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Liu Xiaobo

Speaking volumes

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 12 June, 2011, 12:00am
UPDATED : Sunday, 12 June, 2011, 12:00am

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The prospect of afternoon tea in London with the dissident writer Ma Jian offers an extra cupful of novelty. His grandfather, Ma Zhenhui, was a cha connoisseur and it is tempting to wonder whether Ma the younger has carried on the family tradition - or if, after his 12 years living in Britain and more than a decade in one of its colonies, Hong Kong, he has become an Anglophile to the point at which his taste buds have been corrupted.

Does he prefer to pollute his tea with a dairy condiment, or even, heaven forbid, a spoonful of sugar, I muse while waiting for the award-winning author of Red Dust and Beijing Coma in a cafe in a cobbled mews of the gentrified suburb of Kilburn.

Grandpa Ma was also a landlord and was arrested and jailed in 1949 by the communists for falling under one of the party's despised hei wu lei, 'five black categories'. Aware of his knowledge of and love for tea, his torturers sadistically subjected him to a slow death, depriving him of water.

When his rebellious grandson arrives some 10 minutes late, he does so dressed every inch the harassed coffee-house radical and has about him the detached air of that other hated dysphemism of the Communist Party, chou lao jiu, a 'stinking ninth intellectual'. He shuns tea leaves, pot and strainer and, in a near whisper, close to conspiratorial, orders a cappuccino.

'Maybe it is too noisy in here,' says the softly spoken Ma, ignoring the hand beckoning him to take a seat as he warily inspects the cafe's other afternoon chatterers and sippers. 'Outside is better,' he decides, and departs with a furtive glance around the interior, leaving me to gather my interview paraphernalia and follow with a scrape of chair legs and general clatter that has heads turning. Clearly, crust-less cucumber and salmon sandwiches and sponge cake are off the menu and this afternoon's tea will instead be served with a dash of paranoia.

Ma positions himself so he can see everyone leaving and entering the cafe, and to monitor the footfalls of the busy street, which is close to his home. Writers are people-watchers by nature but Ma has more reasons than most to scan those who move in and out of his arc of vision.

I have met Ma before, in early May, at the first British screening of a documentary about jailed Nobel Peace Prize winner Liu Xiaobo, I Have No Enemies. During the post-screening question-and-answer session, he joined a panel of sinologists and revealed that his phone conversations were hacked and he exercised caution when making international calls.

'I am worried my friends and other dissidents in China I speak with could disappear like Ai Weiwei. I worry that Han Han could be next,' he said, as a whiff of funk circulated around the small auditorium.

Like Ma, I scanned the audience for Chinese faces, and found four: a young couple, students perhaps; a self-confessed Tiananmen Square protester living in exile; and one other, a male in his mid-30s or older, who arrived slightly late and melted away into the crowd as soon as the lights went up.

I had left Beijing in a state of fear and oppression - brought on by the heightened security that has been in effect since February. Nonetheless, and knowing my phone calls, e-mails and movements are, like those of all foreign correspondents in the mainland, closely monitored, I naively considered spy-spotting a benign, even fun, pastime.

However, even here in London, as Ma pointed out, one can sense - indeed, feel - China's eye on you. I make light of the dangers this far from Beijing as we wait for our order, and Ma offers a contemptuous smile in return that suggests, in these strange jasmine-scented times, with the whiff of revolution against powerful tyrannies and corrupt governments heavy in the spring air, it is prudent to assume anything is possible.

'I have felt this current clampdown,' he says gravely. 'It has affected me since the arrest of Liu Xiaobo [who is a friend], and more so since he received the Nobel. There has been a very strong tightening of government control. It's frightening. The lesson the government has learned is that their handling of Liu has been successful.'

Ma falls silent as the waiter arrives with our order, then continues: 'They managed to keep the news of his jailing and award secret from the Chinese people. And now you have the arrest of Ai Weiwei.'

Ma's caffeine hit after a morning putting the finishing touches to his latest book doesn't induce a revolutionary rant, which would be appropriate given his outfit; he's in a chic multipocketed army surplus jacket, fresh-out-the-laundry-basket-and-thrown-on-T-shirt and jeans; his receding hair is worn long and, like his whispery beard, it's flecked with grey, which adds to his weighty, sagacious presence.

Instead, the coffee helps him sustain, over the next hour and a half, a measured, thoughtful critique of an authoritarian government and deep patriotism for his complex homeland - mostly told through his partner and translator, and mother to his four young children, Flora Drew. Drew has translated most of Ma's works into English and has recently started on his latest novel.

The pair met, says Drew, during the final countdown to the Hong Kong handover. She was a producer for an American television news network and was making a documentary, for which she had lined up an interview with the brooding intellectual.

Born in Qingdao, Shandong province, Ma fled his homeland to the then British colony in 1987, to think, live and write in freedom after his book Stick Out Your Tongue had been banned in Beijing. He made frequent sojourns back home and, in 1989, joined the Tiananmen Square pro-democracy demonstrations, where he protested alongside Liu. Ma journeyed home to care for his seriously ill brother just a few days before the tanks rolled in and the soldiers starting shooting.

As Drew recalls their first meeting in Hong Kong, you can sense Ma's mind whirring and recalling how, over the Lo Wu border, came truckloads of People's Liberation Army soldiers as he, the agitated dissident in exile, was speaking out into any microphone placed under his chin about the nightmare unfolding before him in his southern bolt hole.

During the handover period, drenched in a cocktail of emotions, rainstorms and the tears of weeping dignitaries, the pair fell in love and began, arguably, one of the most important literary partnerships tackling modern China.

Drew makes notes as Ma answers my questions, often at great length. She then translates. Repeatedly throughout the interview, she stops and quizzes him over his use of a word or phrase in tone-perfect Putonghua, untangling his Chinese thoughts and knitting them tightly together in English, and wringing out of him every nuance to make sure she remains his dragoman, not an accidental censor or Ma Jian propagandist.

Picking through someone's soul using a translator can induce frustration, tedium and misunderstanding, but the process between Ma and Drew is akin to a precision-engineered translation machine - one that is lubricated by Drew's occasional sup on her cup of Earl Grey tea, which she has utterly flooded with milk.

'I don't like talking about my next novel until it's published, and hopefully that is going to be later this year, around October. It's difficult to get into details,' Ma says, with a hint of annoyance.

The barista has done wonders with his cappuccino, however; the frothy brew makes a small breach in his superstition.

'It's possibly going to be called Dark Road. That is the working title. The book is about China today and the crisis it is facing on many levels. But it is all seen through the eyes of one couple on the move around the country. It involves a journey that I took myself through the Chinese countryside a year and a half ago, and the book is inspired by what I saw. It's about the conflict between one woman's destiny and the nation. It's also about the way the government and its politics infringe on every part of this woman's life as well as her freedom. It's from the perspective of a woman.'

He refuses to offer any more details about his literary gender swap. But loading 'China', 'crisis', 'government', 'freedom' and 'destiny' into a couple of sentences (let alone a book) whets Ma's appetite for dissenting zeal. He does not, however, reserve his dyspeptic aphorisms solely for the brutal officials and their regimes, who killed his grandfather and fellow pro-democracy protesters, and who are now locking up his friends. He has much spleen to vent over Western governments, too. He says he detests their perceived fawning and cowardly abasement of Western mores as they attempt to appease China.

'Western relations did not significantly deteriorate after the arrest and jailing of Liu, so the Chinese government has continued to use this brutal form of clampdown in the handling of other dissidents. Ai Weiwei is just the latest example of that,' he says.

With the 22nd anniversary of June 4 in mind, he recalls how, following the Tiananmen Square crackdown, 'We witnessed Western leaders standing up for their ideals and against the behaviour of the Chinese communist government,' and other tyrannical administrations flying red hammer and sickle flags, most of which were subsequently torn down.

Since China has stood up, chest puffed and with a fistful of dollars, Ma says he now inquires, on behalf of all the jailed and harassed Chinese seeking democracy and human rights, into the ideals of post1989 Western governments. 'What are these ethical standards that the Western governments are now prepared to compromise? How can anyone trust the ideals that they claim to embody?'

He fears for Hong Kong, his former home, he says.

'The implications of the West's lack of demonstration for fear of upsetting Beijing are very serious for Hong Kong as well as China - and for the world at large. The West's turning of a blind eye to China's human rights abuse will only make the Chinese Communist Party more arrogant, and who knows then what they will be capable of.'

It's hard to believe, after all this time, that violence would now be used to take Taiwan back under Beijing control, he says. 'But they are certainly stepping up the amount of influence and control they have on the two territories, Hong Kong and Taiwan. It goes back to the West's engagement with China. The more they compromise their own values, the more devalued global civilisation and basic human rights become.'

For all his bluster, Ma's voice never rises above sotto voce. He offers few facial expressions and occasionally gestures with his hands to emphasise a point.

The topic of a China oppressed and the remembrance of victims of violent upheavals are his life's preoccupation and, you sense, fuel the feverish emotions that grip him when he is at his writing desk.

He does not type but writes characters in long hand with a digital pen and pad. Rare in many writers, he talks in the same way as he writes, with persuasive fluidity and fervent prose. His words form a small globule of revolutionary fervour in this otherwise ordinary, orderly London street, and his soothing speech draws you in with its almost hypnotic qualities - despite the masonry drill that has cranked into life a few doors down and the steaming hiss and gurgles of the coffee machine.

Aged 57, the years have not dimmed his memory - the opposite, in fact. The fires of Tiananmen and the low-watt bulb in his grandfather's cell burn brightly in the lines of his books.

He drains his coffee cup and articulates once more the powerful imagery fermenting in his mind.

'I think that the Communist Party looks more and more like the mafia. Their sole interest is to retain power. But you have to remember that the elite are a terrified lot. They have huge historical crimes that are weighing on their shoulders. They are little ants running on the back of a tiger and as soon as they fall off, they know they will be devoured. There is too much history of atrocity. They are grabbing on for dear life.

'Perhaps it is in the nature of one-party states that they maintain their power through fear and violence. It's the only way they know how to behave.'

Naturally, he resents his books - any books - being banned in the mainland, and he loathes the government's genius at keeping the vast majority of Chinese in the dark, with its blend of 'educational brainwashing', internet and other media censorship and constant big-stick threats, which have, of late, whacked scores of Ma's peers into silence. But is there not some currency in the government's claim that in a country of 1.3-plus billion souls, all scrambling for space and a better life, that strict governance is needed to steer progress? And does he not admit, as Ai has, that there's been much progress and, outside of politics, Chinese have more freedoms now than they ever have had?

'That is a false argument. Look at India and America, countries with huge populations,' he replies. 'There's no freedom in China. And for people who have never tasted it, freedom is a scary and difficult concept. The Chinese are confused.

'People like me, who have criticised China in the past, have been criticised in return for being too critical and not acknowledging the big steps China has [taken]. Ai Weiwei's case should make clear to the West the true nature of the regime, the far lengths they will go to to stamp out dissent.'

He says he despises what he sees as Beijing's brainwashing of its subjects and use of nationalism, especially on the young.

'The government's depiction of the West as an enemy that keeps China down has been totally successful,' he continues.

'If one day you tell the Chinese that the Communist Party, which has been depicted as their father, is a criminal, and that their father has been lying to them, it would betray their own identity, and this may be too big a thing for them,' he says.

So, is it up to him and his generation to keep the memories alive with their art and writing and charters - and to prick the materialistic urban middle classes into political consciousness, whatever the risk?

'I have not made any conscious decision to fulfil any abstract duty. But as a writer, I write about what concerns me and, as soon as I put pen to paper, there is a desire to bear witness to my generation.

'Also as a writer, you leave your crowd for a different life and, after that, you cannot say that you are representing them anymore. You only represent yourself. I think the only duty a writer has is to tell the truth. And I feel, as a writer, I have a duty to be true about myself.'

The conflict between the individual and the state crystallises his ideas about modern Chinese society and is brought to life in his writing, he says.

'I am drawn to a sense of the tragic and writing about China fits that. There is a force that comes through the language as I try to capture the extremes in Chinese society. In Western democracies, those extremes can't always be found. Perhaps that is why I am preoccupied with China as it goes through this terrible time.'

He straddles two cultures, regularly returning home for research and to visit friends and relatives, and this dichotomic existence shapes his literary outlook.

'Having spent so much time in the West and living in a democracy, I am able to compare it with China. I live with my family in a liberal society where people are brought together by a sense of solidarity and love. The emotion that unites people in China is one of hate. This is the tragedy that preoccupies me.'

The jailing of Liu and Ai has merely confirmed all he has been writing about, he says. He dismisses China's US$6 billion soft power drive to win over a sceptical global public as a comedy of errors and says it has shot itself in the foot several times with the jailing of scores of high-profile dissidents.

'What we are seeing now is China desperately trying to advance on the world stage by using any form of soft power. And the West seems to be sitting back and watching. These ridiculous Confucius academies are an example. They are a joke. Nobody believes in Confucius anymore.'

Across town, pile drivers are - as they were four years ago in Beijing - hammering venues into shape in preparation for the Olympic Games, which will be held in the British capital next year. What of the 2008 Beijing Olympics now - all the high hopes, promises and One World, One Dream slogans?

'The promise that China made to the International Olympic Committee about clean environment and human rights have not been fulfilled. The Games legitimised the regime and made it an even bigger threat - not just for China, but to the world.'

There is a trace of the sulker when he says, 'The Olympics were the worst moment for China.'

As Ma speaks, the white puffy clouds over north London give way to a foreboding black canopy that threatens rain and whips up a wind that whistles down the mews and ruffles the tablecloth. Flecks of London dust land in his empty coffee cup.

A rare silence descends on the table. Ma refuses an offer to retreat inside; he'll risk the squall.

'I think the West should not confuse the Chinese state with the Chinese people,' he says. 'The Chinese government has always argued that it represents the Chinese people; that is a fallacy.'

He says he is inspired by the recent events in the Arab world but has reservations about the calls for a similar uprising in China; rich authoritarian regimes do not crumble as easily as poor ones. Instead, he says, change in China will come 'slowly and from the inside'.

'I have worries about revolution in China,' Ma says, citing Russia. He says the Chinese government has alienated the people and removed them so far from power and politics that it is highly likely the elite and their cronies will end up back in charge should the day of democratic reckoning ever arrive.

'It is depressing to see how the old guard so quickly returns to power because the people, who have never experienced democracy, are not properly prepared when it suddenly comes to them ...'

Does he find writing painful - not just the memories but discipline?

'No, it gives me a deep sense of joy. I think writing is a process of pondering. When I feel pain it is for the plight of my character,' he says.

Does he have any rituals, a special place to write, a given time of day?

'I can write anytime. For example, as I am speaking with you, I am thinking of the next line I shall write.'

He says he writes in his study but it's not particularly quiet.

'I often get interrupted by the kids,' he says.

'Yes,' says Drew, with a roll of her eyes. 'It can get quite noisy. The kids are aged seven, five - and we have 18-month-old twins.' Drew teases her husband with a smile and he responds in kind.

They say their plans to return to the mainland this summer to let Ma's parents see their grandchildren and for the writer to research are in jeopardy.

'I went back last year. I return three or four times a year for weeks or a month at a time. Especially for the last book. The situation is always very precarious, since the publication in Hong Kong and Taiwan of the Chinese edition of Beijing Coma, my movements have always been trailed by the police.'

Surely, given that Ma has dual citizenship, Hong Kong and British, he would not be detained like Ai and Liu?

'I had not thought in the past that that could happen. Now I am considering this threat more seriously. Even though my moves are monitored and I have been detained several times at the border, I have been allowed to return.

'This planned trip is the first one I have deep concerns over. Friends have advised me to stay away. It's an unpredictable situation. There are no certainties,' he says, as a clatter of cutlery from inside the cafe makes us all jump.

'For a writer, the inability to return to the place one writes about would be the biggest punishment.'