Preparations for ICPC Founding

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By Bei Ling

1, The Origins of ICPC Creation

On August 27, 2000, I, as a Chinese citizen imprisoned for “illegal publication” of a literary magazine, was sent directly to a flight in Beijing to “deport” for exile in USA according to an agreement between the Chinese and US governments.

In October 2000, I went to Los Angeles to receive the PEN US West Center’s 2000 Freedom to Write Award. Mr. Homero Aridjis, the President of International PEN, and his wife attended the awarding ceremony. Mr. Aridjis, a Hispanic Mexican poet of 60s, had a talent of a politician and diplomat like many Latin American writers such as Pablo Neruda and Mario Vargas Llosa, the laughing strategists. Another goal of his trip was to discuss with me about establishing a PEN center of Chinese writers in exile. During next two days, at the awarding dinner party and in the empty hotel at city center, Mr. Aridjis and some board members of PEN US West continuously persuaded me that my own experiences of arrest and detention in August 2000 had demonstrated the great urgency of creating a PEN center of Chinese writers in exile.

Based on my personal experiences, I told them that there had been a lot of controversial resentments among the overseas Chinese writers, but little communication between the writers with a strong political dissidence and others disliking the politics. Even among the exiled writers, there were not only the former underground writers but also some former government-sponsored writers, i.e., members of the official Chinese Writers Association, whose experiences and literary tastes varied greatly. It was extremely difficult to establish a group of those writers.

In the sense of morality and responsibility, however, I felt difficult to decline the idea. When I had been imprisoned for literature, Mr. Aridjis was among those issuing an open letter to Jiang Zemin, the President of China for my release, and PEN US West was among the centers calling for rescuing me. How could I decline them?

I hesitated for a long time. I had never taken part in any organization of writers. A writer is completely an individual, who should be neither partisan nor grouping. If I would go around to create a PEN club of writers, it would appear to be contrary to my principle of conduct. In my mind, an organization of writers should be based on a literary journal or publishing house as its core. Although it could express its stand on the public affairs or major humanity events, it should usually be focus on literary seminars and publications.

Then I was thinking that when a writer or literary editor, for his text, writing, expression, or publication, was subject by the state to the censorship, threatening, banning, or even imprisonment, a fellow writer writing in Chinese (regardless of personal relationship or political affinity) should not be silent, nor indifferent, just waiting for the international writers and their organizations to protest publicly, or just waiting for the international communities or foreign governments to intervene for rescue. If we would have an organization of writers to speak up, which should ordinarily impose no constraints on writers (To a writer, nothing is more important than freedom), yet in the event that a writer’s work was banned, or even that a writer himself was persecuted, no matter what country it might come from, in addition to the protests from individual writers, we would have an organization capable to voice out, in cooperation with International PEN and other international literary agencies, to support and rescue the writer, and to provide with refuge, living and writing conditions. Solzhenitsyn’s case in Soviet Union in 1960s,

Brodsky’s in 1970s, Havel’s in Czechoslovakia in 1970s-1980s, Rushdie’s case including a fatwā against him issued by Iran’s theocratic leader Khomeini in 1989, and even my own arrest in Beijing in August all had demonstrated the solidarity and assistance of would literary community and International PEN, and indicated the necessity and urgency to create an PEN center of independent Chinese writers. It was too hard for me to refuse it, a responsibility difficult to avoid after I had been rescued from jail.

After I got agreement from Meng Lang, a poet who had work with me in editing Tendency magazine for many years, and now who was willing to help me with preparation for founding a PEN center, after I had communicated and discussed with Liu Xiaobo to have got his agreement and participation, we confirmed a premise to found a PEN center, i.e., only if the writers beyond the official system of Chinese Writers Association, were also eligible to join it, I was willing to stand out to prepare the founding of such a PEN center. Strictly speaking, it was because Liu Xiaobo asked me not to shirk this historical responsibility and also because he promised to persuade the independent writers within China mainland to become PEN members that I really started to prepare the founding work of the independent Chinese PEN. Only because of the agreement and participation of the underground writers and dissident intellectuals within China mainland, creating a PEN center makes sense.

Early in 2001, I notified Mr. Aridjis and some board members of PEN US West that I would give a try to prepare the founding of a PEN center of independent Chinese writers.

My studio apartment in the artist area, South End of Boston, and Meng Long’s residence at Chinese Culture Institute, a walking distence of 10 minutes from mine, became the places of preparation and birth of the independent Chinese PEN.

In early spring, Meng Lang and I respectively made telephone communications with a number of overseas Chinese writers, exiled writers and scholars in Europe and USA. The preparation work got generously commitments and supports from the exiled writers in USA, including Liu Binyan, former Vice-president of the Chinese Writers Association; Zheng Yi, former Vice-president of the Shanxi Provincial Writers’ Association; Yu Haocheng, former director of the China Qunzhong Publishing House, and Guo Luoji, former Marxist theorist. Among those who agreed to join us were also American-Chinese writer Han Hsiu, British-Chinese writers and poets Ma Jian, Hu Dong and Yang Lian, Swedish-Chinese writer Chen Maiping, and Danish-Chinese Feng Jun, etc. In short, the founding members included the writers, schoolars and jounalists in exile and the independent writers and intellectuals in China.

In March 2001, I sent the copies of an initiative letter to 40+ Chinese writers and scholars over the world to propose the creation of an overseas PEN center for the independent Chinese Writers. Then, Meng Lang and I telephoned one by one to invite those who agreed with PEN’s aims to join us.

Chen Maiping, Meng Lang and I made a number of telephone discussions on both of Chinese and English names of the new PEN center. After I discussed several times with Mrs. Jane Spender, Administrative Secretary of International PEN, Its English translation was finally accepted as INDEPENDENT CHINESE PEN CENTRE (ICPC).

As the writers were living in different countries, Meng Lang and I had to work hard to make telephone conversations with them day and night while counting the time difference. At that time, international calls were rather expensive, but we still had to start with greetings at first, even chatting a while before approaching our formal subject. Most of the writers did not know the constitution and function of International PEN, nor understand why we should set up a PEN center. Therefore, Meng Lang and I had to explain this and that one by one, and make repeated persuasions, because the writers, especially those former underground writers in China who had disgust with the official organizations such as the Writers Associations and the Federations of Literary and Art Circles, might not recognize ICPC under preparation.

According to the regulations of International PEN, a new center should have at least 20 founding members and submit a written application for its membership to receive its acknowledgement. The curriculum vitae for each of founding members had to be translated into English for International PEN’s examination and approval. The preparation for founding ICPC took time. Meng Lang and I kept calling and emailing to each of the founding members for their resumes. During that period, Miss Ann Huss, an assistant professor at Department of Chinese Literature, Wellesley College, helped me a lot, with writing all of English letters to International PEN for discussion on the preparation progress, and translating some of the resumes. After supplementing the membership information several times, a list of 31 primary founding members and documents with their signatures were finally acknowledged by International PEN headquarter on July 23, 2001. In August 2001, International PEN notified that ICPC’s application for accreditation to International PEN had been included in the agenda of the International PEN Congress to be held in London in November.

ICPC founding members include the novelists, poets, scholars, publishers and literary editors exiled in Europe and USA, as well as the underground writers and dissident intellectuals in China. Among 31 primary founding members, there are also the former President of Shanxi Provincial Film Association and novelist Zheng Yi, Sweden-based novelist Chen Maiping and essyist Mo Li, UK-based novelist Ma Jian and poets Yang Lian and Hu Dong, Danmark-based poet Feng Jun, US-based scholar Wu Ningkun, Guo Luoji and Yu Haocheng, and novelist Han Hsiu, and China-based Liu Xiaobo and his wife Liu Xia, etc.

Soon, Taiwan poet Lo Fu, scholars exiled in Germany Zhong Weiguang and Huan Xuewen, and others also joined ICPC. At the same time, Meng Lang and I also made several phone calls to Shanghai-based poet Ah Zhong and other underground writers, and received their agreements and supports. In China, Liao Yiwu joined ICPC, and Liu Xiaobo was also engaged in the development of domestic membership, promoting writers Yu Jie and Ren Bumei to join us by the end of 2001.

2, Joining International PEN

In October 2001, International PEN invited me as a co-founder of ICPC to to attend its 67th Congress to be held in London in November, and I would have a mission responsible to get ICPC approved as a chapter of International PEN through voting at the Congress.

In the morning of last day of the Congress, the resolution on the establishment of ICPC for affiliation to International PEN was presented at the meeting of the the Assembly of Delegates. On behalf of PEN American Center to nominate ICPC, Mr. Larry Siems, Director of its Freedom to Write and International Program, make a powerful nomination speech. Mr. Siems, aged 40, was the former Director of Freedom to Write Program at PEN US West Center, a senior literary and human rights worker. A year earlier when I had received the Freedom to Write Award of PEN US West, it had been him to pick me at the Los Angeles airport. In 2001, moved to New York and got the current position. Therefore, we had a tacit understanding. During his speech, he formally introduced me to the delegates from around the world. Then, Chairman Mr. Aridjis asked me to make a presentation speech for ICPC application. Facing over a hundred delegates, I used my Chinlish (Chinese English) to talk about four points:
(1) The situation of literature and writers in China today;
(2) Chinese writers in exile and exile literature;
(3) The reasons and historical responsibilities of founding Independent Chinese PEN Center (ICPC);
(4) The relationship between ICPC and the Chinese Writers Association.

In my speech, I emphasized that ICPC represents no country but its membership, as we are the free association of the individual writers. One of the purposes of founding ICPC is because freedom of the press and freedom of expression in China have been constantly violated. It is because Chinese Writers Association cannot and dare not fight for the writers’freedom to publish and to create, and because it has always turned a blind eye to the events of continuing violations of writers’ freedom of expression and of writing in China, that there exist necessity and urgency to establish ICPC. ICPC and Chinese Writers Association should supervise and urge each other to jointly safeguard writers’ human rights and literary freedom.

My statement got applauses, and the agendum of ICPC application made a climax at the Congress. Many delegates came up shaking hands with me, and told me that International PEN had been waiting for an independent Chinese center beyond governmental manipulation to join over a decade, and finally, we could sit together.

The delegates from a number of exiled PEN centers, such as Cuba, Iranian, Vietnamese in exile, spoke in sequence, expecting ICPC to become a member of PEN family.

After my speech, the delegates had a lively discussion and debate. The delegates from Palestinian PEN, French PEN and Japan PEN presented their questions and doubts. Japanese delegate could not understand why ICPC should add “Independent” in its name, and doubted whether this concept would generate a political suspicion like national independence. The French delegate questioned, after its participation in International PEN, would ICPC make conflict with China PEN Center in the future Congresses? He even asked, could the newly founded ICPC represent the writers in China? The Palestinian delegate believed that as China PEN Center had consistently supported Palestinian people’s rights to fight for independence and national survival, ICPC should be incorporated into China PEN Center, and questioned whether establishing another center was superfluous. I made the following replies:

(1) The term “independent” is not based on the sense of national independence, but means the independence of a writer or a group of writers from being attached to the state or official institutions;
(2) ICPC is not a group of writers in exile, but its membership consists of three parts: “writers in China”, “Chinese writers settled overseas” and “writers in exile”;
(3) ICPC has no intention to replace China PEN Center nor to represent a country, but hope to establish a constructive relationship for dialogue and cooperation with all of the PEN centers, especially the Chinese Writers Association (Chinese PEN).

My replies got again applauses and supportive statements from many delegates. The Japanese delegate spoke again and expressed his comprehension and support of ICPC’s work for Chinese writers freedom of the press. The Palestinian delegate specially apologized to me after the meeting. She said that Chinese government had always supported Palestinian independence movement, and that Chinese Writers Association had a good relationship with Palestinian PEN. Her public question was to account for China PEN in absence, but privately, Palestinian PEN would make no trouble with ICPC.

It was a historic moment. In absence of China PEN Center, 62 of 65 centers in presence voted in favor of ICPC.

In December 2001, as a co-founder of ICPC, I proposed a direct election of ICPC President by the members, and other members accepted my proposal. I nominated Liu Binyan as a candidate of the President, and through voting by email or fax, Liu Binyan got 78% of the membership votes and so was elected as the first President of ICPC. Afterwards, I propose Liu Xiaobo and Zheng Yi to be ICPC Vice-presidents. Liu insisted to decline it, said that one Vice-president would be enough, and that he could support ICPC operation in his capacity of a member. Zheng Yi accepted my proposal. To follow the working structure of PEN American Center PEN, I proposed the creation of freedom to write program, suggesting Meng Lang to be its coordinator, and Meng accepted it. In January 2002, ICPC’s team had been initially set up. Then, President Liu Binyan issued his handwritten appointments: Zheng Yi as Vice-president, Bei Ling as Executive Director and Meng Lang as Coordinator of Freedom to Writer Committee.

In February 2002, I wrote to Susan Sontag to report ICPC’s birth and invite her to be ICPC Honorary Member. In the letter, I talked about the difficulties in founding ICPC, complained about too much transactional work. Susan quickly replied, congratulated on ICPC birth, and even pointed out its significance. In her letter, she asked, “I know this means a sacrifice of your writing time, but what else can you do? It’s wonderful that the Independent P.E.N. Center has been founded. Someday this will be seen as a pivotal point for independent Chinese literature. Don’t you think so? As for your arrest in August 2000, now it seems that was the Chinese government’s gift to the cause of independent Chinese literature. Of course, that was not their intention! I am happy to be named an honorary member of your P.E.N. organization…so…I accept.”