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Yang Lian: 'There are cracks in China's censorship'

Interview: Sabine PeschelJanuary 7, 2016

In Hong Kong publishers are going missing, while a book that cannot be published in Beijing may appear in Shanghai. In an interview with DW, Chinese poet Yang Lian discusses the current fight for freedom of expression.

Chinese author Yang Lian, Copyright: Angelika Leuchter,
Image: Angelika Leuchter, Wissenschaftskolleg zu Berlin

Deutsche Welle: How would you describe the situation of freedom of arts in China?

Yang Lian: I'm still reflecting on recent experiences that concern this old question. I have spent one month teaching at Shantou University and I realized that the control of arts now is much tougher than before, especially on TV. Ten years ago, or even five years ago, there were TV programs that showed deep historical introspection, especially into the country's history after 1949. Now, those programs have completely disappeared. Cheap entertainment abounds on TV channels. I was very disappointed to see that.

Why do you think this happened?

One possible reason could be that since the economy is slowing down now, the government might be worried that this will create some kind of unhappy feelings among people, especially among the intellectuals. So they try to control more tightly such cultural and ideological topics.

The Chinese administration exercises control over all publications, in print or online. How dangerous is repression for Chinese writers?

This battle is now fought from different sides. The government is trying to pursue the communist tradition of controlling expression and thoughts. But at the same time, through the Internet and other ways of expression, the people's voice can still be heard. This movement depends on what individual artists decide to do. Self-censorship among Chinese artists is quite clear and strong. But nevertheless there are some great artists who are willing to address social and political issues with high quality art.

SHANG Yang Installation Sheng Shui Tu
Shang Yang's installation 'Sheng Shui Tu' - refering to the Three Gorges Dam that displaced over 1.3 million peopleImage: SHANG Yang

Could you name an example?

I just recently met the artist Shang Yang. He created this great installation - I call it an epic installation - which is related to the Three Gorges Dam. All pieces of the huge installation are related to the subject of forced migrations from the Three Gorges area when the dam was built. This is still a very big problem. The dam not only destroyed nature but also society. So when I saw that work in Mr. Shang Yang's studio, I was deeply moved.

So would you say that freedom of expression is greater for visual artists than for writers?

These questions of freedom of expression and freedom in other cultural areas are essential in a Chinese society undergoing such a fast-paced transformation. But I think it is the responsibility of each artist to reflect on all of those questions and make individual decisions.

For example, for the recent publication of nine volumes of my collected works in China, I gave an interview to "Pengpai" ("The Paper"). This new website is now very important and big in China. I was asked during the interview what I thought about 1989 [Eds. The year of the Tiananmen massacre on June 4 to crush the democracy movement].

Tank Man, Copyright: Jeff Widener/Associated Press
The most famous icon of the government's crackdown on the 1989 protests on Tiananmen SquareImage: Jeff Widener/AP

I answered with my interpretation of the events: The exploration of Chinese history and culture which took place throughout the 80s unleashed a new intellectual energy that culminated in the creation of the 1989 students' movement.

In the end, my answer and all related questions were edited out of the interview published on the website. I was angry and sad because it was kind of groundbreaking to talk about these events directly.

After that, I immediately sent out a link with the full unedited interview to my circle of friends and it's being shared on social media. I am curious to see whether there will be any reactions, if they will delete that link. But so far it's still there - we'll see. As I said, freedom of speech very much depends on actions by individuals.

China recognized freedom of speech as a human right in a new constitution in 2004. Why do authorities nevertheless continue to severely restrict freedom of expression?

They can easily rewrite the constitution - it has already been rewritten seven times. To rewrite the constitution is one thing, but to change the whole reality is another question.

According to Amnesty International, activists and human rights defenders in China still risk harassment and arbitrary detention; torture and other ill-treatment remain widespread. Do you know writers or artists who have been arrested without obvious reason in the recent past?

If you check the records, you will see that quite a number of non-fiction authors writing on political subjects tend to get into trouble. But I have not heard of any literary writers who have been jailed recently.

The artist Ai Weiwei, who presently lives in Berlin like you, said in several interviews that artistic freedom in China is far from perfect but a lot better than it used to be. Do you agree?

I do agree with his statement. When I walked through the galleries of the "798" artistic area in Beijing, I saw many artists doing this kind of art with political context.

There used to be three huge taboos: Taiwan, Tibet, Falun Gong. Do they still exist?

I think this situation hasn't really changed. The improvement might be that when artists criticize the situation indirectly through their art, the government will almost always ignore it. But if they try to talk about these subjects directly - like in my interview about the 1980s and 1989 - then they almost immediately get into trouble. There is a certain sensitive line. Since all artists know where the line is, they tend to go near that area but almost never really cross this line.

Hongkong Lee Bo, Copyright: ANTHONY WALLACE/AFP/Getty Image
Lee Bo is one of the five missing booksellers associated with Mighty Current in Hong KongImage: Getty Images/AFP/A. Wallace

In Hong Kong, five people tied to the publishing house Mighty Current, specialized in provocative political books, went missing since October last year, Lee Bo, the last one, directely from the streets of his hometown.It is speculated they were abducted by the Chinese Secret Service. Is freedom of expression in Hong Kong coming to an end?

I think so, yes. Somehow, Hong Kong's situation is even worse than China's. You can still buy those non-fiction books about Chinese leaders and politics in Hong Kong. But those who publish or sell such books now face much larger difficulties compared to before 1997 [Eds. when Hong Kong's sovereignty was transferred from the UK to China]. Now leaders in Hong Kong are simply followers of the central government. They might actually exercise more self-censorship than what the central government asks from them.

"Xi Jinping collapse", Copyright: picture-alliance/AP Photo/V.
A poster in the entrance of the missing bookseller's store shows the Chinese president and reads "Xi Jinping collapse"Image: picture-alliance/AP Photo/V. Yu

Your books were on the index for many years but are now being published in China by renowned companies. What made the censors change their mind?

As I said, there are controls from the central government, but China is no longer one piece of metal. The reality is full of cracks and holes and possibilities. A book published in Beijing might be banned, but the same book can be published in Shanghai by another publishing company and it will be okay.

You have lived in exile for many years. You are now free to go back to China, spend several months there, and even teach there. Could you one day return to China permanently?

No! Not only because of the political control - even the air pollution makes it impossible. The pollution is unbelievably bad. A joke attributed to Ma Yun, the boss of Alibaba [Eds. Jack Ma, the richest man in mainland China] says that at least pollution makes all people equal - everyone has to breathe.

But I don't want to simplify everything. China has changed a lot. I'm trying to find my way to push positive changes in China. I feel it's important not just to comment from the outside but to touch reality.