Censorship in Vietnam: JFK Miller Interviews Thomas Bass

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  • With permission from author Thomas Bass, The Vietnamese is pleased to reprint the interview Mr. Bass has given to JFK Miller, a Melbourne-based journalist, in February 2018 on his latest book, Censorship in Vietnam: Brave New World

Thomas A. Bass’s 2009 book The Spy Who Loved Us dissects the double life of Pham Xuan An, a correspondent for Time during the Vietnam War and a contemporary of Peter Arnett, Richard Pyle, and Morley Safer. As American radio blasted Bing Crosby’s ‘White Christmas’ to signal the evacuation of embassy personnel in those final tumultuous hours of April 30, 1975, An was Time’s last man standing, the magazine’s sole remaining reporter in Saigon as the North Vietnamese tanks rolled in. In truth, he was part of the welcome brigade. An was a spy who used his journalistic contacts to feed vital intelligence to Hanoi. Time’s Zalin Grant, who worked alongside An, called him “the first known case of a Communist agent to appear on the masthead of a major American publication.”

But An’s tale is a story within a story. Bass’s latest book, Censorship in Vietnam: Brave New World (University of Massachusetts Press, 2017), recalls his experience with Vietnam’s state censorship apparatus when he tried to get a translation of The Spy Who Loved Us published in Vietnam. He succeeded, but at a cost — five years of negotiations and no less than 400 cuts to his manuscript.

Was it worth it? Bass himself answers that question below. For me, the reader, the answer is a resounding yes. The censorship experience Bass recounts in his book paints a vivid picture of present-day Vietnam, and it’s not a flattering one. Economically, the country is one of Asia’s “new” tigers which last year posted the world’s second-fastest growth rate. Politically, however, it’s a paranoid and insecure beast which lacks the ability to confront its own past and look squarely at its own present (Bass does not mince words: Vietnam is “a culture in ruins,” he writes). I traveled to the country several times in the ’90s, but am ashamed to say my conception of Vietnam was cryogenically frozen somewhere between The Quiet American and Apocalypse Now. Well, it was, until I read this book.

My connection with Thomas Bass comes via our different but eerily similar experiences with state censorship – his with Vietnam, mine with China. As I worked my way through his book it struck me how alike the censorship systems in both countries are. And then on page 83, I learned why: Hanoi takes its cues straight from Beijing. The dissident novelist Pham Thi Hoai explains, “We always look to the Chinese and copy them… it is mandatory for every high Vietnamese official to get training in China once a year, just as it was in the time of the Cold War. It is no accident that every campaign and law adopted in China is introduced into Vietnam six months later.”

It’s perhaps no surprise then that Vietnam’s military conflicts with China, including the incredibly brutal 1979 conflict in which tens of thousands died on both sides in less than a month, are glossed over in school textbooks.

But this is simply one of the censorship’s many casualties. Writers and journalists are routinely given draconian prison terms for speaking truth to power. Criticism of the Chinese is censored, as is praise for the French and Americans (“they are not allowed to have taught the Vietnamese anything,” writes Bass). Disparagement of communism and communist party officials is banned, together with the discussion of “government policy, military strategy… minority rights, human rights, democracy, calls for political pluralism, allusions to revolutionary events in other communist countries, distinctions between north and south Vietnamese, and stories about Vietnamese refugees.”

Whether it’s novels or journalism, there’s an overarching optimism that must pervade writing in Vietnam that is forced upon its writers by state censors. Either be censored, self-censor, or be damned. A 1988 novel by the above-mentioned Pham Thi Hoai, The Crystal Messenger (which I’ve not read, but now want to because of Bass’s book), was banned for the reason that its view of Vietnam was “excessively pessimistic.” No surprise that she now lives in self-imposed exile in Berlin, a place where, unlike her homeland, she is lauded for her work.

My one criticism of Bass’ book is the choice of the most prosaic of titles – Censorship in Vietnam – with a nod to Huxley in the subtitle. But this is small beer. On the whole, this is a tremendously eye-opening book, and thoroughly readable. Our discussion follows.

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Why was it important to you to have a translation of your book published in Vietnam, especially know that it would be censored?

Communicating across borders interest me. There is much to be learned and much to be unlearned, and even the misunderstandings are revelatory. Look what happened when I tried to mail you a copy of Censorship in Vietnam from the U.S. The book was returned to me several weeks later by “homeland security.” Who would have guessed that the “JFK” in your name – honoring of the 35th president of the United States – was suspicious? But apparently, according to the paranoids who patrol our borders, initials without complete first names imply criminal intent. So it took another 20 bucks and the entire “John Fitzgerald Kennedy” to get you a copy of my book.

Another answer to your question has to do with surviving as an author. My books have been translated into various foreign editions, and I enjoy traveling to literary events in far-flung places. So why not add Hanoi? Nha Nam, the Vietnamese publisher of my book, was supposed to be the country’s best. I would be joining the likes of Vladimir Nabokov, Milan Kundera, and Orhan Pamuk. Not bad company.

But I think you’re asking a more serious question, which is the subject of Censorship in Vietnam. If I knew how much grief I would be getting for translating The Spy Who Loved Us into Vietnamese, why did I invite it? The answer is pretty straightforward. I wanted to conduct an experiment. Exactly how much grief was coming my way, and who would be cranking the handle?

Did you brace yourself for a rough ride, or did you go into it thinking that you might perhaps get away with more than you thought you could?

I knew that chunks of my book on Pham Xuan An would be removed. It was full of subversive material – by which I mean material that the Vietnamese consider subversive – conversations with exiled writers, accusations of corruption in the Communist Party of Vietnam, jokes about how ugly the language has become in postwar Vietnam.

My Vietnamese publisher and my literary agent in New York and subagents in Tokyo and Bangkok all assured me that I had nothing to worry about, that none of the books they had published in Vietnam had been censored. They were either ignorant or lying, but it’s also true that no one pays much attention to foreign rights. A book goes into Polish or Portuguese, and very few authors have the time or skills required to check the translation. I had been tipped 3 off to the fact that even novels and poetry are censored in Vietnam. So a nonfiction book about a Vietnamese spy who claimed to have loved the United States and the values of investigative reporting and Western journalism was certainly going to be censored.

For the few hundred bucks my literary agent was making on the deal, he kindly allowed me to rewrite the standard publishing contract for the sale of translation rights, and then we patiently negotiated these changes as the contract was bounced back and forth between New York and Hanoi. I inserted clauses about prior review and final approval of the translation, and I larded the contract with trip switches, so that every time the censors moved on me I had to be notified. The manuscript became a kind of early warning system, ding, ding, dinging on my desk, at every stroke of a censor’s pen. And in Vietnam, as you yourself found in China, there is not just one censor, but various tag teams and competing groups of censors, which operate in a hierarchy of censors that stretches all the way up to the head of the Communist Party. Each level in this hierarchy is afraid of getting whacked by the one above it. So the natural urge is to adopt what the French call langue de bois – the wooden speech of martinets and political hacks. This is how a culture dies … but at least the censors will never be out of a job.

Given my jerry-rigged publishing contract, I owe a great debt of thanks to the editors at Nha Nam who honoured this contract. I was a pain in their necks, if not dangerous to the survival of their company, but still they notified me every step along the way. At the end of five years, my book was radioactive. My original editor had quit the company and quit publishing altogether. The project had been at death’s door a half dozen times, and many of us were surprised when printed copies of the book finally appeared – briefly – on bookshelves in Hanoi and Saigon.

Did you ever consider simply pulling the plug and abandoning the translation altogether?

Remember, this was an experiment, with every twist and turn in the process producing “data.” At the most basic level, I was studying the Vietnamese language. How has it changed since the end of the Vietnam War in 1975? Pham Xuan An complained about these changes when I was interviewing him for “The Spy Who Loved Us,” which began as an article for The New Yorker and later became a book with the same title. He said the Vietnamese language was being corrupted by Marxist-Leninist gobbledygook borrowed from Russia and Maoist terms imported from China. To learn how to speak this new language, An was sent to a “re-education” camp for ten months. “I was a bad student,” he said. “They never understood my jokes, but at least I didn’t do anything serious enough for them to shoot me.” (An’s “re-education camp” was actually a military academy outside Hanoi for training high-level officials, but I believe him when he says the experience was bone-chillingly boring.)

Censoring books in Vietnam begins before the first word is translated. In this case, the person chosen to translate my book was a north Vietnamese journalist fluent in gobbledygook. He produced quotes that sounded nothing like the south Vietnamese spy about whom I was writing. The publisher was surprised that I cared about these things or knew enough to want the language changed. A nonfiction book for them was the equivalent of an encyclopedia entry. Give us the information, and give it to us in today’s language – in this case, the language spoken in North Vietnam, which is where most of the book-buying public lives. There was also a good dose of prejudice at work. The South Vietnamese lost the war, which means that not only their political system but also their culture and language are in the process of being effaced.

After the censored Vietnamese-language copy was published in print, you released an uncensored version on the Internet. Can you explain why this was important to you?

Censorship is so crushing in Vietnam that many authors are skipping printed publications and releasing their work directly to the web. In my case, I wanted to see what the printed book looked like. I wanted to evaluate the damage done to the text by Vietnam’s censors, count up the number of cuts and alterations, and study the people and ideas that got erased.

After assembling my literary seismograph – in other words, after The Spy Who Loved Us was translated and released in Vietnam (although not under that title, which the censors considered far too dangerous)-I felt obliged to provide my Vietnamese readers with a copy of the original book. This too is standard practice in Vietnam. Even when a book is printed, people go to the web to find what everyone assumes will be a more accurate version online.

At the same time, I wanted to conduct a second experiment. Vietnam’s censors work across borders. You can’t publish books online with impunity. Electronic publications will be attacked by trolls, worms, viruses, denunciation campaigns, denial of service attacks, bribery, extortion – whatever works to get them taken down. I don’t want to exaggerate the risks I took, which were nothing compared to my Vietnamese colleagues, but the Vietnamese version of my book – the complete version published online in Berlin on computers hardened against attacks from Vietnam’s censors – invited retaliation. It was attacked in a variety of ways. The translator was forced to drop out. He also pulled his translation, which we could no longer use. People threatened to sue me. The internet lit up with chatter maligning me and the project. The Berlin web site went down a few times, but it held fast against the censors and trolls, due to the good work of exiled author Pham Thi Hoai, whose site for many years has been the rallying point for opposition to Vietnam’s communist police state.

When you engaged the dissident Pham Hong Son to translate your book for the Berlin release, did it weigh on your mind that you might be condemning him to another hefty prison term? (Son had already spent five years in prison and another seven under house arrest for translating essays on democracy).

As I mentioned, the first translator for the unexpurgated version of The Spy Who Loved Us, was forced to quit. Enough threats were brought to bear that he felt he had no choice. Pham Hong Son is a different kind of person altogether. After spending five years in prison, much of it in solitary confinement, for translating an essay on democracy and recommending this form of government to his fellow countrymen, he went on doing exactly the same thing after he was released to house arrest. Trained as a medical doctor, a true intellectual and patriot, he is a brave man, someone whom I admire and am lucky to count as a friend. He did the work for free because he thought it was important, and ever since then, I have been looking for some way to repay him.

In your book’s foreword you ask the question central to all of this. Could China and Vietnam’s governance model become the new normal? It pains me to acknowledge this, but democracy, with all its trappings – not least of which, freedom of speech and freedom of the press – is in bad odor at the moment, while the Vietnam/PRC model, which puts economic development above free speech, is in the ascendancy. Add to this, declining American power and an Oval Office occupant who has turned American democracy (indeed all democracy, I would argue) into a global laughing stock, and Reagan’s “Shining City on a Hill” now looks like a faltering candle. Is it any real surprise that countries like Vietnam and China seem to have more faith in their political systems than we currently do in ours? And do you not think that democratic reformers in Vietnam are, at least for now, fighting an impossible battle?

This is the key question of the moment. As the western democracies falter and lose faith in themselves, as they debase their elections, trade freedom for security, and forget their founding principles, people think that police states with good shopping look attractive.

This is an illusion. In fact, it is a dangerous illusion. Censorship can kill you. The absence of free speech can kill you. Not knowing the truth can kill you. These are fundamental values, not to be sold at any price, but they are also tools for survival. This argument was made by Nobel-prize-winning economist Amartya Sen, when he was asked by the Indian government to advise them on which model they should choose for development: the open societies of the West or China’s surveillance state, which is attractive at the moment because of its economic growth. Sen warned his compatriots not to go for the shiny lure. He reminded them about China’s Great Leap Forward, which was actually a great leap backward, killing at least 30 million people in a devastating famine. What caused this social collapse? Censorship – a skein of lies spun to please Chairman Mao, ignorance about what was happening in the countryside, courtiers, and buffoons who reported good news in place of facts. Exactly what’s happening in the United States today.

China has been called “a consumerist totalitarian state.” The description is just as apt for Vietnam, I think. In this type of polity, economic growth trumps personal freedom. The idea is that you cannot have both, that personal freedom must give way to economic development, that the two cannot possibly work in tandem. First World economic parity must be attained before you can even start to think about personal freedoms.

Vietnam, like China, is indeed a consumerist totalitarian state, and it too believes that good shopping can replace good governance. It thinks that substituting material goods for freedom is a bargain its citizens will buy. The people I write about in Censorship in Vietnam disagree. For them, freedom is a muscle that atrophies if you don’t use it. They think that all this talk about putting development first and democracy last is a bunch of ideological hooey. This argument is good for nothing more than buttressing the police state and building the walls behind which the ruling elites do their serious stealing. Who ever said that economic development and personal freedom are mutually exclusive? The history of our two countries, the United States and Australia, proves that the opposite is true. In fact, as the United States becomes less democratic and slides toward authoritarian rule, its economic development and leading role in science and technology will be weakened.

In the book, you write that state censorship is producing an intellectual wasteland in Vietnam, and yet I can’t help but think that we’re also suffering from this in the West, despite our having all the freedoms available to us and all the advantages of the digital age. We live in an era where knowledge has never been more widely available, and yet we seem to have succeeded in becoming remarkably ignorant (the rise of populism is not just restricted to the U.S). In a way, it makes us more culpable for our ignorance than those who live under authoritarian regimes. In their system, censorship is preventing them from getting to the truth, but we in the West have no such excuse.

I agree with you that these are perilous times. We are dancing on the edge of the volcano. We are distracted, forgetful, ignorant about our history, and incurious about our future. Plato wrote about this in his allegory of the cave, and here we are, twenty-five hundred years later, still chained to our seats, staring at shadows on the walls. “Democracy dies in darkness” is the motto adopted by The Washington Post after last year’s election in the United States. This sounds vaguely apocalyptic, but the paper’s editor is not looking for salvation in a Batmobile. He is reminding us about the importance of getting the news and learning how to sift truth from falsehood. You know the old joke, “What’s the difference between an optimist and a pessimist? A pessimist is better informed.” This is the golden age of journalism. I can wake up in the morning and before my first sip of coffee peruse headlines from Tokyo to Timbuktu. Sure, the amount of fake news and the stupidity of my optimistic neighbors is unnerving. But in this case, it’s up to me to loosen my chains and turn around if I want to see outside the cave.

You write that censorship exists in all societies, whether it is the state censorship of authoritarian regimes like Vietnam or the “soft censorship” of Western liberal democracies where dissenting views are side-lined. I want to take issue with this, if I may. To me, this a false equivalency. Here, people can express their opinions, while in authoritarian states they are prevented from doing so. Someone may risk marginalisation for expressing a non-mainstream view (whether it’s unpopular, unpatriotic, unorthodox, racist, or simply ignorant), but that person still has the right to say it.

I wasn’t arguing that “soft censorship” is the same as the hard variety, which is enforced by prison sentences or, in the most extreme cases, by death. I think that censorship exists along a continuum. It begins with ideological conformity, fear of retribution, a limited number of media outlets owned by large corporations, PR campaigns, book bannings, surveillance, disinformation, and propaganda. It moves from there to state-run security apparatuses, government control of the media, gulags, torture, and other means by which the state exercises its power. I oppose all forms of censorship, whether they be ideological or market-based. Some deserve more strenuous opposition than others, but all merit the light of discovery and condemnation.

What reaction (or denunciation) from Hanoi do you expect for publishing Censorship in Vietnam?

When the uncensored Vietnamese translation of The Spy Who Loved Us was published in Berlin – with side-by-side comparisons showing the 400 passages that had been cut or altered and with extensive commentary on how censorship works in Vietnam – the publication provoked a firestorm of criticism on the Vietnamese web. Hundreds of messages (not all of them written by trolls) accused me of “betraying” my subjects. I had quoted people without their permission or refused to remove their names when they asked me to do so. (Censoring books after publication is standard operating procedure in Vietnam. If something becomes too controversial or people get scared about being quoted, then a book disappears from the shelves. Even newspaper interviews are never conducted “on the record,” because the record can always be revised or erased.) The firestorm of criticism became the party line on Thomas Bass. He’s a backstabbing, bumpy-nosed betrayer of Vietnamese values who deserves to be censored and, in fact, he reveals the value of censorship, if it keeps people like him out of Vietnamese bookstores. At moments like this, I remember the advice of Henri Beyle, better known to us by his pen name Stendhal, who consoled himself by saying that he wrote for “the Happy Few.”

Now that your book has been published do you have any reservations about returning to Vietnam? Say you were invited to speak about your book at a literary festival in Hanoi. Would you be concerned about any repercussions?

I would be pleased to return to Vietnam. In spite of their benighted government, the people and the country are quite marvelous. Many brave dissidents are currently at work in Vietnam, and I would like to support them. I don’t know whether I’m brave or foolhardy or simply have the bones of a working journalist, but on my next trip to Vietnam, I plan to stuff my suitcase with copies of Censorship in Vietnam and try to carry them over the border. The electronic edition has yet to appear, and I have a lot of friends who would appreciate receiving a copy – even if they have to wrap it in brown paper or hide it under their beds. This will be another small attempt at lighting a match in the darkness.

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