Writer’s Stabbing Raises Questions and Fears: Postcard From Beijing

Stephen Morison Jr.

Four days after a liberal blogger and writer was stabbed at a bookstore during a reading in Beijing, the writing community here still has more questions than answers. Xu Lai is recovering, his compatriots are actively theorizing about the motives behind the incident in their blogs, and the proprietors of the bookstore-café that sponsored the event are uneasy and hoping to avoid notoriety.  

Xu Lai, the novelist and journalist best known in China for his blog ProState in Flames, had just finished responding to questions about his blog and his recently released novel Fanciful Creatures at One-Way Street Library bookstore on the afternoon of Saturday, February 14, when he was approached by two men who forced him into the bathroom then stabbed him in the abdomen and threatened to cut off his hand. Xu Lai’s wife and other attendees came to the writer’s assistance and chased the assailants out into the street where they escaped.

Reports from various Chinese bloggers who were at the event quoted the attackers as shouting, “We’re here to take revenge,” “You’ll know better than to offend people next time,” and “You brought this on yourself. You know why we’re doing this, don’t you?”

The assailants have yet to be apprehended.

In China, where all media continues to be censored and controlled by the government, liberal-minded citizens have grown to rely on an informal network of respected blogs to bring them the news of the day. In this environment, Xu Lai enjoys a mild celebrity. ProState in Flames offered postings and links to China-focused news articles and was mildly critical of the state until it was shutdown by the government last November.

Xu Lai’s blogging compatriots have offered various theories for the attacks, with some speculating that his criticisms of China may have simply offended a pair of thugs with nationalist sympathies. But many also wondered if the Chinese government, which occasionally resorts to heavy-handed tactics to silence its critics, played a role.

During the economic boom of recent years, Chinese writers and intellectuals have witnessed a steady expansion of their freedom of speech, and fans of literature have enjoyed increasing access to formally sensitive books and topics. But like stock market watchers in the West, the writers, readers, and bookstore owners of China are alert for any indicators that might signal a downturn in the current liberal trend.

One-Way Street Library, a bookstore-café with two branches founded by a group of writers and artists, has been an increasingly well-known sponsor of readings and lectures by contemporary writers, journalists, publishers, filmmakers, and artists. The readings tend to avoid politics in favor of the avant-garde and they are generally very well-attended.

Contacted today, one of the bookstore’s partners preferred not to talk about the incident. She confirmed she had visited Xu Lai in the hospital after the attack and was happy to confirm that the writer would make a full recovery, but she had no further comment and preferred that reports about the incident avoid discussion of the bookstore.

The blog Black and White Cat probably has the best overview of the stabbing.

Stephen Morison, Jr. is a writer and teacher living in Beijing, China.