Salman Rushdie on Chinese Censorship

An interview with the award-winning author about freedom of expression, the People's Republic, and how literature can thrive under repressive governments.
rushdie.jpgSalman Rushdie (Paul Hackett/Reuters)

The author Salman Rushdie, who won the Booker Prize for his novel Midnight's Children, is perhaps best known for being forced into hiding after the then-Iranian leader, Ayatollah Khomeini, declared a fatwa against his life in 1989 following the publication of Rushdie's novel The Satanic Verses. The Democracy Report

In subsequent years, Rushdie has championed the cause of writer freedom through his involvement with PEN International, a worldwide association of writers. Rushdie will appear this Friday, May 3rd, at the release of PEN's new report on China. In this edited interview, Rushdie discusses censorship, literature, and the bravery of Chinese dissidents.

Why do governments fear literature? Wouldn't, say, the Chinese Communist Party be better off letting its writers write fiction without harassment?

I've always thought of it this way: Politicians and creative writers both try and shape visions of society, they both try and offer to their readers or to the public a view of the world, or a vision of the world, and these visions of the world are at odds with authoritarian regimes. Those regimes attempt to shut down the limits of the possible while fiction tries to push out the limits of the possible. So in effect their visions are in opposition to each other.

Last year, you criticized the Nobel laureate Mo Yan for being a "patsy". Do writers living in regimes such as China's have a responsibility to oppose censorship? Or simply not to defend it?

I don't feel that writers should be pushed into corners, and there are many writers who aren't temperamentally suited to political engagement in whatever society they happen to be in, so you wouldn't want to make such a writer feel obliged to make a decision. But the reason that so many are upset with Mo Yan isn't that he didn't oppose censorship, but that he went out of his way to defend it. That was the problem.

Nearly a quarter century has passed since you were forced into hiding by the Ayatollah's fatwa. In the ensuing years, how would you assess the worldwide climate for censorship? Have things generally gotten better, or worse?

I'd say that, in general, they've gotten worse. But one of the things our report highlights is that people have more tools to resist censorship using new media. For instance, in China,  while there's increased repression in the form of arbitrary arrests, artists held incommunicado and put under house arrest, and increasing hostility towards literature and free expression, there is at the same time a growing willingness of Chinese citizens to find ways to express themselves. In spite of all the repression, there's been a  growth of independent, non-state publishers to print things that wouldn't be approved by state houses, and people have shown the willingness to post things online even if they're not to the liking of the state.

Is this a battle that China's citizens will win?

I don't want to be Pollyannish -- it's entirely possible that they'll lose. China has been pretty effective over the years in silencing dissident voices -- just consider the case of Liu Xiaobo and his wife, who resorted to shouting "not free" in court to remind people of her situation. The Chinese are good at repression and can be pretty ruthless about it.

But I feel that, in the end, China does want to have a more significant role in international affairs, it does want to be seen as a big player in the world, it wants to have authority, it wants to have respect, it wants to be treated as one of the great voices in the world today. They're beginning to be aware that their behavior is damaging their reputation, though, and I think if you put sufficient pressure on authoritarian regimes they often see that it is in their own self-interest to ease up on repression.

Matt Schiavenza is a contributing writer for The Atlantic. He is a former global-affairs writer for the International Business Times and Atlantic senior associate editor.

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