Saturday 18 November 2017

China grants new freedom to its writers

Chinese dissident writer Liao Yiwu attends the Berlin International Literature Festival. Photo: Getty Images
Chinese dissident writer Liao Yiwu attends the Berlin International Literature Festival. Photo: Getty Images

Malcolm Moore

The unexpected release of one Chinese writer from prison, and the decision to grant another the right to travel, has raised hopes among the mainland's literary community that the Communist Party is relaxing its attitude towards dissent.

Xie Chaoping, a 55-year-old author and journalist, was released just before the weekend in Weinan, Shaanxi province, after 29 days in detention.

Mr Xie, who had been a state investigator and public prosecutor in Sichuan for over two decades before becoming a writer, was arrested in August for "illegal commercial activity".

His book, "The Great Migration", infuriated local officials in Shaanxi by accusing them of stealing compensation money that was supposed to help rehouse people who had been moved to allow the building of the Sanmenxia Dam across the Yellow River in the 1950s.

Zhao Shun, a publisher who helped serialise the book in Huohua, a newspaper, was also rumoured to have been arrested.

However, Mr Xie's lawyer, Zhou Ze, said he had been released and was travelling back to Beijing, where he lives. "They could not find sufficient evidence for their case, and hopefully nothing will happen in the future," he said, adding that he was not sure of Mr Zhao's position.

"He was released partly because of the overwhelming public anger at his arrest. Almost everyone condemned the government for locking him up, and the local justice department may not have wanted the case to become a big issue," he said.

"Because of the internet in China, there is space for people to express themselves and the government does pay attention. Whenever these cases happen, the public get angry and give their support because people are more and more sensitive about their rights being violated," he added.

Meanwhile, one of China's most prominent authors, Liao Yiwu, was abruptly given permission to attend a literary festival in Germany last week after years of being blocked from travelling outside China.

"This is a hard-earned opportunity for me, it has taken 14 attempts," he said, from Germany.

Mr Liao, who has just published a book about a Christian missionary in Yunnan province, said he was determined to keep recording aspects of Chinese history that are otherwise swept under the carpet.

Nevertheless, he after spending four years in prison in the 1990s after writing a poem about the Tiananmen Square massacre, Mr Liao was keen to underline that he had moved away from frontline politics.

"This is my first time ever on foreign soil and I cherish the chance to exchange thoughts and ideas with people from the free world," he said. "But I want to stress I am a writer, I'm too humble for the activist hat that other people put on me."

Meanwhile a third controversial writer, Yu Jie, has so far remained unmolested after publishing an attack on Wen Jiabao, the Chinese prime minister, in which he labelled him as "China's Best Actor" for his frequent displays of contrition after Chinese natural disasters.

Liao Tienchi, the head of the Chinese branch of PEN, the literary NGO, said the Chinese government was "sending out a signal". He said: "We cannot be 100 per cent sure they are loosening up, but it is progress.

Yu Jie has not lost his freedom and I think the government is more confident than before. They are tolerating literary and artistic expression in certain forms."

But he added: "Of course, it is a long way from saying there is now a permanently freer space for culture since only the government knows where the boundaries are and it is totally unpredictable."

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