PEN International: Mobilizing Writers to Defend Free Speech
Writers are people armed with words, and PEN is an organization, with centers around the world, which boasts of a 91 year history of using those words to give a voice to writers whose lives have been threatened or lost because of what they wanted to say or write. On May 3rd, World Press Freedom Day, and as part of the PEN World Voices Literary Festival PEN America released its latest report, “Creativity and Constraint in Today’s China” at a press conference at the Public Theater.
The report, refreshingly evocative in its language and as to be expected of anything produced by those of a literary mind, condenses five years of research compiled by activists outside China and, most importantly, those inside, on the Chinese government and its practice of silencing Chinese writers, the most celebrated of all being Nobel Prize winner, Liu Xiaobo. It is divided into three sections, ‘Pressure from Above,’ which harkens to the promises made by the Chinese government — in its bid to host the Olympic Games — to safeguard the right to free speech; ‘Pressure from Below,’ which documents the courageous efforts of Chinese writers to counter government crackdowns, which include censorship and surveillance; and ‘The Literary Community,’ which focusses on the predicament of writers forced to choose between remaining silent or currying favor with a repressive government as the only means of expressing themselves. It concludes with a series of six recommendations which are based on the PEN commitment to free speech and the open exchange of literature.
In his opening remarks, John Ralston Saul, president of PEN International, spoke passionately about the need to “help China find itself,” by reminding its government of a history of activism and democracy, and of the benefits accrued to a nation whose citizenry is allowed the freedom of speech:
A country gains nothing by imprisoning or limiting its writers. It is embarrassing to imprison people for words; to sweep up artiss and hold them outside th elaw; to break the constitutional and legal obligations of the state to protect fre speech. There can be no honour in causing writers to suffer, stripped of their rights for simply saying or writing what they believe.
Among those who spoke were Salman Rushdie, Chairman of the World Voices Festival, and Chinese dissident writer, Yu Jie, and activist, Chen Guangcheng, who sought refuge at the American embassy in Beijing after a 400 mile journey, and whose release from Chinese custody was secured by Hillary Clinton during her tenure as Secretary of State.
PEN deserves to be recognized for the work the member centers have done to produce this report, for its relentlessness in going to bat for its most far-flung comrades, and for garnering the written support of some of the most celebrated and determinedly political writers, among them Gioconda Belli, Wole Soyinka, and Edwidge Danticat. There is a sense of optimism surrounding the work that PEN does, including this latest initiative on behalf of Chinese writers, that harkens to the greater good that, one hopes, still remains in sight of even the most repressive of governments. The Chinese, as Saul points out, have experienced that good in the past and surely would wish to reclaim it now.
The Chinese government, however, may see things a little differently. In a milieu when money is everything, China has made inroads into every country not only through its exports but through its investments. American men and women lie dead in untenable and ill-advised wars of aggression in Iraq and Afghanistan, but it is the Chinese who have come in as free-riders in the wake of efforts to re-stabilize those countries, efforts in which the Chinese government played no part. In much of South-East Asia, South Asia, significantly both in India and Pakistan, and post-war Sri Lanka, China has buttressed it political support by opening its coffers and supplying its labor to rebuild infrastructure from ports to arts centers. America herself lies in the grip of its growing economic debt to China, an imbalance that makes it strategically untenable — albeit morally imperative — that the American government lends its voice to magnify the voices of at least its PEN America members. In other words, China is thriving by the very measures of succcess expounded by the West, and the fate of its writers may be the least of its concerns.
Except for the fact that it is those writers who can tell the stories of a nation. PEN is banking on the salient fact that when a government insists upon a single narrative because of political expediency, it is displaying neither pride nor power but a loathing for the richness of its own cultural and historical legacy. We can only hope that the Chinese government — like any government — remembers this.
Perhaps it is because PEN is comprised of writers, those individuals who eschew the linear in favor of trolling the depths of human experience, that the organization as a whole recognizes the significance of cultural markers for the Chinese: honor and pride. This report is not so much a scathing condemnation as it is a mirror held up to a face, a mirror that asks: Is this what you want to look like to the world? This time next year we may have a relatively favorable answer and if we do, we would have PEN to thank both for precipitating it and for hearing of it.