Censors Without Borders

Emily Parker – The New York Times

Copyright The New York Times
The Chinese-Canadian writer Denise Chong’s 1994 book “The Concubine’s Children,” a memoir of her maternal grandparents, won admiring reviews and spent more than a year and a half on The Globe and Mail’s best-seller list. But when her later book, “Egg on Mao,” came out in 2009, many people responded with trepidation. “What I heard most often was, ‘Is this a China-bashing book?’ ” Chong told me over the phone. When I saw the cover, I understood. It features a photo of Chairman Mao’s paint-splattered face underneath the bold type: “The Story of an Ordinary Man Who Defaced an Icon and Unmasked a Dictatorship.” The book tells the true story of Lu Decheng, who threw paint-filled eggs at Mao’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 — 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 wasn’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 library’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 China’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 “local” 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.
“I 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,” said Orville Schell, the director of Asia Society’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 “discrete worlds” of Chinese and Western reading material. Another factor is the growing business entanglement between China and the rest of the world.
“Suddenly we’re all Hong Kong, where no one wants to offend the mainland because it’s too close,” Schell said.
Last fall, in advance of the Frankfurt Book Fair, China pressured organizers to disinvite two dissident writers to a symposium on “China and the World.” (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 “China: The Anaconda in the Chandelier,” the China scholar Perry Link described Beijing’s censors as a dangerous creature coiled overhead. “Normally the great snake doesn’t move,” he wrote. “It doesn’t have to. . . . Its constant silent message is ‘You yourself decide,’ after which, more often than not, everyone in its shadow makes his or her large and small adjustments.”
I asked Link, a professor emeritus at Princeton, about the anaconda’s effects on writers outside China today. “It’s just become so taken for granted that it isn’t even recognized as self-censorship,” he said in a telephone interview. Link himself has been repeatedly denied a visa to China since the mid-’90s, apparently for helping the Chinese dissident Fang Lizhi seek refuge in the American Embassy during the 1989 protests.
Link’s predicament casts a long shadow over other China watchers. “Three or four times a month I get questions from students: How can I avoid getting on a blacklist like you?” Link said. He adds that he’s seen doctoral students avoid writing about democracy in China out of fear of the blacklist.
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