By EMILY PARKER (senior fellow at Asia Society’s Center on U.S.-China Relations, is writing a book about the Internet and democracy)
May 6, 2010
When the Chinese-Canadian writer Denise Chong’s 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.
Chong had underestimated 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.
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.
“Suddenly we’re all Hong Kong, where no one wants to offend the mainland because it’s too close.”
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.
Jerome Cohen, who teaches Chinese law and society at New York University Law School, has similar impressions. “There are writers who I respect who don’t choose certain subjects because they will engage them in controversy with China,” he said, adding that Xinjiang, the far western province that has been the site of ethnic and religious unrest, is “certainly radioactive.”
“Visa denials seem to be based on the subject matter more than what the individual says about the subject,” Cohen said.
Ken Chen, the executive director of the Asian American Writers’ Workshop, describes an event he held in New York for “Prisoner of the State,” the posthumously published memoir of Zhao Ziyang, the reformist Communist Party leader who was put under house arrest after the Tiananmen Square crackdown. At the event, a reporter affiliated with the religious group Falun Gong, which is despised by Beijing, asked to interview two of the book’s Chinese editors as well as an American professor. “What I found interesting and ironic,” Chen said, “is that the two Chinese editors felt free to sit in front of the camera for the interview and make some highly controversial pro-democracy statements, but the American professor refused even to be interviewed out of fear of reprisal by the Chinese government.”