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Dissident author Ma Jian urges ‘courage’ to defend free speech as Hong Kong leader denies involvement

Dissident Chinese author Ma Jian hit out at threats to freedom of speech Saturday saying it was the “basis of civilisation” after a struggle to find a venue to host his talks at Hong Kong’s literary festival.

The venue battle fuelled growing concerns that semi-autonomous Hong Kong’s freedoms are fast disappearing under an assertive Beijing.

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Ma, whose books are banned in mainland China, is due to promote his latest novel China Dream at two speaking events Saturday.

The title plays on Chinese President Xi Jinping’s rhetoric of national rejuvenation and is described by publisher Penguin as “a biting satire of totalitarianism.”

“Self-censorship is nothing wonderful and we have to have the courage to break that,” he told reporters Saturday morning at a press conference at the new Tai Kwun arts centre, which hosts the Hong Kong International Literary Festival and had originally cancelled his talks.

China Dream

Photo: Ma Jian via Twitter.

The venue reinstated them at the eleventh hour Friday after a replacement location also dropped out.

Ma, 65, said Tai Kwun’s last-minute change of heart showed that “self-censorship had failed”.

“The freedom to speak is the basis of our civilisation,” he added. “We have to safeguard our freedom of expression. We have to safeguard our civilisation.”

He agreed freedom of speech in Hong Kong was shrinking and that people felt a “lack of security” but said the attention given to the cancellation of his talks and the reversal of the decision had unified people and could be the “beginning of change”.

Ma Jian

Ma Jian.

Ma, who lives in London and is a British passport holder as well as holding Hong Kong residency, said he had informed his local MP that he was coming to Hong Kong and they had told the British foreign ministry.

“I know that they would protect me if I ever disappeared and would look for me,” he said. “This is what I can do in a democratic country.”

Tai Kwun’s director Timothy Calnin said Thursday it had cancelled Ma’s talks because it did not want to be “a platform to promote the political interests of any individual”.

Backtracking Friday, Calnin said public statements by Ma had clarified he would not use the venue to “promote his personal political interests”.

Tai Kwun

Tai Kwun. Photo: Holmes Chan/HKFP.

Ma had said from the beginning of the row that he is a novelist, not a politician.

“If anybody separates the political elements from other things in novels, that only shows the ignorance of that person,” he told reporters.

He added that the fact he had entered Hong Kong freely after concerns he would not be allowed in made him think the government had not been involved in the two venues’ decisions to bar him.

Chief Executive Carrie Lam said on Saturday that the Hong Kong government had nothing to do with the incident, and she only learned about it from news reports.

Carrie Lam.

Carrie Lam. File photo: Holmes Chan/HKFP.

“I am happy that the incident has been resolved,” she said, adding that the Hong Kong government would support freedom of speech but could not control decisions made by venue owners.

Literary festival organisers said they could not comment when asked by reporters Saturday for more detail on the reasons Tai Kwun had given them for the original cancellations and the backtrack.

Additional reporting: Holmes Chan.

Dissident author Ma Jian urges 'courage' to defend free speech as Hong Kong leader denies involvement