The Censor in the MirrorPrint
It's not only what the Chinese Propaganda Department does to artists, but what it makes artists do to their own work
By Ha Jin
Censorship in China is a powerful field of force; it affects anyone who gets close to it. Four years ago, I signed five book contracts with a Shanghai publisher who planned to bring out four volumes of my fiction and a collection of my poems. The editor in charge of the project told me that he couldn’t possibly consider publishing two of my novels, The Crazed and War Trash, owing to the sensitive subject matter. The former touches on the Tiananmen tragedy, and the latter deals with the Korean War. I was supposed to select the poems and translate them into Chinese for the volume of poetry. As I began thinking about what poems to include, I couldn’t help but censor myself, knowing intuitively which ones might not get through the censorship. It was disheartening to realize I would have to exclude the stronger poems if the volume could ever see print in China. As a result, I couldn’t embark on the translation wholeheartedly. To date, I haven’t translated a single poem, though the deadline was May 2005.
The publisher publicly announced time and again that these five books would come out soon, sometime in late 2005, according to the contracts. But that spring, the first in the series, my collection of short stories, Under the Red Flag, was sent to the Shanghai censorship office—the Bureau of Press and Publications—and the book was shot down. So the whole project was stonewalled. A year later, I heard that the publisher had decided to abandon the project. In the meantime, numerous official newspapers spread the word that my books had no market value in China.
The office that Chinese writers, artists, and journalists dread and hate most is the Chinese Communist Party’s Propaganda Department. In addition to its propaganda work within the party, this department, through its numerous bureaus, also supervises the country’s newspapers, publishing houses, radio and TV stations, movie industry, and the Internet. Except for the Military Commission, no department in the Party Central Committee wields more power than this office, which forms the core of the party’s leadership. Its absolute authority had gone unchallenged in the past, though even the Communists themselves understand the sinister role it has played. Luo Ruiqing, who was the first to head the Propaganda Department after the Communists came to power, once admitted: “To let the media serve politics means to tell lies, to deceive the above and delude the below, to defile public opinions, and to create nonsensical news.”
In recent years, however, the authority of the Propaganda Department has been challenged from time to time. To many Chinese, one of the brave figures in this regard is Jiao Guobiao, formerly a professor of journalism at Peking University, who in March 2004 posted on the Internet a long article titled “Fight Against the Party’s Propaganda Department.” Jiao condemns the office and its entire system as “the main blockage in the development of Chinese civilization,” and as “the protector of the evil and the corrupt.” He lists 14 illnesses the department has suffered, among which are its betrayal of the original communist ideal and its perpetuation of a Cold War mentality (to wit, stoking hostility toward the United States). He suggests that the department be dissolved, since no civilized country in the world has such an office. Jiao was not “disciplined” immediately, but later when he was on a short visit to the United States, Peking University claimed that he had “voluntarily quit” his teaching position.
Another challenger of the authority of the Propaganda Department is the writer Zhang Yihe. In early 2007, Wu Shulin, a senior official from the department, declared at a meeting that eight books published in 2006 must be banned. Most of the books are nonfiction and unveil some seedy sides of contemporary Chinese history. Among the banned titles was Zhang’s book Past Stories of Peking Opera Stars, which describes the vicissitudes of eight master opera singers, especially their sufferings and ruination after 1949, when the Communists seized China. When Wu Shulin issued the ban, he gave no explanation beyond “because the book was written by that person.” Zhang’s previous two books had also been banned. But she couldn’t stomach it this time and wrote a public letter demanding an apology from Wu Shulin and calling on the Propaganda Department to rescind the ban. In an interview, she said she would defend her book with her life. Zhang’s action caused a stir and was supported by the public. She tried to file a lawsuit against the Propaganda Department for violating her citizen’s rights of publication and free speech. Of course, no court dared to accept such a case. However, the public uproar deterred Wu Shulin, who kept a low profile and was apologetic in private, saying he had just followed instructions from above. Nevertheless, the ban has remained in place, and Zhang’s book is no longer available on the mainland.
To some extent, the outcome of the two incidents represents the current situation in China—the authorities no longer try to justify actions that obviously have no legal grounds, but their decisions remain unchanged. Why didn’t the party have the two disobedient individuals punished, just as it had punished tens of thousands of intellectuals, by banishment or imprisonment? Why didn’t they just silence the two troublemakers? There are three main reasons. First, the Communist Party, despite its powerful appearance, has become quite fragile, weak within. No party members believe in the ideal of communism anymore. Mainlanders say that those who join the party do so as a way “to solve the association problem.” On the one hand, party membership is viewed as a burdensome thing; on the other, it is necessary if one wants to have a good career and benefit from the system. In other words, the party can no longer derive any justification from the firm belief in its ideology, so challenges such as those made by Jiao and Zhang can put officials on the defensive.
Ha Jin is a professor of English at Boston University. He won the National Book Award in 1999 for his novel Waiting. His most recent novel, published last year, is A Free Life.
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