Dissident author Ma Jian: “We used all our strength to tell Hongkongers what loomed ahead”
The Chinese author and activist on living with hope, surveillance and repression.
I'm standing in a mid-summer downpour in northwest London interpreting for a Chinese dissident novelist and the lorry driver charged with delivering a skip on to the Ma household driveway.
“Tell im Im worried Ill knock his fence over mate,” yells the bear-sized man from the trucks cabin.
The 65-year-old writer responds and I translate: “Ma Jian says not to worry, theres plenty of room and you need to make space for his wifes car.”
The driver nods and proceeds to manoeuvre the vehicle, eventually lowering the skip into roughly the correct place, leaving the garden fence intact.
Ma Jian gestures for me to follow him through the back garden. “Sorry about that. We moved in last year and are still trying to get the house in order.”
He leads me towards his self-designed shed or “book room”, as he prefers. “Come in, quickly. Honestly, Ill never get used to this weather.”
Twenty years of exile in the UK might not have endeared Ma Jian to the damp climate, nor prompted him to learn English with any fluency, yet there has been a measure of integration. He serves me coffee with milk and biscuits, not the green tea and sunflower seeds I might have expected from a man whose attention remains firmly fixed on the happenings in his homeland.
Ma quizzes me about the country hes been forbidden from visiting for the last seven years, asking about the wellbeing of mutual writer friends or if you still see Uighurs barbequing lamb on Beijing street corners.
“Im terribly worried about whats happening in Xinjiang,” he says of the crackdown in the predominantly Muslim region where up to a million Uighurs and other minorities have been interned in so-called re-education centres. “I visit Uighur friends in London. They cry but they dont dare call their family members for fear of making them a target.”
Ma is referring to Chinas amped-up cybersecurity, whereby officially sanctioned, heavily monitored social media apps enable the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) to eavesdrop on the conversations of anyone they suspect of sedition.
Mass state surveillance is the core theme permeating China Dream, the novelists 2018 dystopia, what Ma describes as “a China-specific 1984 […] an Orwellian fable for the Internet age.”
The book tells the story of a corrupt party official, also surnamed Ma, who has been made the director of President Xi Jinpings China Dream Bureau. Though the bureau is work of fiction, it represents what Ma terms Xis “vague and nebulous” dream of national rejuvenation in a country where “tyrants have never limited themselves to controlling peoples lives: they have always sought to enter peoples brains and remould them from the inside.”
Lead protagonist Ma Daode is haunted by memories of the Cultural Revolution, himself drifting from youthful nightmares to the duplicity of his corrupt existence and the bizarre pursuit of a totalitarian mandate. Awakening from a horror-filled flashback, Ma Daode tries to focus on his arty duty: “We must conquer the fortress of dreams, eradicate all past dreams and promote the new national dream…”
Despite his gloomy forecast Ma Jian dreamily reminisces about better time when the fragile freedoms of the early reform-era prompted Chinese people to “imagine what China could become.”
Born in 1953 in Shandong Province, north China, Ma Jian's formal education was disrupted by the Cultural Revolution. Despite the tumult of the times, Ma showed early promise in the arts, first as painter and then as a photographer. In the days before market reforms, Ma was assigned to be a propaganda photographer at a petrochemical plant outside of Beijing, a position he held until his photographs won an award and he was transferred to Beijing. In the capital Ma fell in with an underground group of poets, philosophers, painters and the generally discontented. They held secret art exhibitions and met privately to discuss politics or literature, often at Ma's courtyard house.
“In China in the early 80s it felt like a desert where it suddenly rained," he says. "We learned about Faulkner and Hemingway, we read until sunrise, we read while we peed, we read in work. Three or four of us would share a book. It was a time of ideas and optimism.
“But there was a contradiction at the heart of the reforms. Capital and liberty are intrinsically linked. The UK is this way, the US is this way. But the Communist Party wanted to curtail freedom and develop capitalism at the same time. To do this they made some concessions to the West, giving China a veneer of openness so that money and machines would flow in.”
By the late 1980s this paradox was veering towards the bloody showdown that would play out in Tiananmen Square. Yet rabble-rousing Ma would not witness the fallout first hand. Already a known dissenter hed been arrested twice in 1983 for his artistic and intellectual activities as part of Deng Xiaopings Anti-Spiritual Pollution Campaign. This triggered three years of “long-haired travel” that would provide the inspiration for his award-winning travelogue <em>Red Dust</em>, which was eventually published in 2001.
“I wanted to leave Beijing for a break. I had a relative in Hong Kong and was able to get a single entrance pass from some connections Id made in the Beijing Public Security Bureau. I left in late 1986. But not long after I crossed the border friends would call me and tell me the police were looking for me.”
Ma was denounced as a “bourgeoisie liberal” after the publication of his novella <em>Stick out Your Tongue</em> in early 1987.
“While in Hong Kong I heard on the news copies of Peoples Literature journal with my story in it had to be destroyed.”
Unable to return to Mainland China, Ma was sustained by friends in Hong Kong, a city where he would remain for the next decade. This lesser-known chapter in his lifes journey had a galvanising effect on the authors outlook.
“People generally view Hong Kong as a commercial place. At the time I arrived it was a British colony. But for someone like me it was a free port. After arriving I had the greatest sense of freedom. Let me tell you, freedom is more important than anything else. Within half a year Id read every book Id never read in China. I learned of Taiwanese magazines and Hong Kong newspapers. I began to uncover so many things Id never known about. It was a special time.”
With the support of his literati circle, Ma eventually found humble dwellings on a small fishing island where he pinched fruit from the temple to feed himself.
“I wrote a great deal. I was very happy. I made great friends, all of them writers, artists and university teachers. We made political performance art together.”
As the spectre of the 1997 handover drew near, however, Ma grew worried, adding urgency to his activism. As he looks back on this time today he considers his worst nightmares prophetic given Hong Kongs current state of unrest.
“How could we not see how things would develop? We used all our strength to tell Hongkongers what loomed ahead. I envisioned a child born of a British mother and bestowed to Chinese cadre. Thats this generation. Theyve grown up between these two poles and now look at them. Do you think theyre happy? Do you think theyre fortunate? Hong Kong was long considered a politically apathetic place of business yet now it has become somewhere highly politicised. Nobody raises an old colonial flag unless they hate the alternative. This hatred is palpable, you can feel it.”
In the mid-90s Ma and friends published articles and conducted anti-China protests, even going so far as to encircle the LegCo building that has been the focal point of so<a href="https://www.newstatesman.com/world/asia/2019/08/dissident-author-ma-jian-we-used-all-our-strength-tell-hongkongers-what-loomed" rel="noreferrer noopener" target="_blank"><strong>Read More – Source</strong></a>