Fearing that events in the Middle East may spark a "Jasmine Revolution," Chinese authorities are cracking down on dissident writers. But some are still willing to speak outby Clarissa Sebag-Montefiore / March 23, 2011 / Leave a comment
Ai Weiwei’s arrest this week is evidence of the Chinese government’s increasingly tough stance on dissident artists. Photo: Marie A-C
I first met Murong Xuecun—the Chinese author and internet sensation, whose debut novel had an estimated readership of five million—late last year in Beijing. Murong, 37, was in town to receive the prestigious 2010 People’s Literature Prize and he planned to use the platform to give an explosive speech on the absurdity of censorship. Chinese writing today, he was to declare, is akin to a “mental disorder.”
Murong never delivered the speech that he had spent all night preparing. As he stood on the podium to receive his prize, he was barred from talking. Instead all he could do was mime a zip clamping his mouth shut.
Not to be deterred, the author spoke at the Foreign Correspondents’ Club in Hong Kong this February, where his speech—which mocked the inane, arbitrary and ambiguous Chinese censorship system—was reproduced in Western media including The New York Times. The Chinese version, posted on his blog, has since received over 100,000 hits and 10,000 comments.
Murong’s cry could not have been timelier. Fearing that events in the Middle East may encourage a “Jasmine Revolution,” the Chinese government has led a vicious—and, in recent years, unprecedented—crackdown on artists, activists, dissidents and lawyers. This week the outspoken artist Ai Weiwei, the man behind Beijing’s iconic ‘bird’s nest stadium’ and the Sunflower Seeds installation currently occupying the Tate Modern’s Turbine Hall, is under investigation for “economic crimes” following his sudden detention; while Ran Yunfei, a blogger and magazine editor who has 44,000 Twitter followers, was formally arrested at the end of March for state security charges.
“Censorship, particularly in literature, has become more rigorous,” says Phelim Kine, an Asia researcher with New York-based Human Rights Watch. “What do these controls do? They frighten people, but they also stifle creativity. We are looking at a generation of artists and writers who are deprived of access to information and who are falling behind.”
Given the external threat from the authorities, Chinese literature also inevitably operates under the insidious force of self-censorship. “There are too many words we cannot write, too many sentences that cannot be used, and too many things that cannot be said,” Murong says when we meet, drawing on a cigarette and stirring a tepid coffee in the drab atrium of a hotel in Beijing. “This situation…