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Democracy field notes


During several decades of contact with writers trapped in stressed and strained political circumstances, I can’t ever recall meeting a literary figure who was brave and principled enough to offer herself up for arrest and imprisonment by the authorities. That’s what the young Chinese writer Murong Xuecun has just done.

After contributing to a private event in Beijing to commemorate the 25th anniversary of the Tiananmen June 4th uprising, Murong sided with several other contributors who’d been arrested. He took the unusual step of issuing a public ‘statement of surrender’, in which he confessed to the crime of 'picking quarrels and provoking trouble’. ‘For the next 24 hours’, he wrote, ‘I will be waiting in my home in Haidian District, and request that those who come bring the appropriate documents.’ He added: ‘please telephone in advance to arrange a time’. A few hours later, the police came for him.

Murong Xuecun, Sydney, June 2014. John Keane

Murong is a rising young star in the Chinese literary scene. Otherwise known as Hao Qun, he’s the author of several important works, among them Leave Me Alone: A Novel of Chengdu (2002), Dancing Through Red Dust (2008) and China: In the Absence of a Remedy (2010). He’s a blogger with a big following of millions inside and outside of China, and he writes a column for the New York Times.

He first came my way at the University of Sydney, during a stay as a writer in residence. Colleagues were impressed by his irrepressible democratic spirit. As if sent by the heavens, just for a few short weeks, there he was in our midst: a chain-smoking raconteur, a good listener, a young man of understatement, thoroughly modest, always open-minded, a lover of black humour, a very talented young writer unwilling to suffer fools gladly, or to be pushed about. I came to think of Murong as living proof of the difference between brave and ordinary people. He knows the dangers and risks of being an honest writer. He fears beating, disappearance, imprisonment and ‘death while dreaming’. Yet the really remarkable thing about him is his capacity for hope, his belief that the world can get better, and that the long dark night of censorship spreading through contemporary China will sooner or later come to an end.

Featuring Murong, with his permission, granted after his release from police custody a few days ago, here’s the first short video produced by our Sydney Democracy Network. It’s entitled Granite Brain. It’s a pungent spoof on state censorship, and might just make you smile. More video material by him is to follow:

Telling stories: Murong Xuecun, under the famous old jacaranda tree in the University of Sydney’s Quadrangle, May 2014.

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