4 April 2015


I’m just back in Britain from a whistle-stop tour of China, where I was speaking at the Bookworm Literary Festival, a fortnight-long talkfest organised by the leading independent English-language bookshop in China. I went with Anna Chen, who was one of the headline stars of the show – and it was one of the most stimulating foreign trips I’ve ever made.

The itinerary was hectic. Bookworm has three bookshops-cafes, in Beijing, Chengdu and Suzhou, and one of its sponsors is the Chinese branch of Nottingham University in Ningbo: fitting all of them into 10 days of a two-week trip as we did meant travelling vast distances (Chengdu-Suzhou-Ningbo-Beijing) by plane and high-speed train and forgetting about sleep. But, boy, was it worth it. The festival itself was an almost madly diverse series of talks and readings by an extraordinary selection of authors from China, the Anglophone world, Europe, the Middle East – poets, novelists, journalists, travel-writers, writers for kids, biographers, historians – and everything about China was breathtaking.

It was my first time in the country, I don’t speak the language, and two weeks in China spent staying in hotels and largely inside the protective bubble of a speaking tour (with a few days at the end to see Tiananmen Square, the Forbidden City and the Great Wall) doesn’t make me an authority on anything. My role model is not the American muckraker Lincoln Steffens who famously declared “I have seen the future and it works” after a brief visit to Bolshevik Russia. But one of the great things about the festival was that we met a large number of people with vast experience of China – Chinese who have never left the country, Chinese living abroad, western and other expat academics, teachers, students, journalists working in China, many of them from the Chinese diaspora – who were happy to share their stories and views freely (at least in private). And although it’s all second-hand, it’s worth relaying some of what they said (although I’m not for the most part naming names).

OK, it's cliche, but the Great Wall with no one on it at 7.45am is cool
To start as everyone, without exception, started. China has gone through a gigantic and extraordinarily rapid economic and social transformation in the past 30 years, and although the pace might be slowing a little it’s still extremely fast – GDP growth will be “only” 7 per cent this year after 30 years of 10 per cent or more on average.

This is of course a statement of the obvious that can be found in any western newspaper, but its truth is in your face from the moment you touch down in China. The first thing I noticed on arriving, in the Sichuan capital of Chengdu, was – yes – just how new and big everything appeared: the massive new airport terminal buildings, the new eight-lane motorway to the city thronged with traffic and criss-crossed by spectacular flyovers, the giant new apartment blocks stretching as far as the eye can see on the city periphery, the gargantuan new city-centre skyscrapers, the enormous building sites and cranes everywhere. The second thing that struck me (apart from the sheer number of people in the streets – in cars, on motorbikes, on bicycles, on foot – I learned later that Chengdu has 14 million inhabitants in its urban area, 6 million more than London) was the rampant consumerism on display everywhere: the shiny new cars that jam every highway, the designer-brand and consumer-electronics shops in street after street, the mini-skirted girls chatting on their smartphones. OK, I’d not been expecting party bureaucrats in Mao suits and workers in blue denim overalls cycling to the cement factory down dirt roads, but this was stunningly full-on.

This is mundane stuff for anyone who lives in China or knows it well, and our interlocutors at the Bookworm festival took my amazement in their stride: many had felt it themselves once and some were still prone to moments of astonishment, but nearly all also sounded notes of caution. Yes, the economic and social transformation of China is profound; yes, the state is an enormously powerful actor, capable of feats of infrastructure development inconceivable in western liberal democracies – to take just one example, 10,000 miles of high-speed railway built in less than 10 years, the equivalent of constructing Britain’s planned HS2 line from London to the west Midlands once every couple of months. But the purpose of all the high-speed railways, motorways and apartment blocks is a helter-skelter urbanisation and industrialisation of China to get it to a European standard of living in a decade, involving a mass migration from countryside to city of extraordinary proportions, and it is fraught with problems. The urban population has been boosted by state diktat and market forces from around a quarter of the national 1.1 billion 25 years ago to around a half of the 1.4 billion or so  today, and the dislocation is immense. As a teacher in Chengdu put it: it’s the entire population of the European Union and Russia arriving in town.

David Goodman, a British academic in Suzhou, author of 2014’s must-read Class in Contemporary China, says that the migrants from the countryside have become a new urban underclass, reliant on low-paid menial and casual work: the extraordinary economic growth of the past 20 years is based on super-exploitation of poor recently-peasant proletarians in factories and service industries. Anyone who skates over this fundamental truth is at best a fool, he says – singling out Martin Jacques, the former editor of Marxism Today magazine in London, whose book When China Rules the World has been an improbable global best-seller since 2009.

Me at Bookworm Beijing with Stephen George, editor of That's Beijing
Most migrant workers – and most workers are migrant workers of one kind or another – live in horribly overcrowded conditions, says Goodman. In Beijing, says a British journalist working in the city, some subsist in underground dormitories that were once air-raid shelters. (He offers to take us round but we don’t have time.) Everywhere we go, people tell us that many of the giant new apartment blocks were built or started during a vast speculative real-estate bubble that has burst, the apartments often empty (if they are finished) because they are too expensive for most workers to buy or rent. Even the relatively well-off pay vast proportions of their incomes for housing. It’s quite normal in a big city to spend two or three hours commuting each day and not to know anyone who lives near you. The consumerism is greedy and unthinking, they all say, the main means by which the party hopes to keep the lid on opposition, and the party itself is corrupt, its leaders enriching themselves through the proceeds of self-offs and real-estate deals despite its campaign against corruption…

Anna Chen and me in the Forbidden City
Ah, the party – the Communist Party of China. It might have nearly 90 million members, it might run one of the biggest and most powerful states in the world with unmatched ruthlessness, but to a foreign visitor unable to read or speak Chinese it is an eerie presence. There’s the famous giant portrait of Mao overlooking Tiananmen Square – in front of which every Chinese tourist from the provinces as well as every foreign visitor takes a selfie – and at the tourist tat stalls by the Great Wall and in central Beijing you can buy People’s Liberation Army hats, Mao badges, the Little Red Book and fridge magnets depicting the Great Helmsman. Mao is on the banknotes. Otherwise, there’s the party line on the state TV English language service in your hotel and in China Daily, the official English language newspaper, full of stories about foreign policy and great successes in the struggle against corruption. But neither is intrusive, and that’s about it.

This impression of absence is of course illusory, but it is reinforced in microcosm by the apparent freedom enjoyed by the Bookworm festival. Here we were, more than 120 authors from all over the world coming along to three of China’s major cities – some of the writers long-standing critics of the regime, including a few who have been expelled for their work – and talking freely about anything we wanted. No one intervened to stop it. What’s not to like?

Well, nothing. But it’s a bit more complicated than it first appears. The Bookworm bookshop-cafes are great places to hang out, eat, drink and buy books – we could do with a few more like them in the UK – and they are qualified free-speech places (in English and Chinese) where there are no obvious limits on what is on sale (in English at least), which are accepted as legitimate businesses by the state. That is a remarkable space to have established.

But there are constraints on what Bookworm can do. The festival is monitored by the authorities – less for what speakers say than for contributions from Chinese members of the audience. I was talking about communism in Britain and British admirers of communist China: the Bookworm organisers said that they’d been unable to find anyone to interpret my remarks into Chinese because their translators were worried about getting the blame for something I might say, and  after two of my sessions I was told I’d had officials in the audience. So what: it was rather less intrusive than the norm in eastern Europe 30 years ago, and it all went ahead.

Here we are in Tiananmen Square
More importantly, Chinese customs routinely impound books – and although Peter Goff, the affable Irish former-Guardian journalist who set up Bookworm with others 10 years ago and is general manager of the bookshop and the festival’s kingpin, says there is no obvious policy on what is stopped and what is not, there are certain key subjects and authors that are beyond the pale for the authorities, however blurred their lines. I couldn’t find Jung Chang and Jon Halliday’s Mao: The Unknown Story or anything by the historian Frank Dikötter on Bookworm’s shelves, but historical work as critical as theirs was on display. The boundaries of what can be said in a public forum are just as difficult to discern. Talk about the Tiananmen Square protests of 1989 is OK in a reference from a novelist or a western academic but not from a former activist who might incite the audience to do it again; and it’s difficult but not impossible to get anyone associated with the ongoing protests in Hong Kong into the mainland to speak, for the same reason. Tibet is pretty-much taboo. Goff’s stories of running Bookworm are sometimes frightening – they include being arrested – and he knows he walks a tightrope, but his successes are extraordinary: he’s always got books and people in for the festival, including “banned” authors, but it takes time and guile.

This year, as on eight previous occasions, he and his team managed to get some of the best people writing about China to talk at the festival, as well as dozens of writers with no Chinese connection to their work. There were more than 120 in total, and we were at only a tiny fraction of their events – but nearly everything we saw was impressive. I was particularly wowed by the novelist and film-maker Xiaolu Guo (A Concise Chinese-English Dictionary for Lovers, I Am China), the novelist Wena Poon (who launched her latest book, Café Jause: A Story of Viennese Shanghai, at the festival) and the British non-fiction writer Horatio Clare (A Single Swallow, Down to the Sea in Ships). But there were also fascinating sessions from the veteran American Beat poet and translator Willis Barnstone, the British historical novelist Victoria Hislop (with hubby in tow as bag-carrier), the author-illustrators for children Frané Lessac and Bridget Stevens-Marzo, the journalist-academic-analysts Michael Meyer (In Manchuria) and Francesco Sisci (A Brave New China)…

The most important thing about Bookworm, however, is that it’s marginal. It’s a tolerated showcase that could be taken down at any time – and it’s tolerated because it casts the party-state in a favourable light in the outside world and does not threaten its existence. The availability of critical books in English and the accessibility of critical debate in English in small venues in three cities are – even more than the availability of the Financial Times and the International New York Times, BBC World and CNN in posh hotels – pin-prick challenges to the regime by comparison with those posed by the internet, and the party-state has missed few tricks in ensuring that it controls what its citizens can see on their screens.

The “great firewall of China”, blocking access to much critical material online from outside China, is not impermeable, but you have to make an effort to get through it and you are not completely safe if you do. Although the world wide web as taken for granted in most of the west is accessible if you have a virtual private network, a dedicated encrypted link between your computer in China and another elsewhere, VPN users are tracked by the authorities. More important than the “great firewall”, online postings from inside China are monitored relentlessly by the state – thousands of bureaucrats beavering away to snoop – and systematically censored. You can criticise the local party boss, but never suggest a demonstration.

I don’t have the expertise to read the evidence – some say China will inevitably loosen up and that Bookworm presages big changes, others that the party-state is interested only in keeping control, scared by the Chinese history of unpredicted social explosions and by the implosion of the Soviet Union more than 20 years ago. But I’m bitten by China, and I’ve got to go back to see more and talk more. My thanks to Bookworm for giving me a first taste.

The Bookworm festival crew were marvellous. Many thanks for everything to Peter Goff, Catherine Platt, Daniel Clutton, Alan McCluskey, Modjeh Sheikh, Julia Lobyntseva, Tom Price, Anthony Tao and anyone I’ve inadvertently missed out.

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