(October 16, 2009) Every October, the German city of Frankfurt hosts the world’s biggest book fair. The event is no stranger to local controversy. Yet 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.
The list of attendees reads like a rollcall of China’s worst “enemies.” Uighur independence advocate Rebiya Kadeer confirmed to me Wednesday that she will attend. The fair will also host the Dalai Lama’s top envoy, Kelsang Gyaltsen, plus many other democrats, dissidents and exiles keen to tell the world what they think of the Chinese Communist Party.
This puts China—this year’s Guest of Honor—in a highly awkward position. If last year’s Olympics were China’s coming of age in the sporting world, the Frankfurt Book Fair is the cultural equivalent. China’s programs include a staggering 612 events that began in March at the Leipzig Book Fair, followed by Germany-wide author tours. Two thousand publishers, artists, journalists and writers from China will attend the main October event. There will be a grand opening concert at Frankfurt’s elegant opera house starring the China Philharmonic and pianist Lang Lang, receptions, art shows, readings, and, hopefully, plenty of book deals and schmoozing.
When faced with criticism at past cultural events—such as Melbourne’s Film Festival in July—China usually responds by cancelling appearances. 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.
This debate angered the authorities before the Olympics and remains an obstacle to China taking what it sees as its rightful place at the top table of nations. Yet unlike sport, the Fair’s focus on writing, creativity and freedom of expression goes to the heart of China’s system of domestic control—strict limits on speech, press and book publishing. China’s growing economy has resulted in significant advances in freedom of speech and human rights and improving standards of living over the past 30 years, but this argument is likely to fall on deaf ears if Beijing tries to pressure the Frankfurt organizers to muzzle dissidents attending the jamboree.
To their credit, the Chinese knew the Fair wouldn’t be easy from the start, and still wanted to go. Only after “extremely long” negotiations did GAPP sign the contract, according to Jing Bartz, director of the German Book Information Center, the Fair’s Beijing representative office. “The Chinese wanted to know, repeatedly, where the limits lay, what they were allowed to determine and what not.”
The German organizers accommodated Beiijng, to a point. They disinvited environmental activist Dai Qing and United States-based poet Bei Ling from a symposium last weekend titled, fittingly, “China and the World—Perceptions and Realities.” But a storm of negative publicity forced an about-face. Ms. Dai and Mr. Bei went to Frankfurt—and spoke at the event. Mei Zhaorong, China’s former ambassador to Germany, thundered: “We did not come to be instructed about democracy.”
Yet for Ms. Dai the scandal overshadowed a triumph: The Chinese delegation walked out, but they came back. “They listened to my talk, they took my questions. . . . The symposium was very successful, and the Book Fair will be even more successful if different voices are heard,” she told me by telephone on Wednesday.
Perhaps realizing the credibility of the Fair is at stake, organizers have sharpened their tone. “The Book Fair is a marketplace for freedom,” director Juergen Boos said Tuesday, promising 250 other events that would highlight “the independent, the other China.” These include support for writer Liu Xiaobo, imprisoned on charges of subversion since December; an invitation to China’s only Nobel Literature Prize winner, Gao Xingjian, abjured by Beijing and off the official guest list; and invitations to exiled poet Yang Lian, domestic critic Ai Weiwei, and independent Tibetan, Uighur, Hong Kong and Taiwan voices.
Ms. Bartz argues the Fair strove all along to counteract China’s efforts to invite only politically acceptable authors, after the organizers discovered important figures like Yan Lianke, whose satirical novella “Serve the People” was banned in 2005, and outspoken, wildly popular blogger Han Han, hadn’t been asked to attend.
Either way, the new tone from Frankfurt stands out against a global backdrop of increasingly uncritical voices. Slammed by the economic downturn, governments and companies are looking to China as the savior of growth. In Frankfurt, the Chinese authorities may discover the economic card isn’t enough.
Didi Kirsten Tatlow, The Wall Street Journal, October 16, 2009
Categories: Frankfurt Book Fair