Ma Jian walks into his interview at a Hong Kong hotel carrying a local newspaper under his arm after finding himself at the centre of a media storm in recent days.
Two venues refused to host talks the exiled Chinese author was due to give at the Hong Kong International Literary Festival, before the original space changed its mind and invited him back.
The row made local and international headlines and tapped into fears that semi-autonomous Hong Kong is losing its cherished freedoms as Beijing’s influence on the city grows.
While he describes himself as a novelist, not a politician, Ma does not shy away from the fact his works are deeply political.
“Literature includes all subjects, philosophy, psychology, physiology — how could it not include politics?” he told AFP.
“Literature needs to reveal the weakness of politics and its dark side to help push society forward.”
His latest novel “China Dream” plays on Chinese President Xi Jinping’s rhetoric of national rejuvenation.
It depicts the disintegration of the director of a fictitious “China Dream Bureau” who is haunted by nightmares of his past.
Ma says he wanted to portray a world where individual thoughts and memories are being erased to serve a totalitarian regime.
He believes the Chinese government is trying to create a “Communist utopia” which tries to rub out horrors including mass famine, the Cultural Revolution and the Tiananmen Square massacre.
“The (regime) won’t let you see the ruthless, bloody truth,” Ma told AFP, adding that Uighur education camps were the latest hidden crisis.
“All the nightmares are covered up. I have to tell a truth — if we ignore or forget history, then history will repeat itself constantly.”
Tribute to Orwell
Ma grew up during the Cultural Revolution and says he was struck by the suicides of writers.
“If writers from the present forget the price paid by those writers, then we do not inherit anything from their death,” he says.
Like his other dark, satirical works, all set in China, his latest book depicts its characters’ troubled relationship with their own memories.
But unlike his previous novels, Ma says he found creating the central figure, Ma Daode, a disturbing process.
“It was really unpleasant to live with a character you dislike for two years. You need to find the evil and ugly side of him,” he said.
He wants the book to be compared with “1984” by George Orwell, to whom he dedicates the novel.
“When I wrote this book, I constantly read 1984,” he told AFP.
“I want to pay tribute to him because the harm a totalitarian society can do, as predicted in his book, is becoming a reality in China day by day.”
Hong Kong freedoms
Ma grew up in the northern Chinese province of Shandong and worked as a painter and a photojournalist in Beijing in the 1980s.
But life changed after his first novel “Stick Out Your Tongue” in 1987, which told of a young Chinese journalist’s travels to Tibet.
It was labelled by the government as “spiritual pollution” — Ma became a banned author and fled to colonial-era Hong Kong, before settling in London where he now lives.
Ma has not been back to mainland China since six years ago, when he was granted special permission to attend his mother’s funeral.
Subsequent visa requests to visit his home town have been denied.
His brother and sister still live on the mainland and come to see him in the UK, he said.
Looking back at his time in Hong Kong he remembers the city as a “lighthouse of freedom”.
“We thought Hong Kong could gradually change China,” he said.
He spent 10 years there before leaving in 1997, when Britain handed it back to China.
During that time Ma dipped his toe into Hong Kong’s then thriving banned books industry, setting up a publishing house that focused on illicit titles which folded after two years.
The industry continued apace until 2015, when five city booksellers known for printing gossipy titles about China’s leaders disappeared and resurfaced in custody on the mainland.
Since then Hong Kong bookshops selling banned books have closed and chain stores have removed them from their shelves.
Ma said he was “shocked” at the treatment of the five booksellers.
He has been unable to find a Hong Kong publisher for the Chinese language version of his new book, a first for his titles.
Ma believes authorities are afraid of culture and literature, which may force the arts to go underground in Hong Kong.
“They are afraid that people have critical thinking, that people will develop a different mindset to Xi Jinping,” he said.
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