April 16, 2012

The London Book Fair’s China Problem


What to do when the guest of honor does not always behave so honorably?

The London Book Fair faces this question and others just like it by welcoming China as this year’s high-profile guest of honor.

Criticism of the LBF has been steady for more than a month now as more and more writers, publishers, and editors express frustration and disappointment over the decision to celebrate China’s role in the publishing industry. How, they argue, can a country with a lengthy track record of invasive censorship be honored guests at a fair whose purpose is “making words go further.”

Unsurprisingly, critics say the primary reason is money. The Guardian, which has done a terrific job covering both sides of the issue, published an Op-Ed last month by Bei Ling, a UC Irvine board-member and founder of Independent Chinese PEN Center. In it, Ling claims that money outweighs freedom of expression.

This is British capitalism at its finest. When it comes to business, freedom of expression has to move aside. Set against the power of money, literature and freedom are nothing but ornaments. But writers are different. They each have a soul, rather than cash. They have to speak frankly. They cannot, and should not, trade what they have for any business opportunities.

By volume, China is the world’s largest book publisher. And its economy-driven culture is a success story in a global market that’s seen numerous failures in recent years. From a business perspective, it’s foolish not to develop the best possible relationship with them. When one considers that relationship on a human level, though, liberal issues outweigh the potential for large profits.

20 Chinese writers feature this year in a variety of panel discussions and readings. However, this group was selected by China’s General Administration of Press and Publishing (Gapp), which is cozy with the government and does not include writers whose work might be deemed critical of the Communist Party. This, according to London-based Chinese author Ma Jian, is contradictory to true literary expression:

“Mainland writers can only express themselves within confines set by the state,” Ma says. “They must avoid taboo topics, such as the Tiananmen massacre, Tibetan independence and the Falun Gong, and must above all never question the legitimacy of the Communist party. Through a process of censorship and self-censorship, published writers in China are forced to enter a silent pact with the regime, and ensure their thoughts don’t stray too far from the party line.”

The authors invited to take part in the book fair’s cultural programme are all published writers, Ma continues, “so by definition they have been approved by the Chinese state. If the British Council is genuinely concerned with helping China open up, then it should not be cooperating so closely with Gapp, and it should include critical, independent voices in the debate. It’s very doubtful that established writers such as head of the Chinese Writers’ Association, Tie Ning, or Mo Yan will express their true feelings or opinions. When the Writers’ Association holds its annual meetings, the politburo sit on the front row.”

Even so, the London Book Fair makes it clear that business is its first purpose: “Now in its 41st year, The London Book Fair continues to be the global market place and leading business-2-business exhibition for rights negotiation and the sales and distribution of content across print, audio, TV, film and digital channels.”

This points to a different issue, then, recurring time and again in the businesses of the arts: How to grow business when growing means running counter to, or askew of, what the art itself stands for.

Susanna Nicklin, the British Council’s Director of Literature, insists that:

… the long-term nature of the British Council’s engagement with China, the “huge range” of participating authors and an ongoing programme of events in 2012 beyond the fair – some of which include writers cited as voices missing from the London programme. UK festival appearances are already planned this summer for Murong Xuecun and Yan Lianke, another author who has tangled with the censors – Ma Jian himself is due to appear next week at an event in Oxford with writers from the delegation. “We always think about who’s the writer, what are they writing, what’s the audience,” she explains.

The programme at the London Book Fair was “put together in discussion with UK and Chinese partners”, she continues, with Chinese partners paying “for international flights and accommodation”, but she rejects any suggestion that undue influence has been exerted. None of the writers suggested by the British Council or the independent experts consulted has been “vetoed” by the Chinese government or by Gapp, no invited author “has had problems obtaining a visa”, neither has the British Council “been paid a fee to secure the slot”. According to Nicklin, an invitation has not been issued to Liu Xiaobo, or any other imprisoned writers, since such an invitation “would not have actively contributed to achieving a cultural programme”.

Some critics are calling for a ban on the fair. Others wish to capture this moment and use it as a platform to speak out against China’s censorship and human rights violations. For publishers, though, London remains an important business opportunity, despite the unfortunate situation brought on by governments that are at once much bigger and much smaller than the literature created by individuals across the globe.

Kevin Murphy is the digital media marketing manager of Melville House.