Frankfurt book fair's controversial guest of honor: China

Critics said choosing a guest of honor that jails writers is wrong, while others said the German fair's inclusion of China is a way to break down walls.

Johannes Eisele/REUTERS
A dancer of the Beijing Opera attends a show at the Frankfurt book fair Wednesday. The theme of the world's largest book fair, which will run until October 18, is Chinal's literature.

The Frankfurt Book Fair is about literature, art, and culture. It's also a platform for controversy.

Whom the fair chooses as its guest of honor is what gets it in trouble. That was the case with Turkey in 2008, Spain's Catalonia region in 2007, Korea in 2005, and the members of the Arab League in 2004.

And now, with China.

Why, many say, highlight a country that muzzles writers with strict censorship laws, allows them to languish in prison, and has a poor human rights records, as with Tibet? And when Chinese officials walked out of a pre-fair symposium to protest the presence of two dissident writers, Dai Qing and Bei Ling, many asked: Did China deserve to be invited to the world's biggest publishing marketplace?

But books build bridges, German Chancellor Angela Merkel said at the book fair's opening ceremony Tuesday. Recalling the thrill of waiting for books to be smuggled from (then) West Germany into (then) East Germany, where she grew up, Mrs. Merkel said that "books played a big role in winning the cold war."

Inviting China to the world's largest reading room, she said, could help China get closer to the West.

The fair, which attracts around 300,000 visitors, usually chooses the literature of one nation as a central theme. More than 6,900 exhibitors from 100 countries are on hand at the five-day event, which runs through Sunday.

"The book fair opens up a window for people to get to know China better," said Xi Jinping, vice president of the People's Republic of China.

"Mutual understanding is the reason for all of us to come here," Chinese novelist Mo Yan said.

Ms. Mo was among some 2,000 Chinese authors, publishers, journalists, and artists participating in the event.

It took years 15 years of convincing on the part of Frankfurt fair organizers get China to come. China's General Administration of Press and Publication spent millions of euros on the event.

"China used to be very poor. It's taken a long time, but after decades of opening itself to the world, it is in a position to be able to do so," says Tan Yue, chairman of one of China's largest publishing houses, PPMG. "It's a fact that the Chinese love to learn from the West, but that in the West, few people show interest in China."

In the 20 years since Cai Hongjun left his native China and as worked as a literary agent in Germany, he's had 2,000 German books translated into Chinese, but only seven Chinese works translated into German. Before this year's fair, 80 Chinese book titles were available in German. After the fair, there will be 400, according to book fair director Juergen Boos.

Mr. Tan and Mr. Cai were beaming Tuesday night, standing in front of a special exhibit on the history of printing technique. Did you know, they asked, that book printing was a Chinese invention? Long before Johannes Gutenberg invented printing with movable letters at Mainz near Frankfurt, the earliest typesetting device in history was the rotary-type case designed by agronomist Wang Zhen in 1208.

Events to spark debate

More than 500 events this week will showcase Chinese culture at the book fair, but only half are sponsored by the Chinese Ministry of Culture. Book fair organizers hope the other events will spark debate, including about issues of censorship. "Especially for Germans, this is important. We have seen the impact of discussion; that when you speak with one another, you can tear down walls," says Mr. Boos.

Dissident Chinese poet Bei Ling wants book fair visitors to hear more than just the official Chinese voice. "We have another voice, this underground literature voice, underground poetry," Mr. Bei says.

Just like Mr. Bei, Ms. Dai was officially invited to the book fair, but then was dis-invited her after the Chinese government protested.

In the end, the two came as guests of the German wing of the PEN club. An environmental activist banned for her book on the effect of the Three Gorges Dam, Dai spent 10 months in prison after the Tiananmen Square demonstrations of 1989. All her books, including her prison memoirs, are officially banned.

"China is split into two – the 'us' and the 'they,' " she says, speaking at PEN stand, where other banned Chinese authors have been presenting their work every day. "When you belong to the 'us' group, you've got all the privileges." When not, she says, "you can spend years without being able to publish."

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