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Banned in Beijing

China's censors send a clear message.

11:00 PM, Jan 31, 2007 • By JENNIFER CHOU
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On January 1, 2007, the Chinese government loosened restrictions on the media, including those that limited the freedom of foreign journalists to travel and conduct interviews in the country. Shortly after, the Paris-based press watchdog Reporters Without Borders announced an end to its boycott of the 2008 Beijing Olympics. Foreign media began speculating whether the easing of control might even go beyond next year's Summer Games and, more generally, whether it signaled a new willingness on the part of China's censors to permit greater freedom of speech.

They did not have to speculate for long. At a January 11th meeting of the General Administration of Press and Publications (GAPP), GAPP's deputy director Wu Shulin produced a list of banned books from 2006 and threatened to slap publishers who defy the ban with stiff financial penalties. Of the eight books on the list, seven were blackballed because their contents "stepped over the line." Wu did not specify where the that line was, but the message to writers could not have been more clear.

The list of banned books includes both fiction and non-fiction. Trials and Tribulations, by Xiao Jian, depicts a man's tortured life between the 1911 Republican Revolution and the 1958 Great Leap Forward. The Press, by Zhu Huaxiang, is a fictional narrative of the inner workings of China's media industry. And The Other Stories of History: My Days at the Supplement Division of the People's Daily, written by veteran journalist Yuan Ying, is an insider's account of work at the Communist party's organ paper. Although Yuan Ying's book deals with events that occurred at the paper during the 1980s, GAPP's deputy director claimed that it had "divulged state secrets."

Also on the list is I Object: the Road to Politics by a People's Congress Deputy by Zhu Ling. Based on three years of research, the book chronicles peasant-turned-teacher-turned-activist Yao Lifa's 12-year struggle to run for a seat on a county legislature in Hubei province. In an interview with Radio Free Asia, the author, a former China Central Television (CCTV) legal affairs correspondent, expressed her surprise over the ban. She had written the book, she said, "with the mindset of a CCTV reporter who consciously complied with the official line." Yao Lifa, the subject of the biography, confirmed to Radio Free Asia that, before the manuscript went to press, author Zhu Ling had expunged details and language that she thought might be deemed politically incorrect.

Yao Lifa attributed the ban to the fact that his dogged persistence in promoting open and fair elections had incurred the wrath of the Central Propaganda Department. He believes that, as a result, any book by him, or about him, will be banned.

While Yao Lifa's view of why his biography was banned may be little more than speculation, there is no doubt as to why the censors targeted Zhang Yihe's Past Stories of Peking Opera Stars. Of the eight books on the list, it was the only one whose banning was explicitly attributed to the identity of the author, rather than the content of the book. This can only be interpreted in one way; Zhang Yihe, as a writer, has officially been blacklisted. At the January 11th GAPP meeting, deputy director Wu Shulin admonished the Hunan Publishing House for publishing a book "by this writer" despite repeated prior warnings "about this person." Wu threatened to exact financial penalties and impose tougher restrictions on the publisher's future operations. Past Stories of Peking Opera Stars, which portrays the suffering endured by seven Peking opera actors during the Cultural Revolution, is Zhang Yihe's third book. It is also the 65-year-old's third book to be banned.

In 2002, to help mark her 60th birthday, Zhang Yihe "picked up the pen and began to tell stories." She is the daughter of Zhang Bojun, Mao Zedong's transportation minister, who pushed for a more democratic socialist system and was, as a result, branded the "No. 1 rightist" in 1957 during the anti-rightist campaign. Zhang Yihe's maiden work, Days of Old Do Not Disappear Like Smoke, is a poignant eye-witness account of the purge of her father and other intellectuals. It was banned shortly after its publication in January 2004. The Independent Chinese PEN Center subsequently awarded Zhang Yihe the Freedom to Write Award in October of that year for her efforts to "restore the integrity of the Chinese language with this candid account of that dark chapter in history."