Photo from the Tibet Society.
The London Book Fair opened — and closed — this week amid harsh criticism of the decision by the British Council to allow China’s General Administration of Press and Publications, the government body that regulates and censors print media, to have full say over which writers to invite to the fair. One writer, Ma Jian, whose work has been banned here since 1987 and who now lives in London, has slammed the fair as “giving tacit approval to China’s suppression of free speech” and “giving the Communist party a stage on which to perform its propaganda show.”
Jonathan Mirsky of the New York Review of Books checked out the fair and wrote of his interactions with Chinese officials manning the event:
At the fair, which closed on Wednesday, China’s official presence was overwhelming, its stalls, desks and book displays taking up more space than those of any other country. At the information desk, staffed by young Chinese women studying in the UK, I asked whether Gao Xingjian, the Nobel Laureate, would be speaking. None had heard of him. I said he lived just over the Channel in Paris. One of the young women said: “Then he’s not a Chinese, right?” I said he was indeed, had lived most of his life there, and had resigned from the Party. They looked embarrassed. I then asked if Liu Xiaobo would be attending. They all edged away except one, studying mathematics, who said, “I have my feelings about him, here, inside.” I invited her to tell me what those feelings were, and she replied, “I better not.”
I then asked another young woman, behind the desk of the main display of Chinese publications—on subjects ranging from technical matters to poetry—if Gao Xingjian’s books were on show. She hadn’t heard of him, but said she would ask “my boss.” When she asked him in Chinese if they had Gao’s books he said, in English, that Gao wasn’t a Chinese and that, like all foreigners, “he lied about China.” I asked him what sort of lies. He said in Chinese to his young assistant, “Don’t talk to this foreigner.” I told him in Chinese I could understand every word he had said, whereupon he told me, in English, “You’re a shit.” I replied, Bici, bici, which means, in effect, the feeling is mutual.
I went to the space where senior representatives of GAPP, the Chinese publishing bureau, were talking to the press. Madam Huang, who was representing GAPP, pressed a stuffed panda into the hands of each reporter as they were introduced. “This is a symbol of China,” she said, “friendly and open.” In Chinese I asked Madam Huang, who had already given me a panda, if either Gao Xingjian or Liu Xiaobo had been invited to appear at the Book Fair. She instantly snatched back my panda and hurried away.
Scene at the opening day of the London Book Fair:
Protestors hold signs next to banners placed by Chinese exhibitors that seek to tell the world of a “real Communist Party of China”: