No time for self-reflection, censors rule

PUBLISHED : Thursday, 24 September, 2009, 12:00am
UPDATED : Thursday, 24 September, 2009, 12:00am

Is this River Elegy all over again?

Beijing has banned a book critical of China's traditional culture and values and told its author to scrap plans to publish it in Hong Kong ahead of the 60th anniversary of the founding of the People's Republic.

Xiao Jiansheng , a newspaper reporter in Hunan province who spent more than 20 years writing Chinese History Revisited, said the authorities had intervened this week - two years after imposing a similar last-minute ban on its publication by an arm of the prestigious Chinese Academy of Social Sciences.

The book takes a similar line to The Ugly Chinese and River Elegy - two works that caused huge controversy and sparked intense intellectual debate. Xiao admits his book was inspired by River Elegy, a pamphlet published in the mid-1980s that questioned traditional beliefs and called for the mainland to embrace Western democratic ideals.

While the government often bans books covering sensitive political topics or containing information it considers confidential, Chinese History Revisited is an academic work.

'None of my editors have any idea about my book. They had to summon me last week to find out what it is about,' Xiao said.

His book reflects on how traditional Chinese teaching, with its emphasis on obedience to authority, and the centralisation of power had caused the decline of Chinese civilisation - and its need of diversity, openness and an outward-looking environment. It was well received by academics and impressed the China Social Science Press (CSSP) - the publish arming arm of the academy, which planned to publish it in 2007.

Chen Biao , a CSSP editor who was in charge of Xiao's book, recalls what happened next.

'We had everything ready for publication. We had done the proof-reading, printing, advertising and even started to take pre-orders. The academy leadership suddenly called and asked us to stop distributing the book,' he said yesterday.

'To be frank, I don't find anything wrong in the book. It's a great book that offers critical reflection on Chinese culture and thinking.'

The authorities have never explained why they banned it.

River Elegy was serialised by China Central Television in 1988, a time when the mainland had begun to open up to the world and embarked on reforms. It struck a chord with intellectuals and Zhao Ziyang , then the Communist Party general secretary, endorsed it and gave copies to foreign dignitaries. It was banned after the 1989 crackdown on pro-democracy protests in Tiananmen Square and its author denounced as a source of the unrest.

Xiao's book picks up where River Elegy left off. While the latter was an emotionally charged work, Chinese History Revisited tries to examine Chinese culture in a more systematic and analytical way. The book caught the eye of Hong Kong-based publisher Bao Pu - the son of Bao Tong , a top aide to Zhao - who in May published Zhao's explosive memoirs, Prisoner of the State. Xiao granted him the Hong Kong rights.

The banning of the book left liberal scholars frustrated.

'Chinese civilisation lacks self-reflection. That's why books like The Ugly Chinese and River Elegy were banned. Books like this could wake up Chinese people's democratic consciousness,' Hu Xingdou, a political scientist at the Beijing University of Technology, said.