There is a curious scene in The Corpse Walker, Liao Yiwu’s extraordinary collection of interviews with people on the bottom rung of Chinese society. When two ladies in their 50s knock on his door in 2004 and confess they are practitioners of the banned religion Falun Gong, Liao invites them in and interviews one of them. In his introduction to this interview, he writes:
"A week later, I heard another knock on the door. I looked through the peephole and saw two policemen outside. Worrying that the police were coming to get me for interviewing those Falun Gong members, I grabbed my stuff and jumped out my third-floor apartment window. Miraculously, I suffered only a few minor bruises. After that incident, I was on the run for four months and then moved to a small southwestern city."
The matter-of-factness with which he describes his dramatic flight is startling, even in a book so saturated with tragic stories from China’s recent past. Liao’s calm in what for any Westerner would be a deeply terrifying situation is just as startling, as it illustrates the level to which Chinese writers have become accustomed to scrutiny and fear.
I was thrilled when Liao Yiwu was announced earlier in the year as a guest of the Sydney Writer’s Festival, and hoped for an opportunity to interview him. Now, his events have had to be cancelled. China has refused Liao’s exit visa to attend, in what festival director Chip Rolley has called "a direct challenge to Australia".
"I can’t say its surprising, but we had every reason to think he would be able to be here," Rolley told New Matilda, expressing deep disappointment.
This is the 17th refusal of 18 attempts Liao has made to travel overseas, and comes after three months of what most analysts agree is the toughest period of crackdowns on free speech in China in many years, consisting of beatings, arrests and detainments, as well as the cancellation of events run by foreigners including the US Embassy.
After he was refused leave to attend the PEN World Voices Festival in New York earlier this year, Liao wrote: "Ever since my return from Germany last year, I have been closely monitored. The police have ‘invited me to drink tea’ many times. My writing has been repeatedly interrupted. I have once again been forbidden to travel abroad for national security reasons."
This latest travel ban sees China go to extraordinary lengths by asking that Liao not publish his works internationally, which puts the Chinese government in direct conflict with international publishing houses, including Australia’s Text.
Liao’s work first came to authorities’ attention at the time of Tiananmen Square, when his poem Massacre — written from his home in Chengdu — was self-published as a bootleg cassette tape and quickly spread through underground networks. Unlike many Chinese writers Liao has not fled to live overseas. This has meant that he has been in and out of police custody since 1989. Four years in prison undergoing torture and humiliation which almost drove him mad also led him to begin writing what has become his signature form: interviews like those published in The Corpse Walker. Though he was a signatory to Charter 08 he claims not to be political, nor has he styled himself an activist, always claiming he is just an ordinary writer. But he has long attracted government attention for his stories, including his coverage of the Chengdu earthquake in 2008.
His work is also an example of Chinese censors’ thoroughness. In 2001, when his stories were published in China, the Department of Propaganda ordered all of Liao’s books off the shelves, punished the editor at the publishing house, and fired key staff at a popular Chinese weekly which had featured his book. German and English versions have since been published and garnered enough royalties for him to survive in China, where his books remain banned.
In 2010, after personally writing to Angela Merkel, he was finally given an exit visa to speak at a writer’s festival in Germany. It seemed that controls were loosening. Since the beginning of this year, however, there has been a wave of crackdowns on writers, artists, lawyers and activists including Ai Wei Wei, Ran Yunfei, and Australian Yang Hengjun, with more than 45 confirmed arrests. Foreign journalists have reported beatings at protests which may have been staged by the police to lure out those sympathetic to democratic reform. And it appears that the crackdown has not left Liao Yiwu — or Sydney — out.
At the Sydney Writers Festival, as at the New York Festival of World Voices in April, it is now likely that Liao will be represented by an empty chair. "We’re certainly going to be marking his absence… I’m personally very much in favour of using the empty chair — I think it’s a very powerful symbol," Rolley said.
Most of Liao’s panels have had to be cancelled, but the discussion panel ‘G’day China’ will go ahead, and Rolley says "that’s probably going to be the focal point for a major statement on his behalf … the question is how does Australia deal with a China that’s been growing in power, with political power matching its economic power." That challenge becomes more difficult with China’s strict controls on which voices can be heard overseas. "This is certainly a challenge, a direct challenge to Australia in denying us the right to hear from one of their writers first-hand."
Rolley emphasised his willingness to continue to feature Chinese writers in the festival program. "We’ve always been keen to engage with China, to engage with thinkers there and writers there, to learn more about it, [and]we will continue to do so. We can’t let this action stop us from engaging with China."
"We are registering a protest, registering our disappointment. Beyond that our power is limited."
Although a festival cannot do much beyond drawing public attention to the issues facing Chinese writers, it is significant that this takes place a week and a half after Prime Minister Gillard’s visit to China. Yesterday, US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton denounced the crackdown as a "fool’s errand" during the annual two-day Strategic and Economic Dialogue. While strengthening military ties with the country and raising the issue of human rights in general — especially in relation to Chinese-Australian blogger Yang Hengjun — Gillard made few such strong statements, such that Hu Jintao congratulated her on her "pragmatic" approach.
Of course by refusing Liao’s attendance, China has simply drawn attention to its own methodical repression. It is now clear that freedom of speech in China is having its greatest crisis in many years. Given our dependence on the growing Chinese economy, we should be seeking a more courageous response to this crisis from our leaders. The "softly, softly" approach taken by Australia has outlived its usefulness; if we do not apply real pressure, our role will become something akin to complicity.
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