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Literature

World leaders quiet on China’s human rights record and focus on money, says censored author Yan Lianke

Novelist who has found success overseas challenges visiting politicians to raise the matter with China

PUBLISHED : Wednesday, 29 August, 2018, 3:50pm
UPDATED : Wednesday, 29 August, 2018, 4:22pm

Chinese author Yan Lianke, whose works are banned in his heavily censored homeland, has urged world leaders not to shy away from confronting China about its human rights record.

Yan, whose frank portrayals of Chinese life have prompted years of state censorship, said leaders flocking to China had become too focused on economic ties.

The 60-year-old novelist told Agence France-Presse that Beijing needed to face up to its human rights issues, but visiting politicians “don’t really care about these things now”.

“The problem is they don’t seem to be talking about it as much as they used to,” he said ahead of his first British festival appearance at the Edinburgh International Book Festival on Monday.

“They seem more about trade and money and agreements.”

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Chinese authorities have severely reduced space for civil liberties and criticism of the ruling Communist Party since President Xi Jinping took office in 2012.

British Prime Minister Theresa May was under pressure to address the situation on a visit to Beijing in February but failed to make any public statements on it.

Downing Street insisted concerns over human rights were raised privately, but China’s nationalist tabloid Global Times commended her for having “sidestepped” thorny issues.

French President Emmanuel Macron was praised in the same editorial for reportedly ignoring “radical public opinion” and past European “prejudices against Beijing” during his own visit to China the previous month.

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Nicola Sturgeon, who leads the semi-autonomous Scottish government in Edinburgh, insisted she raised rights abuses with the Chinese government during a private meeting in April.

It followed the collapse of a £10 billion (US$13 billion) investment deal in Scotland with Chinese state-backed companies in 2017 amid criticism of the firms from human rights groups.

Yan said he largely ignored global politics – including the frequent swipes at China by US President Donald Trump – preferring to seek inspiration in the lives of ordinary citizens.

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“All of my novels are very closely connected with China’s reality,” he said. “I have a great love for China and I have a great love for the Chinese people.

“If you persist in putting art first, truth first, if you don’t especially pursue fame and profit, then I think in [China] there are endless stories to write.

“As long as you dare to face the truth, you will certainly write a great novel.”

Yan said he was surprised that his work was often characterised as satire in other countries.

“In China, many critics and readers believe Yan Lianke confronts China’s pain and suffering, but outside of China, this turns into satire and humour – I guess this must be the difference of cultures,” he said.

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The novelist has nonetheless received numerous international awards, including the 2014 Franz Kafka Prize, and was shortlisted for the 2016 Man Booker International Prize.

All books sold in China must go through an official approval process.

Many of Yan’s works, set during sensitive periods of upheaval like the Great Leap Forward, which caused one of the worst famines of all time, and the Cultural Revolution, have fallen foul of the censors.

One of his best-known works, The Joy of Living, about a village of disabled peasants making it through China’s tumultuous reform years, got him kicked out of the army’s propaganda department in 2003.

In 2005, he published a novel close to his heart, about blood-selling scandals that infected thousands of people with HIV and wiped out entire villages in his native Henan province.

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It was initially released but then recalled, despite efforts to tailor its contents to pass censorship.

His next novel looks set to be just as controversial: an exploration of the five major religions in China.

Despite being banned, his books have attracted an underground fan base inside the country, with readers passing around excerpts and pirated copies online.

Yan said he had given up trying to get around the censors and now focuses solely on the international market.

“China doesn’t publish my novels any more, so there is no more censorship,” he said, reflecting that international plaudits do little to improve his reputation with the Communist Party.

“I don’t need to self-censor and don’t need anyone else to censor, so I have more freedom in my writing.

“For example, in The Four Books and The Day the Sun Died, my writing was very unrestrained, because I no longer need to publish in China.”