Tea Leaf Nation
‘Censorship Breeds Prejudice in the Long Run’
FP sits down with Chinese writers and a publisher to discuss how the hated apparatus actually works.
What is it like to grapple with Chinese state censorship? On May 29, Foreign Policy sat down with Bao Pu, Guo Xiaolu, and Hao Qun, better known by his pen name Murong Xuecun, in FP‘s Washington, D.C. office. Bao Pu is the founder of New Century Press, a Hong Kong publisher, and a political commentator and activist. Guo Xiaolu is a novelist and filmmaker in the U.K. Murong Xuecun is a Beijing-based author who has spoken and written about the Chinese censorship regime. (The three were in town as part of a trip organized by the New York-based PEN American Center focused on freedom of speech in China.) This interview — which touched on topics ranging from elite power struggles, to the sorry state of modern Chinese literature, to the country’s censorship system — was conducted in Chinese and English and has been edited and condensed for clarity.
FP: Did you think [former Politburo Standing Committee (PBSC) member and security czar] Zhou Yongkang was going to fall?
Bao Pu: I was betting with people [that Zhou wouldn’t be purged]. But I lost.
Still, I insist that the principal hasn’t changed. I was reluctant to accept that Chinese President Xi Jinping would go so far as to remove a former member of the Politburo Standing Committee [the top decision making body in China], because this regime’s fundamental weakness is its power transition. On the surface, what we see is an orderly, peaceful transition, no bloodshed; from Jiang to Hu and to Xi. But Zhou happened, showing that the problem didn’t go away; that weakness is still there. Of course, everything is a black box. Still, it surprised me that he would go so far to alter the unspoken rules of transition.
So now what’s next? If Xi had a successor, will he go back to clean up in the Xi reign? The rules of the games have changed. Now all that [Xi can do is] stay in power for the rest of his natural life.
FP: Who do you think the next big corrupt official, or tiger, to be felled will be? Premier Wen Jiabao, who retired in 2012, or Li Peng, a former premier who stepped down in 2002?
Murong Xuecun: It could be anyone, with the exception of Xi and [PBSC member and anti-corruption crusader] Wang Qishan. They say Guo Boxiong [the former vice-chairman of the Central Military Commission, China’s top military body].
As for Li or Wen, I don’t think they’ll move against them. Even though their standing has gone down a bit, premiers have historically been the number two figure in China. Wen and Li were symbols of their eras. They represent the Chinese government!
Most people, especially those who went through [the demonstrations of] 1989, they really want to see Li fall, because he did a lot of bad things as premier in 1989. In part because of this, the Chinese government has to protect Li. If they don’t, that’s admitting that the 1989 protests had some justification.
BP: I disagree. I thought they couldn’t move against Zhou, because he was responsible for the ‘Stability Maintenance’ system. Now they’ve gotten rid of Zhou, they’re still maintaining this ‘Security Maintenance,’ right?
MX: Yep! Just like how after they got rid of [former Communist Party Secretary of the metropolis of Chongqing] Bo Xilai, they’re still singing red songs.
FP: Who do you like reading in China today?
Guo Xiaolu: I’ve read so little of modern Chinese literature. Not because I’m now living outside of China, but because I’m so bored with social realism. Even the younger writers, the format they use is so old-fashioned. Cinema is a bit better. But the literature, it bores me terribly.
MX: For Chinese literature from when the Communists took over in 1949 to the present — besides books that give Western readers a fresh angle on the world, China has given little to art and civilization. There are some books that aren’t bad. I think Yan Lianke is very good. Bi Feiyu, A Yi, Yu Hua is great. There’s not too many. As for unknown writers, Chen Xiwo writes some good stuff. I have a friend, who writes under the pen name Mu Qi. And Li Haipeng, is good. But excellent — well, very few. Especially when you compare it to excellent Western writers. There’s practically none! Does Mo Yan count? I’m pretty doubtful.
GX: I’ve always wondered why we do not have our own Solzhenitsyn.
MX: Every day, there’s more than 10,000 long works of writing published online. The vast majority of them are those crude, erotic ones. But I’ve heard that some of them are actually decent.
BP: We have a swell of mediocrity. 10,000 novels, you couldn’t read that in 10 years.
GX: People ask me about my influences, and I say, the Beat Generation. The writer and poet Charles Bukowski, mourning all the time — I love his language, his style.
When I started writing in English, those [literary works were] much more important to me than English literature, that Victorian thing. Victorian literature had no influence on my life as a writer and very little influence on Chinese writers. And [the English] were so offended!
FP: When you write for Western readers, as opposed to a Chinese audience, do you write in a different way?
GX: Just be personal. I offer very personal stories.
BP: We cannot underestimate what’s been lost in translation. And some concepts have been intentionally removed from the Chinese consciousness. There was a big campaign in 1983, against ‘spiritual pollution,’ to remove the concept of ‘humanism’ in China. And they succeeded. There’s no single, well-defined translation of humanism. It’s a huge problem in Chinese society.
GX: When I came to the United Kingdom 10 years ago, I bought J.D. Salinger’s Catcher in the Rye, and I was so shocked by the frequency of the word ‘damn.’ I had the very first Chinese translation — it was totally clean! I was so surprised, there’s no swearing. I think later on they re-translated and made it slightly dirty.
MX: Actually, there are translations of Catcher in the Rye that actually maintain that dirtiness. That’s not the main point of censorship. Henry Miller’s books — I haven’t read them in the original, but I believe that much of what is translated into Chinese gets maintained.
FP: I think that’s the first time any of you really mentioned censorship. Do you get sick of talking about censorship to American journalists?
BP: (Laughs.) Sort of.
MX: There’s a prominent Chinese author, Li Er, who has a very interesting view towards censorship in China. ‘Murong doesn’t get it,’ he said. ‘There’s no censorship system in China.’
BP: His idea of censorship is like the old British way, where you take a newspaper and cut out articles with a pair of scissors. (Laughter.)
MX: But in publishing houses, there is censorship. [The Nobel Prize winning writer] Mo Yan has a really interesting view of censorship. He thinks it’s the same as airport security.
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!’
FP: Some people who disagree will say — well, we have the Internet, we can jump over the great firewall of censorship, and people have access to all this information. But people in China are just not interested in learning about other literature, other countries.
GX: Yes, but all this interest is artificial.
BP: It’s true that relatively few people actually bypass censored information on the Internet. But why? Censorship in the long run breeds prejudice. Once you have this prejudice, you think you know everything, but you don’t. That’s why they’re not actively seeking — because they think there’s nothing out there. It’s a vicious cycle.
MX: I think many people don’t know what they don’t know.
GX: That’s cool. ‘You don’t know what you don’t know.’
MX: A lot of people are not interested in recondite issues of mathematics, or astronomy. But the things they can understand — that happen in places not so far away — most people are interested in understanding them.
I ask mainlanders if they know about [dissident activist] Li Wangyang. They don’t know. So I tell them the story of Li Wangyang. And everyone who hears it, they’re fascinated. Did you know that more than 100 Tibetans had self-immolated? They don’t know. And when I tell them, they’re very interested.
Censorship’s damage to literature has been more than we could have imagined. One example is that in modern China, very few people can read classical Chinese, including many of us writers.
More importantly, censorship damages people’s creativity. Let me tell you a story. When I was in fifth grade, our teacher had us do an assignment. I wrote about entering a very strange city. The sun was purple, and the clouds were the color of noodles. There was a type of flower, where when you tapped it, it made a sound — ‘aaahhh’ — like a sigh. And everyone looked really strange.
Do you know what grade the teacher gave me for that poem? A zero. And in a red pen, she wrote: ‘Nonsense.’
But that was the most imaginative thing I had written! After that, I never wrote something like that again.
BP: Lots of people ask about the distribution. But the bottleneck with literature in China is not with distribution but with creativity. It’s totally been suffocated. Everyone respects the author Yu Hua. In his novel To Live, the greatest thing is, we actually survived. A pig can survive! But survive without dignity. It’s a pig mentality. And no one even questions that.
MX: There’s a Chinese expression, ‘Better to die well than to live poorly.’
FP: Is it in the party’s self-interest to lift some of these controls? Or are they acting completely rationally?
GX: To live without dignity is a shameful thing. This kind of message — you have to repeat it a billion times for it to enter people’s heads, for it to have any little bit of effect. Say it once or ten times, it’s not going to have effect.
MX: Deng Liqun was a Propaganda Chief of China. Under his watch censorship was extremely harsh. After he left the political arena, he wanted to publish a memoir. But the relevant departments saw it, and said: This doesn’t work. It won’t pass the censors. Most interestingly, the clause the censorship department used to prevent him from publishing it came out when he was running the bureau. I think that’s fascinating.
BP: This very person who created the system — he’s the victim.
MX: There’s a Chinese expression, to spin a cocoon around oneself.
BP: They’re rational from the standpoint of their own current self-interest — but that interest does not serve the people of China, or the rest of the world.
GX: Especially not the people of China.
Photo credit: AFP/Getty Images
Isaac Stone Fish is a journalist and senior fellow at the Asia Society’s Center on U.S-China Relations. He was formerly the Asia editor at Foreign Policy Magazine. @isaacstonefish