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The Chinese-Canadian writer Denise Chongâ€šÃ„Ã´s 1994 book â€šÃ„ÃºThe Concubineâ€šÃ„Ã´s Children,â€šÃ„Ã¹ a memoir of her maternal grandparents, won admiring reviews and spent more than a year and a half on The Globe and Mailâ€šÃ„Ã´s best-seller list. But when her later book, â€šÃ„ÃºEgg on Mao,â€šÃ„Ã¹ came out in 2009, many people responded with trepidation. â€šÃ„ÃºWhat I heard most often was, â€šÃ„Ã²Is this a China-bashing book?â€šÃ„Ã´ â€šÃ„Ã¹ Chong told me over the phone. When I saw the cover, I understood. It features a photo of Chairman Maoâ€šÃ„Ã´s paint-splattered face underneath the bold type: â€šÃ„ÃºThe Story of an Ordinary Man Who Defaced an Icon and Unmasked a Dictatorship.â€šÃ„Ã¹ The book tells the true story of Lu Decheng, who threw paint-filled eggs at Maoâ€šÃ„Ã´s portrait in Tiananmen Square during the 1989 protests.
Uneasy Engagement: At Book Fair, a Subplot About Chinese Rights (October 19, 2009)
Chong had under estimated the fear of offending Beijing â€šÃ„Ã® not in China but in the West. She cited some strongly uncomfortable reactions. A Canadian nonprofit economic development group that had invited her to appear at a fund-raiser began playing down its association with her book once learning of the title, Chong said. (The organization was trying to encourage Chinese investment in Canada.) A reporter for a Chinese-language television station backed out of an interview because of fear of Beijing, according to a conversation Chong had with a producer there.
The nervousness wasnâ€šÃ„Ã´t limited to Canada. The United States Library of Congress declined an invitation to hold an event with Chong, suggested by the Canadian Embassy. In a recent telephone interview, a library employee involved in the discussions acknowledged that the political sensitivity of the book was one factor in the decision, along with the libraryâ€šÃ„Ã´s relationship with the National Library of China.
Taken in isolation, these incidents may seem minor, but they are part of a much larger trend. As Chinaâ€šÃ„Ã´s influence spreads throughout the world, so does a willingness to play by its rules. In March, Google shut down its Internet search service in mainland China, saying it no longer wanted to self-censor its search results to comply with â€šÃ„Ãºlocalâ€šÃ„Ã¹ law. But these laws may not be local anymore. Interviews with a number of writers and China watchers suggest that Chinese censorship is becoming an increasingly borderless phenomenon.
â€šÃ„ÃºI remember clearly the days when you could safely assume that as long as you wrote something abroad, it was free and clear from repercussions within China,â€šÃ„Ã¹ said Orville Schell, the director of Asia Societyâ€šÃ„Ã´s Center on U.S.-China Relations (where I am a fellow) and author of nine books on China. One turning point, he said, was the growth of the Internet, which increasingly unites the once â€šÃ„Ãºdiscrete worldsâ€šÃ„Ã¹ of Chinese and Western reading material. Another factor is the growing business entanglement between China and the rest of the world.
â€šÃ„ÃºSuddenly weâ€šÃ„Ã´re all Hong Kong, where no one wants to offend the mainland because itâ€šÃ„Ã´s too close,â€šÃ„Ã¹ Schell said.
Last fall, in advance of the Frankfurt Book Fair, China pressured organizers to disinvite two dissident writers to a symposium on â€šÃ„ÃºChina and the World.â€šÃ„Ã¹ (They were reinvited after a public outcry.) But more often, potential critics silence themselves pre-emptively. In a 2002 essay in The New York Review of Books called â€šÃ„ÃºChina: The Anaconda in the Chandelier,â€šÃ„Ã¹ the China scholar Perry Link described Beijingâ€šÃ„Ã´s censors as a dangerous creature coiled overhead. â€šÃ„ÃºNormally the great snake doesnâ€šÃ„Ã´t move,â€šÃ„Ã¹ he wrote. â€šÃ„ÃºIt doesnâ€šÃ„Ã´t have to. . . . Its constant silent message is â€šÃ„Ã²You yourself decide,â€šÃ„Ã´ after which, more often than not, everyone in its shadow makes his or her large and small adjustments.â€šÃ„Ã¹
I asked Link, a professor emeritus at Princeton, about the anacondaâ€šÃ„Ã´s effects on writers outside China today. â€šÃ„ÃºItâ€šÃ„Ã´s just become so taken for granted that it isnâ€šÃ„Ã´t even recognized as self-censorship,â€šÃ„Ã¹ he said in a telephone interview. Link himself has been repeatedly denied a visa to China since the mid-â€šÃ„Ã´90s, apparently for helping the Chinese dissident Fang Lizhi seek refuge in the American Embassy during the 1989 protests.
Linkâ€šÃ„Ã´s predicament casts a long shadow over other China watchers. â€šÃ„ÃºThree or four times a month I get questions from students: How can I avoid getting on a blacklist like you?â€šÃ„Ã¹ Link said. He adds that heâ€šÃ„Ã´s seen doctoral students avoid writing about democracy in China out of fear of the blacklist.
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Emily Parker – The New York Times
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