HONG KONG—Conflict over a historical book about Chinese opera stars has sparked a row as dramatic as some of the sagas they enacted.
Books addressing sensitive areas of history that the ruling Communist Party would prefer not to examine publicly are frequently suppressed, but Zhang Yihe is one of the first authors to complain publicly that the regime has stifled her constitutional rights to freedom of expression.
"Who am I? I am an old researcher who researched opera. I am an old member of the Chinese Democratic League. I am a single old woman now retired at home," Zhang wrote in an open letter published online and picked up by bloggers, translators, and commentators inside and outside China.
"When I was 60 years old I picked up a pen and wrote about histories. I wrote first about the stories of my father's generation. Then I wrote about the legends of the opera singers," wrote Zhang, whose father was denounced during the anti-rightist movement of the 1950s.
Zhang said she had come to hear about a meeting on Jan. 11, 2007, on the opening day of a national publishing industry conference between publishers and official of the General Administration of Press and Publications (GAPP). The meeting was called by the agency's deputy director Wu Shulin.
The GAPP is an agency under the direct control of China's cabinet, the State Council, with the authority to screen, censor, and ban any print, electronic, or Internet publication in China. It does so by controlling the publishing licenses handed out to publishing houses and online publications.
I still plan to carry on writing. I will carry on until I die.
According to Zhang's account, which was translated into English by Hong Kong-based blogger Roland Soong, Wu told the meeting: "We have reminded you repeatedly about this person. Her books are not to be published...you dared to publish it."
Wu allegedly penalized the Hunan Literature Publishing House by cutting the number of books approved by around one-fifth.
After Zhang's protest, Wu sent her a message claiming not to have mentioned her name, although her book, Stories of the Opera Stars , had appeared on a list of books he said had violated regulations.
A GAPP official later told a Singapore journalist that Zhang's book had been criticized but not banned.
In an interview with RFA's Mandarin service, Zhang said: "There are systems in place anywhere for checking what is being published and for banning it. But they have to function under the rule of law. If my books had been banned under a transparent system with all the due process and probity of the law, then I would respect that. But that's not what has happened here."
Zhang said she isn't interested in politics and hopes no one involved in the creative arts would take ideological or political considerations into account when doing their work.
She said that China's cultural milieu has always been very welcoming of her work and that it is only the powerful Party Central Propaganda Department that has a problem with it.
"I still plan to carry on writing. I will carry on until I die," she told reporter Shen Hua.
Meanwhile, Zhang's lawyer Pu Zhiqiang said government officials have no right to sound off in internal meetings as if what they say has no effect on the parties concerned.
"This goes against fundamental rights to freedom of expression laid down in China's constitution," Pu told reporter Ding Xiao. "It is an abuse of official power which goes against the constitution."
Several calls to the General Administration of Press and Publications during office hours went unanswered.
Original reporting in Mandarin by Shen Hua and Ding Xiao. RFA Mandarin service director: Jennifer Chou. Translated and written for the Web in English by Luisetta Mudie. Edited by Sarah Jackson-Han.