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June 27, 2017

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Chinese ex-prisoner now global literary star

BEIJING -- Former Chinese political prisoner Lu Jiamin kept his name a secret for a long time, writing his award-winning best-seller "Wolf Totem" under a pseudonym.

But after years of commercial success in book stores across China, the Asian equivalent of the Booker Prize under his belt, and the film rights sold to "Lord of the Rings" director Peter Jackson, Lu is coming out of hiding.

"Wolf Totem," a fictional account of life in the 1970s in the remote China-Mongolia border region, and the struggle between tradition and modernity, is based on Lu's own travels in the region over more than a decade.

The novel, which took Lu more than 20 years to write, became a massive hit in China, with more than 2.6 million official copies — and more than 17 million pirated copies — sold since 2004.

"The spirit of 'Wolf Totem' can be summed up in five ideas: freedom, independence, competition, tenacity and team spirit," Lu, 62, told AFP in an interview at a Beijing cafe near his home.

Lu, a retired professor of political economy, knows the value of freedom — he was jailed for taking part in pro-democracy protests that ended with the deadly crackdown in Beijing's Tiananmen square on June 4, 1989.

"I spent a year and a half in prison. I was accused of being an 'active counter-revolutionary,' a very serious crime so when I got out, I couldn't find any work," says Lu.

He settled down to finish "Wolf Totem" but knew that with the 'counter-revolutionary' label dogging him, he could not use his real name. That's how his alter ego, Jiang Rong, was born.

"At the beginning, it was strange, but now it's not really a problem. Everyone knows my story, it's all over the Internet," says the author, who bears a striking resemblance to former Chinese president Jiang Zemin.

Like any successful book in China, "Wolf Totem" created a firestorm of controversy.

While some conservative academics have called Lu a fascist, seeing the book as an ode to the use of force, business leaders such as the head of appliances giant Haier have used it to motivate their employees.

"On Internet chat sites, the left asked why the Communist Party did not censor it, as the book was a capitalist venture," Lu says.

"But it was not banned. Why? One reason is because there is a certain degree of freedom in China today.

"The party sings the praises of the market economy, human rights but it still controls things. It's letting go bit by bit (but) it can't let go all at once."

The themes touched upon in "Wolf Totem" — respect for nature, how the drive for productivity can damage the environment — resonate in modern-day China, where 30 years of economic reforms have had severe side effects.

"Desertification is now a major problem in Inner Mongolia, as the leaders used Han methods to run the steppes," says Lu, himself a Han Chinese, the country's majority ethnic group.

Lu — a fan of American novelist Jack London, who also wrote about the relationship between man and nature — says he wants to write more novels.

But for now, the winner of the inaugural Man Asian Literary Prize in November last year is coming to terms with the worldwide success of "Wolf Totem".

Rights to the book have been sold in 26 countries. The English-languageversion goes on sale in China on March 13.

"Wolf Totem" will then be available in book stores in the United States, Britain and Australia on March 27 and publisher Penguin is confident it has global appeal.

Despite his global profile, Lu is unable to travel abroad to promote his work — he was stripped of his passport following his run-in with the authorities in 1989.

"I can't go out of the country, I can't make public appearances — it's a complicated issue," he says.

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