown the willingness to post things online even if they’re not to the liking of the state.
Is this a battle that China’s citizens will win?
I don’t want to be Pollyannish — it’s entirely possible that they’ll lose. China has been pretty effective over the years in silencing dissident voices — just consider the case of Liu Xiaobao and his wife, who resorted to shouting “not free” in court to remind people of her situation. The Chinese are good at repression and can be pretty ruthless about it.
But I feel that, in the end, China does want to have a more significant role in international affairs, it does want to be seen as a big player in the world, it wants to have authority, it wants to have respect, it wants to be treated as one of the great voices in the world today. They’re beginning to be aware that their behavior is damaging their reputation, though, and I think if you put sufficient pressure on authoritarian regimes they often see that it is in their own self-interest to ease up on repression.
This is not the first time Rushdie has weighed in on China: he has publicly advocated on behalf of political prisoner Liu Xiaobo, has co-authored a letter to Hu Jintao and foreign minister Yang Jiechi protesting travel restrictions on dissident artist Ai Weiwei, has opined that “art will win over tyrants” in reference to China, and has also labeled Mo Yan a “patsy” after the Chinese novelist took the Nobel prize in literature. Also see Rushdie’s recollection of the day in 1989 when he became aware of the Ayatollah’s call to end his life, via The New Yorker.
The Atlantic has also published an excerpt from author Murong Xuecun’s contribution to the PEN report, on “China’s ‘Crappy Freedom'”:
In the past decade or so, the condition of freedom of speech in China has improved remarkably. But if any credit is due the government, it’s due to its powerlessness.
[…] On April 22, 2011, a Chongqing netizen named Fang Hong passed a joke online: When Bo Xilai asked Wang Lijun to eat his shit, Wang Lijun asked the procurator to eat it, who then asked Li Zhuang to eat it. Li Zhuang said: whoever shit it should eat it.
Two days later, Fang Hong was arrested by the Chongqing police and was sentenced to one year of re-education through labor.
Bo Xilai has left Chongqing […]. But the “pile of shit” case has universal significance and symbolism. It’s like the moral of a typical Chinese fable: You have the freedom to take a shit, and you have the freedom to eat it. But you don’t have the freedom to casually comment on it.
Global Times reported last month that Fang, who was cleared of wrongdoing and released in April last year, recently lost a court bid for higher compensation than the nearly 57,000 yuan (about $9,000) he was initially offered. Other high-profile re-education through labor inmates have recently been denied compensation altogether, including Ren Jianyu, also in Chongqing, and “petitioning mother” Tang Hui.
Samuel Wade contributed to this post.