BERLIN, Germany — In a quiet Berlin neighborhood popular with the city’s academic elite is the home of Chinese dissident writer Liao Yiwu and his wife Lu Yang.

With its wide porch leading to a lush garden lined with bamboo, the place looks more like the house of the city’s chief doctor than the refuge of a couple who fled to the German capital with no money or possessions after years. of persecution in China. .

Liao spent four years in a Chinese prison in the 1990s after writing a poem about the 1989 Tiananmen Square protests and massacre. Having been repeatedly denied permission to leave China, he eventually managed to leave the country in 2011 after writing an open letter to then German Chancellor Angela Merkel.

Liao has since published 12 German-language books, won several prestigious German literature awards and gained notoriety earlier this year when her new German-language book “Wuhan” hit shelves.

Fiction, but in the style of a literal documentary, the book takes the reader back to the COVID-19 outbreak in Wuhan in early 2020, where a former state TV station employee applies for a job. in a city crematorium.

A deep meditation on the plight of the people of Wuhan as they endured a draconian lockdown to prevent the spread of the virus, lead character Liao attempts to investigate the role the Wuhan Institute of Virology has played in the epidemic.

Security personnel guard the exterior of the Wuhan Institute of Virology during a visit by a World Health Organization team investigating the origins of COVID-19 in February this year last.

Home to China’s only maximum-security lab handling coronaviruses, the Wuhan Institute of Virology, a central plot of the book is that the Chinese government led a historically unprecedented effort to cover up the fact that a lab leak was the source. original of the COVID -19 epidemic.

Amid Shanghai’s two-month lockdown that ended on June 2 after sparking public outrage among the city’s 26 million residents and severely affecting the Chinese economy, Liao said what had happened in Shanghai was the continuation of the brutal shutdown of Wuhan.

Although Chinese state media hailed President Xi Jinping, who turned 69 on Wednesday, as he nears a rare third term when the Communist Party of China holds its twice-decade congress this fall, Liao expects Xi to pay a political price for the lockdown and could even be deposed.

“The protocols are gone and new lies cement the Communist Party’s heroic victory tale in propaganda that poisons the people like the virus, despite the Shanghai lockdown demonstrating the Communist Party’s obvious failure to defeat the virus,” he said. said Liao, who is in her 60s.

“Two years ago, there were more than 8 million people in house arrest in Wuhan, and countless people died from the virus,” Liao said. While a repeat of this lockdown in Shanghai meant that “nobody died from the virus, countless people died of starvation, as all hospitals were closed, because they were forced to spend nucleic acid testing or centralized detention,” he added.

First released in Chinese in Taiwan in September 2020, “Wuhan” was released in Japanese last year. In April this year, at least 15,000 German hard copies and 20,000 German audio books were sold. According to Liao, Amnesty International will vigorously promote the book at the Frankfurt Book Fair, the world’s largest book trade fair, in October.

The English-speaking world is notably absent from the list of countries where “Wuhan” has been published. Liao said he pitched the book to nearly 20 American publishers, but they all declined, saying the events were still too recent to interest readers.

POPaganda, a collection of non-fungible tokens (NFTs) created by Malaysian artist Simon Fong illustrating life under the coronavirus disease (COVID-19) lockdown in Shanghai China, as seen on the market’s website NFT OpenSea. © Reuters

“English-language publishers should publish my book because no writer understands better than I how the ‘dictatorship virus’ has eroded and changed the way of life of all human beings,” Liao said.

Political observers in Berlin believe it is unlikely that the contents of the book will ever be known to a significant number of readers in China.

Katja Drinhausen, a researcher at Germany’s Mercator Institute for China Studies, said the Chinese state has in recent years built up its capacity to dramatically slow the spread of information deemed harmful to the party and/or state. This, she said, gives exiled writers far less chance of remaining relevant in China than just a decade ago.

“Previous disasters that gave the government a bad image, such as the 2008 Sichuan earthquake or the 2011 Wenzhou train collision, created waves of expressions of discontent for months among Chinese netizens,” he said. said Drinhausen. “But massive investments in digital censorship technology and human resources now allow the government to suppress such waves in just one or two days.”

“Meanwhile, the Chinese government is increasingly successful in controlling what is being said outside mainland China as well,” Drinhausen added. “As evidenced by the fact that Liao’s book was first published for a Western audience in German by a German publishing house instead of being published in English by a Hong Kong publisher, which would have been the conventional path for Chinese dissident books until a few years ago.”

Still, Liao is pleased with the strong German sales figures as Wuhan is grateful to live in Germany, a country which he said has a good political system and strong rule of law.

Due to the couple’s complicated relationship with Berlin’s Chinese expat community, Liao’s local circle of friends consists mostly of Taiwanese expats. “Taiwan [de factor] the ambassador to Germany, Shieh Jhy-Wey, is very supportive of us, often visiting us at home and taking us to cultural events,” Liao said.