Frankfurt Book Fair

German Book Fair’s dissident guests roil China

(September 21, 2009) A dispute between China and organizers of the famed Frankfurt Book Fair threatens to overshadow the world’s premier publishing event and become a diplomatic headache for German Chancellor Angela Merkel ahead of elections later this month.

The rift broke open last weekend at a symposium to herald next month’s Frankfurt Book Fair, whose guest country of honor this year is China. Just as the 2008 Olympics ushered China’s economic and sporting accomplishments onto the world stage, the fair is intended to do the same for its literary achievements. Some 2,000 Chinese publishers, artists and writers are expected to attend, and the first of hundreds of exhibits, readings and author tours already began this spring.

The fair’s official Chinese organizing committee, though, took issue with the invitations of two dissidents to the symposium, titled “China and the world — perception and reality.”

After the Chinese delegation threatened to boycott the event, book fair organizers withdrew invitations to journalist and environmental activist Dai Qing and poet Bei Ling — only to have them come as the guests of the German PEN club of independent writers.

Part of the delegation walked out of the conference, and returned only when the fair’s director, Juergen Boos, apologized for failing to inform them ahead of time. “We did not come to be instructed about democracy,” Mei Zhaorong, China’s former ambassador to Germany, declared at the event.

The incident has rekindled public debate in Germany over whether China should have been chosen as the fair’s guest of honor in the first place.

The German government could face a tricky balancing act if it wades in to the dispute. China is a critical trading partner and helped jump-start Germany’s export-heavy economy’s climb out of its recession in recent months.

But Ms. Merkel has made defending human rights a cornerstone of her foreign policy. Two years ago, she defied Chinese pressure and criticism by becoming the first German chancellor to receive the Dalai Lama.

“Two principles also apply to the Frankfurt Book Fair: Guests are treated like guests, and art without freedom is inconceivable,” a German foreign ministry spokeswoman said.

The fair, which takes place Oct. 14-18, puts China in an awkward position, too. The fair’s literary focus makes it difficult to avoid discussion of China’s record on free speech or to block certain attendees. Adding fuel to the debate was the hospitalization of Chinese artist Ai Weiwei for a cerebral hemorrhage in Munich on Monday. Mr. Ai, who also was invited to the fair, said he believes his injuries were the result of a beating by Chinese police in mid-August.

The flap has rankled Chinese diplomats. Earlier this week, China’s ambassador to Germany, Wu Hongbo, lambasted the fair’s organizers for the surprise readdition of the two dissidents to the symposium. “It was not an expression of respect toward [the fair’s] Chinese partner,” Mr. Wu said in a German newspaper interview whose full text was posted on the embassy’s Web site. “It was unacceptable,” he said.

Fair organizers have toughened their tone and insisted they won’t yield to censorship pressure. The fair, a marketing mecca for more than 7,000 publishers world-wide, will make plenty of room for “the independent, the other China,” said Mr. Boos in a statement Tuesday. The fair is organized by the German Publishers and Booksellers Association.

To that end, organizers have set the stage for further tensions and invited Nobel Laureate Gao Xingjian, whose works have been banned in China, the Dalai Lama’s chief envoy and numerous other dissidents and exiles likely to rankle the Chinese government.

Fair organizers anticipate the possibility of more controversy as the event approaches. “We want to create a platform for the most diverse and extreme points of view and, in doing so, facilitate dialogue,” Mr. Boos said. “This generates pressure from all sides, from which we cannot retreat.”

Vanessa Fuhrmans, The Wall Street Journal, September 21, 2009

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Categories: Frankfurt Book Fair

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