The author Liao Yiwu has left China. Repeatedly denied the right to travel abroad, Liao recently slipped out of China to Vietnam, and arrived last week in Germany.
It is impossible not to be relieved on his behalf. He told Philip Gourevitch of the New Yorker he had been warned that the forthcoming publication of two books, one about Christians in China and the other a memoir of his experience during the Tiananmen democracy protests, would land him in jail.
His exile cuts him off from the world about which he writes intuitive and honest observations of Chinese life. The Corpse Walker: Real Life Stories: China from the Bottom Up is a wonderful book, translated by Wen Huang, that consists of transcripts of interviews with the people he meets while traveling around China. (I read and reviewed it for THE WEEKLY STANDARD a few years ago.) One of the stories is especially vivid in my memory: An elderly man tells of abandoning his youthful prospects to be reunited in a remote province – a hellhole – with his beloved, who was persecuted for her “counterrevolutionary” background. His defiance of the Communist party is expressed as disdainful rejection of its claim to supplant human qualities of love, nurturing, and loyalty.
Liao’s departure has to be seen in the context of China’s ongoing, and heightened, repression. The uptick began even before the December 2008 publication of Charter 08 – the democracy manifesto by intellectuals, activists, and others – and the arrest of the writer and Nobel Peace Prize winner Liu Xiaobo, now serving an 11-year sentence for charges of subversion. Chinese Communist authorities are now intent on preventing an “Arab Spring.” It will not end anytime soon. Liao’s forthcoming books would be very troubling to the authorities at a time when they are managing transition from Hu Jintao to the presumed next general secretary, Xi Jinping. But there is always a reason for Chinese authorities to be sensitive because of the intuitive wisdom of the people whom Liao writes about.