LONDON – You would think that the British, having practically invented appeasement and paid a heavy price for it, would know better. But appeasement of China for commercial gain apparently is not considered morally repellent. How else could Liu Binjie, China's censor-in-chief and the point man for silencing the Nobel laureate writer and human-rights activist Liu Xiaobo, be invited to lead a delegation of 21 officially sanctioned writers and dozens of ministerial minions to London to celebrate Chinese literature at the London Book Fair?
Indeed, Liu is the British Council's guest of honor for the event. The Council says that it invited officially approved Chinese writers because it wanted to create greater understanding of Chinese literature and promote cultural exchange between the two countries. But is it really true that the world can or should learn about China only by reading works that are sanctioned by the Chinese Communist Party? After all, didn't Boris Pasternak, Alexander Solzhenitsyn, Milan Kundera and Václav Havel teach the world as much about the repressive societies in which they lived than anything turned out by the Soviet bloc's official publishers?
The Council's excuse is a smokescreen and simultaneously kowtows to Chinese totalitarianism and insults those Chinese writers who have been imprisoned, banned, or forced into exile merely for writing what their conscience demands.
In his “My Statement on Leaving China,” Yu Jie, a writer who left for the United States in order to escape persecution, explicitly declared that he was forced to flee his country in order to write freely. Before his exile, Yu had been thrown into a dark room and tortured because Liu Xiaobo won the Nobel Peace Prize in 2010. Indeed, at the moment the award was handed over in Oslo, several policemen were pummeling Yu's face, saying, “We are going to beat you to death to avenge the government's humiliation.”
Today, China is producing literary exiles at a faster rate than the Soviet Union ever achieved. No British governmental institution would have invited the chief Soviet censor as its guest of honor at an event celebrating Russian literature. So why the double standard?
We all know the answer: money. China has it, and Britain and other Western countries want it. They want Chinese consumers to buy their products. British Prime Minister David Cameron wants to change the fact that Britain exports more to tiny Ireland than it does to China. A little literary appeasement seems a small price to pay.
Today, growing political terror is having a stifling effect on Chinese society. More than 100 writers have been thrown into prison for publishing political essays on the Internet, and their family members have been monitored, or, like Liu Xiaobo's wife, have been placed under house arrest.
Last year, the writer Zhu Yufu published a poem online, a verse of which reads: “It's time Chinese people!/ the square belongs to everyone/ the feet are yours/ it's time to use your feet and take to the square to make a choice.” For this, he was detained for “inciting subversion of state power” and in February was sentenced to seven years in jail.
In repressive societies, good literature is by definition subversive. With the simplest of words, Zhu was attempting to awaken a nation, and, for China's dictators, nothing is more subversive or terrifying than the word “choice.”
China is shipping 10,000 titles to the London Book Fair. That “choice” may seem overwhelming, but it would be safe to bet that not one of these books probes impartially the taboos of Chinese politics and recent history. In China, thousands of “sensitive words,” including “self-immolating lamas,” “democracy,” “human rights,” “Tiananmen protest” and even the title of my book “Beijing Coma” cannot even be searched online. This ever-growing list of forbidden words and taboo subjects, drawn up by Liu Binjie and his army of censors, starves the nation's soul and encages the minds of writers.
The British Council claims that it is showcasing “the amazing breadth and diversity of Chinese literature today.” But any genuinely diverse discussion would include not only the 21 state-approved writers on the list, but other officially recognized writers on the more critical end of the spectrum, such as Yan Lianke, who was refused permission to attend this year's London Book Fair three times.
A diverse discussion would also have to include writers who have been completely silenced in China, such as Wang Lixiong, Tan Hecheng, Mo Jiangang, and Yang Jisheng.
The works of these banned writers are packed with vivid detail about contemporary Chinese life. Their literary power derives from their authors' courage to ask awkward questions and write with honesty. The British Council's decision to ignore them, as well as exiled writers banned from entering China, such as myself, has turned what should be a cultural event into an unprincipled commercial-political transaction.
Britain has not only produced great literature, but has an historic tradition of supporting free speech and providing refuge for persecuted writers. Not Napoleon, not Tsar Nicholas I, not even Hitler when he was being appeased in the 1930s, could force Britain to compromise on its commitment to intellectual freedom. Instead, the task of corrupting a centuries-old humanistic tradition has fallen to the Chinese Communist Party's ignoble censor-in-chief and engineer of China's literary exodus -- and to the greed of some for Chinese gold.
*Ma Jian's most recent novel is “Beijing Coma.” © Project Syndicate 2012