I’ve just returned from five days in China, as part of a writers’ residency in Hong Kong with the Hong Kong Baptist University’s International Writers Workshop. It’s been an interesting, if challenging trip, in which I came face-to-face with the elements of Chinese society that writers dislike the most: Censorship and control of information.
Not only is the Internet heavily blocked, but individuals’ Internet activities are monitored in the country, giving the government’s Internet policy the nickname “The Great Firewall of China.” This heavy-handed policy has to do with the fact that the Chinese government does not want other ideologies to gain traction within its borders, but at the same time still needs to open the country to the world for the sake of trade and commerce.We were invited by the Changshu Institute of Technology to participate in some literary activities hosted by the language department, but our first realization of China’s control over information came even before we’d reached the country: We were in the airport, waiting to depart for Shanghai, when I realized that Facebook, Twitter, and Youtube would all be blocked in China. We all hastily logged on to our Facebook and Twitter accounts to write darkly humorous goodbye messages on our walls and timelines.
There is a Chinese version of Twitter, called Sina Weibo, on which all groups, companies, and individuals can open accounts and host pages, but our friend, the translator and playwrightJeremy Tiang, later told us that all Chinese people access international social media through proxy networks, called VPNs. “They use one for a few months, then the government blocks it, so they use another one,” he said. “I know a writer who has ten thousand followers on Twitter, all in China.”
During the seminar and public recital held on campus at Changshu, I realized the second way the government is able to control ideas: Through translation. Few people speak English outside the major urban areas of Beijing or Shanghai so translators are a necessity for any international event, or even for a non-Chinese speaker wanting to travel within the country. We’d been asked to send in our texts months before arriving in China so that they could be translated for a booklet that would be distributed at the events. But I realized, staring at my work translated into Mandarin, that I had no idea whether the work had been translated accurately or not.
As we voiced our thoughts at the public seminar, we had to stop every few sentences for the translators to tell the Chinese audience members what we were saying. Again, there was no way for me to tell if my words were being relayed exactly as I was speaking them. But because of the audience reaction, I’m sure the translators, a young man and woman from the university who spoke in soft, measured tones, smoothed down the rough edges of our words, turning them into acceptable sentences, easily digested and cleaned of any controversy.
In this filtered environment, where it’s really difficult to trust what is written, one can still find some exceptions. One of them is Su Tong, the author of Wives and Concubines (which was filmed as Raise the Red Lantern). He was one of the writers who took part in our seminar. When Su Tong started writing in the 1980s, the Chinese government eased off on its expectations that writers produce work in line with the government’s ideology, works of such artificial positivity that they were more fictional propaganda than true artistic expression. This less restrictive climate gave Su Tong the freedom to examine China’s societal and cultural values against the backdrop of its history; his novels are honest and sensitive portrayals of the reality of Chinese life.
I came back from China with a better understanding of what freedom of expression really means. In a country where the press is not free, where journalists routinely go to jail, where books can be censored or banned for a vast list of reasons as outlined by the Communist Party, it’s hard to understand how writers can truly function. But China’s writers, especially the younger generation, are determined to keep on writing. Zhang Yueran, the twenty-nine year old best-selling novelist from Beijing, said last year at the Iowa Writers Program, “The government tries to control us, but they can’t really stop us.” Even in China, the compulsion to be free in mind and in word is a force too strong to be controlled forever.
Editor's NOTE-- Bina Shah is a Karachi-based journalist and she writes for two major English language newspapers in Pakistan: The Dawn and The Express Tribune. She has also contributed her articles to many of the international newspapers including The Independent, The Guardian, and The International Herald Tribune. The above article is initially published by Sampsoniaway on Nov. 13, 2012