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.)