“Keep Your Mouth Shut and Meet No Reporters”: PEN and Chinese Authority

by Tienchi Martin-Liao    /  June 5, 2013  / No comments

It’s impossible for the Independent Chinese PEN Center to meet in China, but they still hold an annual conference and award ceremony in Hong Kong.

Tienchi_A Beautiful Mind

June 4th Commemoration demonstration in Hong Kong, 5/26/2013. Photo: courtesy of Tienchi Martin-Liao.

Ten of our Independent Chinese PEN Center (ICPC) members did not make it to the conference we recently held on May 25 in Hong Kong. The police warned our members that they shouldn’t make the trip, but not all of them obeyed. Some were held back at the airport, some on the border in Shenzhen. The same thing happened to the three speakers we invited, and none of them were present at the panel. Yet, in the conference room at Hong Kong City University, we still had around 20 colleagues from mainland China, each with a story to tell about how they made it to the free harbor. It is my pleasure to share some of their stories with you.

  1. Blind Chess, a column by Tienchi Martin-Liao
  2. During the Cultural Revolution, people were sentenced to death or outright murdered because of one wrong sentence. In China today writers do not lose their lives over their poems or articles; however, they are jailed for years. My friend Liu Xiaobo for example will stay in prison till 2020; even winning the Nobel Peace Prize could not help him. In prison those lucky enough not to be sentenced to hard labor play “blind chess” to kill time AND TO TRAIN THE BRAIN NOT TO RUST. Freedom of expression is still a luxury in China. The firewall is everywhere, yet words can fly above it and so can our thoughts. My column, like the blind chess played by prisoners, is an exercise to keep our brains from rusting and the situation in China from indifference.
  3. Tienchi Martin-Liao
  4. Tienchi Martin-Liao is the president of the Independent Chinese PEN Center. Previously she worked at the Institute for Asian Affairs in Hamburg, Germany, and lectured at the Ruhr-University Bochum from 1985 to 1991. She became head of the Richard-Wilhelm Research Center for Translation in 1991 until she took a job in 2001 as director of the Laogai Research Foundation (LRF) to work on human rights issues. She was at LRF until 2009. Martin-Liao has served as deputy director of the affiliated China Information Center and was responsible for updating the Laogai Handbook and working on the Black Series, autobiographies of Chinese political prisoners and other human rights books. She was elected president of the Independent Chinese PEN Center in October 2009 and has daily contact with online journalists in China.

Lin is an editor from Hunan, but he is also the founder of an NGO which promotes “he-culture.” The Chinese word he means harmony, unification, republic etc. While that concept might seem loose, “One has to be ambiguous to survive in China,” Lin has said. Recently his organization helped 100 families in Changsha who have lost their only child—victims of the one-child policy. Volunteers gave a package of daily necessities valuing 500 RMB ($70) to each of the heart-broken parents. Lin’s supervisor gave him permission to attend the Hong Kong conference under the following conditions: Keep your mouth shut, participate in no other activities, and meet no reporters.

Another attendee, Yi, is a writer and English teacher in Henan province—or, I should say, he used to be. Since the social criticism that he writes doesn’t please the school’s authorities, he has been fired as a teacher and assigned a new duty: Water delivery boy. Now he has to boil water and deliver hot tea to the school’s staff. But Yi has a philosophical attitude towards his new “mission.” Smiling, he says, “I can serve the people even better if I operate from the working class.” To make a living, Yi cultivates a small piece of land and plants grains. He also founded an NGO for environmental protection. “Polluted water and poisoned food—people need to know why they become ill and die early,” Yi said, no longer smiling.

The ICPC gives three awards annually, mainly to outspoken authors who write in Chinese. Since it’s been impossible for the organization to hold any meetings inside China over the past 10 years, none of the awardees (nor their representatives) have been allowed to attend the award ceremony in Hong Kong, with only one exception in 2011. Instead, empty chairs with the writers’ portraits on them are set up on stage. The hope that the new Party leader Xi Jinpin and Premier Li Keqiang would be more tolerant to dissenters has turned out to be wishful thinking.

Now the situation is even worse. You can smell the tension and anxiety building in the air as the anniversary of June 4th quickly approaches.

On May 13, several pro-government mouthpieces, such as Hong Kong’s Phoenix CCTV, published an article entitled “Central Government: Concerning the Situation in the Ideological Sphere.” Since its release on the mainland, Chinese universities have distributed a notice to their teachers outlining “seven speak-nots”—seven topics they are not permitted to speak about with students: Universal values, freedom of expression, civil society, civil rights, the party’s historical mistakes, the bourgeoisie elite, and judicial independence.

This news has been circulated through our Internet like wildfire, although the information was deleted soon after it was posted online. It is said that a chilly winter is approaching.

Julie Mei, a girl of thirty from Chongqing, enjoys the privilege of traveling to Hong Kong and participated at the ICPC conference this year. She is a new member and did not draw much attention from the security police, although they know who she is. Julie refused to go to university after she graduated high school, claiming that “twelve years of brain-washing education is enough.” Instead of pursuing school she has become an autodidactic, learning web-design and writing her own literary criticism. In October 2010, she was exited and encouraged by the news that Liu Xiaobo received the Nobel Peace Prize. She posted one sentence on Twitter: “Congratulations, Uncle Xiaobo.” On the 26th of that month, four or five policemen came to her house at night, dragged her from bed, and confiscated her computer and cell-phone. She was detained in the police station.

“Well, that was when Bo Xilai was at the peak of power in Sichuan, but even he did not want to lose face in front of world media, so I was released after 24 hours,” she said.

Julie is an exception in China’s society, where the majority follows convention obediently. One needs not only self-confidence and courage to stand against the trend but also a supportive family. Julie’s father was a rightist and her mother belonged to the “black five,” a political category of people who are “not to be trusted.” Yet they are open-minded with their daughter. “My mother did not mind when she was tailed by police while doing her daily grocery shopping,” Julie said. With a smirk, she explained to me how the Jasmine Revolution had an impact on her life in the spring of 2011. A guard was placed in front of their house and sometimes she was told not to leave her home; once she wasn’t allowed to cross the threshold for a whole week. Could a slim young woman be that dangerous to society? Was she scared? “Not really,” she said before continuing in a soft voice. “If one has fear, the state has one hundred times more fear.” Together we joined the commemoration march for June 4 in Hong Kong; it was the first time she had been a part of a political demonstration, and I saw the happiness and pride on her face, a beautiful face with a beautiful mind.

About the Author

Tienchi Martin-Liao is the president of the Independent Chinese PEN Center. Previously she worked at the Institute for Asian Affairs in Hamburg, Germany, and lectured at the Ruhr-University Bochum from 1985 to 1991. She became head of the Richard-Wilhelm Research Center for Translation in 1991 until she took a job in 2001 as director of the Laogai Research Foundation (LRF) to work on human rights issues. She was at LRF until 2009. Martin-Liao has served as deputy director of the affiliated China Information Center and was responsible for updating the Laogai Handbook and working on the Black Series, autobiographies of Chinese political prisoners and other human rights books. She was elected president of the Independent Chinese PEN Center in October 2009 and has daily contact with online journalists in China.

View all articles by Tienchi Martin-Liao

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