Taiwan, China and Xi's Ban on Orwell's Books

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Monday April 23, by Jerome F. Keating Ph.D.

In an almost ludicrous and seemingly unfathomable move, Chinese President Xi Jinping recently pushed the Chinese Communist Party's (CCP) efforts in micromanagement to the extreme.

Xi did this by banning in China a new list of items, including George Orwell's books Animal Farm and Nineteen Eighty-Four as well as the innocuous letter "N."

I leave interpretations of the banning of the letter "N" to others more drawn to delving into linguistic symbolism and cryptology and will focus on the two works of Orwell.

Orwell wrote Animal Farm in 1945, when WWII was ending and several years before the creation of the People's Republic of China (PRC).

The book referenced the 1917 Russian revolution and was directed at the severe resultant politics of then-Soviet premier Joseph Stalin, a leader whose statues were later taken down.

So why then is concern over these books now being felt in China? And why are both Animal Farm and Nineteen Eighty-Four being singled out?

Written in English and published before Xi was born, both books would at best have come to the average Chinese reader in translation.

The questions for their banning continue. Does Xi feel a need to defend Stalin? That is highly unlikely since Stalin's legacy has already undergone questioning in Russia and Russia and China have had their own stormy past.

Is the book that insidious?

Again, the initial reaction is disbelief, until one realizes that Animal Farm is an allegory and that its main allegorical theme is the betrayal of a revolution. With that revelation, the reasons for censorship suddenly come more into focus.

As works of literature, allegories convey hidden moral and political truths. In doing this, they transcend time and culture.

Is Xi afraid that readers will suspect that the Chinese revolution has been betrayed especially now that the economy is no longer in double-digit growth and China's wealth gap is widening?

Has China's revolution, like that of Russia, only ended up producing a new breed of rulers—the oligarchs? Or to put it in the words of the book's animal commandments, are "all animals equal but some are more equal than others?"

In its allegory, Animal Farm does not champion capitalism. At the story's end, it becomes evident that the pigs have become so like the capitalistic farmers that the other animals cannot distinguish them from their original masters. In other words, the revolution failed and the animals (average workers) of the farm are not getting their fair share of the rewards of their labor. Orwell was a socialist.

However, there is more. Animal Farm also provides evident support of the dangers of the cult of personality. In it, Napoleon, the leader of the pigs is elevated and seen as above the law; his decisions are not to be questioned.

For those that followed the CCP's 19th National Congress and the elevation of Xi in its aftermath, this allegorical reference hits home. China's constitution has been altered to allow Xi to continue indefinitely as leader.

It is at this point that Orwell's other book, Nineteen Eighty-four comes into play.

In this work, published in 1949, Orwell is clearly prophetic as he treats the dystopian dangers of control that he could see developing in the world around him. The book takes place on the fictitious Airstrip One, formerly Great Britain, and a province of Oceania. In it we find ideas such as the government being referenced as Big Brother, which employs "Thought Police" to influence and control the thinking of the masses.

In Nineteen Eighty-Four, the official history of Oceania is written, rewritten and manipulated so often, that the novel's characters can never really be sure of anything that really happened in the past.

Their nation also possesses a "Ministry of Truth," which subsequently controls the media. A free press and transparency are nonexistent. The official party of the nation has a small elite "Inner Circle" and a larger "Outer Circle," which are separate from the masses.

For Xi to ban this book, it appears that all these ideas and motifs again hit too close to home. It is as if Orwell somehow was describing a future communism with Chinese characteristics; his thoughts are paralleled in China's politburo, the CCP and the remaining mass of people.

This is what is most disconcerting about Xi's ban. All that is described allegedly happens in Great Britain, yet the ban is issued in China, just as Xi professes to be opening up governmental control. It is a foreboding sign that all is not going well in China.

What is Xi's fear?

Applications of the ideas easily abound from the kidnapping of Hong Kong booksellers, to the jailing of dissidents, to Confucius Institutes placed around the world and even suggestions that the Bible be rewritten to suit Chinese.

In their alleged spirit of openness, Xi and the CCP are ironically acting more like parents that fear letting their children grow up. They do not trust their children to judge things for themselves with the result that these books, written for a different, pre-PRC world, must be banned. Why?

The final question becomes obvious. If Xi's power were secure, why then would he need to go to such detail of micromanagement?

This is what gives concern to all Taiwanese. They look at what is happening on the other side of the Taiwan Strait with a sense of pity and fear as well as déjà vu.

That a ban on these two books is not found in present day democratic Taiwan goes without saying. They pose no threat to its freely elected democratic government; they can be found in English or in translation.

However, that said, it is also true that in déjà vu fashion, Taiwanese can also recall their experience of White Terror in the days of the Chinese Nationalist Party (KMT) one-party state. It was then that Bo Yang was sentenced to 10 years on Green Island because of his simple humorous translation of a Popeye cartoon.

This allegedly was the final challenge to the leadership image of Chiang Kai-shek and his son Chiang Ching-kuo.

Taiwanese can also remember the years immediately following the 1979 Kaohsiung Incident, when the KMT approved a series of high profile murders in a last ditch effort to maintain control. Martial Law would be lifted in 1987.

This is what makes it propitious that these two works be read and reread by all, Taiwanese and others. If the books are seen as being so insidious to China's rule that they should be banned, then what better way to understand the true thinking and the true dangers of one's enemy.