Persecuted author Liao Yiwu tells stories of an underclass the outside world rarely gets to see. He talks to Chris Barton
The Chinese Government hopes that every Chinese will be like a pig or animal - just eating and making money without thinking.
When Liao Yiwu escaped the "colossal and invisible prison called China" in July, calmly walking across the border into Vietnam, he couldn't believe his luck. "They stamped my passport," he says on the phone from Chicago, via an interpreter.
In light of Liao's predicament - hounded everywhere by the Chinese police, repeatedly denied an exit visa, barred from travelling to literary festivals abroad, his books banned in China and forced to sign a guarantee to cease publishing outside China - the exit stamp was nothing short of a miracle. Which perhaps explains why he's so taken with saying "good luck to you" - one of the few phrases of English he has, and which he's delighted to use at every opportunity.
The valid stamp is one of the reasons the persecuted Chinese writer doesn't see himself as an exile. "I consider myself as a writer who has to leave China to pursue my freedom to publish and to write." The choice of "Freedom or Exile?" is also the title of Liao's Writers and Readers Festival talk in Auckland next Saturday.
"When I left, I left my house and all my property and my family there and that's the sacrifice I had to do. I also left without permission from the police who were in charge of me," he says. "In the 1990s I was locked up in prison and when I was released I was thrown into another invisible prison. The whole country is like a big prison to me. They monitored my activities and sometimes they moved me from city to city and my life was constantly disrupted by the police presence."
Liao's crime, which landed him in jail for four years, was writing and reciting his epic poem Massacre, composed in 1989 in condemnation of the Chinese Government's bloody crackdown on the student protest in Tiananmen Square.
Strangely, it was when he was in prison, where he was tortured - on one occasion handcuffed, with his hands behind his back, for 23 days - and where he twice attempted suicide that Liao first learned about New Zealand. "One day somebody brought me a newspaper article saying that there was a well known poet who left China and settled in New Zealand and he had committed suicide and we asked why - it seemed such a beautiful country."
It was a story widely covered in China at the time as an example of the perils of exile. The poet was Gu Cheng, a prominent member of China's "Misty Poets". Their work, reacting against the restrictions of the Cultural Revolution, was denounced as "obscure", "misty", or "hazy".
In 1993, on Waiheke Island, Gu Cheng attacked and killed his wife Xie Ye with an axe and then hanged himself.
Liao is all too familiar with tragedy, but is looking forward to visiting New Zealand, which Gu Cheng described as a pristine Eden. First he'll be returning to Germany, where he's living at present, to receive this years' Geschwister Scholl literary prize for the German edition of his prison memoir, due to be published in English next year.
Liao says it was the Chinese Government that declared him a political exile. Shortly after his escape, an editorial in the Beijing-based newspaper the Global Times proclaimed: "Liao is quite alien to the current political environment in China. He lives an unhappy life as the changes of Chinese society don't appeal to him, and his hatred for the Chinese political system can't be resolved."
Liao partly agrees: "I dislike the political system, especially the party and the Government, because I've been a victim of the totalitarian regime for years. I love the people I interviewed. I love my family and my friends. I hope to go back home, but not the country that's under the current Government."
The people Liao interviewed are behind what the Government dislikes about him. The stories he gathered expose first-hand accounts of a China rarely seen. Not just the brutal prison system and what Liao encountered living with death row inmates, but also stories told by the underprivileged of Chinese society.
When he was released from prison, Liao found his wife had left him and he was homeless. Working as a street musician, he began chronicling the lives of the people he encountered. The result was The Corpse Walker and Other True Stories of Life in China, published in 2008.
The book introduced the word diceng or "bottom rung of society". Its stories include that of a professional mourner, a human trafficker, a murderer, a beggar, a feng shui master, a fortune teller, a homosexual and a Falun Gong practitioner. "I spent a lot of time with people who don't have a voice and I felt it was my responsibility to reveal the truth so future generations know what was really happening in China," he says.
While many of the stories in Corpse Walker tell of brutality and repression under the Cultural Revolution, they are all rooted in China's present, grappling with both the unintended consequences of Chairman Mao's reforms and the country's new embrace of the market economy. The human trafficker Qian, for example, blithely justifies how he deceitfully entices women with the promise of a better life only to sell them into enforced marriage or prostitution.
"I was also trying to provide a solution to a problem that the Chinese Government faced. In some northern regions, there are too many bachelors," Qian tells Liao. "By taking women over there, I balanced the yin and yang. This helps dissolve the young guys' sexual tension."
The stories also tell of a country still wedded to old ways, superstitions and beliefs. "In the 60s and 70s people hurt one another as a result of Mao's political campaigns," says the Feng Shui master. "In the 90s people hurt one another in order to make more money."
Liao is alarmed by the country's new focus - "to be rich is to be glorious" - the jacking up of real estate values, the destruction of natural resources and mining exploitation. "People have lost all their traditional values. They are so single-minded in pursuing money that China has become a big dumpster with all the trashy value systems," he says, perhaps a little embellished by his translator Wen Huang, who sometimes reverts to American slang to portray the nuances of China's many dialects.
"Western countries always claim that if they do business with China they should be able to engage China and improve its human rights situation, but the reality is that the human rights situation in China has worsened in the past several years." He points to people driven from their homes to make way for the Beijing Olympics.
On New Zealand's pursuit of free trade with China, Liao defers to the New Zealand Government's right to decide its own policies. But as a writer now freed from China's censorship and repression, he's not afraid to make suggestions. "I think that the New Zealand Government should not hold double standards. If you don't pressure China to improve their democratic system what's the point of having a democratic system of your own? You have to stick with certain principles."
Liao acknowledges China's economic reforms have benefited many who now are wealthy enough to send their children to study abroad, but notes also a polarisation between the rich and the poor as a result. He acknowledges, too, that in comparison to the persecutions and executions of the Mao era, Christianity in China has revived.
The issue is examined in Liao's latest book God is Red: The Secret Story of How Christianity Survived and Flourished in Communist China. As the translator's note points out there are 70 million practising Christians in China, 5 per cent of its total population. "In an overtly atheist society, Christianity is China's largest formal religion." But the rise of religion is carefully controlled, with churches required to belong to Government-prescribed organisations.
Liao's book shows that though many Christians accept the "official" churches there is also a growing "house-church movement" where people gather for worship in homes. Inevitably, says Liao, it's a movement that will run into conflict with the atheist Government. "To me the persecution will continue once the religion becomes a threat to the government rule. God and Satan can never share the same platform."
For Liao, who is not himself Christian, the crux of the problem in China is freedom of expression. Because the Government feels so insecure politically, artists and intellectuals, or anyone who speaks out become the victims of persecution.
Following the Jasmine Revolution in Tunisia the Chinese Government became paranoid a similar movement might flower in China. "They acted like the mafia," says Liao. "They abducted scholars and outspoken lawyers and had them disappear. I was targeted. The police monitored my activities and came to threaten me."
What is the Government so afraid of? "Like any totalitarian government, the Chinese Government hopes that every Chinese will be like a pig or animal - just eating and making money without thinking and without any of their own ideas. This way they will be easier to rule," says Liao. "But we're not animals. We think independently and have the desire to express ourselves. That's why the Chinese Government is always wary and paranoid when people start to speak out against their practices."
Book ticket giveaway
We have five copies of The Corpse Walker plus five tickets to Liao Yiwu's Writers & Readers Festival event to give away to Herald readers. To be in the draw for both, email your name, address and phone number to firstname.lastname@example.org. Entries close 5pm Tuesday November 15.
The Auckland Writers & Readers Festival presents Liao Yiwu: Freedom or Exile? Saturday November 19, 4pm at the University of Auckland Business School. For more information go to writersfestival.co.nz