On the afternoon of 14 March, as the National People’s Congress was coming to an end in Beijing, men huddled to play cards in Hanzhongmen Square, Nanjing. Washing was spread over hedges to dry, tiny dusty birds sang in cages hung from the branches of trees, dogs fought, babies were sung to by their grandmothers and a street-sweeper stopped to help a man lift an iron bar. That evening, as part of a group of journalists brought to China by the British Council to meet Chinese writers, we interviewed Lu Yang, a professor of Chinese at Nanjing Normal University with a shaggy Beatles-style haircut and a grey cable-knit jumper, who thought it boring that our line of questioning began with the Cultural Revolution. He went off to smoke before coming back to be asked about his work, which he described as being about existence and non-existence, as blending past, present and future and as influenced by music and painting. I pushed my luck when I asked him whether his work was Cubist, and he said: ‘A meeting like this is like a shallow dream.’

It was increasingly difficult to know what to ask. The first interview had been with five novelists in Shanghai and we talked to them about the One Child Policy (it seemed that children would play with their reflection in the mirror as if it were a sibling) and rural China (farmers were happy about hillside land being bought by developers because they wouldn’t have to farm it any more) and the situation of Chinese women (trapped by consumerism) but something shifted at the end when we asked about censorship. One of the writers told a story about a friend who was thrilled that his book was being banned. He’d cycled through town shouting ‘I’m going to be rich!’ and then threw a party. Being banned is ‘part of the plan’ for some writers. One of us asked about Tiananmen Square. The reply? ‘I don’t understand the question.’ At dinner with the writers (river fish, scrambled egg whites with crab and ginger, cubes of tofu, mushroom soup and asparagus in soy but purple and orange pastries for pudding) I sat with Yu Shi, who has translated Paul Auster as well as writing novels about young women in the city. She was 12 in 1989, and saw herself as part of a distinct generation with different concerns from those that came before. She wanted to know about censorship in the UK: ‘Don’t you have things you can’t write about too?’ I supposed there were but all that goes unsaid. ‘Isn’t that a worse problem?’ She seemed disappointed that all Western journalists wanted to talk to her about was censorship, as she really wanted to talk about TV: had I seen Black Mirror? I tried to imagine how Yu interpreted the only episode I’d seen. It was set in a strange, technologically not too distant future, where people pedal on exercise bikes to earn enough points to enter a reality show. The hero used up all his points on his girlfriend’s entry but the show made her into a porn star; I had thought it was inspired by Foxconn as well as The X Factor. And then she asked: had I also seen Sherlock?

We spoke to 14 Chinese fiction writers in Shanghai, Nanjing and Beijing over a week, against jetlag (when we weren’t talking to writers, we were asking each other how many hours sleep we’d got) and the fact that interviewing in a group means you get to ask two or three things at most and those have to go through a translator. In time we got better at asking questions, because we got more pleasing answers. When we asked Bi Feiyu, a winner of the Mao Dun prize (the Chinese Booker), what he liked best about China, he replied that it was ‘the life on the internet’ – he has half a million followers on Weibo – because there is ‘more freedom’ there, and he hopes this freedom of speech will make its way into the real world. Many writers mentioned the bestselling novelist Han Han, who writes the most read blog in China, and so perhaps the world; when Liu Xiaobo won the Nobel Peace Prize, he posted an empty pair of quotation marks. On 15 March, we met Murong Xuecun, who had used his acceptance speech for the 2010 People’s Literature Prize to detail the sentences he was made to take out of his first novel and to plead for censorship to be a ‘little more relaxed’ – and if not that, ‘a little more intelligent’. Before he came to meet us, he had posted about Bo Xilai being sacked as head of the party’s Chongqing branch, and by the end of dinner the post had been taken down. Several writers talked about the deals they agree with themselves: they get to write what they want and the editors at the publishing houses get to delete what they want. There isn’t a censor sitting in an office, blue pencil in hand and red tea by his side: Chinese censorship is self-censorship, and although what to avoid is generally known, the discussions about limits take place between writer and publisher, not writer and state, and can be more flexible than we imagine. Murong also told us about the latest Chinese meme: an old clip from state TV was doing the rounds in which ordinary citizens were asked how they felt about the Asian Games coming to Guangzhou. Usually everyone says, ‘How wonderful! What an opportunity for my town!’ but in the clip one man says: ‘Don’t ask me, I just came out to get soy sauce.’ People say they’re members of the Getting Soy Sauce Party when they want to say they couldn’t care less.

The censors, the General Administration for the Press and Publication, or GAPP, the state authority that regulates publishing in China, invited us to a press conference at their HQ in Beijing, where the pot plants are laid out in rows. The vice minister, Wu Shulin, had his tea in a white china goblet with a lid while we had paper cups that said things like ‘iced tea’, ‘GRAPE JUICE’ and ‘cappuccino’. (It was the job of a woman in a yellow tunic to keep us all topped up with hot water, and Wu was always first.) Chopping the air with his hands, he said he would be answering ‘very candidly’. He told us that Yan Lianke’s Dream of Ding Village, about a village wiped out by Aids caught from infected blood the state had collected, paid for but hadn’t checked for disease, was no longer banned in China, but that ‘many Chinese citizens think this book doesn’t show the true situation.’ Wu was flanked by four ministers, who pecked at their Blackberries, took notes, read, or folded the corners of their notebooks. One kept blowing through his nose like a horse. Wu wanted to tell us that ‘China still has to learn’ but that the country ‘will follow our own path’.

One of the reasons we were around a mahogany conference table with the Chinese government – we must have been the first Western journalists to see the inside of that building for a long time – was that China had been invited to be the ‘market focus’ of the London Book Fair, and they were trying to do things better than they had in 2009, when China had been the guest of honour at the Frankfurt fair and it had gone disastrously. Frankfurt had invited, among other dissidents, the poet and editor Bei Ling, who had been jailed for two weeks in 2000 for the ‘illegal publication’ of the journal Tendency. Susan Sontag, whom Bei had published, wrote about what happened in the New York Times, and a threatened ten-year sentence became exile. GAPP said that they would boycott the fair if Bei and other dissidents participated, and so they were uninvited. Bei spoke out this year too, criticising the British Council for collaborating with GAPP and only inviting ‘state-approved writers’. But he did end up coming to London from Germany with a group from Chinese PEN and when I talked to him in his hotel in Baron’s Court, he had brought a squat terracotta teapot with tiny cups and Chinese tea for a four-day trip. Each year he tries to get back to China via Hong Kong or Shenzhen or Beijing, but is turned back when he touches Chinese soil. He thought that the writers we met in China were ‘technically better’ than the previous generation but also that ‘novelists have to face history.’ It was a ‘shame’, he said, that Bi Feiyu, a member of the government-funded Jiangsu Writers’ Association, accepts 7000 yuan a month from it. He was going to meet the British Council to ask them who they’d consulted on the choice of writers to invite to the book fair. He introduced me to a Qi Jiazhen, a memoirist who has written about her 13 years in a prison camp for ‘counter-revolutionary activities’. She had flown over from Australia, where she has lived since her release, and had just come from a protest at the Chinese Embassy (she thought the government had hired the students who banged drums and did dragon dances to drown them out). I’d imagined that meeting dissidents would be like meeting Anna Akhmatova. But Qi was tired and cold and I couldn’t think of a question that didn’t seem childish. So I didn’t ask her anything.

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