Frankfurt Book Fair Welcomes China, Dissident Voices

After a month of controversy over its choice of China as Guest of Honor, this year’s Frankfurt Book Fair has finally opened, as Vice President Xi Jinping meets with German Chancellor Angela Merkel in Berlin. AFP reports on the fair’s efforts to honor freedom of expression despite earlier attempts by China to censor dissident voices:

Gottfried Honnefelder, president of the German publishers and booksellers association, told the opening press conference he hoped “our colleagues, the authors and publishers in China, will be given the freedoms they need to live their lives and do their work.”

Fair director Juergen Boos said the trade show had to “make sure we can present many voices,” and said he looked forward to a “controversial and not always convenient book fair.”

Dissident Chinese poet Bei Ling told another press briefing he and others wanted visitors to the fair to hear not only the “officials writers voice.

“We have another voice, this underground literature voice, underground poetry,” Bei said at an event sponsored by The International Society for Human Rights.

Both Xi and Merkel spoke at the opening, and, as DPA reports, presented slightly differing views of the role of literature:

“Various ideologies must not hamper mutual development,” he said, as Chinese in the audience clapped, while the German guests in a theatre at the Frankfurt fairgrounds listened impassively.

“We are open to accepting elements from outside, but on our own cultural foundations,” Xi said.

A few moments later, Merkel won applause from the German side of the room with a plea for competition of ideas. Describing her own childhood under the now vanished East German communist dictatorship, she said people had yearned for books smuggled in from the West.

“Books emphasize all those differences that are so threatening to dictatorships,” she said.

Der Spiegel, meanwhile, visits authors and bookshops in China to gauge the state of literature in the country:

A huge army of censors — whose names and exact number remain unknown — watches over China’s media. Novelists are handled by a special government agency, the General Administration of Press and Publication (GAPP). The GAPP is the official partner of the Frankfurt Book Fair. It organizes the guest country program and has launched a number of initiatives, including donating half a million euros (roughly $739,000) in subsidies for the translation of Chinese novels into German.

The censors at the GAPP intervene when important leaders of the Communist Party are attacked, when ethnic minorities in the country are portrayed in a less than flattering manner, or if allusions are made to the student revolts of 1989. But the agency also acts to suppress pornography, or what passes as such in prudish China. In general, anything that could endanger the “stability and unity of China” is considered undesirable.

As in other communist states, books were the most incisive weapons of intellectual discourse in China until well into the 1990s. But for the past few years, the Internet has served as the main platform for intelligent and rebellious debate.

It is always hard to get an overview of what is happening in Chinese media, with 150,000 books published each year and millions of Chinese Web sites. But what is particularly confusing is that many ostensibly banned topics can now be discussed in Beijing without the authorities so much as batting an eye.

Xinhua fails to mention the controversy over the fair but outlines China’s role as Guest of Honor:

One of the aims of China’s role as the Guest of Honor is to take this opportunity to push the Chinese publishing industry outward, promote cooperation between Chinese and foreign publishers, strengthen Chinese products’ influence and competitiveness and achieve sound and fast development of the publishing industry, Liu Binjie said.

He also said the Guest-of-Honor activities would, in light of the principles of respecting cultural diversity and promoting global harmony and development, help the world know more about a friendly China dedicated to developing harmoniously.

See also: Little-known Chinese literature takes spotlight at Frankfurt Book Fair