Mixed Literary Messages in China ; as Beijing Is Promoting Publishing Deals in U.S., Writers Protest Censorship

By Alter, Alexandra | International New York Times, May 30, 2015 | Go to article overview

Mixed Literary Messages in China ; as Beijing Is Promoting Publishing Deals in U.S., Writers Protest Censorship


Alter, Alexandra, International New York Times


Writers protested the limits on free speech and expression in China as a large Chinese delegation took part in a major American book trade event.

A few years ago, the Chinese writer Murong Xuecun had the kind of career most novelists dream about. His eight books had sold two million copies in China, and he had amassed more than eight million social media followers.

But in 2011, he decided to stop publishing. He was afraid of running afoul of Chinese censors and was even more concerned about the self-censorship that had crept into his work. Now he wishes he had never published some of his earlier books, which tiptoed around political issues.

"When I look back on them, I feel ashamed of myself," said Mr. Murong, 41, who lives in Beijing and whose real name is Hao Qun.

Mr. Murong was among a handful of writers who gathered on the steps of the New York Public Library on Wednesday night to protest the limits on free speech and expression in China. The gathering, organized by the PEN American Center, was prompted by the presence of a large delegation of Chinese publishers at BookExpo America, a major publishing trade event taking place in Manhattan this week.

The juxtaposition was striking. In the past week, thousands of booksellers, librarians, publishers and authors mingled at BookExpo, at the Jacob K. Javits Convention Center, where Chinese publishers were being feted as international guests of honor. To mark the event, the Chinese government sent a 500-person delegation from 100 publishing houses and 26 of its top authors. Chinese publishers claimed close to 25,000 square feet of floor space at the hall and planned 50 events around the city, including poetry readings, film screenings, author panels and presentations from its largest publishers.

Not many blocks away, Mr. Murong stood on the library steps and read aloud from an open letter he had written to Chinese censors in 2013, after his social media account was blocked and its contents deleted. "You treat literature as poison and free speech as a crime," he said. (Mr. Murong is also a contributing opinion writer to The International New York Times.)

He was joined by prominent American writers like Jonathan Franzen, Paul Auster, Francine Prose and A.M. Homes, and by the China-born novelists Ha Jin and Xiaolu Guo. They took turns reading works by Chinese authors who are in prison or under house arrest for their writing, including the Tibetan poet Tsering Woeser, the writer Liu Xia and her husband, the poet and Nobel Peace Prize winner Liu Xiaobo, who is serving an 11-year prison sentence for subversion.

"There are all of these writers in China who are in jeopardy for expressing themselves, and if you have a government-sanctioned delegation, you're only getting part of the story," said Suzanne Nossel, executive director of the PEN American Center, an organization that promotes free speech.

BookExpo's organizers called China's featured role at the expo an unprecedented and historic meeting between the world's two largest publishing industries. "We're going to remember this for a generation, because it's going to be the beginning of opening some doors," said Steve Rosato, the event director for BookExpo. He said the event was not an appropriate forum to address censorship.

"We're not in the position to do anything around that," he said when asked about PEN America's objections. "China is a significant market and they represent a significant trade opportunity."

China's prominence at this year's BookExpo highlights both the growing interplay between Chinese publishers and the international literary community and the difficulties of doing business when standards for freedom of expression differ significantly.

China has accelerated its effort to export books and authors as part of a broader strategy to exert "soft power" by raising its cultural profile internationally. Chinese publishers have heavily promoted their catalogs at the London and Frankfurt book fairs in recent years. …

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