Yang Jisheng, the Chinese journalist and author, has released an account of Mao’s Cultural Revolution entitled The World Turned Upside Down. The novel, which has been denounced by Chinese government officials, was quietly published in Hong Kong, where Chinese censors have no direct reach. However, while Hong Kong remains an enclave for controversial, politically-sensitive publications banned in the Mainland, the case of five missing booksellers in late 2015 has sparked intense fear over the state of press freedom in a city with alleged autonomy and immunity from Chinese censors.
Yang’s first landmark publication, Tombstone, published in Hong Kong in 2008, studied the Great Famine, a period of widespread death and hunger propelled by poor weather and Mao’s Communist policies. He prefaces the book with this grave sentiment:
“I call this book Tombstone. It is a tombstone for my [foster] father who died of hunger in 1959, for the 36 million Chinese who also died of hunger, for the system that caused their death, and perhaps for myself for writing this book“.
According to The New York Times, Chinese officials and publications have proclaimed that historians, journalists, and authors who “dwell” on such historical events are engaging in acts of “subversive historical nihilism aimed at corroding the party’s authority”. Yang has been condemned as such by the Communist Party-controlled Global Times, which wrote in its review of Tombstone: “He leaves the impression that he’s not interested in history”.
In tandem to his work exposing the facet of Mao-era history untold by Chinese officials and schools, Yang also served as deputy editor of a rare liberal political magazine 炎火春秋 (Yanhuo Chunqiu) until he was forced to resign. Under President Xi Jinping’s leadership, the magazine had succumbed to stricter self-censorship rules, no longer publishing articles that contested the Communist Party’s accounts of historical events. In 2016, one year after Yang had been expelled from the magazine, the entire editorial team resigned after outspoken publisher Du Daozheng was fired at the order of government censors.
Yang and his cohorts are the faces of opposition to Chinese political and ideological authority. Their important work as journalists, authors, historians, and political commentators, while dismissed and denounced by the Mainland, continue to populate the aisles of bookstores in Hong Kong, and punctuate the conversations of those abroad. Let’s hope their voices continue to be heard.