Jaipur Literature Festival

“India should Safeguard its Democracy, Independence of Speech”

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Three Chinese writers, exiled from their country’s imagination, implore India to preserve freedom of speech
China is our big obsession; how to be like it, how not to be like it. In a wonderfully moderated panel—broadcast journalist and producer Anuradha Sengupta, formerly of CNBC, is a great example for other moderators to follow—best-selling author of Wild Swans and co-author of Mao: The Unknown Story, Jung Chang, found feisty company in Beijing Coma author, Ma Jian, and memoirist Anchee Min, whose Red Azalea and The Cooked Seed tell of her life in China and passage to America. We could see why Madam Mao’s Shanghai film studio once selected charismatic Min for propaganda films, when she was sent to a labor collective, though they might reconsider their decision now.

“To show you what a charismatic leader can do to the nation, to a generation of children. My big dream was to be a martyr, to go to Vietnam and to kill Americans and blow myself up too,” said Min, who remembers dreaming of killing Nixon as an indoctrinated young woman. “Mao’s teachings say a man who should refuse to preserve his life at the expense of his humanity. He ruled China for 27 years, and he was a dictator alright. But more of a problem was the people; everyone one of us. We never criticised that dark side of humanity; the crimes we committed. The Cultural Revolution is a vehicle that brought the worst out of us. I remember my neighbour tried to grab our toilet. They tried to talk to the Red Guards from Beijing, and tell them that the Min family had an anti-Maoist in it, and to loot the house; if they sent us away, they got our toilets.” Her mother blew off the Red Guards, even telling them Min had tuberculosis; the neighbours came and emptied their chamber pots on their parents’ bed, threatening them. She believes Chinese love pleasure too much.

“Today, we are obsessed with our living conditions. The first thing I did when I went to America was buy my mother a toilet. I think the Communist Party knows this: if you don’t give people enough toilets and enough personal space, you’re not going to last.” The first piece of writing she remembers completing was a letter amending the desecration her mother had accidentally managed simply by using newspaper with Mao’s image on it, in the bathroom. “Writers come to me and ask, ‘What can we write to be saleable in America?’ I say no, that’s a sign of corruption. We lived for 30 years in this profit-driven market and have no immune system whatsoever as a writer. To me personally, writing is to promote mobility and strength.”

Chang summarised some of her story, familiar to her fans. “I was exiled like my urban contemporaries, to the village, to the Himalayas, and worked as a peasant and barefoot doctor. A barefoot doctor was a doctor without any training because Mao had said, the more books you read, the more stupid you become,” said a severe Jung Chang. “Of course the peasants stayed clear of me to go to more skilled doctors. There was no training, so I suffered five electric shocks in one month. To be a worker was regarded as a better option than being a peasant. The reason was, that if there was a shortage of food, common in China those days, Mao guaranteed city dwellers the minimum, so they could survive; the Great Famine between 1958 and 1961, some 40 million people died of starvation and overwork and they were mainly peasants. When I had the opportunity to be a steel worker, I grabbed the opportunity and became a steel worker and electrician. In 1973, universities began to reopen, so I was able to get in Szechuan University, to learn English. China was shut off and Szechuan was closed.” Chang spoke of the giant beds Mao had made, huge because of the space allotted to a great number of books; he had special print runs of five made just for him and for records, while disallowing a billion Chinese to read. “This was this man’s cynicism. He produced the worst impact on the country.”

Sengupta asked the writers to speak on the hunger Indians have for the economic growth China has, and how this hunger has come at a cost for China; how we worry now about autocracy. Ma Jian, speaking in Chinese and translated for the audience, spoke of the fear their generation experienced.

“I often listen to this: if you want to see the failure of democracy, look at India. Today, I am in India, so I can also see that India does have a sense of democracy, because democracy cannot build a social system. I don’t expect you to be in the streets and the roads. I want to tell you that when this umbrella movement in Hong Kong was going on, the Communist Party didn’t pay any attention. If they wanted they could have suppressed it. And today, the biggest challenge which democracy is facing is the challenge from an authoritarian regime like China. If you go to China today, and ask anyone in the street, even my sister won’t say yes. They think that if there is no democracy, their life is very safe. This is the ideological state today in China. And this is going to come to India, not just through Confucius institutes, but also through other economic agents. I wish that you safeguard your democracy as well as the independence of your speech.” He added, “Is the next generation of Indians going to be better than India or not? China has developed so much because of its huge population and this is not different from India.”