Frankfurt Book Fair

China’s guest of honour status at fair debated by Chinese writers

(October 17, 2009) Frankfurt – Exiled Chinese authors attending the Frankfurt Book Fair in Germany disagreed amongst themselves Wednesday about whether the invitation of China to the event as guest of honour was a good or a bad thing. This year’s fair has been unusually controversial after China tried to prevent critical authors attending, breaking an unwritten rule that free speech reigns at the annual book-publishing show.

“At the opening of the fair, the Chinese officials spoke of literature flourishing, but did not say a word about writers in jail, about censorship or prohibitions,” said Dai Qing, an environmental campaigner.

She was one of two authors told by Chinese authorities to stay away from a pre-fair symposium on Chinese literature last month in Frankfurt. She attended anyway, leading to a walkout by Chinese officials.

Dai spoke again Wednesday in a forum, Literature and Power, which has been organized by the German section of the writers’ club PEN.

While critics were not welcomed to official Chinese displays, such as Beijing’s elaborate exhibition on the history of calligraphy and books in China, they found plenty of other venues where they could speak at the fair.

“The platforms that have been offered to us are quite good ones,” said Dai. “We were able to attend. The media is paying attention to us. We can speak freely.”

She said international events such as the Book Fair or the Beijing Olympic Games were opportunities for dialogue “but were repeatedly misused by the Chinese government as platforms to advance its own interests.”

Ma Jian, a writer whose expose-style portraits of China’s downtrodden are banned at home and who lives in London, hailed the Book Fair’s invitation to China as special guest as “a good thing per se.”

But he said no one should expect to hear the authentic voice of China from the officials and authors in the Beijing delegation.

“While they cavort here in their beautifully tailored suits, lots of authors are locked up in jail back home,” he said.

It had not been wrong of the Germans to invite China, but many non-Chinese underestimated the will of the Beijing government to present an immaculate image.

Zhou Qing, a journalist and member of the independent PEN club of China, disagreed: “The invitation was a mistake. It makes no sense.”

Zhou has been censored after writing critical news reports about safety scandals in the Chinese food industry.

The fair had been offered to Beijing as a “fine stage to show itself in glory,” to Chinese publishers as a “fine opportunity for commercial dealings” and to powerful officials as a “fine chance for some more foreign travel.”

The five-day book fair opened for business on Wednesday. It had been inaugurated Tuesday evening at a ceremony where German Chancellor Angela Merkel and Chinese Vice President Xi Jinping spoke.

Publishers from more than 100 nations are attending the fair. The guest of honour gains special attention from the German arts media and is able to stage cultural events on the fairgrounds.

Deutsche Presse Agentur (DPA), October 17, 2009

Further Reading:

China bans author from the Frankfurt Book Fair

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

Chinese officials walk out of symposium for the Frankfurt Book Fair

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Categories: Frankfurt Book Fair

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