WHAT IS it like to be an independent writer in China today? “I’m so afraid,” says Hao Qun, succinctly. One of the country’s most popular authors, Mr. Hao, who writes under the name Murong Xuecun, has seen his friends arrested, hounded and beaten by security forces since President Xi Jinping came to power in 2012 — most recently the writer and activist Wu Gan, who was arrested May 20. “In China, you never know when they are coming to knock on your door, why they are coming and what is going to happen next,” said Mr. Hao.
Mr. Hao is one of three writers and publishers who were hosted in the United States this week by the PEN American Center. In New York on Wednesday, they joined a protest outside BookExpo America, a major trade fair that this year allocated an official Chinese delegation more than 20,000 square feet of space for what amounted to a propaganda display featuring such works as “A Study of the Important Speeches Made by Secretary General Xi Jinping.”
A trade fair spokesman told the Associated Press that it was important to accord Beijing “a seat at the table” because it “could have a positive impact on the future of publishing both at home and across the globe.” The problem is that China’s real writers don’t have a seat at the table. Instead, they are being persecuted, censored and driven out of the country.
Xiaolu Guo, an award-winning novelist and filmmaker, left China a decade ago for London. In the years before she left, she said, it was still possible for independent writers to publish their books with regional or university presses. But after her last two novels were proscribed, she gave up trying to publish in Chinese; she now writes in English and became a British citizen. That hasn’t stopped the regime from harassing her: The Chinese Embassy in London, she says, once called her to demand that she report on her writing plans.
A third member of the PEN delegation, Bao Pu, is a Hong Kong publisher who has issued works by banned mainland writers. But he and other independent publishers in the supposedly autonomous city state are under attack, too. The sole distributor of their books is being evicted from its warehouse facility, and editors who venture to the mainland are subject to arrest and prosecution.
Mr. Bao says the heightened repression reflects not only the policy of Mr. Xi, but also the increasing capabilities of China’s vast censorship bureaucracy. The regime has long maintained an Internet firewall to exclude sensitive content; it now blocks 16 of the world’s top 30 Web sites. But more recently the censors have managed to disable VPN networks that Chinese have used to get around the firewall, and they have gotten better at identifying and blocking writers who use pseudonyms or distribute their work on microblogs.
When Mr. Xi took office, Mr. Hao had 8.5 million followers of his four microblogs. Now, he says, he has only one account with a few thousand followers — his original blogs were blocked by the censors, as were seven others he has since launched. “More topics can’t be discussed,” he said. “More friends are being arrested. And no one can know where it will end.”