When I arrived at the London Book Fair on Monday, 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 some 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 out an eleven-year prison sentence. More scandalous still, not one of China’s diaspora poets and novelists was invited, even though most 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 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.
To compensate for the absence of dissident Chinese authors, the delegation running the Romanian stall offered their space to exiled Han, Tibetan, and Uighur writers, so they could enter the hall. Ma Jian spoke. “There are 118 Chinese publishers here; all are mouthpieces of the Communist Party. The writers they have invited are considered beautiful by the Party. No ugly person, like those of us here, can speak officially. We don’t object to the writers who are invited, but until all of us are free to speak and write no Chinese writer is free.” John Ralston-Saul, President of PEN International, also spoke, noting that thirty-five Chinese authors are in prison, some for many years, and that more than a hundred have been detained. “Why do they do it?” he asked. “Free expression is the only way to solve any country’s social ills.” The official PEN statement he handed out recalled “the many [writers] who live in exile.”
For her part, Susie Nicklin, the British Council’s director of literature, told the Observer that the writers approved and invited by Beijing are more representative because “they live in China and write their books there,” in contrast with “other writers who have left.” To this, Yang Lian, probably China’s leading poet, who lives in London, told me: “What’s happening is that countries are becoming companies. And that’s what the British Council is already, just a company co-operating with the Chinese company.” What Chinese poets saw in the 1980s, Yang Lian observed, “was a nation of cultural nihilists… we had failed to make a modern transformation of our own tradition. What we saw before us was something that could only be called ‘Communist culture’… the worst version of Chinese autocracy hidden beneath Western revolutionary language.”
Finally, 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.