Interview with Dissident Author Yu Jie 'China Cannot Be Democratized Overnight'

China is playing it tough. Not only is the Nobel Peace Prize winner Liu Xiaobo being kept in jail, but Beijing is preventing his friends from celebrating the honor bestowed upon him. SPIEGEL ONLINE spoke to writer Yu Jie, who is soon to publish a book about Liu and is currently under house arrest.

A woman in Hong Kong wears a badge asking for the release of Liu Xiaobo.

A woman in Hong Kong wears a badge asking for the release of Liu Xiaobo.

SPIEGEL ONLINE: Your friend Liu Xiaobo has been awarded the Nobel Peace Prize. What will be the impact of this honor?

Yu Jie: This is a turning point. More people will feel encouraged to stand up for human rights and democracy. In Liu, China finally has a moral authority. The international community is saying 'No' to the human rights situation in China and to its support of rogue states like North Korea and Myanmar, which endanger world peace.

SPIEGEL ONLINE: Do you not fear that you will suffer the same fate as Liu Xiaobo, who was sentenced to 11 years in prison?

Yu: He is my best friend. He has enormous importance for human rights in China. We cannot keep quiet just because he is in jail. The best support for him is to continue.

SPIEGEL ONLINE: In your latest book, you describe the Chinese prime minister as a "great actor" and accuse him of not being honest when he expresses concerns about ordinary people. How has the government reacted?

Yu: Up to now, there has been no reaction. The authorities want to avoid making my book even more successful than it has been already. So far over 10,000 copies have been sold in Hong Kong.

SPIEGEL ONLINE: How do you explain this success?

Yu: Before the book appeared, the police tried to stop me from publishing it. I made that public on Twitter, which attracted huge attention. Now the authorities have realized that it would have been better for them not to interfere. However, I am convinced that they are not just going to let things lie. They will come back, perhaps in a few months.

SPIEGEL ONLINE: Have you discovered new information about the life and career of Prime Minster Wen Jiabao for your book?

Yu: No. If I wanted to write a biography of him, I would have to wait until China becomes democratic one day and opens its archives. Information about the leadership of an authoritarian state is mostly kept secret. The powerful need silence. Since the Tiananmen incident in 1989, corruption has become rampant within the Communist Party. The party has become a giant group representing its own interests. One can probably claim that the family of every high-ranking official is corrupt. And that is why they have to keep their personal details shut away.

SPIEGEL ONLINE: Your books cannot be published on the Chinese mainland. That is why they are printed in places that enjoy more freedom, such as Hong Kong and Taiwan. You have published many books critical of Communist Party politicians there. Do you enjoy playing with fire?

Yu: I was always interested in politics. The Tiananmen incident of 1989 changed my life, even though I was only at school at the time. From then on, I wanted to become a writer, so that I could tell the truth and criticize totalitarian power.

SPIEGEL ONLINE: What does your family think about your political engagement?

Yu: My wife gives me a lot of support. She knew from the start that a life with me would mean a lot of pressure. She has already lost her job twice because she is married to me. Right after I was received at the White House by President Bush in 2006, she received a visit from the police. They advised her to divorce me.

SPIEGEL ONLINE: You are also a father. Why are you risking your freedom with your critical works?

Yu: Religious freedom and freedom of opinion are enormously important to me. I do have a two-year-old child but that should not be a reason to shirk responsibility. Think of all the other civil-rights activists, many of whom also have children. My wife is a good mother. She could take very good care of our child if I ended up behind bars.

SPIEGEL ONLINE: How long have you been banned from your profession?

Yu: After I finished university in 2000, the Propaganda Ministry told institutes and research centers not to hire me. I have not been able to publish any books on the mainland since 2004. That also affects my research work into classical literature.

SPIEGEL ONLINE: Who is responsible for that?

Yu: Compared to the previous Communist Party leader Jiang Zemin, his successors Hu Jintao and Prime Minister Wen Jiabao are much stricter and more conservative when it comes to controlling the media and publishers. Under Jiang there were still free spaces. Back then, I could teach at some universities and publish articles.

SPIEGEL ONLINE: You are a Christian. How important is your faith to you?

Yu: It makes me stronger in my opposition to the Communist Party. In 2005, for example, I was interrogated by the police for 14 hours. They threatened me, saying they could simply make me disappear. But I remembered the Biblical phrase: "Do not fear those who kill the body but are unable to kill the soul."

SPIEGEL ONLINE: If Prime Minister Wen were to suddenly call you up, what would you say to him?

Yu: I would suggest that he liberalize the press and publishing, so that my book about him could be published in Beijing.

SPIEGEL ONLINE: Seriously though, what would reforms in China look like, in your opinion?

Yu: I would like to see a peaceful and non-violent transformation. China cannot be democratized overnight to become like Germany or the US. It has to be a gradual process. For example, the better developed cities and coastal provinces could be the first to hold local elections. At the same time, a democratization of the Communist Party would be important. In Vietnam there were recently two candidates for the position of general secretary. Why would that not be possible here?

SPIEGEL ONLINE: Prime Minister Wen has said recently he was in favor of reforms.

Yu: But in reality he doesn't want any. The government is repressing the creation of a civil society. And this is causing hatred between the powerful and the powerless at the lower end of society. I fear there will be an enormous explosion.

Interview conducted by Andreas Lorenz


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