The Censor in the Mirror

It’s not only what the Chinese Propaganda Department does to artists, but what it makes artists do to their own work

Matt Ming/flickr
Matt Ming/flickr


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.

Second, both Jiao and Zhang belong to the so-called elite class, which the authorities have avoided exasperating. After Tiananmen, the Communist Party adopted a relatively conciliatory position toward intellectuals, who can be vocal, resourceful, and troublesome. On the whole, the party has succeeded in buying off the intellectuals, who live much better than the people in the lower social strata. By not punishing Jiao and Zhang harshly, the party could avoid incensing the elite class. As long as China’s brains do not join forces with the rebellious masses, the country will be easier to control.

Third, Jiao and Zhang were well connected within the country and with the outside world, and they occupied a conspicuous spot in the public eye. In Jiao’s case, if his article had not been posted on the Internet, he couldn’t possibly have become a public figure overnight, and the officials could have silenced him summarily. Likewise, the Internet has protected some dissident intellectuals living in China, such as Liu Xiaobo and Yu Jie, and it has kept their voices heard by people inside and outside the country. If an ordinary citizen at the bottom of society, one of the “weed people,” posts a protest letter on a wall, we may never hear an echo of the writer’s voice, let alone know about his or her fate. Most Chinese are still not listened to, and the authorities often respond to the demands of peasants and factory workers with brute force.

In the West, contemporary Chinese movies are quite popular, but not many of us know that the movies we can see are not always available to the Chinese. The list of banned movies is long: To Live, The Blue Kite, Farewell to My Concubine, Bitter Love, Devils on the Doorstep. Even Ang Lee’s Brokeback Mountain is classified as unsuitable for the general audience in China. His new film, Lust, Caution, has been criticized by some officials, but thanks to Ang Lee’s international reputation, few of them have condemned him publicly. Instead, Tang Wei, the leading actress in the movie, has been prohibited from making public appearances and from joining the casts of new movies. For filmmakers, a banned movie means a huge business loss and more difficulties in finding sponsorship for their next project. It would be suicidal to make two banned movies in a row, so filmmakers have to toe the line. This is the main reason most Chinese movies lack depth and complexity—they’re hamstrung at the outset by directors and producers having to worry about whether the final product will pass the censors.

In the fall of 2006, Lou Ye, a young filmmaker, took his movie Summer Palace to the Cannes Film Festival despite the authorities’ objection on the grounds that it contained scenes of Tiananmen. On his return to China, Lou was suspended from work, forbidden to make movies for five years. In fact, several directors had been subject to the same five-year suspension before Lou.

This summer, after the turmoil in Tibet and the earthquake in Sichuan in the spring and as the Olympics began, the Chinese government was determined to smother or muffle discordant voices. Party cadres follow the principle expressed by their pet phrase “nei jin wai song” (tense within but relaxed without). Their mild façade is a show for foreigners.

The authorities are more subtle in controlling book publishing. Under the Propaganda Department, there is an office called the General Administration of Press and Publication (GAPP). It is this office whose approval every publisher, both Chinese and foreign, must obtain before it can publish a book or magazine in China. In officialese, its task is to “responsibly guard the territory” and “guarantee the safety of the publishing business.” gapp has a bureau in every province and every major city directly under the Central Government. All the publishing houses get book numbers, ISBNs, from gapp and must submit manuscripts for inspection. The officials at GAPP read manuscripts and order what must be cut before a book goes to the printer. Sometimes they demand cuts not because a book’s content is offensive but just because they have to cut something so that they won’t be held responsible if the book runs into trouble after its publication. To forestall trouble, gapp maintains a list of banned subjects, so that all publishers can understand the restrictions and exercise “self-discipline.” Taking their cue from rejected manuscripts, writers subject themselves to self-censorship. I know some Chinese writers living in North America whose book manuscripts were turned down again and again by publishers in China because the subject matter was “inappropriate.” The taboo subjects are numerous, such as the Tiananmen massacre, Tibet, the independence of Taiwan, the Anti-Rightist Campaign, the Cultural Revolution, the Korean War, Chairman Mao, Falun Gong, the famine in the early 1960s.

One of the best-known works of fiction banned by the authorities is the novella Serve the People! published in 2005, by Yan Lianke, who was an officer in the People’s Army. It was censored partly because two lovers in the story accidentally smash a plaster statue of Mao Zedong, shred some Mao portraits, and tear up a volume of Mao’s selected writings. The authorities criticized the novella as “vilifying Chairman Mao, the People’s Liberation Army, and the revolution through excessive sexual descriptions,” so “it confuses people’s minds and disseminates Western ideas.” In fact, even before the author submitted his novella to the magazine Flower City, he had self-censored the work, cutting more than 40,000 of the original 90,000 words. Then, his editor at the magazine struck out another 10,000 words. Yan Lianke later lamented, “It doesn’t feel like a piece of work anymore.” Still, as soon as the novella came out, the Propaganda Department ordered the magazine to retrieve all 30,000 copies of the issue. That was impossible; it had already reached readers. As a result, the editors—reprimanded and investigated—had to perform self-criticism, examining their negligence and explaining the whole process of the publication to gapp. Yan was lucky because he had just left the army, which couldn’t punish him anymore.

Actually, editors tend to be punished more severely than authors, some of whom are public figures. But nowadays, even editors don’t get disciplined as often as they used to. If the Propaganda Department decides to ban a book, it simply orders the publisher to stop shipping it and to destroy its printing plates. This robs the publisher of the capital already invested in the book, and the economic loss alone is enough to deter most publishers from bringing out an “offensive” book again.

Self-censorship is a necessity for most Chinese writers. There’s the saying, “If you eat others’ food, you cannot talk back to them,” which describes the writers’ existential condition. Many of them belong to the Writers’ Union, the official literary association that has a branch in every province and every major city. Some draw a salary directly from the union, while the majority hold jobs in state-owned cultural, educational, and legal institutions. That means most of them depend on the state for their livelihood. About the intellectuals, Mao Zedong often remarked, “If they don’t listen to us, we won’t give them food.” This kind of dependence on the state for one’s physical existence has handicapped Chinese writers and artists and intensified their self-censorship. Worse, China’s literary apparatus automatically excludes and isolates writers who are determined to exist outside it. Every now and then, some young writers raise a war cry against the Writers’ Union, but the truth is that most writers, old and young, are eager to join it.


Besides the state-owned publishing houses, some small, privately operated businesses have emerged in recent years. These are called the “second channel.” Some also pirate books by domestic and foreign authors. To bring out a book legally, a second channel publisher must get an ISBN, but GAPP makes that very difficult. So, sometimes, private publishers buy leftover ISBNs from state-owned publishers. At the moment, the second channel seems to be withering, and it has always been at a disadvantage. Its publishers are also intimidated by the authorities, and few dare to bring out politically sensitive books.

In the summer of 2004, Yuan Hongbing, a Chinese writer, defected to Australia, taking with him four fiction manuscripts. After Yuan’s novels were published abroad, some top Chinese leaders were flustered. Luo Gan, director of the Politics and Law Committee of the Chinese Communist Party at the time, went so far as to give orders to punish with a death sentence whoever dared to pirate the books. Li Changchun, a member of the Standing Committee of the Political Bureau, who is in charge of ideology, issued the following directive: “The General Administration of Press and Publications, the Border Police, and Customs must work closely to prevent Yuan Hongbing’s novels from being smuggled into the mainland. We must ponder about this phenomenon: For many years our party has spent a great amount of manpower, money, and material resources in bringing up many writers, but our writers have not created any work that can trump Yuan Hongbing’s fiction artistically.” Regardless of whether Li was capable of literary judgment, he did raise a serious question for the party. The answer is clear and simple: The system of harsh censorship has crippled and “sterilized” the writers and artists who exist within its field of force.

Facing such crippling power, few writers can remain unaffected. I had halfheartedly signed my five book contracts with the Shanghai publisher, knowing the agreement might fall through at any time. This lack of faith, however, enabled me to see the predicament of writers and artists in China. Some have become cynical, and few are willing to run any risk and take up significant work that requires long and wholehearted devotion. Many have worked on ancient subjects, seeking a safe living in “the musty tomes of history.” That is why there are so many TV plays, movies, and books based on ancient legends and about emperors and historical figures.

During his visit to the United States in 2006, President Hu Jintao said at the White House in response to a reporter’s question: “We always believe that without democracy there will be no modernization.” This admission dovetails with the dissident Wei Jingsheng’s call, in 1978, for the Fifth Modernization—democracy—as an addition to Deng Xiaoping’s Four Modernizations. For that, Wei was imprisoned for 15 years. If the Communist Party is sincere about advocating democracy as President Hu averred, it should take steps to reduce the power of its Propaganda Department and eventually disband it. This would be an effective way to guarantee the Chinese people freedom of speech, which is a key component of basic human rights and without which any talk about democracy is mere rhetoric.

Rigid censorship not only chokes artistic talent but also weakens the Chinese populace, who are forced to be less imaginative and less inventive. The crisis in education has been a hot topic in China for years. Why are so many Chinese students good at taking tests but poor at analytical thinking? Why are many Chinese college graduates less creative and innovative than college graduates in the West? Besides the commercialization of education, the absence of a free, tolerant environment has stunted the intellectual growth of students and teachers. People often ask how many great original thinkers and artists modern China has contributed to the world, and how many original products China has created on its own. Very few, considering that the country has 1.3 billion people. True, China is richer than before, but its wealth relies on duplicating and emulating foreign products. Such wealth is temporary and will dwindle away. Without its own original cultural and material products, a country can never stay rich and strong. In other words, the real wealth a country has is the talent of its people. In the case of China, the way to nurture that talent is to lift the yoke of censorship.

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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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