Dear Dispatches,
In the May 14th 2016 “Emergency Dispatch #2,” you criticize “experimental” American poets’ complicity with the Chinese government through cultural events, call for a boycott of a particular poetry reading, and state:
‘It is hardly news that there are dozens of writers, artists, and intellectuals imprisoned in China for their art and for their beliefs, including the poet and human rights activist Liu Xiaobo, winner of the 2010 Nobel Peace Prize.’
Following that, in “PoBiz Stock Index Update – 15 June 2016,” you single out the particular institution (the Confucius Institute for Business, at the SUNY Global Center) and speculate on motivations of the participating poets:
‘Though the Confucius Institute for Business has long been recognized as a Chinese-state organization responsible for countering overseas charges of human rights abuses by fostering culture-industry ties with promises of large profits based on cheap labour in China, excited young post-LangPo writers rushed to the event, hoping to have a bit of the gold dust rub off on them.’
Although if any organization deserves to be taken down a peg, it’s certainly one sponsored by the State — any State — I think it’s worthwhile to meditate a bit on both the context and charges of complicity here.
The Confucius Institute is certainly part of the “soft power” push of the Chinese government, offering language and “culture” classes primarily through universities. In their offices, it’s unlikely you will find conversation about the Tiananmen Square massacre, the legitimacy of Tibetan Government in Exile, Rebiya Kadeer, or other topics the Chinese government deems “hostile” to its laws and agenda. You may, however, find conversation about labor unrest, environmental degradation, or, most importantly, the context in which any of the above occur. Whether or not these are public discussions is another matter.
Each Confucius Institute is also governed nearly autonomously — the only directives from the top coming in the form of annual fiscal reports. In other words, if the individual director of a Confucius Institute wants to do something like a poetry reading, they can — as long as it doesn’t cross legal lines in China that would end up endangering that particular Confucius Institute’s funding. Most Confucius Institutes, it is true, stay far away from anything interesting aside from language study. For those, the “culture” component most often consists of activities more suited to children than adults: classes in decorative paper-cutting, dumpling making, and t’ai chi. Though the Confucius Institutes are the expression of the Chinese government’s desire for cultural influence, they are mostly innocuous to the point of irrelevance (although some have been justifiably criticized for the actions of their Party stooge directors, not all are the same).
The issue here seems to be whether or not writers, and in particular “experimental” writers, can affect change through activities like the aforementioned reading, in the Chinese government’s often draconian policies. But if we are judging writers in such a manner, we should first probably acknowledge that 1) Liu Xiaobo, while often deemed progressive in his politics, in his writing is anything but, and 2) Chinese writers themselves, as well as any foreign writer in mainland China, have little choice but to go through official channels for publication and public events — not because it’s a requirement of the State, but because it’s a requirement of the market. A “best case” scenario would be the more anarchic online magazine in China, or an academic organization like the Chinese and American Association for Poetry and Poetics: both offer forums within an already given Chinese context, even if they already understand that no change in policy will come from their activities.
Near the end of the “Emergency Dispatch #2” you pose the questions:
‘What does it mean when we have “experimental,” progressive poets participating in an event sponsored by a state that clearly cares little for artistic and intellectual freedom, and which persecutes and jails and mistreats poets and writers? What kind of politics and ethics are at work in the avant” poetic field today when poets and scholars of the United States participate in subsidized tours and feature events that are designed to give, in fact, greater legitimacy to an aggressively repressive regime?’
These are open questions that can be discussed, but if we assume the answer to be simply “complicity in State oppression,” then many Chinese writers and intellectual will fit the bill — including any who work for higher education in China, often here seen to be The Place for writers to make a living. We may want to establish a bottom line on what are then considered acceptable ethics for the poet, and even ask what constitutes “progressive” poetry in the first place — is there a necessary connection between the two, or do we need to use a different, more contextual measure?
By asking writers located in the West to make explicit stances on Chinese policy, we may be alienating a Chinese audience by denying yet another public forum, as well as implicitly assuming that only outside of China is change, or even adventurous writing, possible.
Matt Turner