The Great Firewall: censorship in China

By Vikki VanSickle

“Now we have 90 per cent freedom, what more do you want?”

– Chan Koonchung

The audience members at Chan Koonchung’s reading and interview on Sunday were humbled in the presence of not only a renowned writer but a brave political dissident. But Koonchung does not consider himself a dissident; As he said with a touch of a humour, it is the censors and high officials that decide who is a dissident. Thought his work has been censored, he has been able to live relatively free from persecution in Beijing.

Chan Koonchung at IFOA 2012 ©

Koonchung read from The Fat Years, his internationally acclaimed novel which has been banned in China. Written in 2009, it was set in what was then the not-too distant future, 2013. Koonchung wanted to talk about the present but set in slightly in the future so he could create a series of fictional but plausible events that illustrated his point. In the book, a group of intellectuals in Beijing discover an entire month has been erased from Chinese history.

Koonchung was adamant that his novel was fiction, but claimed that there are true stories in China that are even more unbelievable. Though it is true that one one hand, China is more prosperous and making strides in terms of human rights, there are still gross violations taking place in a quiet, insidious and equally damaging manner. This false sense of freedom makes it difficult for citizens to speak out. As interviewer and human rights activist Minky Worden said, if you don’t know what’s missing than how would you know to look for it?

Chan Koonchung in conversation with Minky Worden at IFOA 2012 ©

Koonchung spoke about the collective amnesia of the Chinese officials, and how certain incidents (such as Tiananmen Square) are not only not taught to students, but not spoken of at all. He gave an example of an acquaintance who was instructed by his children not to talk to his grandson about the past, lest he bring it up in school and get in trouble.

Koonchung and Worden spoke in depth about the nature of censorship in China. The internet is monitored and limited by the “Great Firewall,” policed by hundreds of thousands of censors who are paid to browse the Internet looking for content that has crossed an ever-changing and seemingly arbitrary line. These censors are paid by the deletion. But the Chinese people are learning to work around the Great Firewall. For example, a kind of coded lexicon has been created by the Chinese people to talk around events, ideas or people that are regularly censored.

Publishing houses are also state-owned and play by the censors’ rules, lest they be shut down and the livelihoods of hundreds of people are put at risk.

The Fat Years was published in Hong Kong in 2009 and immediately reviewed by many papers and critics in China before the censors could ban it (which they did, eventually). Koonchung referred to this as “rushing through the yellow light,” the red light being the censors. In China the only way to read the book is to get your hands on one of the many electronic copies people have made available, for free, online. Because some of these versions are riddled with typos and errors Koonchung prepared his own electronic version and gave it to a political activist who made sure to release it on the net. Imagine a North American author providing a free e-book, solely so people could read his work and be informed.

Koonchung spoke eloquently and wistfully about the 1983 constitution, a “beautiful” document ignored by the government. Koonchung claims that if only the party adhered to the principles and laws of this constitution, “an electric appliance without electricity,” the quality of life and government in China would vastly improve.

It was an honour to listen to such a gracefully-spoken and brave man, who feels compelled to ask questions and remember incidents his countrymen are forbidden to remember. His work gives new meaning and urgency to the concept of national literature. For if there are no writers like Koonchung to remember the past for us, how will we avoid these pitfalls and tragedies in the future?

This event was part of the Edinburgh World Writers’ Conference, in partnership with the Edinburgh International Book Festival and the British Council.

Follow VanSickle on her blog, pipedreaming, or on Twitter @vikkivansickle.