A Kafkaesque Trial

Image by Alexander Lesnitsky from Pixabay. CC0/Public domain.

In June 2007, I received a letter from my local Customs Office, telling me that a package from Taiwan had been confiscated. It contained The Book of Sins, my short story collection. The collection had already been published in mainland China, but in a heavily expurgated edition from which  the story ‘I Love my Mum’ had been completely removed. (‘I Love my Mum’ later appeared in a small magazine, but caused outrage: the censors at the Central Propaganda Section (CPS) banned it and the magazine’s chief editor nearly lost her job.) So I did not feel I had had much success with The Book of Sins and, when a Taiwan publisher got in touch about it, I gave it to them on condition that no cuts were made. Unfortunately, Customs had confiscated the proof copies.

At the Customs Office, I was told the subject matter was too dark and that there was too much sex. The officer flicked through the pages and pointed to passages from stories like ‘I Love my Mum’, ‘Bathed in Moonlight’, ‘Kidney Tonic’ and ‘The Man with the Knife’. The latter had also come out in a small magazine and been reported to the censors at the General Administration for Press and Publications (GAPP) but, luckily, nothing came of the complaint. I told the customs officer that I was writing literature and that it was ridiculous in this day and age to censor literary works on the grounds that they were about sex. I was very doubtful whether the Customs Office was capable of judging literature, I told him, and suggested they send the book to the GAPP censors.

I had to wait six months before I finally heard back. The verdict was that the book was obscene. Back I went to the Customs Office and argued my case. It was a different official this time, and he was threatening. ‘Do you know where you are?’ he said. ‘We’ve treated you with kid gloves! If it was anyone else, we’d have locked them up.’ When I said I would appeal, he said there was no point. However, we no longer live under Mao. We Chinese are increasingly aware of our rights, and besides, government organisations like the Customs Office like to pretend to be modern and civilized, so in the end they had to agree to a hearing. I heard later that one of the reasons was that they still did not believe that I would follow it through. They were used to bullying people into submission and assumed I was simply going through the motions.

At the hearing, I asked them to explain their reasons for calling The Book of Sins obscene. ‘We cannot inform you,’ said the customs officer. A journalist who was present reported this. The comment went viral and caused an outcry. The Customs Office was furious and complained to the censors. The result was that the media was banned from reporting the hearing. The interesting thing was that our august Party censors refused to put this prohibition in writing. Phone calls were made, and these could not be reported on either. The censors often act this way.

I then decided to take the Customs Office to a court of law and demand a reason. They could hardly believe their ears. ‘Don’t make such a fuss!’ one official said to me. ‘We’ve always done it this way.’ ‘Does that make it right?’ I demanded. The law enforcers in China have always had it their own way, acting with total disregard for citizens’ lives, so why would they have more regard for a mere book? Under Mao, writers sometimes paid with their lives if their books were banned, so anyone lucky enough to survive always knuckled under. Even nowadays, writers don’t dare step out of line. When the unexpurgated Book of Sins was banned, the media in Beijing interviewed a few writers but they all refused to say anything, with the exception of Yan Lianke who supported me. The same thing happened when Liu Xiaobo was detained: the media tried to contact a number of authors but, with a very few exceptions, they refused to be interviewed. Of the post-1949 generation, I am the first writer to have said ‘no’ to having my books banned. To me, they are my life. But my friends and family have been very worried for me. My parents live in terror of the Party’s iron fist and are quite sure I’ve no hope of winning. But I tell them: there may be little hope when you resist, but there’s never any hope if you don’t resist.

Of course, I don’t expect justice from China’s courts. I know that our judges are not independent – they answer to Zhou Yongkang’s Political and Legal Affairs Commission (PLAC) which, as a Party organ, is above the law. But all the same, I felt I could at least make my point in a court of law. The Chinese media may have been forbidden to interview me, but there was still the overseas media and some of them had already been in touch with me. They intended to be at the court hearing and through them I could get my voice heard. Then I was suddenly told that the case would be heard in camera, so no observers could attend. When I asked why, I was told that the case was a matter of ‘national security’.

I was astonished. How on earth could a work of fiction be a matter of ‘national security’? It was only later that I discovered what had happened: the Customs reckoned that GAPP had made the decision to ban The Book of Sins, and GAPP should therefore answer my questions. But GAPP did not want to go public. The fact is that in China, officials have no faith at all in the system. They have even less loyalty to it than the general public and are far more willing to betray it as soon as the situation changes. Just look at the huge numbers who go and live abroad…they’re rats leaving the sinking ship. The Customs Office were extremely annoyed at being thrust to centre stage. So eventually, they, GAPP, the Party censors and the PLAC came up with a solution: they declared that The Book of Sins had been impounded because it was deemed a threat to ‘national security’. In fact, they completely dropped the charge of obscenity. That meant they did not have to divulge any further information, or even say who had made the final decision.

China’s laws on secrecy were first promulgated by Communist Party in the 1950s, and remain in force, unchanged, in spite of the transformation within China and in its external relations since then. National security has commonly been used as a pretext for holding court cases in camera and for covering up official misdemeanours. Once The Book Of Sins had become a matter of ‘national security’, the court simply refused to answer my questions.

The scene in the courtroom was surreal:

‘Please can the Customs Office tell me why The Book of Sins was confiscated?’ my lawyer asked the defendants, that is, the Customs Office.
‘That is a state secret. I cannot tell you. We have explained this to the court.’
My lawyer turned to the presiding judge: ‘In that case, could your Honour tell me why The Book of Sins was confiscated?’
‘That is a state secret. I cannot tell you,’ responded the judge.
That brought the hearing to a summary close. I was told I had lost the case.

I appealed. This is what happened at the appeal hearing:

‘Please can the Customs Office tell me why The Book of Sins was confiscated?’
‘That is a state secret. I cannot tell you. We have explained this to the court.’
‘In that case, could your Honour tell me why The Book of Sins was confiscated?’
‘That is a state secret. I cannot tell you,’ responded the judge.

And again the hearing was brought to a close. The original judgment was upheld. I had lost my lawsuit again.

I wrote to the Standing Committee of the National People’s Congress with a further appeal. This is what I wrote: ‘According to New China News Agency, the Americans classify 100,000 documents per year while the Chinese classify millions. Classifying documents without good reason and never de-classifying them makes a joke of “confidentiality”. It also undermines public confidence in the law.’   

The Standing Committee of the National People’s Congress did not answer my letter.

The whole thing reminded me of Kafka’s The Trial, where the unfortunate K was banged up in prison for reasons that neither he nor his captors were allowed to know. They were smothered by something intangible: ‘the system’. In the same way, as long as power is concentrated in the hands of the Communist Party in China, then anyone can become a ‘criminal’. We are not just talking about ordinary folk. Liu Shaoqi, second-in-command to Chairman Mao, was imprisoned and so badly treated that he died. And there’s Zhou Yongkan, member of the Politburo Standing Committee until 2012 and currently held on corruptions charges. No doubt his trial, even if it is ‘public’, will be just as much of a politically-motivated farce.

translated by Nicky Harman

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