Tourist in Beijing: A Dance with the Censor

We were five PEN members in Beijing, proceeding to Hong Kong where we’d been invited to celebrate Independent Chinese PEN Center’s (ICPC) tenth anniversary. It happened also to be the 90th anniversary of the Communist Party in China as large commemorative plaques proclaimed in Tiananmen Square. And it was the 90th anniversary of PEN International.

We were there to visit writers and book stores and any independent publishers we could find to gather information on the state of literature and freedom of expression in China and to show solidarity with threatened colleagues. Half the members of the Independent Chinese PEN Center lived in China, half outside. A number of ICPC’s members had been sent to prison for their writing, which the government deemed “subversive to the state.” The writing included articles challenging the demolition of old Beijing, food poisoning scandals and the lighting of 1000 candles commemorating Tiananmen Square. The most prominent of these imprisoned members was ICPC’s former president Liu Xiaobo, 2010 Nobel Laureate for Peace who helped draft Charter ’08 which set out a democratic vision for China.

Our first day—our recovery day—several of us visited the Summer Palace, Tiananmen Square and the Forbidden City as well as a visit to an embassy. In the evening we gathered at a book store with writers and journalists where discussion focused on literature and the shrinking landscape for free expression. Micro blogging (like Twitter, though Twitter is blocked) was proliferating, we were told, and often skirted the censors, but censorship of the internet and traditional forms of writing had intensified.

In the days ahead writers, journalists, scholars and officials in embassies, all agreed that the crackdown on freedom of expression in China hadn’t been this grave since the days of Tiananmen Square. The restrictions since February (when the Arab spring began) included arrests of writers and human rights lawyers, torture, increased surveillance, closing down of events at bookstores and monitoring  of all communications and movement of suspected dissidents. Many of the so-called dissident writers and human rights lawyers were so closely watched that police literally sat outside their doors.

On our second day the U.S. Embassy invited our delegation and 14 writers to a forum on freedom of expression. Only three of the fourteen writers showed up. The majority of the other invitees were visited or contacted by police and told not to come.  The consequence of disobeying the police could be severe though the writers let us know they wanted to attend.  While in Beijing every communication we had by phone or email had a push back, which meant our communications, or those of the recipients, were tracked.

At least six ICPC writers were warned and later blocked from attending the ICPC celebration in Hong Kong. This year China is spending more money (est. $95 billion) on its internal security than on its military budget

For writing articles, individuals have been put in jail for years, charged with “inciting subversion against state powers.” An image I will take away is of one of the writers we met who had been imprisoned and tortured for writing an article that later became part of a larger public debate.  He showed us pictures of himself in his small prison with his fellow prisoners as if he were showing us a family album. This had been his family for almost a decade. On the cover of his small photo album was a picture of Mickey Mouse.

(The night I flew out of China a major train crash on the high speed rail killed at least 39 people.  Micro bloggers with over 28 million messages have challenged the censors and the state media as reports and comments on the accident buzz around the country.  It will be worth noting who gets prosecuted first—those reporting the incident or those responsible.)


  1. Julia Malone on July 29, 2011 at 5:22 pm

    Thank you for this keyhole view into what’s happening behind the scenes of China’s spectacular economic growth.
    It’s chilling to think of how much of our debt they hold.

  2. Frank Ocwieja on July 29, 2011 at 5:44 pm

    Hi Joanne!

    It doesn’t look like you were able to recover very much on your first day in Beijing! When Sue and I visited China three years ago, just the Forbidden Palace was enough to exhaust us for the day.

    It is amazing that the Chinese government allowed your PEN group to visit with writers in Beijing at all. While we were in China, the financial crisis occurred, threatening the value of billions of Chinese government investments. We were unable to get information on those events during the rest of our two weeks in China.

    You know where I stand on freedom of expression in China: If writers wish to be free to say what they want, they really have no choice but to leave the country or organize to change the political system. It seems that the most entrepreneurial Chinese have decided to accept the material rewards of the growing economy as their payment for repressing their resentment of the autocratic government.

  3. Didi Cutler on July 29, 2011 at 6:30 pm

    Thank you, Joanne, for sending all this: your blog and the links. Scary stuff. The situation warrants close watching. Great picture of you! Cheers, Didi

  4. Fawzia Assaa on July 30, 2011 at 2:56 am

    I wish I were with you. The other day I bumped into the Chinese Ambassador. I asked him: why do you keep your Nobel Prize in jail. He got angry. We have our laws he said and you must respect them. The year before, I bumped into the former Chinese Ambassador. You have many writers in jail, I said. Nobody is perfect he answered. We are on the right track. And he kept on repeating the same: we are on the right track…We are on the right track…Nobody is perfect…

  5. Med Magani on July 30, 2011 at 11:34 am

    Thanks for sharing this with us. China is really the utmost in paradoxes, where human rights looses a lot.
    Med Magani

  6. Mak on July 30, 2011 at 6:48 pm

    Now you know who is the first to go: three officials-without prosecution nor trial. Very Chinese style. And now is the media. I heard that the Central Propaganda Department had issued 3 directions and the one issued yesterday worked. Thousands articles were “shot” and could not be seen by their readers. A producer of CCTV who criticize the Rail Department had been removed from her post.


  7. C.A.H. on July 30, 2011 at 11:19 pm

    Thanks for sharing.  Sadly, watching the Arab Spring, China is becoming even more hyper about political dissent.  When I was there is July, I had a bright young professor say to me:  “We watch your system giving freedom to every point of view and see stalemate on the issues that could affect your survival as a great nation.  We don’t  want that.”  Amazing where we find ourselves on both sides of the Pacific.  Best, C.A.H.

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