When I arrived at the London Book Fair on Monday, April 16, I saw a huge sign outside showing a cute Chinese boy holding an open book with the words underneath him: “China: Market Focus.” The special guest of this year’s fair was the Chinese Communist Party’s censorship bureau. Assisted by the government-funded, but independent, British Council, the fair’s organizers invited the General Administration of Press and Publication (GAPP)—the Communist Party’s designated body for ensuring that all publications, from poems to textbooks, are certified fit for the public at home and abroad to read.
What has caused a bitter public wrangle in London is that Beijing not only chose—with the full approval of the fair itself and of the British Council—which writers to bring to the fair. In a disturbing repeat of what happened at the Frankfurt Book Fair in 2009, it also excluded many of China’s best-known writers. Among these are two Nobel Prize winners: Gao Xingjian, China’s only Literature Prize laureate, who lives in nearby Paris, and Liu Xiaobo, the Peace Prize winner who is now serving an eleven-year prison sentence. More scandalous still, not one of China’s diaspora poets and novelists was invited, even though some of the country’s most distinguished writers live abroad.
“We must be very powerful and they are frightened of us,” Qi Jiazhen, a fiery, seventy-year-old writer told me, at a meeting of Chinese writers in London to protest the fair’s corrupt invitation list. “That is why they won’t let us into the fair.”
Fifty writers attended the meeting, which took place the day before the fair opened, including well-known novelists like Ma Jian, author of Beijing Coma. Qi Jiazhen was one of three writers in the room who had served jail sentences in China for what they had written; she is the author of The Black Wall: The True Story of Father and Daughter: Two Generations of Prisoners, an account of her own eleven-year sentence and the one of twenty-three years imposed on her father.
At the fair, which closed on April 18, 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 …