Chinese opera author at war with censors dares officials

By Chris Buckley BEIJING, Reuters

The Chinese author of a book about long-dead Peking Opera stars has emerged as the latest challenger to the ruling Communist Party’s censors, daring them on Friday to explain their secretive ways before the law. Zhang Yihe won fame in China three years ago for a memoir of her father and other intellectuals who embraced Mao Zedong’s revolution only to be purged. That bestseller was banned. Her latest, on the high-pitched masters of traditional opera, seemed to be on tamer ground.

But Zhang’s “Performers’ Pasts” and seven other books were yanked from Chinese stores in January on the orders of propaganda officials, according to Zhang and other authors. She has now publicly denounced the ban and threatened to sue the publishing authorities.

“It was you who treated me as a thought criminal, who robbed me of my rights to expression and publication as a citizen,” Zhang wrote in a letter to a senior publishing official, dated Jan. 28 but made public by her on Friday. “I will defend to the hilt my rights under the law.”

Zhang’s challenge may revive a battle over censorship that galvanized Chinese intellectuals and journalists last year. It also highlights China’s strict media controls as it prepares to host the 2008 Olympics.

A year ago, the closure of the investigative reporting section of the China Youth Daily stirred reporters and retired Communist reformers to decry what they called a deadening official grip on the press.

Banning books, magazines and newspapers has long been common in one-party China; the constitution promises freedom of expression, but in practice the Communist Party exercises iron control.

Li Datong, the former editor of the China’s Youth Daily’s investigative section who led last year’s revolt against censorship, said party officials failed to grasp that their decisions would be confronted by increasingly assertive citizens.

“They think they can make decisions like this in secret without any reaction,” Li told Reuters. “These days that’s impossible. They didn’t expect an old lady to fight back.”


Among the books ordered off the shelves this time were “I Object”, a biography of Yao Lifa, a fervent campaigner for free elections and farmers’ rights in the central province of Hubei.

“Banning like this lacks any legal basis. It’s a dictatorial act stripping away people’s freedom without any explanation or documentation,” Yao told Reuters by phone.

Zhang’s lawyer, Pu Zhiqiang, told Reuters he was unsure how the author would seek redress or whether they would sue.

An official from the books division of the General Administration of Press and Publications, which Zhang says banned her book, told Reuters he had no comment. On Thursday, Singapore’s Lianhe Zaobao newspaper quoted an Administration official as saying no books had been banned.

At 64, Zhang is carefully groomed and speaks and writes the finely wrought Chinese of what she has called an “aristocratic” upbringing. Her father was a famed scholar and then a minister under Mao before he was denounced as a “Rightist” in 1957, when many liberal-tinted intellectuals were hounded or jailed.

Zhang herself endured a decade in jail during the fervently radical Cultural Revolution from 1966 to 1976. She was released only in 1978. Zhang declined to be interviewed.