Free Speech Activists Protest London Book Fair

This year’s London Book Fair will highlight China in a special “China Market Focus” section, and will invite Liu Binjie, the head of the General Administration for Press and Publishing, which oversees all publications in the country, as part of the official Chinese delegation. Many writers and free speech advocates are protesting the move and arguing that the fair organizers are surrendering to China’s demands for censorship in favor of financial concerns. Several prominent exiled authors have not been invited to participate in the fair. From the AP:

“We’re disappointed that the full breadth and depth of Chinese literature is not represented at the book fair,” said Robert Sharp of the free-speech group English PEN.

The three-day book fair features seminars on Chinese literature and readings from about 20 Chinese authors, and is being attended by more than 180 Chinese publishers.

The invited authors, who include internationally known writers such as Bi Feiyu and Mo Yan and best-selling young novelist Annie Baobei, were chosen by the British Council in collaboration with China’s General Administration of Press and Publications, the agency that regulates printed media.

An article in China Daily describes the events planned for the Chinese delegation to the fair:

The fair’s Market Focus launch on Sunday marked three days of meetings between the 21 Chinese writers and their established British counterparts on various topics, 11 exhibitions, 10 professional forums and seminars, and, of course, book launches.

The first Chinese event to be unveiled was an exhibition of original and up-to-date creations of Chinese seals and calligraphy by artist Luo Pengpeng at the Royal College of Art on Saturday.

Pre-fair events also included a China-UK forum on investment in the publishing industry, and a meeting between Chinese delegation leaders and 20 CEOs of major publishers and media groups.

Author Ma Jian, who lives in exile in London, blasted the organizers of the London Book Fair in an op-ed distributed by Project Syndicate:

You would think that the British, having practically invented appeasement and paid a heavy price for it, would know better. But appeasement of China for commercial gain apparently is not considered morally repellent. How else could Liu Binjie, China’s censor-in-chief and the point man for silencing the Nobel laureate writer and human-rights activist Liu Xiaobo, be invited to lead a delegation of 21 officially sanctioned writers and dozens of ministerial minions to London to celebrate Chinese literature at the London Book Fair?

Indeed, Liu is the British Council’s guest of honor for the event. The Council says that it invited officially approved Chinese writers because it wanted to create greater understanding of Chinese literature and promote cultural exchange between the two countries. But is it really true that the world can or should learn about China only by reading works that are sanctioned by the Chinese Communist Party? After all, didn’t Boris Pasternak, Alexander Solzhenitsyn, Milan Kundera and Václav Havel teach the world as much about the repressive societies in which they lived than anything turned out by the Soviet bloc’s official publishers?

The Council’s excuse is a smokescreen and simultaneously kowtows to Chinese totalitarianism and insults those Chinese writers who have been imprisoned, banned, or forced into exile merely for writing what their conscience demands.

A similar controversy erupted three years ago when organizers of the Frankfurt Book Fair uninvited several dissident writers at the behest of Chinese officials. Read more about China’s efforts to export censorship worldwide.