Liao Yiwu: Grounded in China
The last time we checked in on the great Chinese writer, oral historian, and folk musician, Liao Yiwu (author of The Corpse Walker: Real Life Stories: China from the Bottom Up), he had just been allowed to travel abroad for the first time, and he gave an extraordinary, crowd-thrilling performance of his writing and music at a literary festival in Germany. That was last September, and Liao’s presence in Europe was especially good news because, just six months earlier, the Chinese security police had scuttled his plans for a similar trip.
Liao has spent much of his life in and out of Chinese police custody, on account of his insistence on describing the world as he sees it, but for years he has hoped to be able to accept an invitation to the PEN World Writers Festival in New York. Last week, the public-security bureau approved his travel. He got a ticket for a flight leaving next Monday. Then, a few days ago, the police showed up, and said that there had been a change of plans. He was grounded.
“From now on, I’ll apply for my travel permit at the public-security bureau every two weeks until they allow me to go,” Liao said to a Chinese friend, now living elsewhere, who passed his words on to me. “I told them repeatedly that what I’m going to participate in is a literary event, not a political one. I told them that I’m an ordinary writer and they can’t deny me my basic rights to travel. They refused to listen. I’m dealing with a scoundrel government. I’m so outraged.”
In February, Ran Yunfei, a human-rights activist in Chengdu, where Liao Yiwu lives, was detained, and Liao Yiwu was temporarily put under house arrest. “They promised that if I remained low-key, I would be allowed to interview people and travel,” Liao Yiwu said in his message. “They also asked me to sign a document promising not to publish any illegal works in the West. I signed the paper because I believed all of my books are legal and the restrictions don’t apply to me.”
My friend, who passed on Liao Yiwu’s message, told me that when he was a child, during the Cultural Revolution, everyone had to memorize Chairman Mao’s saying, “Where there is oppression, there will be rebellion.” He had heard from other contacts in China that since the Tahrir Square protests in Egypt, political oppression has stiffened China, describing it as the worst crackdown since Tiananmen Square: “Now, the government believes, ‘Where there is oppression there will not be a rebellion.’” In any case, my friend said, “The government is extremely paranoid.”