Exiled Chinese author Ma Jian has planned HK talk canceled by local venue

Ma Jian speaking after the death of Chinese Nobel Peace Prize winner Liu Xiaobo. Screengrab via YouTube.
Ma Jian speaking after the death of Chinese Nobel Peace Prize winner Liu Xiaobo. Screengrab via YouTube.

Only a week after a potentially controversial art exhibit by a dissident Chinese cartoonist was canceled amid “safety concerns,” a pair of talks by an exiled Chinese writer deeply unpopular with the mainland government have been canceled after the venue hosting it said they did not want to be a platform to promote an individual’s political interests.

Ma Jian was due to appear at two talks on Saturday at the Hong Kong Literary Festival, which is being held at Central’s newly revamped heritage and arts center, Tai Kwun. He was scheduled to appear in a panel discussion about Hong Kong literature with two other writers, and was also going to talk about his book China Dream, which was just published in English last Thursday.

But last night, Ma tweeted that Tai Kwun has unilaterally canceled the event — offering no explanation for that decision — and that literary fest organizers were now scrambling to find an alternative venue.

A statement from Tai Kwun’s director Timothy Calnin said they were working closely with the Hong Kong International Literary Festival to find a suitable alternative venue and that: “We do not want Tai Kwun to become a platform to promote the political interests of any individual.”*

The festival issued a statement on their website a few hours earlier saying they weren’t going to speculate on the reasons for the move, but reassured people that the event would be going ahead as planned and will let people know where the talks would be held.

Ma, who was born in Qingdao but now lives in the UK, first came to prominence with his debut novel Stick Out Your Tongue — first published in 1987 and translated into English in 2006. The collection of short stories about Tibet depicted a harsh and inhumane environment where ritual rape, multi-generational incest, sexual abuse took place.

After the book’s release, Chinese authorities issued a blanket ban on all of Ma’s books.

Ma later moved to Hong Kong, but returned to China in 1989 to take part in the pro-democracy protests, traveling back and forth between Hong Kong and China after the Tiananmen Square Massacre.

He moved to Germany after the 1997 handover, then settled in the UK. He was banned from entering China in 2011.

It is not clear when he will arrive in Hong Kong or if immigration authorities plan to detain him for questioning when he lands.

His latest book, China Dream, is about a provincial leader in mainland China who is falling apart psychologically as he’s haunted by nightmares of a corrupt and violent past.

The book has been described as a satire of Chinese President Xi Jinping, with the title itself inspired by a slogan Xi first used in a speech in 2013, a term China watchers say is shorthand for Xi’s vision of China as a dominant superpower.

In a previous tweet, Ma mentioned that Hong Kong publishers were afraid to publish the Chinese original of China Dream, adding that that this was the first time that had happened to any of his books.

Just last week, an art exhibit by mainland artist Badiucao, known for targeting Xi in satirical paintings — one of his works shows Xi examining the mounted head of Winnie the Pooh — was abruptly canceled the day before it was to have taken place.

Both incidents follow on from last month’s de facto expulsion of Financial Times Asia editor Victor Mallet, a longtime Hong Kong resident, whose routine renewal of his work visa was rejected without explanation after he hosted a Foreign Correspondents Club talk with the leader of a small (and now banned) independence party.

Tai Kwun — previously a police station and prison — is a renovated arts and heritage space that opened to the public a few months ago.

It is currently operated by the Hong Kong Jockey Club, a non-profit organization and Hong Kong’s only authorized betting operator.

*Update: This article was updated at 5:45pm, November 8, to include a statement from Tai Kwun.

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