Yu Hua was a young writer living in Beijing in 1989 when the student-led pro-democracy movement filled Tiananmen Square with crowds of up to 1 million people.
Yu rode his bike to the square every day, shouted slogans, felt the excitement and the hope. Then on June 4, 1989, the government cracked down, sending the army to kill protesters and their democratic dream. In fear, Yu and thousands of students fled the capital.
Today, 22 years later, Yu, a well-known novelist, is speaking out boldly, criticizing publicly China’s autocratic rulers and demanding democratic political reform.
His latest book, “China in Ten Words,” published in Taiwan, couldn’t be printed in China because the first chapter discusses openly the forbidden topic of Tiananmen Square.
“I haven’t given any thought yet to whether I’ll go to jail,” Yu, 51, said, with a wry smile. “Even if there is some trouble, I’m not afraid. It’s not such a bad thing to be in jail. You don’t have to cook.”
Yu this week visited Montana State University, where students from China make up one of the largest groups of international students. Yu signed books and gave a talk to about 200 people, with translation provided by Allan Barr, professor of Chinese at Pomona College in California. Yu also visited the classes of Hua Li, a MSU assistant professor of Chinese language and literature.
Li said she wanted her students to meet Yu because he’s one of the most prominent and most outspoken of contemporary Chinese writers.
Yu said in the past he kept quiet, hoping others would speak out critically of China’s government. “If everybody takes this approach,” he decided, “things are not going to change.”
Yu said he was 6 years old in 1966 when the Cultural Revolution erupted in China. Gangs filled with Maoist fervor denounced, bullied, beat and killed people who seemed intellectual, bourgeois or insufficiently revolutionary. As a result, schools were in turmoil, Yu said, and he didn’t learn many Chinese characters. He said with dry humor that’s why critics later praised his “simple prose style.”
During the Cultural Revolution, literary books were banned, but forbidden copies were secretly passed from reader to reader. Beginning and ending pages often were torn off by the time Yu got a book. Not knowing the title or author wasn’t a problem, he said, but not knowing the ending made him suffer. He would lie in bed, thinking up 10 endings, which was great training for becoming a writer.
His fiction novel, “Brothers,” described as satiric by the New York Times, sold 1 million copies. The Chinese have become adept at veiled criticism, Yu said. On the Internet, many terms are banned, including June 4, a reference to Tiananmen Square. So Chinese dissidents came up with the term “May 35th” to get around the censors.
It’s a bit like Tom and Jerry cartoons, Yu said. The mouse is always outsmarting the cat.
Yu said he believes it’s inevitable that China will move toward a more democratic society. Democracy might slow China’s economic growth, which in the past 30 years has been unparalleled perhaps in the history of humanity.
But with democracy, China would make fewer mistakes and create less suffering, Yu said. In China today, a chemical plant will be built next to a river and make millions in profits, but leave the people with high cancer rates and birth deformities.
The successful Arab spring protests that toppled dictators in Egypt and Libya were a real blow to China’s leaders, he said. They showed what is possible when conditions are ripe. In China today, farmers and factory workers are struggling economically, he said, so it appears conditions are right for change.
One of two things is going to happen, Yu said, either nonviolent change to democracy or a revolution. Surely, Yu said, China’s leaders would prefer democratization, because if there were a revolution, they may lose both their property and their lives.
Yu said he’s confident that his latest book will be published in China someday.
Gail Schontzler can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or 582-2633.