Frankfurt Book Fair

The implications of the dispute between Chinese officials and the Frankfurt Book Fair

(September 22, 2009) The dispute between the organizers of the Frankfurt Book Fair and this year’s guest of honour at the event, China, has garnered a considerable amount of press coverage. Recently, two articles in the Wall Street Journal have responded to the dispute—first by highlighting the issues confronting Chinese officials in the build-up to an event that is based on free speech and cultural expression, and second by looking at the diplomatic implications of China’s decision to try and censor the proceedings.

“The storm brewing between the fair’s organizers and China is of global importance, because it will expose the limits of Beijing’s tolerance for free speech,” Didi Kirsten Tatlow, former China correspondent for the South China Morning Post said in response to the disagreement between Chinese officials and the organizers of a symposium, aptly titled, “China and the world—perception and reality.”

Tatlow highlighted the importance of the event for China, calling it the cultural equivalent of the Olympics. And while China was eager—and very successful—at establishing itself as a sporting powerhouse during last year’s Olympics, doing so in a cultural manner will be much more difficult.

“When faced with criticism at past cultural events—such as Melbourne’s Film Festival in July—China usually responds by canceling appearances,” she writes. “But a boycott of the Frankfurt fair would mean junking the 100 million yuan ($15 million) the General Administration of Press and Publication has spent on the event.”

“More importantly, it would re-ignite an embarrassing public debate about China’s inability to deal with criticism of its free speech controls and human-rights record—a debate which has fallen by the wayside as many countries, including the United States, look to China as an economic savior amid the financial crisis.”

The focus on creativity and freedom of expression, which is a vital component to the Frankfurt Book Fair, is incredibly dangerous to a regime that seeks to control information about its affairs—both domestically and internationally. This was readily apparent to Chinese officials, as Jing Bartz, director of the German Book Information Center, the Fair’s Beijing representative office said when signing the contract “the Chinese wanted to know, repeatedly, where the limits lay, what they were allowed to determine and what not.”

But in wake of last week’s dispute, the fair’s organizers have been more adamant that they won’t be pressured by Chinese officials to make the content less controversial and less critical of the government. Considering the list of speakers and authors planning to attend the fair is basically a ‘who’s who’ of vocal critics of the government, there are likely to be many disagreements on what is deemed ‘appropriate’.

“The fair is not taking place in Beijing,” Juergen Boos, director of the Frankfurt Book Fair, said. “If we allow ourselves to be influenced by one country’s politicians, we might as well shut up shop.”

Which leads to the second article in the WSJ—discussing the potential diplomatic implications of the fair and any disputes between the two countries. “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,” writes Vanessa Fuhrmans.

German Chancellor Angela Merkel has made the defense of human rights a critical part of her foreign policy, Fuhrmans says. In recent years Ms. Merkel even decided to meet with the Dalai Lama—in spite of criticism from the Chinese government.  Any signs that she’s willing to back down on this stance because of pressure from Chinese officials at the fair may hurt her during elections later this month.

And Ms. Merkel can expect the debate on China being this year’s guest of honor at the fair to gain pace 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.”

Probe International, September 22, 2009

Categories: Frankfurt Book Fair

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