Thirty years on from the Rushdie Affair, the ongoing detention of Gui Minhai in China is yet another reminder of the threat that dictators pose to free expression.

At the end of the 20th century you could be forgiven for being an optimist. Fifty years after the defeat of fascism in Europe, the other great totalitarian threat, Soviet communism, had crumbled as the world witnessed a succession of democratic waves from Latin America to East Asia. It was not that history itself had ended but as Francis Fukuyama put it, that liberal democracy had won.

The year 1989 will go down as a turning point in this struggle. In that year the Hungarian government began, physically, dismantling the iron curtain and the people of Poland ended communist party rule. Across Czechoslovakia thousands called for freedom while across the Baltic states a human chain, repudiating Soviet rule, formed. In November, the Berlin Wall, a cold war behemoth which had divided the city since 1961, was opened—momentous changes were taking place.

Fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989. Wikimedia Commons/Raphaël Thiémard from Belgium/cc-by-sa 2.0.

Yet, despite this huge release of human energy not all dictatorships fell and not all tyrants bowed to cries for freedom. The year 1989 also witnessed two events which foreshadowed the current challenges to free societies, and the ability of their citizens to express themselves.

First, for all the change in eastern Europe, the limitations of China’s ‘reform and opening-up’ where put on full display when Deng Xiaoping decided to turn his guns on the pro-democracy demonstrators in Tiananmen square.

Unlike General Secretary Mikhail Gorbachev, the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) showed in 1989 its determination to maintain its authoritarian empire. This empire’s rapid economic rise, since the late 1980s, has meant that it has been increasingly able to silence dissenting voices well beyond its own borders.

The second was Ayatollah Khomeini’s call, on Valentine’s Day 1989, for the murder of novelist Salman Rushdie. This death sentence, for writing the fictitious The Satanic Verses, started a three-decade struggle between free expression and theocracy.

The fatwa, declared by the dictatorship in Tehran against Rushdie and those involved in the book’s publication, resulted in protests across the world. However, unlike those demonstrating behind the crumbling iron curtain, these protesters were calling for censorship—and were prepared to use violence to enforce it.

The British Council office in Karachi was bombed, while thousands of Bangladeshis attempted to ransack the organisation’s library facilities in Dhaka. Books were burnt on the streets of Bradford and Bolton in England, and firebombs launched at bookstores and newspaper offices on both sides of the Atlantic.

In July 1991, Hitoshi Igarashi, a scholar and the Japanese translator of The Satanic Verses, was stabbed to death in his office at the University of Tsukuba. One week earlier, the book’s Italian translator had survived a knife attack in his Milan apartment, and two years later the attempt to kill the Turkish translator, the 78-year-old Aziz Nesin, resulted in 35 deaths.

These people, along with Rushdie himself who had to go underground, are just some of the victims of Khomeini’s proclamation.

Salman Rushdie. Photo: Flickr/ActuaLitté.

In the world today, the imposition of blasphemy laws via assassination is all too common. One only has to look at the slaughtering of journalists at the French satirical magazine Charlie Hebdo to see what the historian Timothy Garton Ash calls the ‘assassin’s veto’, at work.

The legacy of the Rushdie affair and its chilling effect on free expression are clear. Yet, the assault on freedom of speech in the 21st century is not confined to theocratic quarters. To return to the People’s Republic of China (PRC), here we increasingly see the CCP throwing its weight about across the world to ensure the party’s line is adhered to not only amongst those living within its borders but also in free societies too.

Within the PRC the regime can block internet content and arrest dissenting voices but, unlike the Khomeinists, does not mobilise mobs on the streets of liberal democracies to call for the murder of writers. Instead, the Chinese communists prefer to use of power of the market.

This invisible mob, the increasingly wealthy one billion plus PRC citizens on whose behalf they can claim offence, has been used on numerous occasions to bend companies, governments and institutions to the CCP’s will.

With a hugely expanded middle class, access to the Chinese market is much sought by companies, including those in the creative industries. It is no surprise to read that the latest remake of Red Dawn had, at the last minute, the flags and uniforms of the film’s villains digitally replaced from Chinese to North Korean ones.

The last thing film producers want is for their product, or the actors in it, to be banned by Beijing. So if an artist wants to get signed, they better keep shtum, otherwise they will end up like long-time Tibetan human rights campaigner Richard Gere, shunned by Hollywood.

As if to prove the point, last month a longstanding critic of the Chinese authorities, Ai Weiwei, accused movie producers of cutting his part in a film they had worked on because of fears it would upset Beijing.

A bust of Liu Xiaobo in Hong Kong. Photo:

Commercial companies too have followed Beijing’s commands. In early 2018, a succession of brands were forced to issue grovelling apologies for deviating from the CCP’s ‘One China’ principle. Marriott Hotels, fashion outlet Zara, and Delta Air Lines were all targeted by Chinese netizens, CCP spokespeople and their media mouthpieces for having website drop-down menus which appeared to treat Tibet and Taiwan as separate countries.

Meanwhile, Mercedes-Benz had to U-turn on an Instagram advertising poster which featured a quote from the Dalai Lama.

Moreover, despite its insistence on non-interference in the realm of international affairs, Beijing tries telling the world who can speak where and who people can listen to. When Liu Xiaobo won the Nobel Peace Prize, in 2010, China intensely lobbied European ambassadors to boycott the event.

Likewise, in March 2016, China’s diplomatic mission in Geneva urged all diplomats and officials based at the UN to boycott an event for Nobel Peace Prize laureates at which the Dalai Lama was due to appear.

These stories are part of a trend, though they seem not to get recognised as such. The international chilling effect the CCP has on free expression does not proceed like a fatwa. There are no loud threats to kill the employees at Mercedes-Benz’s advertising department, shoppers in Zara need not fear being firebombed, and Richard Gere has not had to go into hiding.

But this does not make the PRC’s stifling of free expression around the world any less real, even if much of it goes unreported.

One of these under-reported stories came to attention last month when Sweden’s ambassador to the PRC was recalled. The case related to book publisher Gui Minhai, who remains in Chinese custody. It has been over 1,000 days since he, a Swedish citizen, was taken from his holiday home in Thailand and forced to confess to historic manslaughter charges.

Gui Minhai appears on Chinese state TV. File photo: CGTN.

His real crime? Publishing books critical of the CCP and its top brass, including Xi Jinping, at the Causeway Bay Books store in Hong Kong. Gui’s disappearance, alongside four of his publishing colleagues, understandably raised fears in Hong Kong itself which is supposed to enjoy a high degree of autonomy and be a place which safeguards freedom of speech.

His case was also, quite rightly, taken up by numerous human rights and journalistic organisations including PEN. This unusually brazen move by Beijing, dropping the subtleties of market pressures in favour of enforced disappearances as a tool of censorship, should have received a lot more attention.

Here we have a foreign government abducting another country’s citizen from a third, supposedly sovereign, state because of books they published. As is always the case, tolerating threats to free expression begets more and worse.

Thirty years ago free societies did not respond well to Khomeini’s frontal assault. With China, its attempts to alter what we see in films and distort the intellectual space through money and other “soft” measures to restrict views it does not like were allowed to pass, and then it escalated to Gui Minhai, not that his alarming case got that much more attention.

Like the Rushdie Affair, the case of Gui Minhai exposes the extraordinary lengths despots will go to in order to silence dissenters who merely write and publish books. Both cases have had far-reaching consequences in terms of chilling free expression which looks set to continue for many decades.

What is more, the action taken against both these men has been tragic for them, their family and their friends. Yet the attacks on them are not a matter just for their nearest and dearest but something which should concern us all.

Freedom of expression is a key foundation of any liberal and open society, and it is in the interest of these free societies to defend it. Those who believe in freedom of speech must, to paraphrase George Orwell, keep telling dictators what they don’t want to hear.

Gray Sergeant

Gray is a writer based in Taipei who regularly comments on Taiwanese, Chinese and Hong Kong politics. Previously he worked in human rights advocacy, and for many years was an activist for the UK Labour Party. Follow him on Twitter.