Murong Xuecun was one of the brightest stars of the Chinese literary scene, and his novels offered harsh critiques of contemporary social issues that few other writers dared to imitate.
But after a decade of restricted freedom of expression under President Xi Jinping, he was unable to publish in his own country and was eventually forced into exile.
Its fate mirrors that of many liberal Chinese intellectuals who attempted to shed light on the system and then fled abroad, were imprisoned, or were silenced.
The 48-year-old writer, whose real name is Hao Qun, left China in August last year after writing “Deadly Quiet City,” a nonfiction account of the Wuhan coronavirus lockdown released in March 2020.
His Australian publisher expects he will be “definitely arrested” after the book’s release, Murong told AFP from his home in Melbourne.
“They asked me to leave immediately.”
Murong arrived in Wuhan in April 2020, taking great risks to interview the families of people lost to a mysterious and deadly virus ravaging the city, as well as residents who are facing food and medicine shortages due to the lockdown were faced.
Independent citizen journalists covering conditions in Wuhan were later jailed, while state propaganda portrayed the lockdown as a triumph.
“I kept getting calls from state security trying to harass and threaten me,” he said.
“I was terrified throughout the whole process. When I started writing, (citizen journalist) Zhang Zhan was arrested. Twenty days earlier I had conducted a very detailed interview with her.”
Fearing imminent arrest, Murong sent each page as he wrote it to a friend overseas using encryption software before deleting it from his computer.
“I told my friend, ‘No matter what happens to me, this book needs to be published.'”
– climate change –
Murong became an overnight sensation when his first novel was published online in 2002, earning praise for its gritty depiction of urban life, featuring nihilistic characters who chase alcohol, sex and drugs.
The relatively permissive climate of the 2000s under former leader Hu Jintao was also a time when fierce debate on social media and independent media thrived.
Other Chinese writers have gained international recognition, with Mo Yan receiving the 2012 Nobel Prize in Literature.
A multitude of voices thrived online and in print – although publishers played a delicate balancing act with censorship.
But when Xi came to power, voices calling for social change were silenced as he tried to eliminate all threats to the Communist Party.
One by one, Murong’s friends – formerly outspoken journalists, intellectuals and writers – were arrested or silenced.
“Just because they did or said something that the Communist Party doesn’t like, the regime threw them in jail,” he said.
Murong himself was summoned to a Beijing police station in 2019 for retweeting a cartoon of Xi three years earlier.
Cultural censorship increased exponentially under Xi, and even tattoos and earrings worn by men became blurred on TV as the Communist Party sought to emphasize what it considers “healthy” social values.
Now movies, TV series and musical works are abruptly pulled off when they cross undefined political red lines.
Elementary school curricula contain textbooks on “Xi Jinping Thoughts”.
Murong’s account on China’s Twitter-like Weibo platform once had more than 1 million followers. It was banned in 2013.
“Although I call myself a writer, it has been almost impossible for me to publish essays or books. All I could do was be an anonymous screenwriter,” he said.
As Xi prepares to secure a norm-breaking third term at the October party convention, Murong likens the current situation to the Cultural Revolution under Mao Zedong – the founder of communist China – when fierce mass campaigns were mobilized against imaginary social threats.
“China is very likely to become like the Mao era, a country where nobody dares to speak out,” he said.
“Perhaps China’s literature and arts will not truly flourish until the censorship and oppression by the Communist Party is over.”