Tea Leaf Nation

‘There Are No Rules in China’

When dissident author Murong Xuecun returns home, he says he will tell Beijing authorities they can come and get him.

Image: Belinda Mason
Image: Belinda Mason

These are dicey times for Murong Xuecun, although it might not be apparent from his recent movements. He just spent three months in Sydney, Australia, as a visiting scholar at the University of Sydney; went to Saint Malo on the northern coast of France for a literary festival; and spent time in Italy with his European agent before jetting off to Hong Kong to visit his girlfriend, who teaches at a university there. The 40-year-old, Beijing-based novelist (whose real name is Hao Qun) is among the biggest stars in a group of young Chinese literati who jumpstarted their careers by publishing fiction online. In recent years, he’s also gained notoriety for his fearless blogging and opinion pieces. Why worry about this outspoken, best-selling, baby-faced Chinese novelist? 

Because on May 23 in a column for the New York Times, published in English and Chinese, Murong stated that when he got back to China, he was going to turn himself over to the authorities. His "crime": involvement in a commemoration of the 1989 Tiananmen Square pro-democracy movement. That May 3 forum in a Beijing apartment, which Murong missed because he was out of the country, resulted in the detention of several prominent intellectuals, including the well-known rights lawyer Pu Zhiqiang, who remains in custody. Murong says he was there in spirit. He was invited and contributed an essay about heroism and Tiananmen that was read at the gathering. "Hard as it may seem to believe — I have a law degree, and I myself can hardly believe it," Murong wrote in his column, "reciting such an essay at a private gathering can violate China’s laws." He added: "I am going to turn myself in." 

Murong was to fly back to Beijing July 2. Whether he ends up in jail, the subject of Pen International petitions and Human Rights Watch campaigns, or whether he is deemed harmless by Chinese authorities, free to write his next book unmolested, remains to be seen. 

It’s a troubling situation for those close to him. Benython Oldfield, Murong’s literary agent in Australia, told Foreign Policy via email he is "very concerned" about Murong, who has told Oldfield that he is willing to go to jail for his writing. "There is no edict from high as to what is 100 percent acceptable," said Oldfield. "If you are a writer in China you’re not quite sure where that line starts and ends. It’s amorphous and can move."

Murong seems unfazed. "We’re very worried about him and I’ve urged him to seriously consider this but he’s stated publicly that he will do it, so there’s no persuading him otherwise," said Teng Biao, prominent Chinese human rights lawyer and a visiting scholar at the Centre for Rights and Justice of the Chinese University of Hong Kong. Murong’s being out of the country while so many of his friends were detained "weighed on his conscience," Teng added. 

Whatever the outcome, Murong is no longer just a novelist. He has embraced dissident-hood and, as such, has a new set of occupational hazards to contend with. He runs the risk of disappearing into police custody for months at a time, like human rights lawyer Gao Zhisheng, or being denied his passport, like the outspoken artist Ai Weiwei, or kept under house arrest, like Beijing activist Hu Jia, or jailed like legal scholar Xu Zhiyong and Nobel laureate Liu Xiaobo.

"If Murong isn’t detained, there could still be other problems. For example house arrest, or confiscating his passport. This is all possible," said Teng.  

Murong told FP via Skype from Hong Kong that he won’t go in person to the police station. After he returns home to Beijing, he plans to post a note online telling authorities that he is back and that they can come get him if they want him. He said those close to him have warned him repeatedly not to return to China, urging him instead to apply for a fellowship and to stay overseas. But he refuses to do that.

Murong said that he is "worried, but not that worried." Apart from Pu, who he thinks is being targeted for his legal activism in addition to the Tiananmen forum, Murong notes that the other attendees of the May 3 gathering have all been released. 

"Of course I realize this assessment is relatively foolish," Murong added. "Many of my friends also thought they wouldn’t get detained and then suddenly, one day, they were detained." That’s because "there are no rules in China; it’s a lottery. But I am a novelist. My mother tongue is Chinese. I ought to be in China."  

Murong Xuecun is Hao Qun’s pen name, but he now also uses it socially. He came up with it when he first started posting stories online in 2001; Murong is a standard (if not common) surname, and Xuecun means snowy village, a phrase the writer says he picked at random. The name stuck. Murong was born in 1974 to a farming family in northern China’s Jilin province. His father died when he was a child and his mother, who had a third-grade education, supported him and his younger brother the best she could with farming.

Murong remembers the family grew wheat, corn, sweet potato, peanuts, and watermelon. He loved to read, performed well in school, and excelled at taking tests. These attributes helped land him a spot in the elite China University of Political Science and Law in Beijing, where he studied law. He started to write fiction in 2001, and in 2002 began posting online installments of what was to become his first novel Leave Me Alone: A Novel of Chengdu. The darkly comic tale, full of sex and greed, was a huge hit — the printed version sold more than 1 million copies. Since Leave Me Alone, Murong has written three other novels and a piece of longform investigative journalism that was published as a book. He has a new book in the works titled Thief, about a newspaper editor.

Though a best-selling author, he still considers himself an outsider. Unlike Mo Yan, the Nobel Prize-winning novelist, and many other prominent Chinese authors, Murong is not a member of the official Chinese Writer’s Association. He can pinpoint his shift from author to dissident: "Before 2011, I was a Chinese novelist. I sold many books and had a very comfortable life and I knew there were things that could get me into trouble so I knew that I might have to keep my mouth shut." But in 2011, "two things happened that enraged me and that’s when I started to stand up and speak out." 

The first trigger was a maddening tangle with an editor while Murong prepared to publish a book of investigative journalism about a pyramid scheme. The apparently arbitrary edits to the book, The Missing Ingredient, included deletion of the word nongmin, meaning peasant. The second trigger was the detention of his good friend, the blogger and activist Ran Yunfei, on suspicion of inciting subversion.

Though he’s been speaking out for several years now, Murong is still new to the dissident life. He doesn’t have a lawyer but he has someone in mind, just in case.

What he’s clear about are his opinions and his determination to air them. And he now has a powerful platform for his views in the New York Times. Sewell Chan, deputy editor of the op-ed section of the Times, told FP in an email that the paper decided to invite Murong to be a contributing opinion writer in the fall of 2013 "because of the literary acclaim his fiction has received, as well as the popularity of his essays, his blogging, and his other nonfiction writing in China." Though the original Chinese versions of Murong’s columns are available on the paper’s Chinese language website, it is blocked in China.

Murong’s monthly columns are concise and unflinchingly critical of the Chinese government. In one piece, he compares the Communist Party to a cult. In another, he criticizes President Xi Jinping’s anti-corruption drive as a political purge masquerading as a crackdown. The pieces are brave but also distressing for those invested in Murong’s safety. He is a mosquito on the rump of an elephant, the Chinese Communist Party. If he manages to make himself felt, he will be swatted.

Teng compares Murong’s evolution from writer to dissident to a similar transition by Yu Jie, another outspoken writer who suffered house arrest and torture before fleeing to the United States in January 2012. Daringly independent writers inevitably get caught in China’s suppression machine, Teng said. "Authors like Murong Xuecun or Yu Jie may start out with the ability to publish domestically and have the freedom to move around, but eventually it gets to a certain point and the authorities will start to give them trouble." The Times column in which Murong pledged to turn himself in was titled "I, Too, Will Stand Up for Tiananmen." When the trouble comes, who will stand up for Murong? 

Alexa Olesen has a master’s degree in contemporary Chinese literature from SOAS University of London and was a foreign correspondent for the Associated Press in Beijing for eight years. Twitter: @ael_o

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