Dear Matt,
Thank you for writing. Your letter is thoughtful and expressed in good faith, and we appreciate your sending it. I take strong issue, however, with one statement you make, which I’ll take up toward the end of this reply.
I fully agree that Chinese poets and artists have extremely restricted choices outside some measure of cooperation with official organs of state and cultural power. Given the ubiquitous presences and pressures of the State in most aspects of life in China, such concessions are more a matter of necessity and survival. We can see this, even, in the prominent case of Ai Weiwei, who is forced now to compromise his speech in various ways, after his courageous and inspiring resistance landed him in lockup for an extended period of time. It’s hard to imagine what thousands of Chinese artists beneath the media radar must go through, in figuring out what to do. Or not to do…
And we have little right to judge them. After all, poets and artists in the U.S.—not least “avant-garde” ones—throw themselves at government and corporate funding agencies without reserve. And they suffer almost no risks or consequences for protests of conscience. So how could we blame writers and artists in China for making concessions or collaborating, when their very physical beings may be in danger otherwise?
So let me be clear that the problem with the NYC Confucius Institute event we pinpointed concerns U.S. poets—in this case supposedly “progressive” ones (Bob Perelman, Tan Lin, and Nada Gordon)—who freely chose to appear under the auspices of an official program of the Chinese state: a program broadly analogous to the CIA’s former Congress for Cultural Freedom, in its “soft power” propagandistic aims at international scales. These poets participated in this event knowing that many fellow writers and artists in China are in prison for their art and thought. And they participated, too, so far as we know, without speaking a public word in defense of those who are victims of the same thought-police regime that sponsored (and paid?) their appearance.
Now, if these American poets had used their platform to speak without equivocation in favor of the freedom of these persecuted fellow writers (and if they did, we will stand corrected and praise their courage in doing so!), then there is no problem whatsoever: They will have acted honorably. But if they participated, knowing what they know about the conditions endured by so many of their fellow writers in China, and chose not to say a clear word, then they would have acted shamefully.
When apartheid South Africa tried to get writers to come to literary events there, no honorable writer collaborated with the government of Pretoria. When Israel today invites writers and artists to participate in cultural events designed to lend legitimacy to its semi-apartheid and occupying state, no honorable U.S. writer should do so, unless he or she intends to speak out against injustice. And when the government of China, via its institutions of “soft-power,” tries to legitimize itself abroad or at home with foreign intellectual cover, no honorable writer should accept, unless the platform is used to call for the freedom of those without it.
For American writers who unconditionally believe in the liberty of the imagination, it really should be as simple as that.
Finally, I mentioned that your letter did contain an unfortunate statement. It is this:
“Liu Xiaobo, while often deemed progressive in his politics, in his writing is anything but.”
The point of this remark is beyond me, frankly, and I hope you will reconsider it, Matt. What does it matter that Liu Xiaobo, the 2010 Nobel Peace Prize recipient, is “anything but” progressive in his writing? Whatever that really means, I would hope we could agree that the principles of artistic freedom apply to creative people regardless of whether or not they are “progressive” in their aesthetics! Indeed, the principles must apply to people who are not progressive in their politics! Unless your remark is the result of careless phrasing, we here at Dispatches utterly reject the premises that seem to underlie it.
Thank you for writing. We have received no reports about the NYC Confucius Institute event. We invite the three U.S. “avant” poets who participated in it to tell us if they spoke up in defense of Liu Xiaobo and the many other Chinese intellectuals suffering incarceration and persecution. If they did so, we will print their letters and praise them for doing so.
Kent Johnson