The stage was full of empty chairs on Thursday at “China in Two Acts,” part of the five-day PEN World Voices Festival of International Literature in New York, which ended on Sunday. A two-part program featured writer Zha Jianying speaking for the first part followed by a panel discussion in the second. The chairs, a nod to Nobel laureate Liu Xiaobo’s recent imprisonment, also signified the absence of Liao Yiwu, author and fellow IndePENdent Chinese PEN Center board member. Liao was barred from leaving the country, festival chair Salman Rushdie wrote in a New York Times op-ed.
PEN President Kwame Anthony Appiah opened the night by reading a letter from Liao, who said: “This prison-like state has confined me, I am not alone.” Appiah said in a PEN release that he was denied a meeting with Chinese officials to discuss the case. Last year, Liao was pulled off a plane en route to Germany. This most recent travel ban comes during a severe Chinese crackdown on public dissent, as documented by CPJ.
One writer managed to successfully obtain travel permission from China: Yan Lianke, a Beijing-based writer. While he was able to attend the evening, Yan expressed misgivings about potential repercussions to speaking out. “I feel like sitting here there is a knife to my head–if I don’t speak the truth, the Americans will kill me, but if I speak the truth, my country will kill me,” he said. Zha, a Guggenheim winner and New Yorker contributor, is based in Beijing but is an American citizen and didn’t need to get permission to travel. They were joined on the panel by writers Linda Polman from the Netherlands and David Rieff from New York, with New York-based writer Ian Buruma moderating.
Zha expanded on the duality of the “Two Acts” in her discussion of China’s simultaneous economic growth and national melancholy, with people “caught between pride and outrage” explaining how even her brother, dissident Zha Jianguo, was moved to embrace nationalistic moments like the 2008 Beijing Olympics. Zha profiled the political views of a range of public figures including recently detained AI Weiwei and Liu Xiaobo; writer Wang Meng, who calls for moderate reform and criticized Liu when he was minister of culture in 1989; popular blogger and social critic Han Han, whose writing has grown from teenage romances to address corruption and other social issues, and media personality Yu Dan, nicknamed “Confucius with Lipstick” because of her popular CCTV show about Confucius’ “Analects.”
The event took place just hours after the closing day of the U.S.-China human rights dialogue in Beijing. No stranger to bilateral relations, Zha herself met with President Barack Obama prior to Hu Jintao’s visit in January, urging him to address human rights in a culturally sensitive way, even as CPJ called on the president to release journalists prior to the meeting. Zha stressed the importance of U.S. engagement on rights issues, which she said is undermined by massive U.S. debt to China, quoting Hilary Clinton’s WikiLeaked question to former Australian Prime Minister Kevin Rudd, “How do you deal toughly with your banker?”
EDITOR’S NOTE: The third paragraph has been corrected to reflect that Zha Jianying is a U.S. citizen based in both Beijing and New York and does not need permission to leave China.