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Closed books in China

August 11, 2010

By Sreeram Chaulia
Asia Times (Hong Kong)
August 10, 2010

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 Press? 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.
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