Ha Jin on the Long Reach of the Chinese Government
Love, Betrayal, and the Totalitarian Machine
In his new novel The Boat Rocker, the National Book Award-winning writer Ha Jin details the life of a hard-hitting Chinese columnist named Danlin who works for an independent Chinese news agency in New York that routinely criticizes the Beijing government and its bankrupt intellectual supporters.
In 2005, Danlin’s editor gives him an unorthodox assignment. A gorgeous Chinese social climber named Haili Yan is publishing a romance novel based on a tragic love affair that ends when the man is killed on 9/11. Danlin is told to investigate the murky background of the novel. The sticking point is that Haili is Danlin’s ex-wife, who dumped him two days after he immigrated to New York a decade earlier, slapping him with divorce papers in a sleazy Chinatown hotel so she could marry a wealthy American.
The book starts as a comic revenge novel, where Danlin savages his ex-wife’s book, ripping it apart for its purple prose and false claims that it will be made into an American movie. What follows is an exploration of the Chinese government’s efforts to control Chinese-American media and undermine American academics and harass dissidents. The backlash against Danlin is sudden and dirty.
“The germ of the story comes from a true incident, where in 2003, a journalist friend of mine wrote about a scam novel that was being promoted from China, where the husband was killed on 9/11,” said the 60-year-old Ha Jin in a telephone interview from his home outside Boston, not far from Boston University, where he is the director of the creative writing program.
“My friend was rather radical, supporting independence for Taiwan and Tibet. He was easily silenced online,” said Jin.
“I don’t think the sham novel was ever published in English,” he said. “There was an attempt to nominate the book for the Nobel Prize, headed by a Chinese restaurant owner in New Jersey. That was for promotional purposes in China.”
Though Danlin works for a small media company, he has a growing following in China. “The news agency is independent, so Danlin can write freely and openly about the Chinese government,” said Jin. “He is a good essayist, but has an online following, which gives power to his words. Danlin is a small power.”
Jin started working on The Boat Rocker ten years ago, when he noticed that the Chinese government was spending large sums of money to buy up independent Chinese media, newspapers and radio stations in North America and throughout Asia.
“The Chinese government has been buying Chinese media companies around the world,” said Jin. “Gradually, they have either dominated or controlled this media. The government also gives loans to the media companies, so they can influence the content.”
As Danlin ramps up his vitriolic attacks on his ex-wife, she counterattacks by publishing reports that he was impotent during their marriage. He retorts that her body fluids grossed him out and his sex life is now better with his American girlfriend.
Danlin and Haili’s mudslinging gains the attention of powerful forces in China, who start attacks against Danlin. “The publishers of the novel are trying to get publicity in the US to increase sales in Mainland China,” said Jin. “It may not be the government per se that starts attacking Danlin, but people associated with the government. By attacking his ex-wife, Danlin can’t help but gain the attention of the Chinese government.”
Danlin’s editor is pressured to silence him. His girlfriend, an American academic, suddenly is offered a visa to do fieldwork in China, driving a wedge between the couple.
The novel takes a darker turn. In the large, vibrant Chinese community of Flushing, Queens, Danlin witnesses a Chinese consular official organizing six thugs to break up a Falun Gong demonstration by beating up members of the dissident group. “These things happen in the States,” said Jin, “where Falun Gong members have been beaten.”
Jin himself was an accidental dissident. He came to Boston from China in 1985 to study at Brandeis. He was finishing up his dissertation in 1989 when the Chinese government crackdown occurred in Tiananmen Square, where the People’s Liberation Army killed as many as 2,000 pro-democracy student protestors and other civilians.
“I had a job waiting for me in China, a research professorship in American literature,” said Jin. “It was a very good job. The Tiananmen massacre took me by surprise. I couldn’t stomach it. Everything I had been told had been reversed.”
“I decided to stay in the States. My son, who was six, had just come over from China. I wanted him to become an American. I wasn’t mentally prepared to immigrate, to stay here at all. After a year, I decided to write exclusively in English.”
The publisher of the 9/11 novel gathers forces against Danlin. He finds himself blocked by Chinese security forces on the internet in China, so his columns can’t be read. The publication of a book of his essays is stopped and all the copies are pulped. Danlin realizes he can’t function as a journalist.
Jin notes that the ever-present government monitoring of writers and artists affects the honesty of their work. “Being part of the Chinese culture and society makes writers very guarded against each other,” he said.
With 70 years of communism, “the culture of surveillance is still there,” said Jin. “For instance, some college professors were recently fired because their students informed on them to the authorities. The students were assigned to inform on their professors. This has happened in many cities. It is common knowledge that if you are a professor, you have to keep an eye on what you say in class, or someone will report you.”
Despite his great literary success with the National Book Award-winner Waiting and War Trash, Jin was unable to get a visa to return to see his dying mother.
“My mother died three years ago,” said Jin. “She had been hospitalized for four years. I tried and tried to get a visa to see her again, and I was rejected every time.”
“Last year, I was invited to teach a class at a Chinese university. I sent the Chinese embassy the official invitation. This time they said, ‘You’ve been rejected, so we can’t proceed.’ In the past they used to say things like, ‘You don’t have your original passport. You can’t prove you were once a Chinese citizen.’ When I first came to America, I sent my Chinese passport in for renewal, but it was never returned to me. They say, ‘It was 20 years ago. We don’t have a record of it.’”
In the novel, Danlin is denied a visa for his new American passport, but is offered a chance to go to China, if he reports to the local police station to prove his place of birth. Danlin jumps at the chance, but then realizes that it may be a trap. His American citizenship won’t protect him from interrogation and humiliation by the local authorities, and they could force him to commit a public renunciation of his political writings.
“That story came from my own personal experience, an offer I received from Chinese officials,” said Jin. “This was when my mother was dying. I first wanted to do it, but then did the same thing Danlin did. I realized it would be impossible to go under these circumstances.”
The long reach of the autocratic Chinese government has had an impact on American academics, as well. “Not only me, but a lot of prominent Chinese scholars have been banned from getting visas,” said Jin. “A friend of mine was a well-known professor at Princeton who can’t go to China because of his writings. The Chinese government finds ways to interfere with, damage or even destroy these academics.”
Late in the novel, Danlin meets with the Chinese vice consul in New York, after he’s been banned on the internet through China’s Great Firewall. The vice consul is American-educated, is very sophisticated and speaks impeccable English. “Why don’t you join us?” he asks, telling Danlin that it is the role of intellectuals to support their government. To his own detriment, a defiant Danlin refuses to give up his independence.
Ha Jin is familiar with American-educated Chinese officials. “I do have friends, US schoolmates, who received PhD’s from American universities, and some who returned to China and became hawks in the government,” he said. “They are smart, very smart, and very sophisticated. They are rational, too, but they speak for the country and work for the country. Their personal interests are entangled with the national interest. They live a very different existence. I wouldn’t say they are crazy.”
Most of the younger intellectuals follow the government’s line. “The vice consul’s argument is the dominant ideology in China,” said Jin. “Lots of young intellectuals support the government. They know the superiority of democracy, but at the same time, they are very anti-West. China is always their frame of reference. I wouldn’t say they are bad or evil, but these intellectuals are employed by the government.”
The human rights situation in China is deteriorating, said Jin. “The situation is getting worse, much worse, on human rights,” he said. “There was that large arrest recently of 100 lawyers,” with the Chinese Communist Party reasserting tight control. ‘This could not have happened four years ago. Things are regressing. It is a big step backwards.”
Sometimes the American government becomes involved in putting pressure on Chinese dissidents in the United States. In a creepy scene in the novel, an official from Homeland Security has an informal chat with Danlin’s editor, making sure that he’s not screwing with Chinese-American relations.
“Usually it’s not Homeland Security, but it’s the FBI or the CIA. Some officials will show up and talk to dissidents,” said Jin.
“There is a kind of exchange between the US and Chinese governments,” he said. “The governments work at a different level, beyond our scrutiny. There was a report in the Chinese media, that when George W. Bush was in power a Chinese delegation came to the US. As soon as they landed at the airport, they said, ‘We are going to visit George H.W. Bush in Texas, to ask the father to teach his son a lesson on China.’ Governments speak a different language.”
At one point in the novel, Danlin envisions China and the United States as sitting in a boat together. With his columns, he wants to shake things up. “Danlin tried to be a boat rocker,” said Ha Jin, with a chuckle. “He just didn’t succeed.”
Young Chinese government officials are now being sent to two places for further education. “Singapore is now the model for the Chinese government,” said Jin, referring to the hyper-successful autocratic capitalist city state. “That is an official training base for Chinese officials. The other place is Harvard’s Kennedy School of Government.”
China has been spending a great amount of money to promote Chinese culture in the West. “The Chinese government has invested a lot in art and literature,” said Jin. “The slogan is ‘going out,’ going to the world to increase China’s soft power.”
Danlin’s editor sends him to Berlin for a Chinese literature conference to protect him from the ongoing backlash. A German academic bemoans how unchallenging Chinese literature is after decades of government censorship.
“The government has imposed censorship that cripples the creativity of the Chinese arts,” said Jin.
In his three-decade writing career in the US, Ha Jin has published eight novels, along with books of poetry and short-story collections. Besides being banned himself from traveling to China, most of Ha Jin’s novels have been banned, as well. “Many of my novels—A Free Life, War Trash, A Map of Betrayal—which have political resonance, are not allowed to published,” said Jin. “Waiting has been published in China, but there have been cuts, small cuts.”
The line-by-line censorship is exasperating. ‘The Chinese translators cut here and cut there,” he said. There is no way to trace the cuts. They cut paragraphs and they cut sentences. Whenever a piece of my writing gets reprinted, you can see more cuts. Because I am so far away, they don’t tell me anything.”
Ha Jin has now been in the United States for 31 years. Jin could not see himself living in China again.
“I lived in China for 30 years, the first half of my life,” said Jin. “I don’t think that I could get used to China again. To visit, yes, I want to, but to live there would be very hard. In Boston, I am very relaxed. In China, you have to be on your guard all the time. It would make me very nervous.”
As our interview was wrapping up, so Ha Jin could go teach an MFA seminar, he mentioned that he has returned to writing poetry, a mix of domestic and political work. And for the first time in three decades, the first draft is in Chinese.
“I’m compiling a book of poems,’ he said. “My wife has been ill for several years. It has been hard to work on longer projects. I began to write a lot of poetry. I published these poems first in Chinese, then I am rewriting them in English. That’s what I am doing.”