A reformer's refusal of silence Author: Chinese dissident Wang Xiaobo's novel was banned by authorities, but his influence is growing as he continues to write about the perils of nationalism and the need for political rebirth.

Sun Journal

September 01, 1996|By Ian Johnson | Ian Johnson,SUN FOREIGN STAFF

BEIJING -- To put it bluntly, a lot of people have never heard of Wang Xiaobo.

His novel was banned two years ago, and not everyone reads the provincial newspapers in which he publishes his articles on freedom and liberty. But Wang's articles are indeed published, and his book is available through backdoor channels. His ideas are slowly percolating through the stream of propaganda and filters of censorship.

What makes Wang remarkable is that he writes about Chinese political reform.

In a country where the peril of smoking is about the most controversial issue open for discussion, Wang has emerged over the past year as one of the few interesting political writers.

He does not confine himself to a single subject: here, an article advocating the legal right to silence; there, an oblique warning to his countrymen about nationalism.

In his novel, "The Golden Era," he recaptures China's totalitarian past.

Wang himself, the author of so many bold ideas, looks almost seedy. He lopes to a meeting place -- a thin, disheveled man, 44, with tea-stained teeth and a big sideways grin. He wears a Hawaiian shirt that makes him seem the antithesis of the dowdy Chinese intellectual and more like a Hong Kong businessman on a weekend fling.

'Between the lines'

He is not universally admired within China's professional thinking class.

Some criticize him for advocating Western-style political reforms -- viewed as too foreign and also too unrealistic in the current climate of tight Communist Party control over political life.

Other critics say Wang's provocativeness is just a way of angling for a fellowship at a university in the West.

But almost everyone is curious about him.

"I've seen his articles," says an academic at the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences.

"They're very radical, and I wonder how he dares sign his name to them.

"He doesn't criticize the government directly, but you can read between the lines. One thing is for sure: He's not part of the writers' association."

Wang's willingness to speak out is what distinguishes him.

"If you have something to say, then say it," Wang says. "There are a lot of people keeping silent in this society, but I found it is not a good way. Usually it has a bad result."

Wang's articles and his novel revolve around the individual's right to keep silent -- to be free of the totalitarian government's desire for mass participation in politics -- and how to balance that freedom with the duty to speak out.

Oppressive indoctrination

Thirty years ago, when Wang was high school age, few people were allowed to keep silent. The Cultural Revolution had begun, a decade-long campaign that persecuted the educated and insisted on conformity to the whims of China's Communist leader, Mao Tse-tung.

For Wang, the Cultural Revolution meant being sent along with millions of other youths to the countryside to labor with the peasants. He spent three years in southern Yunnan province working on a farm.

The first part of "The Golden Era" takes place in Yunnan, where a young man tries to escape the endless political indoctrination. He moves into a farmhouse and tills the land with a young woman also sent to the countryside to be remolded.

Premarital sex, then illegal in China, is a big part of the novel -- and the ostensible reason it was banned.

"If I didn't live in China, I might not write about sex," Wang says. "Usually, those things forbidden are the things you want to do the most."

Moral questions

Wang describes in the novel in precise detail how a professor dies, speculating on why the man committed suicide. When the Cultural Revolution ends, the hero of the novel -- like Wang in real life -- returns to Beijing to work as a teacher at a university.

There, the hero gets caught up in the back-stabbing and politicking and is prohibited from traveling overseas because he hasn't buttered up the right party bureaucrats.

The novel ends with the hero still trying to figure out why the professor killed himself. The hero realizes that most people, perhaps including himself, had so terribly compromised themselves during the Cultural Revolution that they had dishonorable lives.

It is a brutal appraisal of how totalitarianism warps a society. It is also at odds with most people's response now to the Cultural Revolution -- which is to ignore it. Government propagandists cite it only as a low benchmark, compared to which current Chinese society looks like paradise.

Ages of unreason

Wang recently wrote an article about the Cultural Revolution for Orient magazine. The magazine devoted a special edition in April to the Cultural Revolution's 30th anniversary, but the contents were banned at the last minute, leaving a cover that announced stories on the Cultural Revolution while the articles inside were on curbing pollution. (The magazine published the articles a few months later.)

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