Lucas, 

Thanks for writing once again. We appreciate your willingness to continue the exchange. We would like to make some brief and hopefully final points in regards your most recent remarks.

You say that Dispatches has been “reductive” about China, treating all of China as a “symbol,” which has led to “misinformation.”

The misunderstanding here is on us. “Symbol” was the wrong word to use in our last post. Synecdoche would have been more accurate – Beijing is a synecdoche for China – but we have a hard time spelling it. Trust us, we don’t see China as any kind of symbol. We understand the vast diversity of living realities that make up the complexity of modern China. But the Chinese state’s authoritarian  repression of cultural/political behavior and thought – its unjust imprisonment of writers and artists – these are facts. There is nothing symbolic about writers who are in lockup for their beliefs.

Nor do we necessarily believe it is “impossible for anybody to actually read texts from before the Maoist period.” That’s a bit sloppy on your part. You are quoting, and somewhat out of context, Pierre Joris, the widely respected U.S. poet, translator, and human rights activist, who wrote to Dispatches to express his view on the cultural and ideological implications of the CP’s official imposition of Standard Mandarin. We linked to an article he provided on the language question, published by the China Heritage Quarterly, of the Australian National University. You then answered some of the specific claims the CHQ article made, and you did so eloquently, in your first letter. We stated that your points were thought-provoking and valid, and we thanked you for them. It’s inaccurate for you to now suggest that the clipped passage represents some hardened position on our part about a particular and very current language-policy controversy. We printed one side of the argument, and then we printed the other side. And you actually had the last word on the matter!

Nor is it our position that “attending an academic conference there conflicts with speaking out on behalf of imprisoned writers and artists in China.’” True, we do feel there is a certain amount of hypocrisy on the part of some “post-avant” writers and their tag-along critics who talk a good radical political line, but who never seem to walk past the banquet table. We will continue to point out such hypocrisy. Of course, there are well-travelled ways in which career-related circuits and professional plug-ins all too often lead to caution and tepid compromise, but we have been quite clear that U.S. writers should try to find a way to speak out in such venues, and not least venues here in the U.S. involving the Confucius Institute (around which topic, incidentally, this conversation began), where no excuse whatsoever exists to remain quiet. We said that any writer who speaks up at a conference in China or at an event in the West involving the CI will be doing something honorable and courageous (obviously even more so in China proper). We even pointed out that a U.S. scholar had this year done just that in a large lecture event on the China mainland, calling attention to the plight of Liu Xiaobo, and that this led to an open and productive exchange on the issue. We have called on American poets travelling to China – especially self-styled progressive, “avant-garde” ones – to try to find ways of doing the same, in solidarity with their imprisoned fellows.

As for your claim that we have insinuated that Chinese students and teachers are somehow complicit in that imprisonment, well, if that’s the case, we certainly are abashed because that has never crossed our minds. Not at all. In fact, just the opposite: We hope we have made it emphatically clear that no blame should be cast on students, teachers, and writers in China for any “compromise” they might make, for they have few options outside following avenues of association with the Communist Party and Chinese state, its sanctioned institutions, and the limits and proscriptions inscribed by these, both legal and unspoken.

The China Labor Bulletin sounds like an admirable organization, and their work seems important and urgent. We’re not surprised you are working on behalf of workers’ rights in China, Lucas, for you once effectively led the campaign, we know, to unionize the Yale graduate TA’s, for which we take off our hats to you, big time.

Our core concern in this discussion has been very focused and clear. It pertains to what stance U.S. writers and artists here in the United States should adopt toward the imprisonment and persecution of their fellow writers and artists in China. Speaking out forthrightly in defense of writers and artists imprisoned there is a parallel path toward goals I know we share; such stances are in no contradiction at all with the work and allegiances you have undertaken in Hong Kong.

To speak honestly and without hedge on basic principles, to actively challenge China’s soft-power instruments in the West, to follow the call of every major independent human rights group – and now that of many universities, too – is what we can do here. That’s what we are saying. And little compromise, caution, or “distinction”-making is required in doing it.

We hope this clarifies whatever apparent differences exist between us. We don’t actually think there are many, and those that exist are fairly minor compared to our areas of agreement. We look forward to continuing this conversation as things develop both here and in China. 

Kent