Less Velvet, More Prison

This is the first of a pair of essays in China Heritage devoted to the codependent relationship between the party-state and Chinese artists and thinkers. It is a relationship that dates from the 1950s, but one that has developed in symbiotic alliance with the Reform Era from 1978. Given the global stature of some mainland-based Chinese thinkers and artists, we feel it is worth considering codependency in the era of Xi Jinping, and in the context of the 2017 ‘selectoral year’, at the end of which it is presumed that China’s Chairman of Everything will be unanimously anointed to continue his lugubrious reign.

In particular, we examine the state-creator relationship by (re-) introducing The Velvet Prison: Artists Under State Socialism a book by the Hungarian writer Miklós Haraszti:

  • Below we revisit material first published in 1988. The ideas expressed then were later expanded, first in 1989 (in an academic paper on the Velvet Prison and Chinese reform-era culture and in the catalogue essay ‘Arrière-Pensée on an Avant-Garde: The Stars in Retrospect’, in The Stars: 10 Years, Hong Kong: Hanart 2 Gallery) and then again for the 1999 book In the Red: on contemporary Chinese culture. After introducing Haraszti’s The Velvet Prison, we offer material from 1988 and 1999, as well as a number of quotations from a book that is relevant to understanding the ongoing cultural predicament of China’s creative and thinking men and women; and,
  • The second piece, Elephants & Anacondas, features an essay by the mainland writer and cultural entrepreneur Xu Zhiyuan 許知遠. Having first encountered Haraszti through our work some years ago, Xu has come to realise that for the truly outspoken thinker or independent cultural creator, in China today there is more prison and less velvet than before.

— Geremie R. Barmé,
Editor, China Heritage
26 June 2017

It is over three decades since Simon Leys (Pierre Ryckmans) gave me his copy of the page proofs of the English translation of Miklós Haraszti’s The Velvet Prison: Artists under State Socialism (New York: Basic Books/ The New Republic, 1987). I was working on a doctoral thesis under Pierre’s supervision and had only recently returned to Canberra from a period of leave during which, a few months earlier, John Minford and I had launched Seeds of Fire: Chinese Voices of Conscience (Hong Kong: Far Eastern Economic Reivew) at Hanart TZ gallery 漢軒 with the support of its founder Johnson Chang Tsong-zung 張頌仁.

Seeds offered a diverse collection of Chinese literature and art, with accompanying editorial commentary and official critique. It reflected our understanding of the uplifting culture, and the political drag, experienced by the creative Chinese commonwealth over the previous decade (1976-1986).

Seeds followed on from John’s Trees on the Mountain (1983), and it was the precursor to New Ghosts, Old Dreams: Chinese Rebel Voices (1992), which I edited with Linda Jaivin (see About China Heritage). Here I would acknowledge the support of Steve Wasserman (editor of the English version of Harazsti’s book) who commissioned an expanded second edition of Seeds for Hill & Wang (an imprint of Farrar, Straus & Giroux) in New York, which appeared in 1988. After 4 June 1989, Steve also commissioned what would become New Ghosts, Old Dreams: Chinese Rebek Voices for Times Books at Random House before becoming the editor of the Los Angeles Times Book Review. We were introduced to Steve by Pierre Ryckmans.


Influenced by the work of Simon Leys and dedicated to the memory of the irascible writer Lu Xun, who had died half a century earlier in 1936, Seeds of Fire was pessimistic in tone but optimistic in intent.

點, as in 點穴, or ‘to apply pressure to an acupoint’, the rubric of the chapter ‘Pressure Points’ in the second edition of Seeds of Fire.

The reservations we expressed in Seeds about the direction of Chinese political and cultural change were validated all too soon for, in late 1986, student demonstrations in Shanghai calling for greater media freedom and openness led early the following year to the ouster of Hu Yaobang, General Secretary of the Communist Party, and the purge from the Party of a number of leading liberal thinkers that the authorities had previously courted. The resulting political mêlée was short-lived but, for some of us, grim proof of the intense struggle for ‘the soul of China’ and its political future. If anything, we were less optimistic about the future than before. So, it was with Haraszti’s The Velvet Prison in hand that, when we produced an updated and expanded edition of Seeds for publication in North America we decided to add a chapter titled ‘Pressure Points’ (I had already written about the book in Chinese for the Hong Kong press in October 1987 (see my 社會主義的“ 軟禁文化”,《九十年代月刊》1987年10月).

Cover of the North American edition of Seeds of Fire, New York: Hill & Wang, 1988. Cover image: a still from Chen Kaige’s 陳凱歌 film Yellow Earth 黃土地.

In the editorial introduction to the chapter I wrote:

After decades of rule by Proledic [or ‘Proletarian Dictatorship’ 人民民主專政, a neologism we coined for Seeds, inspired by Nadsat, created by Anthony Burgess for his 1962 novel A Clockwork Orange], external political coercion and the internal pressures of the Chinese deep structure [a reference to the world of Lung-kee Sun 孫隆基] meld to create a new self-censoring cultural figure, the State Artist. The degradation of the individual, in particular the intellectual, in such a situation is often thought of by the Chinese as unique to their cultural tradition. In fact, the artist under Proledic is common to all socialist systems. The Hungarian dissident-poet Miklós Haraszti describes the phenomenon in his samizdat classic The Velvet Prison: Artists under State Socialism.

As Mainland China enters the phase of ‘soft’ technocratic socialism, the parameters of the cultural Velvet Prison are being measured out in everyday practice. But this does not mean that there is no resistance to new, higher levels of co-option, conformity within the deep structure of the State. Individual artists struggle to maintain or achieve their independence. Each campaign against Bourgelib [‘bourgeois liberalisation’ 資產階級自由化, still a bugbear of the Chinese party-state. Simply put, bourgeois liberalisation is the negation of or opposition to the Communist Party] disaffects sections of the intelligentsia and increases the number of marginalised intellectuals and writers seeking to develop their own self-referential system of values and artistic norms. But they are faced with a choice of suffering complete cultural ostracism or accepting the State’s efforts to incorporate them in a new social contract, one in which consensus replaces coercion, and complicity subverts criticism.

It is in the borderlands of permissibility that the contact between the alienated or marginal writers and the State takes place. They barter endlessly, using different rates of exchange — freedom to publish, or the right to remain unmolested, permission to enjoy the privileges of the cultural élite or even to travel overseas. Deals are cut, or fall through as the case may be. The sensitive pressure points of the individual are laid bare, in the antechambers of the Velvet Prison.

Seeds of Fire: Chinese Voices of Conscience, 1988, 2nd ed., p.386.

To update this quotation to accommodate Xi Jinping’s China, simply replace the word ‘Proledic’ with any of the current Party nostrums such as ‘The China Dream’, ‘Core Socialist Values’ or ‘The Great Renaissance of the Chinese Nation’. ‘Bourgelib’ is evoked by a panoply of expressions including ‘Historical Nihililsm’ 歷史虛無主義.

A painting by Guan Wei 關偉, used to illustrate ‘Pressure Points’.

Over the years, some academics have interpreted Haraszti’s insightful essay on the captive mind as little more than crude social science text; they have measured it against perceived Chinese reality and their (often purblind) perceptions of Chinese cultural practices under the Communist Party and found it lacking. For my part, Haraszti’s work straddles that powerful territory between art and reality; it is a feuilleton that provides direct insight into lived realities that beguile observer and observed alike. Perhaps today, in the miasma of alternative facts, fake news and Trumpismo, those writers on China with their superior ‘it can’t happen to us and it hasn’t really happened to them’ — people who were mechanical and literal in their ham-fisted understanding of this sardonic work from Mitteleuropa — may learn to appreciate the velvet prison anew.


In 1989, I used Haraszti’s work to butress my overall view of contemporary Chinese avant-garde culture and, ten years after that, my work on China’s Velvet Prison framed the arguments made in In the Red: on contemporary Chinese culture (New York: Columbia University Press, 1999). Some writers, driven by faddish Anglo-American cultural theory breezily dismissed that book as little more than ‘cultural journalism’, something that provided data for their superior take on the ‘cultural turn’ in the late-capitalist and late-socialist worlds. It has been amusing to watch these ‘useful idiots’ (полезные дураки) theorise themselves into complicity as they fall into line with the regnant ideocracy of Beijing, all the while accruing cultural capital be it locally or globally.

Cover of the English translation of The Velvet Prison, 1987.

The following material is taken from In the Red, and should be considered in tandem with Xu Zhiyuan’s reflections on his own dilemmas in ‘Elephants and Anacondas’:

The nature of the difference between the two ages of socialist intellectual control and the process by which the earlier, coercive style of indoctrination has into self-imposed acquiescence, has been dealt with at length and with great eloquence by the Hungarian writer Miklós Haraszti, author of The Velvet Prison: Artists Under State Socialism.

Far from agreeing with those who believed that ‘cultures that speak in forked tongues cannot long endure’, Haraszti wrote:

Communication between the lines already dominates our directed culture. This technique is not the speciality of the artist only. Bureaucrats, too, speak between the lines: they, too, apply self-censorship. Even the most loyal subject must wear bifocals to read between the lines: this is in fact the only way to decipher the real structure of our culture… .

The reader must not think that we detest the perversity of this hidden public life and that we participate in it because we are forced to. On the contrary, the technique of writing between the lines is, for us, identical with artistic technique. It is a part of our skill and a test of our professionalism. Even the prestige accorded to us by officialdom is partly predicated on our talent for talking between the lines… .

…Debates between the lines are an acceptable launching ground for trial balloons, a laboratory of consensus, a chamber for the expression of manageable new interests, an archive of weather reports.  The opinions expressed there are not alien to the state but are perhaps simply premature… .

Haraszti is a poet, sociologist, and political activist. He was born in 1945 in Jerusalem, but grew up in Hungary. Among other things, he studied Chinese at university where he majored in philosophy and has maintained an interest in developments in China. Expelled from university for political activism, he worked for a year in a factory, and on the basis of those experiences he wrote A Worker in a Worker’s State for which he was arraigned in court on charges of subversion. It is significant that George Konrád, the man who wrote the foreword to Haraszti’s Velvet Prison, is, with Ivan Szelenyi, the author of Intellectuals on the Road to Class Power, an important study of intellectuals under state socialism. During 1989, Haraszti became involved with the democratic politics of a pluralistic Hungary.

The Velvet Prison is a samizdat volume in which the author affects the cynical tone of the victorious artist bureaucrat as in turn he fixes his ironic gaze on establishment writers, young hopefuls, and dissidents. His aim lay, in the words of the Sinologist Simon Leys, in ‘charting the topography of a grim new world.’

Haraszti depicts a realm in which the crude, military style of Stalinist (for which we can also read Maoist) rule with its attendant purges, denunciations, and struggles has finally given way to a new dawn of ‘soft’, civilian government. Technocrats reformulate the social contract, one in which, as we have noted earlier, consensus replaces coercion, and complicity subverts criticism. Censorship is no longer the job of a ham-fisted apparat, but a partnership involving artists, audiences and commissars alike. It is ‘progressive censorship’. This new dispensation has been described in various ways: the Czech writer Vaclav Hável spoke of it as ‘invisible violence’, while Haraszti dubbed it ‘the velvet prison’. It is a prison with an aesthetic all of its own; even (self-) repression has become a form of high art.

‘China! China!’, by Zhu Wei 朱偉. Cover of In the Red, 1999.

In charting the course of state socialism, Haraszti provides us with a paradigm that can be applied to other Party-controlled prison-cultures. He notes that harsh and bloody methods had been unavoidable in the early phase of establishing revolutionary disciple, at a time before people had been cowed into submission and opponents liquidated. Industry, agriculture, and even the arts are nationalised, and gradually the talented and ambitious, young and old become shareholders if not functionaries in the corporate monopoly of the state. If they baulk at the new order they are silenced, voluntarily or by force. Liberated from the irksome burdens of competition, and no longer required to rely on innate talent or the popular fads exploited by the usurious culture brokers of a money economy, most artists and writers now vie to become company men. In the process they relinquish their right to produce art with no social purpose or significance, ‘art for art’s sake’.

Each artist, if he or she is to prosper, must learn to be a cultural politician and executive in the streamlined corporate structure. They are jealous of the considerable fringe benefits accorded them — better-than-average incomes, fame at home, trips overseas and, best of all, the sense of mission and importance allotted to them by the Party. It may have taken some older Chinese artists a generation to come to grips with the peculiar ‘market forces’ of socialist culture, but for the middle-aged and younger creators raised in the closed system, the ground rules are well-established and only the most suicidally irresponsible attempt to ignore them entirely. As Haraszti observes:

Our social base is too weak to induce a renaissance of autochthonous individualism.  We select from the prepackaged expressions of individualism concocted in the West, and we do so from the vantage point of the state: this is our innovative method. We prune the chaotic outgrowth crowding the jungle of capitalism and carefully transplant selected cuttings to the greenhouse of socialism. As in industry, so too in art: we have no technology of our ‘own’. Our colleges of art teach the methods of, and justification for, this aesthetic parasitism. Even our art criticism is now opening up to the West. This facilitates organized innovation. This is the rebirth of innovation, at the price, of course, of eliminating the demand for originality.

Any effort on the part of the state to spurn artists’ attempts to collaborate can lead to real tension, even to the creation of cultural kamikazes — the dissident artists — although hardly any such artists are to be found in countries where the transition from Stalinism to de-Stalinization was swift and resolute. State artists feel threatened by dissidents who strive for the restoration of individualism.

[Dissidents] are nutrients, like broken blossoms in a garden… . We can utilise their aesthetic discoveries, just as we do the experiments of Western artists. We introduce their themes between the lines. We can create ‘valuable’ and ‘organic’ innovations from their unacceptable conceits. Thus do dissidents become the untraceable initiators of some of our legalised fashions, the unmentionable source of some of the ‘problems’ that are solved by ‘rational debate’. They make cultural politicians more sensitive and critics more clever; they lubricate social integration by their brave but self-annihilating acts. The more talented and flexible the state, the more pleasurably it can suck the dissidents’ vital fluids into the organism of state culture.

Post-Stalinist art shares a similar objective with Stalinist art: to strengthen social integration. The difference is that civilian or soft aesthetics are designed not for an audience newly incorporated into the socialist state but for a populace born into it. Socialisation, not conquest, is the underlying assumption of the new aesthetic.

…Politically, the post-Stalinist artist is no longer expected to declare his allegiance. His loyalty is assumed.  Under Stalinism, everyone was guilty until proven innocent. Today, it is just the reverse. We anticipate reforms, read between the lines, and criticise society as intimately as do members of the Politburo. If we seem to break with the strictures of Stalinist tradition, it is only to better affect its intentions. Still, every work of art must somehow prove that it neither opposes the primacy of state-planning nor harbours plans of its own against the existing order. Only constructive neutrality is required… .

In the post-Stalinist era, solipsistic art is not prohibited because the state demands that every work of art demonstrate overt political engagement. The prohibition is a prerequisite: the work of art must find a relationship with its social context. It must seek a place in directed culture. And frankly, doing so is not too difficult. As long as we do not directly criticize the bureaucracy [read the Party], its attitudes, or its discourse, we are already constructive. The careful (and clever) artist himself chooses the aspect of his art that will resonate with the social context. An ostensibly ambiguous or aesthetically neutral work of art is as acceptable as one that is unabashedly progovernment. The mere possibility of constructive interpretation is enough to establish a link between the artist and the state. It then falls to the critics — those chroniclers of context — to baptize and inaugurate this linkage.

Again, Haraszti comments that while under capitalism products can be divided into the categories of unmarketable, nonprofitable and blockbuster in post-Stalinist/ Maoist socialism culture is classified as prohibited, tolerated and supported.

In ‘An Iron Fist in a Velvet Glove’, the second chapter of In the Red, I extended the discussion of cooperation and connivance in early 1990s China. The parallels with the situation in the arts and academia today are striking.

We concluded the chapter ‘Pressure Points’ in the North American edition of Seeds of Fire with a poem by Mu Dan 穆旦 (查良錚, d.1977), translated by John Minford:

Performances 演出

Mu Dan 穆旦

Impassioned protestation, indignation, eulogy, laughter
Eyes in the dark have long awaited
These performances, the latest cast
Compounding anew its grand emotions;

Actors and audience grown so accustomed to the sham
That innocence and nakedness seem strange,
Unaccountable discords.
‘Prune ’em away, hush ’em up, revise, revamp ’em!’

To achieve abnormality every wit is strained,
Each form polished and perfected.
‘This is Life’, and violates the laws of Nature,
Despite the actors’ artful artlessness.

And countless hearts of gold have been betrayed.
A counterfeit coinage circulates,
Buying, not a true response,
But numb indifference beneath assumed applause.

April 1976






Further Reading