The London Book Fair (LBF), which ran from Monday to Wednesday at the Earls Court Exhibition Centre, was one of the most controversial in the LBF's 41-year history -- thanks to the choice of China as this year's LBF Market Focus, and the exclusion of dissident and exiled writers from the Market Focus programme. The publicly-funded British Council and its Chinese partner in organising the Market Focus, the General Administration of Press and Publications (GAPP), were subjected to a .storm of criticism in the days before the Fair opened. During the Fair there were several demonstrations inside the exhibition area by Chinese and other protesters.
The Market Focus brought 181 Chinese publishers and 21 Chinese writers to the LBF. The associated programme of events, organised by LBF in collaboration with the British Council and GAPP and divided into cultural and professional streams, was the largest to be held at the Fair since the annual Market Focus was instituted in 2004. The Market Focus concentrates on a single country or region, and aims to promote literary and trade ties and long-term partnerships in the publishing industry.
The Chinese delegation was led by Liu Binjie, the director of GAPP, who is widely described as "China's censor-in-chief". He is seen as the man responsible for the imprisonment of Liu Xiaobo, who was arrested on 8 December 2008, sentenced to eleven years in prison on 25 December 2009 and awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in 2010. Liu's artist wife Liu Xia remains under house arrest. On the fair's opening day Liu Binjie abandoned giving his speech due to protests by Chinese, Uyghurs, Tibetans and their supporters, and his speech was instead read out for him.
A letter published in the Guardian on 12 April, signed by representatives of 11 human rights and freedom of expression organisations, expressed "deep disappointment" that LBF and the British Council had "apparently acquiesced to pressure from the Chinese authorities and failed to invite dissident authors and poets." The signatories included executives of Amnesty International, Pen International, Index on Censorship, Tibet Society and Chinese Unofficial Publication Network.
At the same time English PEN issued a statement urging discussion of Chinese literature and censorship at the Fair and noting that at least 35 writers are in prison in China, some serving sentences of up to 20 years. “It is a deep disappointment to everyone in PEN that although China will be the focus for the London Book Fair we will not be hearing the voices of those in prison, or the many others who live in exile." English PEN added that "the repression is continuing. On 10 February Zhu Yufu, a member of Independent Chinese Press Centre (ICPC), was sentenced to seven years in prison for his allegedly subversive poem It’s Time."
In an article in the Observer newspaper on Sunday, headlined "The British Council brings more shame on us" Nik Cohen wrote: "Tomorrow, Britain will get a taste of dictatorial control when the London Book Fair opens."
The LBF Director Alistair Burtenshaw and the British Council's Director of Literature Susie Nicklin robustly defended their organisations in a letter to the Guardian. They said the LBF events represented "a great opportunity to deepen understanding and strengthen cultural and business links between the UK and China." They pointed out that any international institution working with books in China has to liaise with the GAPP. The selection of writers for LBF 2012 had been undertaken by the British Council in wide consultation with its official partners, industry professionals, and experts in the field in China and the UK.
Burtenshaw and Nicklin added that while many authors attend LBF at the invitation of the organisers, many more attend for a variety of other reasons. "The British Council programmed events before, during and after the Fair and will include festivals and a variety of partners from around the UK throughout 2012. We have participation from a variety of voices, including Ma Jian, Diane Wei Liang, Ou Ning, Murong Xuechen, Guo Xiaolu, A Yi, Sheng Keyi, Han Dong,Tsering Norbu and Jung Chang. No author has been refused involvement."
The letter said that that censorship and human rights were expected to feature prominently in all the discussions and debates. "These are key issues for UK audiences. We respect the opinion of the signatories and welcome the debate that is arising around these issues."
The demonstrations that took place during the LBF had an air of dignity, using the strength of words, spoken or on placards. In a "poetry protest" on Wednesday members of the Tibet Society and IPCP were joined by English PEN's head of campaigns, Robert Sharp and read poems by imprisoned writers Shi Tao, Zhu Yufu, Nurmehemmet Yasin, and Dokru Tsultrim. Members of the official Chinese presence hastily erected banners so as to form a barrier preventing the people in the LBF's Chinese Pavilion seeing the protesters. Sharp commented: "They're not quite as solid as the real Great Wall of China but the effect is the same: to keep people out. 'The'Great Pullup Banner Wall of China'!"
Ma Jian, author of the novel Beijing Coma about the 1989 Tiananmen Square massacre, was a particularly vocal critic of the China Market Focus. He lives in exile in London with his partner and translator Fiona Drew and their children, having been banned from re-entering China after publication of Beijing Coma, which is banned there.
Inside the LBF on its first day Ma Jian made a powerful statement in Chinese, repeated in English translation ( a video of his speech is posted on the Guardian website). During his speech he painted a red cross on his face and on his banned book. He said that when had tried to give a copy of the book to GAPP head Liu Binjie at the Fair he had been manhandled and had not been able to get close to him. "No Chinese writers enjoy freedom of speech. When you see 180 Chinese publishers here it may appear that there is a great variety but in reality they all come from the mouthpiece of the Chinese Communist party."
Jian added: "In this book fair that looks so modern, so impressive, so beautiful you will not see the ugly reality that lies behind, you will not hear the voices of those Tibetan lamas who have set fire to themselves or the writers who are persecuted in China. The reality will not be present here in the fair". He said he was happy that the British Council is setting up some kind of dialogue with China. "This is a start, but what makes me disappointed is that within this dialogue you will not hear any mention of the tabloo areas of Chinese history, or Tiananmen Square. You will not see any book that has not been censored by the Chinese authorities."
Jian also wrote an article circulated to newspapers by Project Syndicate which began: "You would think that the British, having practically invented appeasement and paid a heavy price for, would know better. But appeasement of China for commercial gain apparently is not considered repellent."
This photo, from the Fair's first day, shows Chinese dissident and Tiananmen Square survivor Shao Jiang demonstrating next to the China Pavilion where state-approved books were being launched and discussed, He held aloft the two protest signs - "Free speech is not a crime" and "Stop literary persecution" - in English and Chinese. .
LBF 2012 coincided with a wide effort by the British and Chinese governments to reinforce cultural links. China's propaganda chief Li Changchun, a member of the Standing Committee of the Chinese Communist Party (CPC) Central Committee's Political Bureau, addressed the LBF opening ceremony during a four-day official goodwill visit to Britain. While in London he met Prime Minister David Cameron and Foreign Secretary William Hague.
At the same time Culture Secretary Jeremy Hunt met Chinese State Councillor Liu Yandong (the only female member of the CPC politburo) at the Victoria and Albert Museum in London, to launch a new cultural dialogue. A statement said: "This marks an uplift of the UK’s bilateral relationship with China, making it the only country apart from the USA to have high level discussions on these issues. From now on it will form part of the wider cooperation that the two countries have including an economic and financial dialogue, and a dialogue on human rights."
The impact of the Market Focus events spread well beyond the confines of the Earls Court Exhibition Centre. Seven of the events were sceduled at locations in London outside the LBF including the British Library, London Review Bookshop and London University's School of Oriental and African Studies (SOAS). Yesterday events were held in the cities of Edinburgh, Manchester and Newcastle. On Sunday writers Mo Yan and Lu Jiande will appear in an event, Opening up the East, at the Stratford-upon-Avon Literary Festival, in Stratford's Shakespeare Centre.
In previous years English PEN has hosted, in the English PEN Literary Cafe, Market Focus authors selected by the British Council. But for LBF 2012 English PEN said it would not be providing a platform to the authors included in this programme "as it has been produced in partnership with GAPP, the official government agency responsible for the regulation and administration of all Chinese publishing, including the issuing of publication licenses and the active censorship and banning of books in China."
However, as part of English PEN's hosting a programme of British and international authors at the Literary Cafe, it did host the celebrated writer Bi Feiyu, one of the 21 Market Focus authors. Feiyu, who won the Man Asian Literary Prize 2010 for Three Sisters was LBF "author of the day" on Tuesday and was interviewed in the Literary Cafe by broadcaster and writer Rosie Goldsmith. English PEN noted that it has supported one of his books in the past.
On the first day of LBF Jung Chang, author of Wild Swans, wa critic of China under it previous and present leadership and was not part of the World Focus programme, was interviewed by English PEN President, the novelist, memoirist and playwright Gillian Slovo. Chang, who has lived in the UK since 1978, is a bestselling author, with 13 million copies of Wild Swans sold, but her works are banned in China. This year marks the 21st anniversary of the publication of Wild Swans, her first book, in 1991. The book covers three generations of women. Slovo, who recently reread it, said “it's the most wonderful book, both a history of a family and the history of a country.” With her husband Jon Halliday Chang wrote a 2005 biography Mao: The Unknown Story. She is now working on a new book Empress Dowager Cixi: The Concubine Who Launched Modern China.
Jung Chang and Gilliam Slovo
The event was a fascinating encounter with the vibrant, elegant, author. She was asked about accusations made by some that writers in mainland China are guilty of self-censorship. "I wouldn’t accuse the writers in China because it is very difficult – you could be sent to prison for over a decade for something you write," she said. "No one but the most hardened heroes can do this and not everyone can be a hero, and you have to think about your wife, your husband, your family, your parents."
Jung Chang added: "it’s very very hard – so I feel that we must have a lot of sympathy for them. Of course if you peddle the party line unashamedly that’s another matter but for the average writer I think we have to understand that they all write with a straitjacket in their mind – they can’t write freely because of this straitjacket."
Despite its criticisms of the Market Focus, English PEN carries on its newly-relaunched Pen Atlas an essay by Han Dong, a Market Focus author who is considered one one of China's most important writers and avant-garde poets. The essay is entitled Chinese Literature: Where are we now?
The distinguished poet Yang Lian, a founder of the Misty school of poetry, became an exile after the 1989 Tiananmen massacre and has lived in London since 1997. Lian is editor with W N Herbert of an important new 320-page anthology of Chinese poetry, Jade Ladder: Contemporary Chinese Poetry published by Bloodaxe Books this month. The associate editors are Brian Holton and Qin Xiaoyu.
Bloodaxe says: "This anthology is the record of a revolution in Chinese poetry. As the Cultural Revolution gave way to the post-Mao era – years of political turmoil, economic boom and the return of Hong Kong – the present period has been one of extraordinary and deeply problematic growth. Chinese poets, driven by alienation, trauma and exile, have responded with one of the most thorough and exciting experiments in world poetry."
The anthology was launched at a World Market event at the London Review Bookshop on Monday, with the Yang Lian, W N Herbert and Xi Chuan, who is considered one of the most influential poets in China and is one of the 21 World Market authors. the Fair. There was a second launch in Newcastle yesterday.
Looking back over the past week, the rumpus over China's World Market Focus drew attention to the programme itself and the Chinese writers included on it. At the same time imprisoned, dissident or exiled writers were present at the fair whether in person (as with Ma Jian) or through the efforts of Chinese and other campaigners to ensure that LBF Market Focus attendees were reminded of the continuing imprisonment, and literary works, of Nobel Laureate Liu Xiaobo and other writers. In practice the boundary between "inside" and "outside" Chinese writers had some flexibility. Overall, the LBF introduced visitors to a rich range of comtemporary Chinese literature and writers. Most immediately I am looking forward to reading the Jade Ladder poetry anthology, Bi Feiyu's Three Sisters and Ma Jian's Beijing Coma, and following up the work of other Chinese writers on the official and unofficial agenda at the Fair.
advertising the fact that Turkey has been chosen as LBF 2013 Market Focus
At next year's LBF the honour of being chosen as Market Focus goes to Turkey. There was a sizeable Turkish contingent at this year's fair, as well as a seminar entitled "Literary translation: Turkey & Beyond". Activists predict that the choice of Turkey will, like that of China, prove controversial - given its human rights abuses, imprisonment of writers, and Kurdish and Armenian issues.