URSABLOG: Freedom of Information

 few years ago, I joined a Book Club in Athens, for an expat group called Internations. I quickly found myself running it, as the previous leader – frustrated no doubt by the stress of organising it, and promoting it – quickly handed the baton to me, and promptly left the group.

I have mixed memories of those times – it went on for three years I think – of trying to meet ten times a year, suggesting and then reaching agreement on what book to read – fiction, in English – and then find a space where we could meet (the group reached up to twenty or so people at some points) on a Friday evening where we could sit together to discuss the book. One time we were in a café and not only could we not hear each other, we could not hear ourselves think. I decided – I was living in Plaka at the time – to just invite them all back to my place. It actually worked out well, but I was nervous about having a group of women in my flat all at once. Questions were asked – about my books, my paintings, my kitchen – and no doubt I was gently assessed and judged accordingly.

And before you start, yes, apart from me, it was all women. Occasionally there were a couple of men that came intermittently, or others that came once and were never seen again. At first I thought this rather strange, but I then came to the conclusion that it was simply down to the fact that not many men read fiction, and even if they do they are not likely to read anything beyond certain genres that they read for escapism, and even then they are not willing to talk about it, let alone meet up and share their opinions about it. I, as you may imagine, have no such qualms.

The books we read were usually either the lastest popular fiction, but every once in a while I tried some modern classics, and when I was feeling particularly persuasive, real classics. I would always however ask for suggestions, and chose by consensus. But reaching consensus was tricky, and filtering was required: the books had to be easily available, not too long so that people could read them within a couple of weeks, but not so trendy or controversial that they would either not be read by a large amount of the group, or lead to an open slanging match when we actually met (I made that mistake once, never again).

Even after a shortlist had been arrived at however, it was still not easy: imagine a group of people that don’t know each other that well on holiday together trying to work out where to go and eat. The person who at the outset says they don’t care and will do what everyone else wants will soon care very much and won’t do what everyone else wants to do if it does not match their preconceived ideas. The meal is ruined, factions begin to develop, and the holiday is threatened. It takes a diplomatic leader to navigate these troubles, or someone with the patience of a saint. I am both until I am not, and the distance between the state of sainthood and tyranny is short, particularly if I am tired or stressed, especially on a Friday evening after a difficult week.

However, after all is said and done, it was a worthwhile experience. I still have very good friends that I made during that time, and I read some books I would not have otherwise have done. It broadened my mind.

I always feel that it is a sure sign of looming trouble in a society when books are banned, or worse, burnt. It shows intolerance, narrowmindedness, but more malignly, it is the desire of a person, or a body of people in restricting the stories that can be told. It is about control of the mind, a dangerous game which can lead to unforeseen and disastrous circumstances. For me, books should be free to roam, and whether they enrage, inspire, entertain or bore people, it is not just down to the book itself, it is down to the reader too. These are unique relationships, between the reader and the author. Trying to ban or control these relationships is the same as trying to ban people meeting each other, and prohibition in itself can lead not only to temptation, but also open revolt. Ask any parent of a teenage child.

So what to make of the news that the Chinese censors have banned a book? Well not much you may think, they are banning books all the time. Some Chinese authors have exiled themselves to be free of such censorship, others remain but write crime or science-fiction to tell stories, using the genre to say things they wouldn’t be able to say in realist fiction, let alone non-fiction. But the book that has just been banned is a reprint of a previously published book by a now deceased historian, Chen Wutong, about the Emperor Chongzhen who lived at the tail end of the Ming dynasty, between 1368 and 1644.

The book recounts how this last emperor purged senior officials and mismanaged his kingdom before finally hanging himself on a tree outside the Forbidden City as rebels began to surround Beijing. The blurb on the book, Chongzhen: the Diligent Emperor of a Failed Dynasty, declares that the harder he worked, the faster he brought about the collapse of the empire. “A series of foolish measures [and] every step a mistake, the more diligent [he was] the faster the downfall.”

You may now understand why the book has been withdrawn: China has long censored anything that can draw parallels between current and past leaders. Censorship in China, particularly of the internet and social media increased. But the disappearance of an already previously published book – the earlier version titled less provocatively The Past of Chongzhen: The Final Scene of the Ming Empire came out in 2016 – is rare.

I think that this is more than the common censorship of uncomfortable messages. History has become an important part of Xi Jinping thought. There is a long and disreputable line of dictators rewriting history, and the banning, or burning, other narratives that don’t fit theirs is usually a precursor of the exiling, imprisonment and elimination of those who share those views, or who belong to a people who find themselves on the wrong side of an historical argument.

I doubt whether President Xi has read the book – he is surely being too diligent elsewhere – but the banning of it is probably a knee-jerk reaction from functionaries lower down the chain of command trying to maintain loyalty to the Party, and proving their own zealousness at the same time. But the banning still seems strange when you see other media coming from China, made in China, that represents life there as anything other than a bed of red roses.

Last weekend I watched a beautiful – and long – file called So Long, my Son about two families from north China who were affected by a personal tragedy. It is set in the period from the early 1980s to the 2000s, and their stories told again the backdrop of the vast social and economic changes that took place. It is not uncritical: themes such as the enforcement of the one child policy, Party indoctrination, social unrest and poverty are starkly and skilfully woven into the narrative. The conclusion does not leave you with wholehearted admiration for the People’s Republic. So how was this film made and then released? How is it that I can watch it, here?

I think one of the reasons is that the main theme of the film, the one child policy, and the damage that it did, is now defunct, mostly because of the looming demographic crisis China now faces. I also think that the current leadership is in fact critical of the excesses of the 1990s and 2000s, and is trying to rewind the clock to the 1970s, or earlier, in terms of Party identity, and its supremacy in all areas of life. That the film actually criticises the Party, subtly perhaps,  as a cause of heartache and tragedy, is acceptable, because the film does not come right up to date. It is history, and the current leadership approves of it because it is improving society now.

That the film itself is so good probably helps. I was moved by it, and have thought about it a lot since, always a good sign. Whatever the reasons for the approval for its release, it shows that China is not monolithic and dull, and is not always propaganda driven. Creative artists have found a way to keep producing powerful material that because it does not offend the censors can leave you to take away different things that resonate with you.

There are many other examples of great art coming from oppressive regimes: Shostakovich, one of my favourite composers, wrote his most powerful works under Stalin. He suffered too. And it is not as if western democracies are blameless either: even today various school boards in the United States are destroying ‘unsuitable’ books taken from school libraries.

My time at the book club was an important period for me. I read books I wouldn’t have normally touched – The Fault In Our Stars for example remains a favourite of mine – but I also saw how reading the same thing at the same time can bring people together, and the discussions that followed allowed me to see people differently from how they appear, and also challenged me to reassess by own snobberies and the image I wish to present about myself. You should never judge a book by its cover.

I am grateful to have not only the freedom of expression but the freedom to read what I want, when I want. I get very uncomfortable when that right is challenged. What we choose to read, watch, listen to will affect how we think and behave too. It can bring beauty and joy, but also inspire us to damage ourselves and others. It is not and can never be a solitary activity because after absorbing what we have read, watched or listened to then informs our impressions, our knowledge and our feelings, and we then take them into the world – our families, our workplaces, with our friends and colleagues – and we assess each other and ourselves accordingly.

If information is purposely withheld from markets, the markets become distorted and inefficient. I think it is the same with the human mind. If we do not have free access to knowledge, our societies become distorted too. In this, the information age, where there is so much available that it at times becomes overwhelming, we should take care to note when it is being restricted. I know that I can never read all the books I have acquired and are sitting around my flat, but the fact that I may read some of them some day gives me comfort. I cannot imagine the hell of losing that freedom. And the fact that I am reading Zorba The Greek at the moment may have influenced the writing of this blog.

Simon Ward