Apr 19, 2012

Tibet: Book Fair Omits Influential Writers

The London Book Fair has taken place without the invitation of prominent Tibetan and Uyghur writers, as well as without the participation of Chinese writers forced to live in exile due to their works.

Below is an article published by the International Campaign for Tibet.

Delegates to the London Book Fair today [17 April 2012] entered a hall adorned with five red Chinese flags and a picture of a Chinese child beaming happily as he holds a book.

For some well-known Chinese writers forced to live in exile and who expected more of Britain than to roll out the red carpet without question for the Communist Party it was like a punch in the stomach.

“When I saw the Chinese child on the hoarding waving an open book and looking happy, I didn’t feel happy, because I was thinking of the Chinese writers in prison,” said Ma Jian, author of the highly-acclaimed novel Beijing Coma, a powerful allegory of a rising China and the definitive novel on the Tiananmen Square protests. (Ma Jian is also the author of Red Dust, a story of his journey through Tibet.)

Ma Jian wasn’t invited to the London Book Fair by the organizers or the British Council, a public corporation that is the UK’s ‘international cultural relations body’ according to its website. Nor was Jung Chang, author of Wild Swans and a hefty tome on Mao Zedong, banned in the PRC (Jung Chang was invited by English PEN, and spoke to a packed crowd at their Literary Café).

The London Book Fair is one of the world’s leading trade fairs of its kind, attracting 25,000 visitors from 110 countries. This year, its ‘market focus’ is on the PRC. The Book Fair and the British Council had an opportunity to uphold cherished British values of free speech and send a strong message to the Chinese Communist Party that Beijing cannot export its censorship to a free western democracy. But they failed – even though no one in the British Council is going to be tortured for saying what they wish, as a Chinese, Tibetan or Uyghur writer can be, or giving space to independent and critical voices, or encouraging genuine dialogue.

Thirty-one state-approved authors were invited to the Book Fair and the honored guest is Minister Liu Binjie of the PRC’s General Administration of Press and Publication – whose Ministry is responsible for censorship and stifling of independent voices. Ma Jian said: “For China to be named guest of honor, for the British cultural establishment to be shaking hands with the Chinese head of propaganda, a man responsible for the banning and censoring of books and the imprisonment of writers, is disgraceful.[…] These big events give China’s Communist Party the international face it craves and helps normalize its repression of free speech back home.”

At the Book Fair today [17 April 2012], London-based China correspondent and scholar Dr Jonathan Mirsky was given a soft toy panda by a Chinese official after Minister Liu’s talk, apparently to symbolize the “cuddly and friendly” image they sought to convey. “Where is Liu Xiaobo?” Jonathan asked her. He also asked about Gao Xinjian, the only Chinese to win the Nobel Prize for Literature, and who now lives in exile (he wasn’t invited to the Book Fair either). The senior Chinese official snatched back the panda and walked away.

Another official said to a young assistant, “Don’t talk to that foreigner”, when Jonathan asked again about Gao at the information desk. When Jonathan said to him, in Chinese, that he spoke his language, the same assistant said, “But you’re a shit.” One of the Chinese manning the official stand did tell Jonathan she had heard of Liu Xiaobo “in here” and laid her hand on her heart, but wouldn’t say anything else.

Indefatigable Chinese scholar Shao Jiang silently maintained a presence during Minister Liu’s talk this morning, holding a small banner stating in both English and Chinese ‘Stop Literary Persecution’. Chinese officials erected screens around the open platform to block him from sight. In the afternoon, a number of us – Uyghur, Tibetan and Chinese writers and NGOs – attended a China-UK publishing forum to be addressed by UK Minister for Culture, Communications and Creative Industries in the UK Ed Vaisey and Minister Liu.

It started late, and there seemed to be a lot of discussion behind the scenes and consultations with large men in suits wearing ear-pieces.

Ed Vaisey launched into a gung-ho speech about the amazing opportunities of the publishing industry in China and the huge potential for the UK to work together with China, not to mention his excitement about the ‘Nosy Crow’ books for children. He mentioned nothing about the importance of freedom of expression, nor the importance of diverse and independent voices, the lifeblood of a country’s culture. I was sitting next to Shao Jiang, who served 18 months in prison after his involvement in the Tiananmen Square protests and novelist Ma Jian, whose books are banned in China and who is not able to return home to see his family. It felt like a parallel universe.

I thought of Ms Qi, a Chinese lady in her early seventies who had been imprisoned for more than ten years. This morning, she attempted to give a copy of her book about her experiences, The Black Wall: The True Story of Father and Daughter, two generations of prisoners to Minister Liu. Ma Jian had attempted to give him a copy of ‘Beijing Coma’, too, but was manhandled out of his path by British security personnel. “I am feeling very upset, very hurt,” Ms Qi told me.

Minister Liu didn’t turn up for the afternoon China-UK publishing forum. Perhaps he didn’t want to face questions or protests. He sent a junior official to read his speech instead. The London Book Fair interpreters translated his opening comments as saying he “was a puppet” of Minister Liu. As he started to speak, Shao Jiang quietly raised a small white banner with the words ‘Free Speech is not a Crime”. Security personnel arrived and tried to hustle him to the back but he remained in his seat. In front of us, in the middle of a row, several other placards emerged, one bearing an image of Liu Xiaobo, another bearing an image of the Tibetan imprisoned writer Buddha, and behind us, other banners were displayed.

The security personnel gave up; the banners were everywhere, and we were all polite and silent (the footage is well worth watching;

Afterwards, one of them came over to talk and apologized to Shao Jiang. I told him, “You have to be that stubborn to survive prison after confronting the Chinese Communist Party.” “So, he’s really suffered,” the security official said, admitting that they had been getting different instructions on their headphones every few minutes on how to deal with the protest.

As we had no official platform at the book fair, a Romanian cultural institute kindly hosted us for a discussion about Tibetan, Uyghur and Chinese literature today. We spoke about the richness of the Tibetan literary tradition; one of the most important in Asia and the world in both secular and spiritual terms, and read prose and poems by contemporary writers. Tienchi Martin-Liao, President of the Independent Chinese PEN Center, spoke about welcoming the official writers but being aware of the restrictions they worked under; Jung Chang, too, spoke of the “straitjacket in their minds” of self-censorship.

When awarding the Nobel Peace Prize, in absentia due to Liu Xiaobo’s 11-year jail sentence in China, Chair of the Nobel Committee Thorbjorn Jagland said that writers and thinkers like Nobel Laureate Liu, “Are not dissidents….[they are] representatives of the main lines of development in today’s world.”

It is a message that the London Book Fair and British Council would do well to heed.