HONG KONG—Self-censorship and fear of political backlash is stunting the growth of China's literary scene, according to a best-selling novelist, but the Internet offers a ray of hope for aspiring writers, he says.
"A lot of people stop writing ... because there are so many examples of people who got themselves into big trouble through writing," said Hu Fayun, author of the best-selling novel Ruyan@SARS.COM in a recent interview.
"The psyche of any Chinese person is going to contain these sorts of fears."
Wuhan-based Hu said fear of political oppression is harming literary development in China.
"Misgivings of this kind can affect one's creativity in writing, and will also affect one's personal development."
"This is one of the greatest blights on Chinese literature," said Hu, now in the United States to promote the English translation of his latest novel.
Free speech chilled
Hu's comments come after China's ruling Communist Party handed down an 11-year jail term to Beijing-based intellectual Liu Xiaobo for subversion, citing his participation in the Charter 08 movement for political change, and five articles that criticized the government.
Liu, who is currently appealing his Dec. 25 sentence, was a prolific and outspoken writer whose work often appeared on the Internet until his arrest on the eve of World Human Rights Day 2008.
Hu said the Internet could herald a revolution in China's publishing industry, currently tightly controlled by the Party's powerful Central Propaganda Department.
"A lot of ordinary Chinese people, and a lot of young people, have discovered that their voices can be heard [online], despite the constant push-and-pull struggle between openness and control that we have in mainland China," Hu said.
He said the Internet has brought to China's young people knowledge and information that they can't get in a classroom or a library.
"This has given rise to a kind of literature which is peculiar to the Internet," Hu said.
'A revolution in literature'
"This will mean that the younger generation gets to practise writing, and that the best of their writing won't rely on winning the favor of the publishing houses and will reach a wider audience."
"Such things will prompt a revolution in literature ... They may even prompt a relaxation in the standards applied to print publications, because of the huge space that the Internet gives to expression," Hu added.
Hu said that many intellectuals in today's China are extremely cynical, preferring to focus on their need to earn a living rather than to push creative boundaries.
"Chinese intellectuals for a very long time now have developed a highly original, deep, and perspicacious view of social problems, historical debates, and life issues, but they don't express them," he said.
"They are afraid of committing 'speech crimes.' So they choose a safe or profitable way of expressing themselves instead. This means that they have let go of their highest values," Hu said.
He attributed this to the current socio-political environment dating from the end of the Cultural Revolution (1966-76) and the beginning of economic reforms under then paramount leader Deng Xiaoping in 1979.
He also cited the famine of the Great Leap Forward (1958-61), in which state-sponsored authors and artists produced only works praising then supreme leader Mao Zedong, at a time when people were desperate for food as a result of failed economic policies.
"We have nothing that shows the suffering and great hunger and starvation, no personal records of people's lives at that time, and no descriptions of the huge numbers of people who starved to death, either," Hu said.
"On the contrary ... authors and artists wrote songs of praise for the motherland at a time when people were starving to death."
Call to remember
Hu also appeared to challenge Chinese artists and writers to record their personal feelings about the political turmoil and violence of the Cultural Revolution years.
"So many families were broken apart. Homes were devasted, people died, and inhuman treatment was meted out to so many, and yet we have seen no memoirs of that suffering, no records of people's anger about that time," Hu said.
Ruyan@SARS.COM was published in October 2006 by the China International Broadcasting Press, and banned shortly afterward by China's General Administration of Press and Publications.
The novel, which revolves around the life of an Internet forum moderator during the SARS epidemic, was initially circulated online in electronic form and later printed because of its popularity.
Original reporting in Mandarin by He Ping. Mandarin service director: Jennifer Chou. Translated and written for the Web in English by Luisetta Mudie. Edited by Sarah Jackson-Han.