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    Greater China
     Aug 10, 2010

Closed books in China
By Sreeram Chaulia

This month, 36-year-old dissident writer Yu Jie is releasing a controversial book in Hong Kong that has been banned in mainland China for "hurting the nation's interests and security".

Provocatively titled China's Best Actor: Wen Jiabao, the work (expected to be translated into English later this year) takes pot shots at one of the holiest cows in the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) leadership, the 67-year-old "people's premier", who has been labeled in state-run media as "Grandpa Wen".

Several books that target lesser figures and phenomena have been driven underground in China, but a frontal attack on the nation's premier sticks out for its high potential for heresy in the censors' eyes. In the run-up to his latest release, Yu, a founder of the Independent PEN Center in China, which advocates freedom of expression in the country, has openly criticized Wen and President Hu Jintao as intolerant hardliners who actually belie their crafted images of benevolent shepherds tending to people's suffering.

Yu was a best-selling author before his books were banned in China soon after Wen became premier in 2003. Anticipating grave personal repercussions for portraying Wen as a "clever opportunist", Yu has thrown down the gauntlet at the Chinese government by saying that arresting him now "would ruin the image of an open-minded administration that both President Hu Jintao and Premier Wen have pulled out all stops to build up over the past eight years". Yu has reportedly said that the Chinese-language book, to be published on August 16, is to made available later in English.

The author has revealed that he was recently interrogated and threatened with the same fate as human-rights activist Liu Xiaobo should he go ahead and take advantage of Hong Kong's freer environment to publish the book. Liu, author of the Charter 08 call for reform, was jailed for 11 years last December.

Pro-democracy intellectuals across mainland China have reported being invited to "have a cup of tea" with the secret services with increasing regularity since the Beijing Summer Olympic Games ended in 2008. These sessions are said to involve polite but subtle warnings not to transgress limits on behavior that challenge the CCP's control.

While physical assaults and persecution of writers and artists peaked during Chairman Mao Zedong's reign, the party's eyes and ears have been increasing the levels of surveillance and softer intimidation of dissidents in the past couple of years in light of uprisings in the far western territories of Tibet and Xinjiang.

This month, Tibetan author Tragyal (who writes with the pseudonym "Shogdung") will face trial on charges of "splittism" in the western province of Qinghai for publishing a best-selling non-fiction book, The Line Between Sky and Earth. A collection of essays that became widely sought among Tibetan-language readers since its release in March 2009, the book exhorts Tibetan intellectuals and civil servants to wage a "peaceful revolution" and a campaign of "civil disobedience" against Beijing's heavy-handed rule in the disputed region.

Tragyal is viewed by Chinese authorities as an especially worrisome thorn in the flesh because he is a defector from the government's PR bandwagon - who used to be a loyal employee with the state-run Tibetan-language publishing house that churns out propaganda literature about the exiled Tibetan spiritual leader, the Dalai Lama, and the ills of feudalism in pre-1949 Tibet.

For a bureaucrat who had been involved in bashing aspects of Tibetan Buddhism as "backward" and antithetical to modernity to undergo a conversion of heart and turn into an astringent chronicler of the post-2008 crackdown on monks by the central government is exactly the kind of trajectory Beijing would vehemently discourage.

Passages in the illegally published book, The Line Between Sky and Earth, which speak of "my hair standing on end" due to "the methods of torture used by the dictators", are proverbial red rags to the CCP bull and invited instant detention for Tragyal last year. Now that a lengthy dossier of crimes has been collected, he is expected to be handed a punitive sentence by a court in Xining, the capital of Qinghai.

Perhaps the most striking example of a publishing intellectual falling foul of the central government is the case of Xiao Jiansheng, the author of the book with an anodyne title, Chinese History Revisited, which was re-released in September 2009 by the same free expression-promoting Hong Kong publisher, New Century Pressธ that is now bringing out China's Best Actor: Wen Jiabao.

Unlike Yu and Tragyal, Xiao's survey of China's past does not cover the CCP phase and is not as glaringly iconoclastic. A product of 20 years of research and reflection, Xiao's book avoids the contemporary upheavals since 1949 and instead tries to grapple with the official spin on China's history from ancient to modern times, which emphasizes the virtues of tightly centralized government and despotic rule.

Instead of ad-hominem barbs against current party bigwigs, Xiao lambasts the "imposition of imperial absolutism and centralized government since the Qin Dynasty" (221-206 BC), traits that returned with a vengeance with the Yuan Dynasty (1271-1368 AD).

What irked the censors, who decided to ban the original version of the book in the mainland in 2007, was the rebuff Xiao issued to the conservative notion of the desirability of a strong state.

Chinese History Revisited praises periods of the nation's past such as the Song Dynasty (960-1279 AD) that were characterized by small government, commercial autonomy and religious diversity. Indirectly, the author laments restrictions on individual and group creativity in the current era by asking why post-Song "China has not produced the democratic politicians of ancient times, nor the great thinkers like Laozi, Confucius and Mencius", nor "inventors in culture, science, religion and education".

Deep horizon gazing and cross-era comparisons, which show contemporary China in poor light despite its tremendous material advancement, are affronts to the model of economic "progress" on which the central government's legitimacy largely rests.

Xiao's book, which is believed to be frequently smuggled back to the mainland by visitors to Hong Kong, is another bestseller in China's samizdat-style piracy market due to the originality of his revisionism, a quality that has been missing in Chinese public discourse even after three decades of economic liberalization.

Xiao's pitch for a political system that nurtures creativity, critical analysis and diversity of opinion has ramifications not only for civil liberties but also for the competitiveness of the Chinese economy in the long run. Can China manage to move beyond the mass-manufacturing model and remain a pre-eminent power in the post-industrial knowledge economy with strict shackles on information flows?

The censors in Beijing know only too well that the pen is mightier than the sword as a threat to regime survival, but forward planners piloting China's ascent in the 21st century are handicapped by the historical reality that sustainable winners have always been driven by structures that permit the unfettered exchange of ideas.

Sreeram Chaulia is associate professor of world politics at the OP Jindal Global University in Sonipat, India.

(Copyright 2010 Asia Times Online (Holdings) Ltd. All rights reserved. Please contact us about sales, syndication and republishing.)

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