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“We need to break the silence; it is the only way we have to fight for justice”

Interview with Tienchi Martin- Liao. This Story belongs to the Independent Chinese Centre.

By Ginevra Avalle

Pune, 27th September 2018 (updated on August 15, 2021)

Tienchi Martin-Liao is the President and WiPC Coordinator of Independent Chinese PEN Centre (ICPC). She came from Taiwan and lives now in Cologne, Germany. She became head of the Richard-Wilhelm Research Center for Translation in Ruhr University Bochum in 1991 until she took a job in 2001 as director of the Laogai Research Foundation (LRF) in Washington D.C. to work on human rights issues. She was a member of the Board of ICPC from 2003 to 2007 and became the President in 2009, until 2013. After two years, she took back the Presidency of the PEN Centre from 2016 to 2020.

G.A. What is your role in PEN?

T.L. After serving two terms as President of the Independent Chinese PEN Centre (ICPC), I supported the poet Mr. Bei Ling to become my successor. However, once he became the president, there were some irregularities and the Centre split. That is why I had to come back. It has been very hard because we have lost all financial resources, but we are trying to keep on going our activities.

During my presidency, we have organised literary events and a conference in Hong Kong every year. We chose Hong Kong because it is easier for our members in China to go there than to other places. We also keep giving our three annual awards, although the award money is rather low (between 1000-2000 US$). The last edition was awarded to the Iranian writer Mavash Sabet. We could invited her lawyer Shirin Ebadi, the Nobel Peace laureate of 2009, to the ceremony. We also gave the Liu Xiaobo Courage to Write Award to the Myanmar writer Maung Thura Zarganar (2010) and to Bahrain’s Dr. Abduljalil Al-Singace (2015). They both got very long sentences but are free now. These awards are our way to contribute to help others, since we have been helped and supported by PEN Centres in many other occasions.

G.A. When did you first hear about PEN and when did you join?

T.L. The situation is very complicated among the Chinese community abroad. I was born in Nanking, China and grew up in Taipei, Taiwan. I have never been a citizen of the People’s Republic of China. My husband was a German sinologist, we both worked at the university.

We have lots of colleagues, many of them are writers in China and in Taiwan. I heard about PEN in the 1980s, but didn’t pay much attention to it at that time. I knew there were Writers Associations in China in all provinces, they are official facilities controled by the government. In 2001, I heard about the ICPC, an organization of the exile writers. Some of the funding members of ICPC were people I knew. Two board members of ICPC visited me in Washington DC and invited me to join the organization, so I did. While Liu Xiaobo was president (2003-2007), I was also elected to become a board member.

G.A. What are the key moments of the history of your Centre?

T.L. Our first president was Mr. Liu Binyan (1925-2005), a famous author and journalist. He became known because of his “reportage literature” . He wrote books which exoposed the corruption in the local government (People or Monsters, 1979) and also questioning the meaning of loyalty to the Party (A Second Kind of Loyalty, 1985). Because of his critics and writing against the Communist Party, he spent eight years in the labor camp and was two times expelled from the CCP. He has earned the reputation as “China’s conscience.” Liu Binyan left China and came to the US in 1988. After Tiananmen massacre a year later, he was banned from returning back to China. He died in 2005 in Princeton and never saw his homeland in life time. I went to his funeral. People came from far away to show their respects to him. They folded white paper-roses and formed many wreaths for him. Some have written verses in calligraphies to commemorate him. It was a moving ceremony.

The third president of ICPC is Liu Xiaobo, you know the story. He was a writer, a philospher and activist, who fought for freedom and democracy for his country fearlessly and tirelessly. Liu Xiaobo was four times in prison, the last time he got eleven years and couldn’t survive the imprisenment, he died in 2017. Even the honor of Nobel Peace Prize from 2010 could not save him. I was at the ceremony in Oslo that year, when I saw an empty chair has been put on the stage, my eyes were filled with tears, because I knew, in the same moment, Liu was huddled together with other prisoners in the cell in snowy Northern China. 

G.A. What kind of activities are organised through your PEN Centre?

T.L. We published anthology with selected works of our members. The most recent one is a memorial book for Liu Xiaobo in Chinese and in English. The English Version is published in 2020 at the university of Nebraska Press: The Journey of Liu Xiaobo, From Dark House to Nobel Laureate, edited by Joanne Leedom-Ackerman with Yu Zhang, Jie Li, and Tienchi Martin-Liao. We also planed to publish the digital annual books (from 2014 to 2018). We used to pay royalty to our members inside China for their writings, but now ICPC has very little budget, we can only support writers who are really in need.

When we held our PEN Annual Conference in Hong Kong, we support the participants from China with travel and boarding expenses, while members in abroad must pay their own expenses. Our last conference was held in April 2019. Since the “Security Law” has been imposed to Hong Kong in summer 2020, the people there lost their freedom of speech, freedom of press and freedom of publication. ICPC can never held any conference in Hong Kong in the future, because the Chinese regime sees ICPC as a BAD organization, part of its members are dissidents and write critical things to China. I,  e.g. can not go to Hong Kong any more. I am a persona non grata in China since decades, now Hong Kong also becomes a forbidden place for me because of my critical writings about China.

G.A. How does ICPC deal with the government’s surveillance?

T.L. In China, they watch our organisation. That is why ICPC presidents always lived abroad. Mr. Liu Binyan and Mr. Zheng Yi were based in the USA, I live in Germany, and Mr. Bei Ling in Taipei. The new president Pei Yiran lives in New York. But there is still something exceptional: some board members are inside the country (four live in Beijing, and three others live in other Chinese regions). The government will not shut us down, because there is no need to do that.  All our members are under their surveillance anyway. Should someone becomes “nasty” for them, the authority can always throw the person into jail on a false charge.

In such confrontation, ICPC is in a disadvantageous position.When someone has been arrested, we can protest, but that has almost no influence, they will stay in prison, become ill, and die. It is a horror, it is unbearable. There is a writer called Du Bin (Du) who disappeared a couple of times. Then he was in jail for two years, and later was under constant surveillance. Last May he disappeared again for 40 days. He was taken by the police, tortured, intimidated. Another writer, who lives in Guangzhou, the Police installed several cameras to targeting his outside door, living room and bed room. You have to have humor to face this kind of situation, he said.

Today, the digital surveillance is almost everywhere.  The big date stores all the personal details of a large part of the population.  The authority lets the people know, the police can get anyone in China within five minutes.

It is not only ICPC members, but all the Chinese people are under the digital surveillance. The outbreak of Covid-19 in 2020 has provided the authority more excuse to control the people. George Orwell’s 1984 is kindergarten in comparing with the situation in China. Total and all-round surveillance is the daily reality in China. That is also the reason why the Covid-19 was under control within 2 months after its outbreak. China can do things what in Western is not possible.

It is also worth commenting about the social credit system. This “magic card” has all the information about the holder. Beside the personal data, it contends the condition of one’s employment history, the health history, the bank and tax information etc. One needs this card to go to hospital, shopping, to have entrance to certain public places. With other words, it exposes what you buy, you eat and drink, you wear, you read, where you go, whom you meet, all will be recorded. If, for instance, one does not pay taxes on time, or does something wrong, e.g. ignoring the traffic lights, he or she will get a bad credit. If one is low in points, he or she won’t be qualified to apply a passport or to rent a flat or a car. Till October 2020, 13.29 billion Chinese possess this card, that is 94.9% of the population.