|Zheng Yi, Li Jianglin, and Barbara Goldsmith at the award ceremony.
Credit: Mary Zheng.
With the recent English-language publication of books like Yu Hua’s Brothers and Wang Gang’s English, Western readers might perceive a thaw ongoing in China. After all, these books and others like them were originally published in China, and they offer a frank portrayal of some of the worst excesses of the Cultural Revolution.
Make no mistake, however, not all Chinese writers are free to write and publish what they please.
That point was driven home on April 29, 2009 when the PEN American Center honored the Chinese poet and essayist Liu Xiaobo, following up on the April 16 presentation to Xiaobo’s wife of the PEN/Barbara Goldsmith Freedom to Write Award. Xiaobo could not receive the award in person because he is currently detained by the Chinese government.
In a press release, PEN called Xiaobo “one of China’s preeminent dissident writers and activists and a leading figure in the PEN movement internationally.”
Xiaobo was arrested on December 8, 2008. Although the authorities did not give an official reason for his arrest, many see it as significant that the arrest occurred the day before the publication of Charter 08, “a public appeal to promote human rights and democracy in China.” (Charter 08 can be read in its entirety in English in the January 15, 2009 issue of The New York Review of Books, available free online.)
Although Xiaobo was arrested for political activities, at the ceremony honoring Xiaobo’s work, his wife, Liu Xia, emphasized the connection between Xiaobo as a writer and as a dissident:
I understand that this award is not meant to encourage Liu Xiaobo, the poet, but rather to encourage Liu Xiaobo, the political commentator and initiator of Charter 08. I would like to remind everyone of the close connection between these two identities. I feel that Xiaobo is using his intensity and passion as a poet to push the democracy movement forward in China . He shouts passionately as a poet ‘no, no, no!’ to the dictators.
In a letter to The New York Review of Books, Xia elaborated on this idea:
In my eyes, he has always been and will always be an awkward and diligent poet. Even in prison, he has continued to write his poems. When the warden took away his paper and pen, he simply pulled his verse out of thin air. Over the past twenty years, Xiaobo and I have accumulated hundreds of such poems, which were born of the conversations between our souls.
Sarah Hoffman, a Freedom to Write Associate at the PEN American Center, said that PEN wanted to honor Xiaobo both for his dedication to freedom of expression and his dedication to PEN. Citing his four years as president of the Independent Chinese PEN Center (2003 – 2007) and his role in the Tiananmen Square protests in 1989, Hoffman said, “Throughout his entire life he has represented so fully what PEN is all about: freedom of expression, advancing literature, and promoting literary fellowship. And even beyond that, regardless of any of his political inclinations or desires, he has advocated non-violence—he has advocated words and dialogue. On Tiananmen Square in 1989, there’s this iconic image of Xiaobo trying to smash a rifle that he had taken from a worker who was there to defend the students on the steps of the Monument. He likely prevented even more bloodshed on the night of June 3-4 by calling on all students and workers to put down their weapons.”
Hoffman also noted that what separates Xiaobo’s writing from from other Chinese writers who have discussed politically sensitive matters in their work is that “it’s a different, more relaxed line that these novels are skirting—many aspects of the Cultural Revolution are now permitted to be discussed and dissected in China.” She contrasted this with discussing Tiananmen Square, as Xiaobo does, which she characterized as “very different.” Hoffman added: “The government that initiated the Cultural Revolution of the ’60s and ’70s is not the same one that oversaw the crackdown on pro-democracy activists in 1989. That government is still in place, and that is the government that Liu Xiaobo is criticizing.”
Xiaobo was previously imprisoned for his role in the events of 1989. Since then he has been placed in a reeducation-through-labor camp, regularly subjected to harassment and surveillance, and repeatedly placed under house arrest. PEN honored him for his persistence in speaking out despite this persecution, as well as for adopting a leadership role among Chinese writers and intellectuals. As Hoffman puts it, until their movement for freedom of expression is ineradicable, “Xiaobo and his fellows have made it clear that they will keep rebuilding it” in the face of setbacks.
None of Xiaobo’s books are available in English, although readers can find his essay “Authoritarianism in the Light of the Olympic Flame,” in the English-language collection China’s Great Leap: The Beijing Games and Olympian Human Rights Challenges, published last year by Seven Stories Press.
Despite Xiaobo’s ongoing incarceration and governmental efforts to charge him with incitement to subversion, PEN hopes that pressure from the international community will lead to his release. Hoffman found Xiaobo to be a “conundrum” for the Chinese authorities: although too well-known to keep imprisoned indefinitely, Xiaobo has repeatedly demonstrated that if released he would not cease to speak out against the Chinese government. Hoffman and PEN remain optimistic: “We hope that the PEN/Barbara Goldsmith Freedom to Write Award shines enough of a spotlight on Liu Xiaobo that the Chinese government can’t ignore the pressure from both the inside and the outside, and that they will free him immediately and unconditionally.”
Five Questions with Sarah Hoffman
1. In Xiaobo’s wife’s remarks, she says that although the award isn’t directed at Xiaobo as a poet, she finds it hard to separate the poet from the activist. Could you elaborate on these remarks (e.g. is his poetry and criticism often political in nature)?
I’ve never read his poetry, but much of his criticism is political, due to the nature of the connection between modern Chinese literature and the state—primarily the effect that the political situation has had on literature, emerging writers, etc. I would say, though, that Liu Xia’s remarks that, to her, Xiaobo is primarily a poet, truly humanizes him. To many, he is a mythic figure: this acerbic, larger-than-life critic and dissident. But to her, he is the man she fell in love with; a man who trades verses with her in their everyday life. And in that sense, it is the power of the word that Xiaobo has used to criticize the government, to push forward democracy and human rights.
2. Why in particular did you want to honor Xiaobo?
Liu Xiaobo is not only a long-time, staunch defender of freedom of expression; he is also one of our own. He served as President of our sister organization, the Independent Chinese PEN Center , from 2003 to 2007, and currently serves on its Board of Directors. In doing so, and throughout his entire life, he has represented so fully what PEN is all about: freedom of expression, advancing literature, and promoting literary fellowship. And even beyond that, regardless of any of his political inclinations or desires, he has advocated non-violence—he has advocated words and dialogue. On Tiananmen Square in 1989, there’s this iconic image of Xiaobo trying to smash a rifle that he had taken from a worker who was there to defend the students on the steps of the Monument. He likely prevented even more bloodshed on the night of June 3-4 by calling on all students and workers to put down their weapons; to not give the military, which had already encircled the Square, any reason to open fire.
Despite being imprisoned after Tiananmen, Xiaobo never let up. In the face of harassment, surveillance, another round of imprisonment at a reeducation-through-labor camp, and sporadic house arrests, he continued to speak, and continued to press for free expression for all his fellow countrymen. By refusing to be silent, he has led a generation of Chinese writers and intellectuals into the open, creating this pillar of strength that hopefully will keep growing and growing until the government can no longer knock it down. Until then, Xiaobo and his fellows have made it clear that they will keep rebuilding it.
3. What kind of advocacy work did Xiaobo do as President of the ICPC?
The Independent Chinese PEN Center really does on-the-ground advocacy in a way that many other centers are unable to do. They are doing some of the most extensive information-gathering about imprisonment of writers and restrictions on free expression, including censorship of the Internet; they are providing a crucial sense of solidarity and support for dissident writers, journalists, and bloggers in China; and they are serving as a crucial bridge to the international literary and human rights communities.
4. Recently there have been a lot of Chinese novels translated into English that deal with the Cultural Revolution, some of them skirting the line of what’s permissible. What distinguishes Xiaobo from a writer like, for instance, Yu Hua, who also writes critically of the government?
I think it’s a different, more relaxed line that these novels are skirting—many aspects of the Cultural Revolution are now permitted to be discussed and dissected in China. It’s very different from discussing the Tiananmen crackdown, which Liu Xiaobo has discussed extensively and which remains a taboo subject in China. The government that initiated the Cultural Revolution of the ‘60s and ‘70s is not the same one that oversaw the crackdown on pro-democracy activists in 1989. That government is still in place, and that is the government that Liu Xiaobo is criticizing. While he may speak of the past, he is working in the present and towards the future.
5. Lastly, what does the future hold for Xiaobo? What does PEN hope to achieve by granting him this award?
Liu Xiaobo is being held under “residential surveillance,” a clause in Chinese law that allows authorities to hold a person in detention for six months. They have been interrogating Xiaobo’s colleagues who have signed Charter 08 in an effort to gather evidence on him and be able to press formal “incitement to subversion” charges. He’s a bit of a thorn in their sides, and a bit of a conundrum for them, I think. On the one hand, he’s a seemingly fearless critic who just won’t shut up, won’t shun the international media, won’t shun his fellow citizens, and so they really are making an effort to shut him up. But at the same time, he’s so well-known throughout China, and throughout the world, that imprisoning him for any length of time would be a danger for their image, which they are trying so hard to polish. We hope that the PEN/Barbara Goldsmith Freedom to Write Award shines enough of a spotlight on Liu Xiaobo that the Chinese government can’t ignore the pressure from both the inside and the outside, and that they will free him immediately and unconditionally.
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