Q&A

Taking Risks in Hong Kong8 min read

Maura Cunningham tells Jeffrey Wasserstrom about controversy at the Hong Kong Literary Festival

In the first week of November, I crossed the Pacific to take part in several events dealing with the past: university talks about the Boxer Crisis of 1900 and a panel on the Qing Dynasty (1644-1912) at the Hong Kong International Literary Festival, held this year in Tai Kwun – a former prison turned heritage site cum arts and shopping district (think Alcatraz meets Covent Garden). I thought these activities would prove interesting, especially the panel, where I was paired with the versatile writer Mishi Saran (a LARB contributor) and the historian Stephen Platt (author of an acclaimed new book on the Opium War). I was not disappointed.

What I did not expect – though perhaps I should have, given recent clampdowns on rights in the territory – was how many interesting discussions relating to a single contemporary issue, censorship, would be taking place while I was in the territory. Before I departed the US, my schedule for the week included attending a November 3 launch party for the first international exhibition of work by a China-born and Australia-based satirical cartoonist I admire, Badiucao. Two members of Pussy Riot, as well as local artist Sampson Wong and local activist Joshua Wong, were scheduled to speak at the party. By the time I reached the Hong Kong airport on the evening of November 2, however, both the party and the exhibit had been called off due to concerns about Badiucao’s safety.

My first stop after leaving the airport was a dinner for participants in the Lit Fest’s first weekend, and a central topic of discussion and speculation there was whether Ma Jian, a China-born but London-based author of works banned by Beijing who was scheduled to speak during the second weekend, would be able to get into the city. What triggered this concern was that while Ma had been able to find Hong Kong publishers for previous novels of his that had angered the Chinese Communist Party, he went public at the start of November about being unable to do this for his latest book, China Dream, which portrays China under Xi Jinping in a darkly dystopian light. If Ma’s latest writings were deemed too hot to handle, would he himself be seen the same way? This seemed an open question, especially since the local journalist and human rights communities were reeling from a surprising event that had happened not long before: local authorities had refused to extend the work visa of Victor Mallet, Asia editor for the Financial Times, after he moderated a Foreign Correspondents Club talk by a promoter of Hong Kong independence.

Starting on the morning of November 8 and continuing for 48 hours, a series of dramatic developments unfolded. The organization in charge of Tai Kwun told the Lit Fest that the venue would not host Ma Jian, as it was an arts center and did not want to be involved in “political” events. An alternative space was found – but that venue subsequently reversed course and also refused to allow Ma Jian to speak there. Tai Kwun then reversed its prior decision, announcing it would let Ma Jian’s events take place, but only if he assured them his goals were not to turn a literary discussion into a “political” one.

My time in Hong Kong ended before this was all resolved, but Ma Jian did make it across the border and spoke at two Lit Fest sessions – one a panel on Hong Kong literature, the other a talk about his new book. China Channel advising editor Maura Elizabeth Cunningham was the moderator for Ma’s latter session. What follows is a Q&A with her about that event, as well as the other one she took part in, a conversation with sociologist Leta Hong Fincher about her new book, Betraying Big Brother: The Feminist Awakening in China.

Jeffrey Wasserstrom: Have I provided readers with the key facts about the series of events leading up to your arrival in Hong Kong and the controversy over Ma Jian’s talk, or is there more they should know?

Maura Elizabeth Cunningham: Talk canceled – talk moved – talk canceled – talk restored … yes, that’s the situation as I understand it, though it all felt considerably more complicated at the time! While I was a participant in the event, I wasn’t part of discussions between the Hong Kong Lit Fest and Tai Kwun or the other venue, so I’m afraid I can’t offer China Channel readers any juicy inside information. What I can say is that at no point did anyone from either the festival or the venue approach me to ask what questions I planned to pose to Ma Jian or warn me away from certain topics. So if anyone wonders if censorship or self-censorship played a role in the event itself – no, not at all. Ma spoke very openly about the influence that George Orwell and Nineteen Eighty-Four had on China Dream, the crackdown on expression that Xi Jinping has carried out, the war against its own history waged by the Chinese Communist Party, and his fears for Hong Kong.

What was the most interesting or surprising question anyone in the audience asked Ma Jian?

One question that I had jotted down in my own notes, but didn’t get around to asking (our event was only an hour long, and time flew by) was raised by an audience member: why did Ma Jian give China Dream’s extremely dislikable protagonist, a corrupt mid-level CCP official Ma Daode, his own surname? (It’s also mine in Chinese.) Ma Jian replied that he picked “Ma” for completely pragmatic reasons: it’s short and easy for English speakers to pronounce. But “Daode,” which means “morality” or “ethics,” was a deliberate choice – because Ma Daode is largely devoid of both.

What was the most interesting or surprising thing Ma Jian said?

At one point Ma Jian read a couple of paragraphs from the Chinese text of China Dream, and to do so he pulled out his cell phone. He made a somewhat offhand comment that he had traveled to Hong Kong with the phone his only electronic device, because a laptop would have been seized if the authorities had detained and questioned him. It was just a small side note in the conversation, but it really drove home how much of a risk Ma had taken in coming to the Lit Fest. I don’t think anyone would have blamed him if he had decided to cancel the trip, but he was determined to get on that plane from London regardless of what might happen when he landed in Hong Kong.

Was there anything noteworthy about the turn-out, the composition of the crowd, the mix of press and the presence or absence of police?

Ma Jian’s event had sold out before the Lit Fest even got underway, but the interest generated by the question of whether or not he would be allowed to speak resulted in our talk being moved to a larger venue within Tai Kwun. I think this meant our audience was about double the size it was originally supposed to be, with many press photographers snapping away. The media had actually set up camp at Tai Kwun earlier in the day – Ma did a press conference in the morning and had appeared on another Lit Fest panel in the afternoon – and I was honestly a bit surprised to see how strong their numbers were. Like a lot of other people, I am very worried about freedom of expression and freedom of the press in Hong Kong, so it was a relief to see how widely the story was covered. I didn’t notice any police, but there were security guards helping Ma Jian navigate the crush of people and press at Tai Kwun. Ma also had a friend who, he tweeted later, accompanied him during his entire trip (and filmed the whole thing) as an extra security precaution.

What about Leta Hong Fincher’s talk? What stands out for you about what she had to say or the audience and its reactions or questions?

Leta and I discussed her new book, Betraying Big Brother, in which she tells the story of the Feminist Five and their relationship to a broader women’s rights movement in today’s China, as well as the CCP’s attempts to smother it. The audience question that really stuck with me came at the end, from a young woman who grew up on the mainland and had come to Hong Kong for university. She was trying to figure out how to live the life she wanted – getting an education, not rushing into marriage – while her parents were pushing her to follow a more traditional path and settle down. Leta remarked that she’s been asked a version of this question at nearly every event she’s done, as younger Chinese women negotiate the disconnect between what they want and what their families expect. There aren’t any easy answers – somewhere along the line a rift is probably going to develop, and some of those are more easily resolved than others – but many women in China, and elsewhere in the world, are asking similar questions. ∎

Header image by Sheridan Prasso. “Gongle” poster by Badiucao. Both images used with permission of photographer and artist, respectively.

Jeff Wasserstrom

Jeffrey N. Wasserstrom is an American historian of modern China. He is Chancellor's Professor of History at the University of California, Irvine.