Dear Lucas,

Thank you for your honest letter. As you know, I have–like many–mightily respected your presence as a scholar, translator, and editor for some years now. I’ve learned a good deal about Chinese poetry and about translation praxis from your work. You and I have corresponded substantially, and we’ve spent time in each other’s company, for which I feel grateful. I will always remember the stimulating time with you and the Yale Poetry Group, years back, where you invited me to speak. We have collaborated in different ways over the years, and I have regarded you as an exemplary figure within the field and as a friend.

But I’m at a loss on the meaning and argument of your letter, Lucas. Quite at a loss. As a friend, I can only want to be honest and direct in an exchange like this, where the principles are so high. I won’t debate at any length with you as to why the Chinese state should most accurately be conceptualized as Stalinist in source and nature; the elemental facts of its one-party, autocratic character (consistent with the longstanding and still-official endorsement by Mao and the CCP of Stalin’s rule) should be sign enough–and not excepting its Party-driven state-capitalist accumulation model, by the way, which you suggest should give it special status vis-a-vis the ideological category of “Stalinism.” The phenomenon of “Fascism,” as well, I’m sure you know, assumes differing historical guises…

Thus, let’s forget old-time terminology. I can’t respond to your letter other than to return, adamantly and specifically, to the central, substantive point I’d raised–the crucially important one in my letter–and which you strangely skirt around. Even as you offer disturbing half-justifications for the long lock-up of figures such as the Nobel Prize-winner “Liu Xiaobo and people like him,” accusingly quoting a statement by the vanished man about Hong Kong and colonialism, as if he should not have the absolute right to speak his mind, however unpopular or controversial his statement may be—however “reactionary,” that is, the view may seem (though Liu Xiaobo’s statement is not that, in any case; it is, rather, perfectly ironic and in dialectical, satirical spirit). I’m frankly astonished that you’ve implied Liu Xiaobo’s fate may be in some way justified, Lucas. Please explain in any follow-up you may send, because I am deeply troubled by the insinuation, and I doubt I am alone.

And so that central point, again, is the following: No U.S. writers or artists of conscience should collaborate, in any way, with a totalitarian state, be it Right or Left, that persecutes and imprisons and tortures fellow intellectuals. If you doubt that this is a major and pressing ethical issue where China is concerned, one that demands that we, where we are, respond with honesty and force, I would ask that you ignore what I say and simply go to the websites of PEN International, Amnesty International, or Human Rights Watch, just for starters.

It is ethically unacceptable that academically based American “avant-garde” poets continue to accept invitations and monies—whether for occasions in the USA or in the PRC–from a repressive state that endangers the well-being of dissident writers, artists, and journalists, and that these U.S. writers cynically take the perks they are offered, never saying a word in opposition to these most egregious violations of basic human freedoms. Never saying a word about other fellow writers who are intimidated and imprisoned. It’s a stain of shame upon the collective body of our poetry.

Let me ask it this way: Would it have been acceptable for a U.S. poet, ca. 1980s, to accept an invitation from Pinochet’s military government, or from South Africa’s apartheid regime, to go and read and convene, with all expenses paid and more, and not step forward and call for the immediate release of fellow incarcerated poets? Should this not have been expected from any writer worth his or her basic moral salt? If not, then can you explain why and how China is a different case, enjoying particular exceptions? Does it perhaps have something to do with China’s recent riches and its centripetal place, now, in the world order?

In other words, is the difference partly because China has a far-reaching and massively State-funded soft-culture program, which hundreds of Western intellectuals have opportunistically embraced, zipping their eyes and mouths shut in return? I am not exaggerating in saying that; I am talking about a post-avant-field reality. I’m talking about “Left” poets and critics, some of them quite prominent, with big institutional resources at their disposal. Widely grinning in Beijing and offering toasts to their Chinese hosts and student acolytes in China, who will write about them, translate them, publish them, invite them back, etc. Meanwhile, dozens of Chinese poets and artists languish in prison for doing nothing more than expressing their thought.

I know that many believe it is not possible for a foreign guest to speak out against repression in China, but that is simply not true. I am closely familiar with a recent visit by a U.S. academic to China, who took the opportunity, during a series of lectures, to raise questions about democratic liberties, specifically in the case of Liu Xiaobo. The presentation and discussion of this topic proceeded freely and without interference. So apparently it is possible for foreign intellectuals to raise their voice on this issue, even in China itself, and apparently such critiques are heard and discussed by some. Why shouldn’t our U.S. “avant” poets, on their officially sponsored and well-appointed junkets to China, or in appearances here at events arranged by the Confucius Institute, take the opportunity to do the same? Why the timid silence by U.S. poets, especially those of the “post-avant”? Why such cowardice by poets who have been provided with unusual and manifold opportunities to speak out?

I hope my main point is now clear, so that we can get beyond any unnecessary distractions about who is qualified to speak and who is not. It is not a matter of poets avoiding communication with Chinese writers; communication needs to happen. What I am saying is that people need to speak openly and with principle as they communicate. If they don’t, then they will be, and should be, judged with a healthy dose of scorn by poets to come. 

Until all prisoners of conscience are released and allowed to express their views without threat and reprisal, there should be no more cultural collaboration with the Chinese state by U.S. “avant” writers. And for those poets who do accept to travel there, then it would be imperative that the occasion be used to speak the truth, and with full and risk-taking integrity, as others have done. If so, then any such visit would be fully honorable and justified.

This is the main issue, Lucas, the issue of intellectual and creative/critical liberty, which you did not fully address. Truly, it’s a fairly uncomplicated one, ethically speaking. In regards to it, we here at Dispatches, contrary to what you seem to think, know exactly what we are talking about.

–Kent Johnson