China from the 22nd Floor

On June 4 China will face the 19th anniversary of the killing of citizens occupying Tiananmen Square. Nineteen years ago as president of PEN USA, I remember well sorting through dozens of unfamiliar Chinese names as we sought to untangle what writers had been arrested. Today there are at least 42 writers imprisoned in China.

I wake up 22 stories in the air. Most of Hong Kong is in the air with thousands of high rises shooting into the sky. I’m in a cubicle—two small beds pressed against each wall, a tiny shelf between, a TV mounted on the wall at the foot of one bed. At the head of the bed is a large window so the room is airy and looks out on other windows in the sky.
I wake in the middle of the night because of jet lag and then again early in the morning before the sun rises. I turn on the TV whose screen flashes the financial news of Hong Kong—the major world indices, Hong Kong currency exchange rates, global gold prices, Hong Kong stock market prices, statistics on which the financial world relies, accompanied by jazz and elevator music. The only news channel on this hotel TV is the Chinese Broadcasting Company from the mainland; it broadcasts the mainland government’s view of the news.

I am in Hong Kong participating in a freedom of expression symposium: One Dream: Free Expression in China, sponsored by the Hong Kong Journalists Association, International Federation of Journalists, World Association of Newspapers, PEN, Reporters Sans Frontieres, and others. In its bid for the Olympic Games, China promised to open media access in the year running up to the games. The conference is assessing that promise; the continued arrests of writers indicate the promise has not been fulfilled.
Our colleague, the General Secretary of the Independent Chinese PEN Center, was detained at the airport and not allowed into Hong Kong even though he holds a Chinese passport, even though Hong Kong is supposed to be the freer arm of China. Other writers from the mainland were kept out at the border between China and Hong Kong.

As light dawns through the window, I watch 17 Buddhist monks in bright orange jackets sentenced for their alleged role in the disturbances in Tibet; their actions, the report says, threatened the peace and prosperity of China. I watch a report of Chinese President Hu Jintao meeting with Taiwan’s Honorary Chairman. The commentator explains these two men, sitting stiffly on large white chairs, are discussing the peace and prosperity of China. This orderly, stylized version of life, this peace and prosperity promoted by the news, contrasts with the bustle and chaos on the streets below where the lanes and avenues are filled with honking and shouting, with people, rickshaws, cars, bikes, with stores, food stalls, neon lights, electric wires strung everywhere. On the ground is the commotion of a city overgrown and rising higher and higher into the air.

But on TV the government spins the news until it is a confection floating above reality on the ground. I consider the spinning that goes on in my own country—to some extent in most countries when governments and politicians offer their version of events. But an important difference is the multiple points of views citizens can hear, the independence and variety of those views, the freedom citizens have to write, report and even spin the news themselves differently than the government, and the right they have to choose.

* * * * *

Ten days after I leave Hong Kong, a major earthquake shatters the Sichuan province on the mainland. The authorities order websites to delete postings on the disaster and detain activists who question the government’s response. A number of Chinese journalists ignore the orders that ban direct reporting and go to the sites. Finally media is allowed in, at least some media. But one writer Guo Quan, Assistant Professor at Nanjing Normal University, is detained for his articles criticizing the government’s response and questioning the safety of certain structures, including nuclear facilities nearby. Another writer, Chen Daojun, was arrested three days before the earthquake and charged with “inciting subversion of state power” for an article criticizing the building of a chemical plant in Pengzhou, just 39 km away from Chengdu, the capital of Sichuan Province where the earthquake shattered buildings and threatened those very nuclear facilities, including fuel processing and weapons plants. The last article Guo Quan posted online before he was picked up urged the government to release information about the safety of nuclear facilities in the aftermath of the quake, but the damage to these high security installations still has not been fully reported.

For more information about freedom of expression in China and how to assist writers in prison in China you can link to International PEN’s China Campaign and the We Are Ready for Free Expression Campaign.


  1. Susie on May 30, 2008 at 5:41 am

    Great Blog. Bravo for sharing your unique and “real time” perspective on China’s glaring contradictions. We all owe a huge debt of gratitude to the writers who refuse to be silent. What if we all had to rely on the nightly spin of tv news? Thank you to Pen International — what an amazing organization!

  2. Michel Murdock on February 22, 2010 at 11:32 am

    I love this place, is it updated often? Added to favorites 🙂

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