PEN: It seems like there’s been this kind of gangster, hoodlum mentality among Chinese leadership recently; it’s not just throwing people into prison, it’s violently attacking them.

ZHOU: There’s a horrifying trend in the government toward running the society with these kind of mafia tactics. Imprisoning a writer costs the government in the form of reprimand from Western countries. On the other hand, mafia tactics cost little.

After I published my book, What Kind of God, I invited my friends out to have dinner near the Bird’s Nest Stadium. When I went to the restroom, three men ambushed me and beat me unconsciousness with beer bottles. They were very professional about it, shutting the door behind them as they left. My friends discovered me by following the blood seeping out from under the door. They called the police. I had to get 32 stitches on my face. That wasn’t a remarkable or frightening incident. It aligns with my experiences of Chinese society. What’s horrifying is that after I reported my case to the police, they very coolly said, “You’re not ‘our’ writer.” This is both symptomatic and horrifying—a China violently torn between ‘your’ side and ‘our’ side: We will not allow ‘your’ side to get away with anything, but ‘our’ side can get away with everything.

I had to keep quiet about this incident. If I made a big deal about the beating, they would have made sure that my career as a writer and journalist became very difficult. When people asked about my wounds, I said I got into a bad car accident. If anyone knew, I doubt I could have continued going around interviewing people about the Three Gorges Dam Project.

PEN: What did they mean, “You’re not our writer”?

ZHOU: They meant I am outside the law’s protection, that no one in the government is obliged to protect me. ‘Their’ writers are members of the official writers’ associations, and constantly under state supervision. They even have chairmen for these associations, similar to how the United States has Secretaries of Labor, Education, and Transportation.

PEN: And how do those chairmen react when a writer like you is imprisoned or beaten? Does the writer’s association try to come to the aid of dissident writers?

ZHOU: [laughs] The writers’ associations won’t take a stance. In 2008, before I left China, I was interviewing people for my book about the Three Gorges Dam. I was detained for more than 20 hours by about two dozen policemen. I was mostly interviewing people forced to migrate because of the dam. When the police caught wind of what I was doing, they called people I was supposed to interview in advance and warned them not to speak to a writer named Zhou. “You’re selling our country down the river by talking to him,” the police said. Well, one feisty farmer replied, “How can we sell the country at all? Do we own it? The country is yours to sell!”

PEN: You studied literature and thought you were going to be a novelist. How is it that you ended up writing a book about food safety in China?

ZHOU: I’m a writer. I can’t build useful machines, nor can I farm crops. Given that I can write, I need to spill ink towards something significant, meaningful. What dictators fear most is scrutiny of specific incidents. For example, say tens of millions of people perish in a huge famine. Officials don’t fear the broad phenomenon. Officials ask instead, fearfully: Who died, and where? Because each specific victim is concrete evidence littering their history.

As a student I was much more interested in writing novels, and my first novel was published when I was eighteen. I had no awareness of social issues back then. I was entrenched in China’s most prestigious college of literary studies, and obsessed with writing modernist novels. But 1989 changed me completely.

The reality in China right now is far more absurd than any reality a novelist or filmmaker can invent. To write fiction in present-day China would be an act of careless extravagance. It would be a shame, for example, if an Auschwitz survivor decided to write only poetry. No matter which field you choose to investigate in China, once you delve in deeply, you’ll butt up against horrifying realities. And too few people in China care to investigate social issues. But by just writing about China truthfully, you can change many. It’s a hopeless task, but it’s better to attempt it than not.

PEN: Do the Chinese people know about these food problems? Do they know that the government doesn’t address poisons in consumer products, in the things they eat?

ZHOU: It’s not important if Chinese citizens know about food safety issues, because without the ability to vote, people have no sway in the government. Let me give an example: the San-Lu Powdered Milk Incident. Three hundred thousand children developed kidney stones and other complications—the whole of China knows this. But what can anyone do? The indignant parents of the affected children were sent to jail for publicly demanding some semblance of justice. Yet the local official in charge of the affected area was promoted to higher office.

PEN: There’s a quote from your book that says, “It’s not about what we eat but what we think.”

ZHOU: It’s very simple. All social problems in China find their roots in the current social order. A food safety debacle can happen in America or Germany or China. That it happens at all is not cause for surprise; what matters is whether the government addresses these issues afterwards.

PEN: How important is the idea of the truth in Chinese society?

ZHOU: For both the government and the people, the first reaction to truth is fear. The government fears that truth will nullify their authority. The people have witnessed decades of CPC (Communist Party of China) rule and know that access to truth has cost many people their lives. They fear that truth will bring personal calamity. A society without truth is terrifying. Without truth, justice is impossible, and without justice there will be no fairness; the vicious cycle goes on forever. In China, possession of the truth has brought people endless grief. A normal citizen who knows the truth and speaks it might lose his or her family or job. A writer who reveals truth courts the danger of imprisonment. An official who insists on truth might lose his or her life.

PEN: So much has happened in China since you left. In addition to the arrest and sentencing of Liu Xiaobo, there has been a severe crackdown on writers, journalists, lawyers, and artists. Where do you think the government is going with this? What are they the most sensitive about?

ZHOU: I keep up on China through the Internet, and from what I can tell, the government is most sensitive about writers and intellectuals “trespassing” on public spaces. I’m very good friends with Ai Weiwei, and while he was staying with me in January, I warned him that it would be dangerous to stick his hands into public spaces to try to connect with people.

The changes in public and private space in China are crucial barometers of China’s social transition. After Mao Zedong’s death in 1976, Chinese society entered a very chaotic period. To secure popular approval, the CPC loosened its control over public spaces. From 1977 to 1983, almost all Chinese college campuses circulated some form of underground literary publication. From 1983 to 1989, the popular saying at universities was that “the campus belongs to the headmaster,” and companies and factories emphasized that they were run only by foremen and managers (as opposed to party leaders). In the legal community, it was in vogue to emphasize the independence of law. The literary and publishing world enjoyed a very good period. Much of the Western literature translated back then would not have a chance at publication today—or if they were allowed to be published, they would be immediately banned. Liu Binyan, a writer, was kicked out of the CPC by Deng Xiaoping, and for a while afterwards universities stumbled over themselves to invite him for lectures. His presence was considered a badge of honor.

Back then, only private spaces were strictly controlled. For example, if men and women congregated to dance in 1983, they became what was considered “a gang of hoodlums,” and that was enough reason to line them up before a firing squad. Married couples without their marriage certificates could not share a hotel room. Still, more freedoms in public space—despite more restrictions in private ones—seemed to bode well for a more livened, dynamic and hopeful society.

After the first gunshot rang out at Tiananmen in 1989, the CPC radically loosened all control of private space to appease public anger. Deng Xiaoping’s famous saying was: “No matter if it is a white cat or a black cat; as long as it can catch mice, it is a good cat.” This effectively shattered all traditional values and ethics accumulated through thousands of years of Chinese history. Popular novels such as Wang Suo’s Please Don’t Mistake Me For A Human Being and thrillers such as I’m a Gangster, I’ve No Fears actively encouraged people to pursue their personal desires with reckless abandon. This was matched by a trend towards harsh restrictions in public spaces. Wang Dan, a student leader, was sentenced to four years in prison. A laborer from Dalian named Xiao Bing was sentenced to 10 years for saying to CNN reporters that “blood flowed like rivers, and many people died” [at Tiananmen].

Ai Weiwei, before he became a public figure, was a success story of personal attainment. He is the son of the revered Red Poet, Ai Qing, and the designer of the famous Bird’s Nest Olympic Stadium. On top of all of that, he earned a good income. Once he spoke up in public, though, he was immediately painted as a hoodlum, a tax-evader, a moral degenerate. This is the fate of an artist who comments on just one specific incident, just one social issue [in this case, the government response following the 2008 Sichuan earthquake]. Liu Xiaobo, on the other hand, is a writer who comments on broad social issues, not specific incidents. This is the CPC’s message to the people: You can consume all you want in your own private world, but once you trespass on public territory—“No.”

PEN: So, today, is a university a public space? If someone came to speak at a university, an Ai Weiwei or a Liu Xiaobo, could they do it?

ZHOU: Completely impossible. They would not be able to speak on any campus. What westerners don’t know is that all Chinese university students—from undergrads to PhDs—are required to take classes on Marxism and the literary study of Deng Xiaoping.

PEN: You mean their sayings? What would be in those courses?

ZHOU: You basically learn the teachings of Mao Zedong, Deng Xiaoping, and Karl Marx. If you don’t pass this class, you cannot graduate college or pursue a masters or doctorate in anything.

In the 20 years since my release from prison, I have only been invited to speak once at a university campus. This was at Beijing University, and the only reason it happened was because a private donor funded the event. There were 200 students in attendance and 60 plainclothes policemen in the audience. Halfway through the panel, my co-speaker from Qinghua University said, “Zhou, I’ve got some business to take care of at home.” And he stood up from his own panel, mid-conversation, took his $1,000 fee with him, and left.

PEN: It seems there’s a difference between debating Marxism and democracy and trying to control a conversation about whether the food you eat is poison. They seem like entirely different issues.

ZHOU: It has less to do with the topic of conversation, and more to do with who’s speaking. I once ran a newspaper in Xi’an, and as circulation grew, the police told me to surrender my post as editor-in-chief. They said that even if I ran articles praising the CPC, it’d smell of irony.

PEN: Was What Kind of God published in China?

ZHOU: Yes, but only about one-third of it survived censorship. And even after that, it was immediately banned upon publication. China’s censorship board has become more and more clever and sophisticated. There are no private publishing companies or newspapers in China. In Beijing, official publishers sell ISBN numbers to writers for 25,000 to 30,000 yuan a pop (approximately $4,000 to $4,500). Just for a row of numbers! In other provinces, an ISBN commands the price of 15,000 yuan ($2,300). In the past, they’d ban books outright, but they have learned that bannings draw too much attention from the West. Now that they don’t ban books outright, the department of publishing just calls bookstores and tells them to take certain books off their shelves. You’re never really sure what’s “banned.”

PEN: So there’s no list of banned books?

ZHOU: The official list of banned books is actually very small.

PEN: How do people get access to banned books or books not available in Chinese book stores?

ZHOU: Through Hong Kong. Whatever’s banned in China will get translated or published in Hong Kong. This might actually be a meaty issue for someone to investigate: the sale and distribution of ISBN numbers. Among all countries, only China sells ISBN numbers and runs a monopoly on its sales. They control how many numbers are given out, like a river dam controlling the livelihoods of people downstream. You can’t even dream of freedom of speech in this kind of publishing environment. There’s a state quota on how many ISBN numbers each publisher can sell per year. Furthermore, if you make a mistake, they’ll lower your ISBN quota even more for the next year.

PEN: How do people access the unofficially banned books if they’re not available in the bookstore?

ZHOU: You have to physically carry the books from Hong Kong—and at great risk. China is one of the few countries in the world that treats book importation like drug smuggling. There’s actually a sign at Hong Kong customs inspection that says, “The smuggling of drugs and banned books is strictly prohibited. Violators will be sent to labor camp for one year.”

PEN: What more can we do to help writers in China? And when we speak out does it help or hinder the writers we are trying to help?

ZHOU: It helps. It helps a lot when PEN speaks out. Especially for writers who are in prison or about to be imprisoned. When I was in prison, an Australian professor of Chinese studies sent me a personal letter asking me how I was doing. A simple letter like that changed my life in prison.

Sometimes the CPC will decide not to imprison a writer who attracts too much foreign attention. I think it’s most effective when the Western press pays attention to writers in imminent threat of imprisonment. Of course it helps to raise awareness of writers in prison, but the help is minimal compared to the former case. Foreign pressure effectively makes it possible for writers to exist outside of the state-sponsored writer’s associations.

PEN: What about the cases of Liu Xiaobo and Ai Weiwei, do they teach us something new? With Ai Weiwei, the Chinese government must have known they would be criticized for arresting him, and yet they still did it.

ZHOU: If Ai Weiwei wasn’t so internationally renowned, he would’ve been sent to jail long ago. It’s not an exaggeration to say that he would have been beaten to death in the Sichuan incident, instead of just hospitalized. His reputation protected him.

PEN: It seems that once these writers are in prison, letting them out of prison would be tantamount to admitting the government did something wrong—that they would lose face.

ZHOU: That’s why it is so important to speak up on behalf of writers before they are detained, before they are sent to prison.

PEN: This last year has been very difficult for writers in China, especially for members of the ICPC (Independent Chinese PEN Center). I’m thinking specifically about Teng Biao, who is the lawyer for ICPC, and who, I understand, has been released but hasn’t said anything.

ZHOU: It’s very difficult to maintain this organization. In the past, all writers and lawyers felt free to speak up about their imprisonment after being released. Recently, two hundred people have been released from prison but none have dared speak up about their experiences. This also proves the importance of independent law and writing associations. The CPC fears writers who have the ability to form organizations. I know the lawyer Teng Biao, as well as some among the two hundred released prisoners. I think Teng was treated very badly in prison; these aren’t cowards we’re talking about. I know each of them to be brave, so their silence is alarming. From what I’ve heard, the secret police threatened their families’ and children’s safety in order to keep them quiet.

PEN: For PEN and other advocacy organizations, is it worth making a fuss from the outside? Is that going to make things better or worse?

ZHOU: It absolutely makes things better. If the West took a hard line against China, Liu Xiaobo and Ai Weiwei would not be in prison. It’s only because the American, British, and German governments compromised with China that these men are in there. Unfortunately, economic benefits overshadow human rights and freedom of speech in these international relations.

PEN: So, what are you working on now?

ZHOU: I just finished a book about the Household Registry system, which divides Chinese citizens between two categories: farmers and non-farmers. It’s a kind of domestic immigration card—a population control within China that prevents people from moving around. Sometimes couples have different hukou [official residency status], so they’re required to live in different parts of the country. It’s very difficult if you live in a rural part of the country to move into the city.

This book has taken me 22 years to write, from my first published article on this topic to today. My other recent book investigates the Three Gorges Dam. I will release a documentary film along with my book. My most current project is titled My Accomplices in Death, about the 14 months I spent in prison with 39 death row inmates, many of whom I was with up to the night of their execution. It’s unimaginably cruel. I haven’t talked about it; it was a buried memory, and it only resurfaced when the U.N. anti–death penalty panel invited me to speak about it. What I recounted onstage in Geneva surprised and terrified me.

PEN: Having written books that have a profound impact on society, that have been banned in China, and that have gotten you beaten and forced you to live in exile, is there one book you would give Hu Jintao to read?

ZHOU: [laughs and taps his book, What Kind of God] What President Hu Jintao says to the people of China through his special, safely prepared meals is: you and everyone else are not human. And I’d like to give him the book I’m working on [My Accomplices in Death]. I don’t think he has any idea what cruelties and anguish a death row inmate suffers. In China, to put it simply, the death penalty is wanton slaughter; the state uses its authority to slaughter innocents. The ones being executed are mostly not murderers or serious criminals. They are petty thieves who stole nothing worth more than 20,000 yuan ($3,000). The worst thing is these thieves are usually too poor to hire lawyers, so no one’s there to ask questions like: Should we slaughter him? Should we spare him? No—slaughter him, no one cares.

The popular saying among death row inmates is: “When I’m living, I’m worthless; when I’m dead, I’m worth a lot.” Why? Because when they’re alive, they’re just nuisances to the state, but as corpses, they’re lucrative bundles of organ transplants. I would hope that after reading my book, Hu Jintao would find some humanity in his heart to abolish the death penalty.