I first became acquainted with JFK Miller through Whyiwrite.net, a site he founded and curates of interviews with authors who mainly write about China. Miller, an Australian, is a former expat of Indonesia, Singapore, and most recently, Shanghai, where he was editor-in-chief of an English magazine for more than six years. He returned to Brisbane in 2015 and recently published his first book, Trickle-Down Censorship: An Outsider’s Account of Working Inside China’s Censorship Regime (Hybrid Publishers, 2016). I recently asked him via e-mail about his years in China, censorship, and publishing.
SUSAN BLUMBERG-KASON: You mention in your book that many former expats in China have published memoirs after leaving the country. When you first thought about writing a memoir, was censorship the topic you wanted to tackle, or did you have other ideas? How did you decide to write about censorship?
JFK MILLER: Censorship was the only aspect of China on which I felt I could offer a perspective. I don’t speak terribly much Chinese — it’s quite pitiful actually — so I’m not acculturated in that sense. But with censorship I was immersed in it for six years. So I felt I knew it, in as much as you can know the rules of a system they go out of their way to keep secret. Though never for a moment did I think my situation was in any way comparable to that of a Chinese editor. They have to suffer censorship. For me, a foreigner, it was a lifestyle option. And not altogether a bad one because it afforded me a certain view of the country, to see it through a certain prism. In my part of the world [Australia] there’s no subject that’s taboo. We do have our sacred cows, but there’s nothing that can’t be spoken about. But the list of what’s verboten in China is extensive. Understanding what can’t be talked about is one way of understanding the place.
It’s fascinating to read about your meeting with your censors and how you suspect they might want China to open up, but all in due time. Does that give you hope, or do you think it will be too little, too late?
I have less hope today than when I lived there during the Hu-Wen administration, which seems a kinder, gentler time compared to now, imprisoned Nobel laureates notwithstanding. Xi Jinping’s quest to be the second coming of Deng Xiaoping must give serious pause to anyone hopeful of seeing a pluralist China in their lifetime. Today’s China is an ugly place if you’re a rights lawyer, grassroots activist, outspoken scholar, feminist or NGO worker. But, as Li Datong, of whom I’m an admirer, says, if you take into account 2,000 years of autocratic rule then to wait another 30 or so years for political reform isn’t so long a wait, particularly when you see how far China has progressed in this regard since it opened up. I hope he’s right, but I’m not so sure. The party has been remarkably effective at stymying calls for political reform. When Wen Jiabao made some promising remarks in this regard in the dying days of the last administration, state censors moved in to redact him. And he was the then premier no less.
You write briefly of the Hong Kong booksellers case. What were your first impressions when you heard about the booksellers? What is your prognosis for Hong Kong?
I don’t think it surprised anyone. The CCP is a practiced hand at intimidation. It should be — it has been silencing its critics this way for almost 70 years. And on that score you’d have to concede it’s been remarkably effective, both in Hong Kong and abroad. What interests me is how much we’ve all become like Hong Kong in that we self-censor for fear of upsetting Beijing. A good example is my own country’s 2013 Defense White Paper, which played down China’s growing militancy in our region. Quite a comedown from the previous 2009 paper, which had realistically acknowledged the threat. In journalism, there was Bloomberg’s self-censorship scandal of 2013, though I’m sure it’s not unique in this regard. I know the impulse to self censor all too well — I did it for six years. What has surprised me though is how far this impulse has spread abroad. As Orville Schell says, “We are all Hong Kong now.”
You didn’t write about foreign journalists and how in recent years many haven’t been able to renew their visas. But did you ever worry your visa wouldn’t be renewed?
Not really. Foreign journalists were in a different class from us low-rent scribes working for expat rags. None of us were employed as editors in any official capacity. Although I was editor-in-chief in every practical sense, the honorific title was held by my top censor. They didn’t have to worry about controlling us with visas because they controlled us with censorship. But foreign journalists write for foreign news outlets and are free to write what they like (self censorship permitting). So the only way to control them is to make the visa process bureaucratically hellish. And no one does red tape like the CCP.
It’s fascinating to read in your book that China has banned certain films and books, yet still allows those filmmakers and authors to speak at festivals on the mainland. What do you make of that? If China really wanted to censor them, wouldn’t they not permit them to speak at festivals and roam around China?
If they were serious undesirables there’s no way they would get a visa. I can’t imagine that anyone who’s even looked favorably in the direction of the Dalai Lama in living memory will be headlining a festival in China any time soon. But someone like Qiu Xiaolong, for instance, who writes detective fiction in which he often paints an unflattering portrait of the party and the society it has created, would occasionally fall foul of my censors. But I don’t think they mind — or perhaps even care — that he comes to town to appear at a few literary events attended mainly by foreigners. I also think it’s a matter of the left hand perhaps not knowing what the right hand is doing. Someone like Qiu might be on my censors’ radar, but not necessarily on immigration’s radar.
Your description of foreigners in China resonated with me. Why do you think some foreigners self-censor and don’t seem to acknowledge that, like most places in the world, unsavory things sometimes happen there?
I simply never understood those foreigners who saw the place through rose-colored glasses. China is a contradictory place, and I have contradictory feelings about it. I suspect most foreigners do. Mainlanders on the whole have an ambivalent view of foreigners, so it’s hardly surprising that foreigners might hold ambivalent views of them and their country.
You title a chapter, “This is China,” which is a common term to explain the unexplainable in China. It seems this concept is unique to China and maybe Vietnam 25 years ago, but can’t be applied to other countries with authoritarian governments like Cuba or the former Soviet Union. Do you think this concept will still apply to China once it opens up, or is it more a cultural phenomenon and less a political one?
I open that chapter with a quote from Valentin Chu, a little known Chinese journalist who wrote, for my money, one of the best books about the CCP in the early ’60s [Ta Ta, Tan Tan: The Inside Story of Communist China]. He articulates a character profile of the Chinese in that book which I’m sure would resonate with many foreigners who have lived there for any length of time. For me, it’s the perfect encapsulation of the Chinese and China as I see it — which is as the world inside out, back to front and upside down. I can’t see China’s fundamental character changing, whether the polity stays the same or not. As far as cultures go, I think China has a better claim than most to immutability. Even Mao, who tried to reformat China’s hard drive with the Cultural Revolution, admitted to Nixon that he’d only managed to change a few places in the vicinity of Beijing.
How long did it take you to write your book and can you describe your publishing process?
It took four years: one year writing and three years procrastinating. I’m afraid I’m one of those people who will find any reason not to write. The downside is prolonged periods of inactivity. The upside is a very tidy home and a very well ordered music collection. I learned the hard way that the writer of a book is faced with one of two choices: be occupied writing it, or be preoccupied with not writing it. Eventually I reasoned that I may as well be occupied with it because at least then there was a chance the day would come when I would no longer be preoccupied with it.
As for publishing, I despaired for a short while and then came two offers and one “let’s keep talking” in the space of a month. I was fortunate to find the publisher I did. Anna Rosner Blay and Louis de Vries of Hybrid Publishers in Melbourne were a pleasure to work with. It’s very encouraging to find a publisher who likes your work enough to want to publish it. Anna is an author herself and understands the sort of thin-skinned creatures we writers are. Her editorial guidance was collaborative and she didn’t suggest I change terribly much which is really more editorial freedom a first-time author could possibly hope for.
Have you returned to China since you left? Do you plan to do any book events there?
I haven’t and since I finished the book my area of interest has shifted somewhat to Indonesia, that other great behemoth of my region, where I’ve had the chance to live for a couple of years. The comparison has been interesting. Both countries have national psyches traumatized by colonialism. But there are more distinguishing features than parallels. China is authoritarian; Indonesia is democratic. China has a predominant ethnicity — Han, over 90 percent — whereas in Indonesia the largest of its 300 or so ethnicities is Javanese at 40 percent. China is largely atheistic; Indonesia is deeply religious. I’m an outsider in both cultures — a laowai in China, a bule in Indonesia. It’s always reassuring, I think, to know one’s place.