THE BLOG
20/10/2015 10:22 BST | Updated 19/10/2016 06:12 BST

Is This China's Bravest Writer?

Murong Xuecun, nom de plume of Chinese writer Hao Qun, isn't afraid of controversy. Following the arrest of several friends who were commemorating 25 years since the Tiananmen Square crackdown, at which his own speech was read aloud, he wrote an op-ed in the New York Times asking to be arrested when he returned to China. He said he should not be afforded special treatment by sheer geography (he was then based in Australia). His wish was granted. When he went back, he was "invited for tea", as an interrogation is euphemistically called in China.

Seemingly unshaken Murong continues to provoke. In May he protested outside the New York Public Library against limits on free speech in China; in June he marked the 26th anniversary of the Tiananmen crackdown. Now he's promoting the recently translated version of his 2008 novel Dancing Through Red Dust and it's sure to ruffle feathers too. On top of being a scathing critique of the Chinese justice system, this latest version contains three different endings - a not so subtle way of highlighting censorship in China.

"The book's about corruption. By putting three endings in you can see how much censorship there is," explained Murong at a recent dialogue on his book held at London's Asia House.

The three endings resulted from an arduous to-and-fro between himself and his China-based publishers, who believed his original ending was too dark. His next ending, taking a cue from China's literary past, suggested the book's story was all a dream. This still didn't please the publishers. The final ending -a happy one - was the winner. The book was published, though the publishers were driven out of business nonetheless.

"The readers have the same opinion as I do on the endings," he says of those who have seen all the endings.

"They like the first one most and have come to like the second one as they're interested in the idea that you can wake up and not know who you are. No one likes the third one."

Censorship didn't just involve adding bits to his book; it involved cutting chunks too. Some Chinese readers, increasingly savvy to censorship, figured this out.

"One Weibo [China's version of Twitter] user commented that I should have talked about harvested organs. They clearly picked up on the fact that something was missing, that something had been censored," Murong explained.

As he says, this might be fiction, but the bulk of the content is based on reality. Murong has a law degree and worked in a myriad of professions in his past non-writer life. The book builds on this, plus an extra 12 months of research for good measure. The result is one part funny and two parts serious, a reflection of the writer himself. Murong is cynical, a tough nut and not one to sugar coat his country. He's also upbeat, friendly and likes to laugh.

Murong shot to fame in 2002 as a result of his debut novel Leave Me Alone: A Novel of Chengdu, which he published online in a series of instalments. It went on to sell millions of copies and was long listed for the Man Asian Literary Prize. His latest novel has a similar publishing tale.

Today he's regarded as one of the most interesting writers from China, known for his sharp social commentary, irreverent take on life and daring attitude. At one stage his microblogs had 8.5 million followers. When they were all closed down he did not take it lightly. He quickly penned an open letter to the nameless censor, saying their "awesome powers are only temporary".

The writer has lived across China and regards Beijing as the best choice if you're to be outspoken. As he explains:

"For us dissidents the Chinese government can be brutal, but if there's one thing they care about it's international public opinion. Beijing has many foreign embassies, many diplomats live here, there are many international media with offices also in Beijing. This can make the Beijing government more cautious."

With this in mind Murong intends to remain in China, at least for now. It's a brave choice and distinguishes him from plenty of other Chinese writers of his stature and ilk, who have chosen homes abroad.

"My most important job is to observe the Chinese. As long as there is some space, I'll stay. If someday the situation becomes more difficult I might leave."

Staying put does not mean staying quiet. Murong is already working on his next book, which is inspired by Orwell's 1984. Orwell is clearly close to his heart (he recently reread the dystopian masterpiece and found himself identifying with it more, and paid homage to Orwell's 1927 lodgings in Notting Hill).

The book will be set in 2072. In this imaginary world, China will be "very backwards and conservative. At that time there will be no courts, no prisons and the likes. China will seem like a very happy place on the surface." Murong pauses here and doesn't continue. He knows that both inside and outside of China you don't always need to speak for a message to be heard.

Is this fictional world as far away as 2072?

"Between 2009 and 2012, as Weibo flourished, I saw positive changes in China. People were becoming braver and I thought that it was a time when people would stand up and say no. The last two years have seen a big crackdown."

He pauses and then changes tune, the positive side of his character once again coming out.

"I don't believe they [the government] will be able to carry on controlling the internet forever. In the future the Great Firewall will break," he says. It's certainly a nice thought.

Dancing Through Red Dust was published on 15 September by Forty-Six Books.