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.


Salman 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.

Does the Nobel Committee have a responsibility to pass up writers who are accommodating to bad regimes?

Well -- I don't want to preach to the Nobel Committee, and in fairness to it the Committee always claims to be separate from politics; not to mention, it has a record of recognizing writers who were at odds with regimes, such as Boris Pasternak. In the end, I wouldn't overstate the importance of prizes, even though they're of course very important to the writers who win them.

The world has focused increasingly on Chinese censorship in recent years. Which other countries with repressive censorship regimes deserve wider attention from the Western world?

Well, it isn't difficult to point toward a number of places in the Islamic world. Iran, for example: every new novel, virtually without exception, cannot be published because it fails to get through government censorship.

But since my country of origin is India, I've been particularly perturbed by the direction it's going in. India is a country that has long prided itself on having a free democracy, unlike all the other countries in its region, but there seems to be a lot of slippage in a lot of areas -- not just literature, but also the arts, painting, sculpture. There have been attacks on scholarly works; for example, Delhi and Bombay Universities have been obliged to remove scholarly texts under pressure from local, extremist politicians. In each case, the government blamed the artists for provocation rather than defending their rights. This is a very disturbing trend.

What led you to become interested in Chinese censorship, specifically?

Well -- I had always been interested in China in a general way, but 1989 was quite extraordinary year; on the one hand, you had the fall of Communism and the freedom of Nelson Mandela, but then on the other you had Khomeini's fatwa (which affected me personally) and of course the Tiananmen Square massacre, a horror on a much greater scale. Anyway, this strange conjunction of events made me especially interested in the question of liberty in China. I'm a reader of Chinese literature, I like their films, but also: I've had great difficulty getting my work published in China; very little of it has been published there. The first two attempts to have all of my work published, for instance, were refused without any reason ever being given.

Did this surprise you?

Yes, it's a mystery to me. The reason given was just "no".

What struck you the most about the report?

I was feeling, frankly, despondent about the situation until I read the report -- we at PEN had heard case after case after case of writers who had been badly mistreated. But what really struck me forcibly was the willingness of the Chinese people to resist, which was new information for me. I was very encouraged that there wasn't just apathy and a sense of defeatism and that there actually is a resistance -- and this makes me more desirous to find out more.