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Struggling for a voice in China

January 3, 2010 | 10:17 am

China flag parade

On New Year's Eve, E.L. Doctorow, Don DeLillo and other writers gathered on the steps of the New York Public Library to call for the release of Chinese writer Liu Xiaobo. On Christmas Day, Liu had been sentenced to 11 years in prison for his part in creating Charter 08, a document calling for greater freedoms and democratic reforms in China.

CBS News reported on the New York event. China, Doctorow said, "can't move forward when its poets and writers and artists, its thinkers and intellectuals are muzzled in silence. Under such conditions the genius of a nation withers and dies."

In our Sunday books pages, we look at two books by Chinese authors who, despite having been sent to Mao Tse-tung's labor camps, have not been silenced. Xiaoda Xiao's "The Cave Man" is a fractured novel that reflects the damage done to a man thrown into solitary confinement:

In the world Xiao portrays, logic has been thrown out the window, and the fear of prison and torture lingers at the edge of everything. This is true even on the outside, where, rather than being treated with sympathy, prisoners such as Ja Feng are ostracized as shameful and considered unworthy of being part of the world.

Er Tai Gao gives his prison experience an entirely less metaphorical treatment in "In Search of My Homeland: A Memoir of a Chinese Labor Camp." He was sent to a labor camp in 1957 for publishing, as a 20-year-old art and philosophy student, an article on beauty. Reviewer Robert Faggen writes:

The Jiabiangou Camp was in the Gobi Desert; tens of thousands of people sent there for re-education and self-criticism died in the largely useless task of digging ditches to drain salt from the terrain. Gao's term had no limit; the party would decide when he had been "re-educated." As Gao unfolds his powerful story, he appears bemused by the hairsplitting distinctions between "reform" and "re-education." His inner compass remains true as ignorant armies of task forces and slogans march back and forth across his mental landscape.

For now, Liu's sentence remains unchanged, although perhaps the attention his case has gotten will help speed his release. U.S. Embassy First Secretary Greg May said America is "deeply concerned by the sentence," adding that "persecution of individuals for the peaceful expression of their political views is inconsistent with internationally recognized norms of human rights."

-- Carolyn Kellogg

Photo: Soldiers rehearse for the National Day parade in Beijing in September. Credit: Zhou Chao / EPA