Ex­iled Chi­nese au­thor urges ‘courage’ to de­fend free speech

Bangkok Post - - ASIA -

>> HONG KONG: Dis­si­dent Chi­nese au­thor Ma Jian hit out at threats to free­dom of speech yes­ter­day say­ing it was the “ba­sis of civil­i­sa­tion” af­ter a strug­gle to find a venue to host his talks at Hong Kong’s lit­er­ary fes­ti­val.

The venue bat­tle fu­elled grow­ing con­cerns that semi-au­tonomous Hong Kong’s free­doms are fast dis­ap­pear­ing un­der an as­sertive Bei­jing.

Ma, whose books are banned in main­land China, was due to pro­mote his lat­est novel “China Dream” at two speak­ing events yes­ter­day.

The ti­tle plays on Chi­nese Pres­i­dent Xi Jin­ping’s rhetoric of na­tional re­ju­ve­na­tion and is de­scribed by pub­lisher Pen­guin as “a bit­ing satire of to­tal­i­tar­i­an­ism”.

“Self-cen­sor­ship is noth­ing won­der­ful and we have to have the courage to break that,” he told re­porters yes­ter­day morn­ing at a press con­fer­ence at the new Tai Kwun arts cen­tre, which hosts the Hong Kong In­ter­na­tional Lit­er­ary Fes­ti­val and had orig­i­nally can­celled his talks.

The venue re­in­stated them at the eleventh hour on Fri­day af­ter a re­place­ment lo­ca­tion also dropped out.

Ma, 65, said Tai Kwun’s last-minute change of heart showed that “self-cen­sor­ship had failed”.

“The free­dom to speak is the ba­sis of our civil­i­sa­tion,” he added.

“We have to safe­guard our free­dom of ex­pres­sion. We have to safe­guard our civil­i­sa­tion.”

He agreed free­dom of speech in Hong Kong was shrink­ing and that peo­ple felt a “lack of se­cu­rity” but said the at­ten­tion given to the can­cel­la­tion of his talks and the re­ver­sal of the de­ci­sion had uni­fied peo­ple and could be the “be­gin­ning of change”.

Ma, who lives in Lon­don and is a British pass­port holder as well as hold­ing Hong Kong res­i­dency, said he had in­formed his lo­cal MP that he was com­ing to Hong Kong and they had told the British for­eign min­istry.

“I know that they would pro­tect me if I ever dis­ap­peared and would look for me,” he said. “This is what I can do in a demo­cratic coun­try.”

Tai Kwun’s di­rec­tor Ti­mothy Cal­nin said on Thurs­day it had can­celled Ma’s talks be­cause it did not want to be “a plat­form to pro­mote the po­lit­i­cal in­ter­ests of any in­di­vid­ual”.

Back­track­ing on Fri­day, Mr Cal­nin said pub­lic state­ments by Ma had clar­i­fied he would not use the venue to “pro­mote his per­sonal po­lit­i­cal in­ter­ests”. Ma had said from the be­gin­ning of the row that he is a nov­el­ist, not a politi­cian.

“If any­body sep­a­rates the po­lit­i­cal el­e­ments from other things in nov­els, that only shows the ig­no­rance of that per­son,” he told re­porters.

He added that the fact he had en­tered Hong Kong freely af­ter con­cerns he would not be al­lowed in made him think the gov­ern­ment had not been in­volved in the two venues’ de­ci­sions to bar him.

Lit­er­ary fes­ti­val or­gan­is­ers said they could not com­ment when asked by re­porters yes­ter­day for more de­tail on the rea­sons Tai Kwun had given them for the orig­i­nal can­cel­la­tions and the back­track.

EX­ER­CIS­ING FREE­DOMS: Dis­si­dent Chi­nese au­thor Ma Jian speaks in Hong Kong.

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