Steven Mcgregor

The battle for free speech in China

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I haven't been much drawn to erotica or political allegory, but Chen Xiwo's I Love my Mum changed that. Relaxed, in an open necked shirt and jeans, at a recent English PEN event in Bloomsbury, Xiwo looked the antithesis of a persecuted writer. He appeared with a range of other speakers, from exiled writers to documentary filmmakers, to discuss contemporary literature in China.

Many writers at the event are trying to provoke, trying to inspire change. Xiwo, for instance, penned a novel gilded in matricide and incest to comment on the Chinese state, aptly titled, I Love my Mum. It was banned in 2007; the reason why was ‘classified information.’ With a slight grin and an energetic, even mischievous manner, Xiwo recounted his lawsuit against the censorship authorities which culminated in a secret court hearing where he was told I Love My Mum would remain banned because it ‘was not helpful to humanity… it was obscene and erotic and… it would influence people to do bad things’.

Others, such as exiled writer Ma Jian, are concerned with dramatizing forbidden historical events. His novel, Beijing Coma recreates the Tiananmen Square Massacre based on personal interviews and painstaking research. ‘Details hold the soul of the writer,’ Jian said, his demeanor solemn and reposed compared to Xiwo’s humour. Beijing Coma ends with the main character noticing his feet covered in blood, as they were when he escaped from his mother’s womb. Then a rifle shot rings out and he touches the empty space that used to be his head.

Another participant, Ou Ning, wants to archive current events using documentary films. Ning screened ten minutes of Meishi Street, a film he directed about the destruction of property in preparation for the 2008 Olympics. A resident whose restaurant was scheduled to be demolished recorded footage for the project, enabling a kind of citizen journalism, an archiving of detail separate from state records.

Unrepresented were the writers who support the Chinese state either passively or actively. When Xiwo decided to use the court system to fight censorship of I Love my Mum, he was surprised that his friends said, ‘You should be happy and not bother.’ Jian held up a photo of a meeting of the Chinese Writing Association, an officially sanctioned group of over five thousand authors. There were several neat rows of people standing behind a long table. ‘At the front row are all the top politburo leaders,’ Jian said.

China is the market focus at this year’s London Book Fair and controversy has surrounded the event because of close cooperation with Chinese government officials. As a dissident writer, Jian and other attendees at the PEN event are not invited to attend. Though he promised, ‘I will go there myself to buy books that the Chinese are bringing over — maybe some recipe books.’

The event finished with champagne and Yang Lian read one of his erotic poems. After a day of discussing the role of art in politics, political violence, torture, and censorship, it was quite nice to talk about sex for a while — as if a subject was finally raised that we here in the west understood.

Follow Steven McGregor on Twitter @shmcgregor