Sunday, January 23, 2011
Melbourne PEN Quarterly , December 2010 , Issue - 3
The Following matters from
Melbourne PEN Quarterly , December 2010 , Issue - 3
Because Writers Speak their Minds. 50 years of defending freedom of expression. Writers in Prison Committee of International PEN
Use freedom to unite, not divide
A statement from International PEN President John Ralston Saul on threatened burning of copies of the Koran on 11 September
9 September 2010
In response to the threatened burning of copies of the Koran in the United States on 11 September 2010,the president of International PEN, John Ralston Saul, has issued the following statement:
There is only one religion of book burning. Whatever the book—a text from any religion, a novel, aphilosophical treatise, a poem—those who cast it into the f lames stand arm-in-arm with Goebbels on a square in Berlin worshipping at the altar of hatred. Such hatred can always invoke as justification some earlier offence, real or imagined. The specific acts of individuals are then distended into a revengeful condemnation of whole cultures or religions or peoples.
PEN stands for unlimited freedom of expression. But we also believe in restraint, not as self-censorship but as the expression of that true complexity of human relationships which great literature invokes.
We pledge to do our utmost to 'dispel race, class and national hatreds'. And the burning of books is a profoundly contemptuous display of hatred. We believe that the destiny of literature is to bring people together. The broad condemnation by Americans and people around the world of the threat to burn religious books is a reminder that the role of freedom of expression is not to divide, but to unite people.
John Ralston Saul
A Statement from PEN All-India on the removal of Rohinton Mistry’s novel from the University of Mumbai
20 October 2010
Dear Friends and Colleagues,
The PEN All-India Centre strongly condemns the removal of Rohinton Mistry’s novel, Such A Long Journey, from the SYBA syllabus of the University of Mumbai’s Literature course. We also express our great disappointment at the manner in which politicians belonging to the supposedly centrist and liberal parties, including the Indian National Congress, have consented to this ban, demanded by the scion of a right-wing political party, the Shiv Sena.
India has lapsed into the worst kind of competitive populism, with political forces seeking to outdo one another in destroying and banning works of literature, art, theatre and cinema, in the name of an aggrieved religious, ethnic or regional sensibility. Not only does this constitute a betrayal of the liberal Enlightenment ideology that ushered India into postcolonial freedom, but it also makes nonsense of our claim to being a 21st-century society, marked by openness, tolerance of diversity, and respect for the creative imagination.
There is only one name for a society that bans and burns books, tears down paintings, attacks cinema halls, and disrupts theatre performances under the sign of an aggressive chauvinism. ‘Fascist’ is too gentle a description. The exact name is ‘Nazi’. It is a matter of extreme sorrow that Mumbai in 2010 is exactly what Munich and Berlin were in 1935. It is for civil society in our city to decide whether we want to plunge deeper into the abyss of Nazi-style obscurantism, dictatorial oppression and a savage destructiveness towards every impulse that is open, receptive, creative and compassionate— or whether we shall resist it.
For The Executive Committee
THE PEN ALL-INDIA CENTRE
You will remain an example
I will walk with all walking people
I will not stand still
Just to watch the passers by
This is my Homeland
A palm tree
A drop in a cloud
And a grave to protect me
This is more beautiful
Than all cities of fog
And cities which
Do not recognise me
I would like to have power
Even for one day
To build the ‘republic of feelings.’
Translated from the Arabic by Ghias Aljundi.
Report on the 2010 Tokyo PEN Congress
The theme of the congress was The Environment and Literature: What can words do? Relevant
readings, discussions and seminars were arranged to take place throughout our stay. A literary forum preceding the congress included some very fine writers such as Margaret Atwood and Gao Xinjian who gave the keynote speeches. Sara Paretsky, Salwa Al Neimi, Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie and Marina Lewyck also participated. Because we were in Japan, special workshops were held on Haiku and Tanka, the latter including ‘A Revival of Tanka by Women’ which was unfortunately held only in Japanese.
A record number of centres, 86 in all, were represented. This was due, in part, to Japan PEN
Centre’s financial assistance. The congress was extremely well funded and we were admirably fed, housed and entertained. The congress hotel was the Keio Plaza in Shinjuku, where some of us had stayed in 1995 for the inaugural Asia and Pacific PEN conference. Shinjuku is Tokyo’s high-rise district which looks a little like a science-fiction landscape because of its multi-level streets. Most of us stayed at the nearby (and much cheaper) Shinjuku Washington Hotel.
The committee meetings preceded the Assembly of Delegates and took place mostly (and
annoyingly) on the same day so that it was impossible to attend all of the Peace, Women Writers, Writers in Prison, and Translation and Linguistic Rights meetings. Judith Rodriguez and I split the responsibility for these, though I spent most of my time with Women Writers as usual. About 30 women attended one or both of these meetings.
A dramatised group reading of Hisashi Inoue’s Mizu no Tegami (A Letter from Water) was
staged for the opening ceremony held at the Waseda University where several other events took place including a performance of Amami Taiko drum music by students from Amami Island high school. The welcome party was at the Concord Ballroom of the Keio Plaza Hotel.
PEN’s new President, John Ralston Saul, opened the Assembly in an innovative way with a
half-day discussion (free for all) on what PEN is doing and what its members should be doing. This gave everyone a chance to say something. Each person had just a few minutes and all was noted. The ideas will be used to determine future activities.
Elections for a new General Secretary and Treasurer as well as Board members took place
with Eric Lax being re-elected unopposed as Treasurer, and Hori Takeaki as PEN’s new General
Secretary. Many issues were discussed including PEN’s need for new sources of funding.
Throughout the congress the new PEN logo was on display. The official title of our organisation is now PEN International, not International PEN. Melbourne PEN will be creating a new banner and leaflets using the new logo.
Two receptions were held in the following days, one on the 45th floor of the Tokyo Metropolitan
Government Building at which we heard a fantastic song from a Sumo wrestler, and a dinner at the family residence of ex-prime minister Yukio Hatoyama where we were treated to an abbreviated tea ceremony.
A highlight of the congress for me was the very moving ‘Poetry Reading by PEN Centre
members’. Poems were read by the poets in their own language and then translated into Japanese. The party at a nearby Taiwanese restaurant was well lubricated with jugs of excellent Japanese beer and we all sang lots of songs. We really did not want to leave when we were finally thrown out of the restaurant, having overstayed our allotted time. This party was held at the same time as the commemorative event marking the 50th anniversary of the Writers in Prison Committee.
Among the congress highlights was the establishment of a new Cambodian PEN Centre Throughout the congress the new PEN logo was on display. The official title of our organisation is now PEN International, not International PEN. Melbourne PEN will be creating a new banner and leaflets using the new logo.
which Melbourne PEN will endeavour to support in whatever way we can. I was delighted to see
PEN delegates from centres in Afghanistan, Haiti and Bishkek (now renamed Central Asia), despite continued difficulties in their regions.
It is hard to describe the wonderful politeness and calmness of Japanese people in all the public
places I found myself. They made our visit a delight. And it is so restful for the eyes and ears not be surrounded by graffiti and car horns.
All in all this was a happy congress, though I wish much greater effort had been made for
regional discussion and better allocation of time for committee meetings. Minutes of the congress will be available next year for those who want more detailed information.
A space for dialogue and reconciliation
Melbourne PEN secretary Jackie Mansourian reflects
on Fethiye Çetin’s recent visit
Opening up dialogue between communities deeply affected by political violence is complex and precarious. Writers and stories can contribute to this process in profound ways. This is what Melbourne PEN hoped to facilitate in the special evening with Fethiye Çetin—‘Towards justice, dialogue and reconciliation’—on 12 September 2010. After Fethiye told the story of her beloved grandmother, more than 100 people sat together in small groups, some of whom knew each other, many who did not, and in animated conversation shared how Fethiye’s story and courage had resonated within them. It proved to be a risk worth taking.
Fethiye grew up in an extended Turkish Muslim family, with her mother, siblings and maternal grandparents. Her memoir shares intimate and funny details of their life, in particular of her special connection to her grandmother Seher. When Fethiye reached adulthood, Seher asked her to help locate her family. Fethiye did not understand the request at first, but as their conversation grew, all that she had known of her grandmother’s earlier life unravelled.
Seher was born Heranush, a Christian and an Armenian. Most of the men in her village were slaughtered in 1915, and she, along with most of the women and children, was sent on a death march.
Heranush had been forcibly taken from her mother by a Turkish gendarme who had gone on to adopt her. Heranush was old enough to remember all the details of the horror; it was clearly traumatic for both grandmother and granddaughter, one to remember and the other to learn the truth. Fethiye found her grandmother’s family in America when she placed Heranush's death notice in the Armenian-Turkish bilingual newspaper AGOS edited by Hrant Dink.
Crying and singing together in honour of Hrant Dink in 2007
The story of Fethiye’s visit to Australia is rooted in the courage of Hrant Dink who encouraged dialogue between Turks and Armenians. Hrant’s newspaper tried to build bridges of communication by the truthful and honest exploration of minority rights, identity, history and the power of the State in Turkey. Hrant was part of the growing movement of artists, writers, academics and activists in Turkey who were challenging the politics of denial in Turkey. He was assassinated in 2007 by a young Turkish ultra-nationalist.
Melbourne PEN organised a memorial for Hrant a few months after his death. We wanted to pay tribute to Hrant in a way which both mirrored and gave continuity to his commitment to dialogue. We brought together Armenians, Turkish and Kurdish Australians as audience and as writers and musicians, actively collaborating. They had readily agreed to share the platform because of their deep respect for Hrant and his humanity. The audience cried and sang together in response. However, when that event ended, the dialogue that had just begun had not gone deep enough for continuity. Mutual mistrust was too deeply embedded.When Spinifex Press approached Melbourne PEN earlier this year to support their publication of Fethiye Çetin’s memoir in Australia, Melbourne PEN was not only proud to support Fethiye’s visit to Australia but was aware of the opportunity to further strengthen the relationships initiated three years earlier. Fethiye was Hrant’s lawyer and now continues to be the legal representative of the Dink family and the AGOS newspaper, and the legal adviser of the International Hrant Dink Foundation.
The question of identity: Armenian or Turkish?
Melbourne PEN and its president Arnold Zable hosted an event at this year’s Melbourne Writers Festival—‘In Conversation with Fethiye Çetin.’ One of the questions which Arnold posed to Fethiye was about her identity. Who was she, Armenian or Turk?
She responded through an interpreter: “Maybe it’s a defect I have that I didn’t go through an identity crisis” (when she learnt of her grandmother’s hidden history).
When she is in Turkey and the Armenian genocide is being denied yet again, she is Armenian, re-telling the story of Heranush-Seher. But when she is in Germany where neo-Nazis have killed Turkish young people, then she is Turkish, standing up against racism and advocating for the rights of her people. There seems to be no contradiction. In the clarity of her own mixed and multiple identity, Fethiye's affirmation of the complexities of history, culture and family that create the meshed identities was especially relevant to an Australian audience. Moreover, Fethiye’s response showed that at different times, different parts of people’s selves are touched and respond in empathy and solidarity with others. They can connect with another’s story of pain and vulnerability and joy because it resonates deeply with something of their own complex story.
Planning together: a new step towards trust
Melbourne PEN took yet another step towards strengthening dialogue by bringing together diverse Armenian and Turkish community organisers in a joint process of planning for Fethiye’s visit. This had never happened before! Joint meetings between Armenian and Turkish Australians to plan and collaborate
for a mutual purpose were not easy to imagine, but it happened with openness and transparency because of Fethiye and because of Hrant, and because we were able to build on those earlier relationships. The Armenian and Turkish groups organised their own community specific events with Fethiye – and each was careful to invite each other. However, the Melbourne PEN event ‘Towards justice, dialogue and reconciliation’ was unique in that it conscientiously focused on bringing the diverse community members together in one shared space and process. Some members of the planning group felt uneasy at the thought of the diverse audience sitting together and conversing. What if people got angry, what if. . .? Others were supportive: this was the next step to understanding how injustice and denial had affected everyone. In the end, what ensured everyone's collaboration for this event was their growing trust in PEN as the groups worked together.
Towards justice, dialogue and reconciliation
Fethiye had an extraordinary capacity to touch people, to connect with them. Her approach to others, singly or in a group, was always attentive, generous and respectful. Wherever she spoke, whether at MWF; at a whole-of-Armenia community event or at the Anatolian Centre; people waited for an opportunity to talk to her individually, to connect with her and her story. She always listened – and when she listened, her whole attention was with the person. Her generosity contributed to an atmosphere in which important conversations took place between those who had listened to her telling her grandmother’s story and what it meant for her now.
Two questions prompted these conversations :
What does Fethiye’s story mean to you?
How can her story inform our work for justice and dialogue?
The hum of voices in the room became warm and vibrant. At first, there was a little awkwardness as people realised that the focus was now on them, that they had an opportunity to share their reflections,
and perhaps more, their own resonating story. Fethiye herself had not been sure how well the process would work. She was very open to it, but had not experienced it before. As the energy in the room grew, Fethiye asked for photographers to try to capture its emotion and integrity.
Heranush-Seher’s story had direct resonance with listeners from Armenian, Turkish, Pontian, Kurdish and Assyrian backgrounds. Her history was their history. And many more found connections because they too loved their grandmothers, or had a history affected by denial and injustice, or identified strongly with their own mixed ancestry and took pride in that ‘mixedness’, or because as writers and readers they knew the healing power of stories.
The power of story
Heranush-Seher kept her story hidden for a long time. It is what allowed her to survive. But she never lost hope; she found the person she could tell. Fethiye listened, and held her grandmother’s precious and painful story with love and compassion. But she also acted on it. She has used it to uncover lies, to expose a history of denial and injustice in her country, and by so doing has brought forward many other stories.
Building dialogue through story and writing
Dialogue through shared stories and writing can resonate deeply and can cross boundaries of fear and mistrust. Melbourne PEN is proud to support the courage of people such as Heranush-Seher, Fethiye Çetin and Hrant Dink, and to be able to use its unique position to carefully open a space for dialogue
between the many who have been hurt and denied by the same history, and with those wanting to extend their solidarity.
Hidayet Ceylan was a member of the planning group for the visit of Fethiye Çetin and is an active member of Melbourne's Alevi community.
"Listening to Fethiye inspired me in many ways. First, she mentioned that when her grandmother told her her real story, she felt that everything taught in the mainstream school system was an illusion, and she wanted to go out and shout 'We were taught lies, we were told lies!' I felt similar things after I
started reading real Alevi history and also after I read writers like Taner Akçam, İsmail Beşikçi, Fikret Baskaya and Franz Fanon. (See notes below)
"I also started to question the official history taught in schools in Turkey. I began to understand that all nations in Anatolia had past traumatic experiences and we cannot start the dialogue unless we understand our own traumas.
“During the evening as I sat and listened, I understood that Assyrians and Zaza Kurds, like Armenians
and Alevis, also had really bad traumatic experiences in the past and they wanted to be heard and
acknowledged. I also felt that most of us are looking for ways of starting a dialogue."
References to influences mentioned by Hidayet:
İsmail Beşikçi, born in 1939 in İskilip, Turkey, is an Honorary Member of PEN who was nominated for the 1987 Nobel Peace Prize. For many years he was the only non-Kurdish resident of Turkey to write in defence of persecution of the Kurds and Kurdish publications. After serving 17 years in gaol for this non-violent protest he was again prosecuted in July 2010. Hearings are in progress.
Altuğ Taner Akçam (born October 23, 1953) is a Turkish historian and sociologist. His urging of support for Agos editor Hrant Dink's articles on the Armenian Genocide led to Dink's posthumous aquittal.
Historian Fikret Başkaya, politician, author and professor of foreign relations has been twice imprisoned, heavily fined and removed from his university posts for his non-violent questioning of the Turkish state's attitude to the Kurdish community. In 2001 Amnesty International took up his case as a prisoner of
Frantz Fanon, a contemporary of Jean-Paul Sartre, was born in 1925, to a middle-class family in the French colony of Martinique. Denouncing French colonial oppression of Algerians he resigned his government post as head psychiatrist and joined the Algerian revolutionary cause. He died in 1961 renowned for his books, political essays and plays.
Chinese PEN activist wins 2010 Nobel Peace Prize
Russia has joined China in boycotting this year’s Nobel Peace Prize ceremony at which jailed Chinese dissident Liu Xiaobo will be honoured. China has also refused to allow Mr Liu’s family to travel to Oslo to collect the award. The Nobel Committee has responded by threatening to withhold the prize for the first time in more than 70 years because the prestigious £1million prize can be collected only by the laureate or close family members. Mr Liu’s wife, Liu Xia, has been under house arrest and subject to police escort since the award was announced last month. Ambassadors from Cuba, Kazakhstan, Morocco and Iraq have also declined invitations to the ceremony. The Nobel Committee's chairman, Thorbjoern Jagland, said the prize would probably not be awarded. ‘It's not very likely that anyone else can come to Oslo so no one will be able to receive the prize,’ he said. ‘But he [Xiaobo] will be present during the ceremony by a reading of his text.’
PEN International has called on the People's Republic of China to release from prison the writer and academic Liu Xiaobo, a former President of Independent Chinese PEN Centre who was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in October 2010.
Liu, currently serving an 11-year gaol sentence in China for his support for human rights, is one of the PEN Writers in Prison Committee's most prominent cases. He is one of more than 40 writers, journalists and intellectuals under detention in China.
PEN International President, John Ralston Saul, stated: ‘Awarding Liu Xiaobo the Nobel Peace Prize is an affirmation of the central importance to everyone of freedom of expression, of which he is a courageous exponent.'
Mr Geir Lundestad of the Norwegian committee confirmed speculation that the unusually tough sentence made Liu an obvious choice. He said the judges had gradually come to believe they had to "address the China question".
"If we had given a prize to a dissident from Cuba or Vietnam, fine, there are difficult situations in those countries," he said during a talk at Oxford University. "But the question would then be: Why don't you address China?"
"The next question was who should we give the prize to? We've studied this for several years: Who are the right dissidents? We felt, obviously, that Liu was very important in his own right.
"But the Chinese government solved the problem for us. On 25 December 2009, they sentenced him to 11 years in prison. And automatically, he became not only one, or perhaps the leading representative of human rights but he also became a universal symbol of human rights," he said.
Human rights group Freedom Now has reported that on 25 October 2010, Liu’s international legal team released a letter from 15 Nobel Peace Prize Laureates to the leaders of the G-20 countries and the UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon urging them to raise Liu’s case with China's President Hu Jintao at the G-20.
In December 2008, Liu was a signatory to an open letter to the Chinese authorities calling on the National People's Congress to ratify the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights.
Liu was also instrumental in launching Charter 08 to mark the 60th anniversary of the UN's Universal Declaration of Human Rights on 10 December 2008. A declaration calling for political reforms and human rights, it was initially signed by 303 scholars, journalists, writers and activists. Charter 08
now has more than 10,000 signatories from throughout China and the Chinese community abroad. Liu was arrested in December 2008 and detained until he was formally charged in June
2009 with ‘spreading rumours and defaming the government, aimed at subversion of the state and
overthrowing the socialism system in recent years'. He was convicted and imprisoned for 11 years on 25
‘China’s political reform [...] should be gradual, peaceful, orderly and controllable and should be interactive, from above to below and from below to above. This way causes the least cost and leads to the most effective result. I know the basic principles of political change, that orderly and controllable social change is better than one which is chaotic and out of control. The order of a bad government is better than the chaos of anarchy. So I oppose systems of government that are dictatorships or monopolies. This is not ‘inciting subversion of state power’. Opposition is not equivalent to subversion.’
—Liu Xiaobo, Guilty of ‘crime of speaking’, 9 February 2010
The Chair of PEN International’s Writers in Prison Committee, Marian Botsford Fraser, said: ‘Charter 08 contains this phrase: “We must stop the practice of viewing words as crimes.” Liu is serving 11 years for that simple credo and his belief in democracy for the Chinese people. We fervently hope that Liu’s winning
of the Nobel Prize furthers those causes.’
Liu Xiaobo commands great respect among Chinese intellectuals and writers, several of whom took a bold step in signing a letter in support of his nomination for the peace prize. Although he has been banned from publishing in China, his work continues to appear in Hong Kong and Chinese publications abroad.
Liu holds a doctorate in Chinese literature, and taught at Beijing Normal University until prevented from doing so after his involvement in the Tiananmen Square protests in 1989, when Chinese authorities labelled him and other intellectuals the ‘Black Hands of Beijing’.
Since then, Liu has experienced frequent arrest, harassment and censoring of his work. He also served a three-year sentence in a labour camp in the mid-1990s.
Asia advocacy director at Human Rights Watch, Sophie Richardson, said Liu’s Nobel Peace Prize honoured not only his unflinching advocacy but also all those in China who struggled daily to make their government more accountable. Human Rights Watch last month awarded Liu Xiaobo its 2010 Alison Des Forges Award for Extraordinary Activism.
Since the awarding of the Nobel Peace Prize to Liu Xiaobo, China has sent diplomatic notes to Western nations, warning them against taking part in the 10 December awards ceremony for the Peace Prize. The vice-minister of China’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs, Cui Tiankai said support for Liu Xiaobo would be an ‘affront to China’s legal system’. Analysts say China’s loud criticism of foreign governments over the prize is mainly for home consumption.
Based on various reports including from International PEN
How China’s Censor Machine Works
The reception of Liu Xiaobo’s Nobel Peace Prize in his homeland sheds light on how information flows are regulated in China, reports Jennifer Mills from Beijing
The awarding of this year’s Nobel Peace Prize to Liu Xiaobo made front-page news all over the world. But in China, you could be forgiven for missing the story. The last week has been an interesting lesson in the complex machinery of Chinese censorship, and has offered a few insights into the confusing way in which the news is constructed here — and the ways it can be challenged.
First, a look at the official media. Initially, the response was a resounding hush. There was
no mention of the prize on CCTV, China’s main news station, and it didn’t appear on the front web page of the official news agency Xinhuanet — though the other Nobel recipients were all happily announced.
Foreign Ministry spokesman Ma Chaoxu did hold a press conference on 8 October, where he
stated that the decision went against the principles of the prize and would “do harm to Sino-Norwegian relations”. The official news sources obligingly buried even this statement in the back pages; it only got traction in overseas sites.
Knowing the story wouldn’t go away, Xinhua ran a report the following day quoting a Russian academic, titled “Russian Media say the Nobel Prize Has Become a Political Tool of the West.”
According to the China Media Project’s news feed, journalists were reporting that the “Ministry of Truth” had ordered them to run this story. Twitter reports also said that a directive ordered journalists
to take down any Nobel Prize features.
The following day, Xinhua had found a Norwegian who agreed the prize was illegitimate. On Tuesday, the Foreign Ministry’s regular press conference got the same line from the same spokesperson. Not only the journalists but the sources are targeted. A ban was issued against Jilin University professors taking interviews about former student Liu. All of this information is regularly leaked
by Chinese journalists via Twitter and the Chinese equivalent, Sina’s Weibo. Though the former is blocked and the latter heavily censored, the reports have a chance to get out before they get deleted.
In real life, a gathering of Liu’s supporters was broken up and some have been placed under eight day detention, according to The Guardian. Reports on Human Rights in China list individuals placed under increased surveillance and in some cases house arrest. Meanwhile, the tweets were resounding first with congratulations — and then soon reports of further restrictions. Liu Xia, the wife of Liu Xiaobo, reported she is under house arrest. “My mobile phone has been messed up, so I can’t receive phone calls.” Text messages containing the Chinese characters for Liu Xiaobo’s name were quickly blocked.
Internet censorship is surprisingly rapid and efficient. Google searches for Liu Xiaobo turn up “not responding” errors, and Google itself disappears for five minutes afterward. But many Chinese people get around the Great Firewall, often called by its flimsier and more porous name the Bamboo Curtain, by using web-based proxy servers (like sneakme.net or ninjacloak), software such as fanqian, or buying an overseas VPN which hides their location from Chinese censors. There is an escalating battle between those building the wall and those climbing over it.
In a more PR-savvy strategy, the state also employs thousands of people who make up the “50 cent party” — paid government astroturfers who trawl the web leaving pro-party comments and steering discussion along orthodox lines, so named because of their cash-for-comment fee. This tactic is well known among Chinese web users and often dismissed, but it is a powerful method of steering
discourse and one increasingly used everywhere.
No attempt to suppress information will completely succeed, and even censorship allows room for some dissenting voices. One can only assume that the Chinese government is hoping the issue will blow over. That they are banking on the apathy and complicity of the vast majority of the population, or a willingness to buy the line that the West is out to get China. Many have no choice but to buy it. For the majority of Chinese readers and internet users, the news has a habit of vanishing. It is not an unsophisticated process. The news is constructed everywhere, and contrary to the usual representations of Chinese censorship as a blunt instrument wielded over a subjugated population, the everyday reality is closer to the corporate-style image management we’re familiar with in the West. Chinese people are just as intelligent at navigating the various sources, and
just as cynical (perhaps more so) about the unreliability of the mainstream line. But these subtleties tend to be missed in favour of representing China as a volatile country, an enemy of human rights, and potentially of the USA.
Allegations of a Western conspiracy to destabilise China might seem paranoid, but the award is certainly a calculated risk, in part an attempt to prise open the stuck jar of Chinese domestic media. And it is certainly biased — I doubt there would be such a gleeful reception internationally if the Chinese started handing out human rights awards to prisoners in Guantanamo Bay.
The embarrassment is compounded by anxiety. China’s image management gurus have long been yearning for a Nobel — but they keep giving them to the wrong Chinese people. See Evan Osnos’ piece on this in the New Yorker.
Resistance is complicated. There are quiet means of talking about censorship without talking about it directly. On the blog of novelist Han Han, the post for the 8th October reads simply “ “. Twitter might be blocked along with Facebook and Blogger, but the internet-savvy post-80s and 90s generations
are quick to find ways to spread the news, regardless of what the government-sponsored media say. I found out about the prize myself from a Chinese friend. Foreign media are still pretty much allowed to say what they like, and the tolerance for dissent wavers — but has apparently been getting worse since
the last major PR sweep, the 2008 Olympics.
Generations of amnesia and complicity are perhaps the government’s most powerful tool. But on Wednesday it became even clearer that freedom of the press is not an issue which is
going to go away.
On 11 October, 23 elder statesmen of the Communist Party submitted an open letter to the Standing Committee of the National People’s Congress, China’s highest state body, calling for freedom of speech and freedom of the press in line with Article 35 of China’s constitution, which has never been realised.
The letter says, “this false democracy of formal avowal and concrete denial has become a scandalous mark on the history of world democracy.”
The open letter goes on to point out that censorship has become so pervasive that it even affects Premier Wen Jiabao, whose three recent speeches about political reform have all been edited out of official news releases. “Right now the Central Propaganda Department is placed above the Central Committee of the Communist Party, and above the State Council. We would ask, what right does the Central Propaganda Department have to muzzle the speech of the Premier? What right does it have to rob the people of our nation of their right to know what the Premier has said?”
The process of centralised control of publishing is already challenged by online media. But in China the system is such that everything has to gain approval through the Central Propaganda Department before it can be published.
The letter has appeared in a timely manner after the Nobel Prize but it appears to be written in response to the detention of journalist Xie Chaoping, who was recently detained for a month over his book which investigated the forced relocation of many people in Shaanxi province during the damming of the Yellow River in the 1950s. The letter demands that his case be investigated. And its
demand that history should be liberated from officialdom may prove to be the most dangerous one. The letter’s fourth demand is that “internet regulatory bodies must not arbitrarily delete online posts and online comments. Online spies must be abolished, the “Fifty-cent Party” must be abolished, and restrictions on “tunneling/[anti-censorship]” technologies must be abolished.”
The China Media Project is now reporting that the letter is “being swiped from China’s internet at lightning speed” — no surprises there.
Liu Xiaobo is in prison for his involvement with Charter 08, a statement initially signed by 303 activists making several strong demands for democratic reform. Its circulation has been part of the blossoming of the era of internet activism in China, which while not about to bring out a utopian future led by the people, is certainly helping to undermine the state’s claim to monopoly on truth. Liu
Xiaobo himself once called the internet “God’s present to China” and praised it for bringing about “the awakening of ideas among the Chinese”. Learning to use it only ten years ago changed his work forever. This Nobel prize is the first awarded to a new generation of activists — a generation making
social change through social media. The level of support for the party line in China is hard for a newbie like me to gauge, as is the level of resistance. It’s obvious that the microblogs are not about to turn into a mass movement on the
streets. But perhaps those days are over. It may be a complicated machine, but it is only a question of how long Chinese censorship can withstand the triple pressure as the international community pushes from outside, ex-Party officials from within and microbloggers from below.
Jennifer Mills is in China on an Asialink Arts residency.
As retrieved from http://www.newmatilda.com.au 21 Oct. 2010