Furore as Chinese Dissidents Address Book Fair Symposium (Updated)

News reports say that organizers of the Frankfurt Book Fair, the largest such event in the world, have uninvited two prominent Chinese writers, Dai Qing and Bei Ling, from a symposium at the behest of the Chinese government. From Deutsche Welle:

The symposium, entitled “China and the world – perception and reality,” was initially intended to clear up prejudices about the guest country – China – ahead of the 2009 Frankfurt Book Fair, which begins in mid-October.

What the organizers had intended as a promotional preamble soon became a PR nightmare when China made it clear that if the organizers persisted in including dissident writers, it would pull out of the symposium altogether.

The fair’s organizers bowed to Chinese pressure and Bei Ling, Dai Qing and several other dissident authors found that their invitations had been revoked.

If the organizers were hoping that the writers would go quietly, however, they were disappointed. Author Bei Ling has said that he will defy the ban and journalist Dai Qing has already arrived in Germany.

The article goes on to describe Dai’s efforts to get to Frankfurt:

Dai Qing, considered to be one of China’s leading investigative journalists and environmental activists, remained determined to defy the ban, despite a personal phone call from organizer Peter Ripkin begging her not to come.

Dai’s original arrangements had been made by the Fair organizers themselves, but she managed to get a German visa as the guest of the German branch of the PEN club of independent writers.

When Dai got to the airport, however, she found that her plane ticket had been mysteriously cancelled, despite the fact that she’d twice phoned the travel company to confirm.

“They tried so hard to keep me from Frankfurt,” Dai said. Having spontaneously bought a new ticket, however, Dai has now arrived in Germany. Even if she can no longer attend the symposium as a guest, she intends to participate as an audience member.

And from the Guardian:

Shadows have been cast over a debate about perceptions of modern China in Germany this weekend, after Chinese authorities insisted that the exiled writer Bei Ling and investigative journalist Dai Qing be struck from the list of participants.

A joint event between the Frankfurt Book Fair and China, the guest of honour at the October book fair this year, “China and the World – Perceptions and Realities” had been billed as an occasion that would “open up debates about relevant contemporary issues with regard to China”. “It is imperative to exchange ideas and opinions in order to contribute to mutual understanding and to overcome misunderstandings and prejudice,” said its organisers.

But author Bei, a poet and essayist arrested in 2000 for “illegally publishing” his journal in China, told German press that China had threatened to boycott the two-day event if he participated. Dai, a journalist and environmental activist who was banned from publishing in China and imprisoned for 10 months after writing a book critical of the Three Gorges Dam, said she had been told not to attend after German organisers had booked her flight and hotel.

But a statement from Juergen Boos, the director of the fair, contradicts reports that Bai and Dai will not attend:

I very much regret and am personally angered by the fact that it has come to this in the run-up to the event – to unnecessary mistakes and compromises in the organisation and communication of the symposium on our part. This has also led to misunderstandings and agitation in the public debate.

This afternoon, Peter Ripken, who is responsible for the the symposium programme, will pick up Dai Qing at the Frankfurt Airport. And I expect that Bei Ling will also come to Frankfurt and will participate in the symposium. I am pleased about this and I also expect an intensive dialogue to result from the discussion about the participation of both intellectuals.

Update: A German newspaper confirms that both writers will visit Germany for the event but neither will make any public appearances:

But fair director Juergen Boos confirmed that both would attend the event as private spectators, adding that the schedule would not be changed because neither had planned to make any official speeches.

Organisers said neither writer had wanted their presence to provoke Chinese officials and had therefore agreed to simply be guests.

“The Chinese are the most important participants in the symposium,” Boos said. “We want to speak with them, not just about them.”

He defended the book fair’s initial choice to exclude the two writers, saying compromises between partners are “inevitable.”

Here is a link with further information and comment:  It contains a further link to a German translation of parts of Bei Ling’s originally planned speech here.

‘In the Süddeutsche Zeitung, Henrik Bork and David Steinitz translated excerpts of the speech which Bei Ling was due to deliver at the Frankfurt symposium: “In China every writer knows exactly what he can write and what not. Self-censorship is imperative for survival and for a writer’s success, particularly for novelists. Because membership in the state writers’ associations is linked to market influence, payment and potential fame after publication, self-censorship and state censorship enter into a complex co-existence. This relationship makes Chinese writers, journalists and publishers into conscious or unconscious accomplices in the state control of the news and press.”’

Update 2: Asia Pacific News reports that Dai and Bai did address the symposium after all:

Two Chinese dissidents caused a furore when they addressed a symposium ahead of the Frankfurt Book Fair
on Saturday, causing much of the Chinese delegation to leave the room.

[...] China’s former ambassador to Germany, Mei Zhaorong, said they felt unfairly treated.

‘We didn’t come for a lesson on democracy, these times are over,’ Mei said from the podium, adding that Dai Qing and Bei Ling were welcome to participate in the discussion but did not represent China’s 1.3 billion citizens.

The two dissident authors in turn expressed disappointment at the Chinese delegation for leaving the room, saying such behaviour did not enable discussion.

For more, see:

Frankfurt Book Fair Buckles under Pressure from China

Chinese dissident Dai Qing arrives for Frankfurt Book Fair symposium though Chinese government threatens to walk out

Probe International Executive Director Patricia Adams-a Toronto-based group that has translated Dai Qing’s environmental books-thinks it is “profoundly disturbing when institutions in the western democracies become enforcers of the Chinese government’s censorship rules, especially those involved in publishing.”…  “Where will they draw the line? How can we be confident the Frankfurt Book Fair won’t keep Chinese-banned books from being traded at the fair in future,” she asked.