The London Book Fair took place last week, amid controversy surrounding the decision to designate China as the ‘market focus’ country. China is the largest publisher in the world by volume, so it is understandable that one of the publishing industry’s biggest trade fairs should look East. However, the official presence of the General Administration of Press and Publications (GAPP), the censorship body, raised hackles among those who want free expression in China.
During the fair, I spent much of the time in the ‘Market Focus’ section of Earls Court, and I found the atmosphere very odd. Dissidents from the Independent Chinese PEN Centre and the Tibet Society would periodically enter the space and stand with placards, silently demanding an end to Literary Censorship in China. Whenever they did so, GAPP employees would muster their pull-up conference banners and place them between the protesters and the events space, presumably to ensure no stray slogans found their way into official photographs. Unfortunately, these banners carried the offical market focus branding, with slogans about new ideas and cultural exchange. It was not a good look.
At one point, while reading aloud the work of imprisoned poets Zhu Yufu and Shi Tao, I was scolded by the security guards for standing on carpet that had been paid for by the GAPP delegation. The blue aisle carpet was fine, but we would be asked to leave if we persisted with standing on the red carpet. Suddenly, the Book Fair felt like a Fred Sandback installation, where subtle coloured threads demarcate a space. Who knew the Chinese government did conceptual art? (Video here)
A fact went unreported by the trade press was that Liu Binjie, the President of GAPP, failed to turn up for his keynote speech. Earlier that morning, he had come face to face with the exiled novelist Ma Jian, who had attempted to hand Binjie a copy of his celebrated novel Beijing Coma. Security guards hustled the author away, but clearly communist party officials feared that Lui Binjie would be embarrassed by further displays of literary freedom during his scheduled address. At the plenary session, The lackey who replaced him claimed that he had been called away on urgent business, but this was clearly nonsense – what could be more important than the speech he had travelled half way round the world to deliver? The substitute then proceeded to announce that for the next few minutes he would be a ‘puppet’ and, as activists silently held aloft more signs demanding free expression, he proceeded to read Binjie’s speech aloud… including the punctuation. It seems the Chinese government can do performance art as well. (Video here)
Contrast the dour and humourless approach of the official delegation with the rest of their compatriots. When excluded authors like Ma Jian and his fellow exiled author Jung Chang (author of Wild Swans) visited the English PEN Literary Café, it was pleasing to see the number of Chinese delegates who stopped to listen to them speak and take photographs. Chinese publishers and journalists also paused by our stand to talk about imprisoned writers like Lui Xiaobo and Shi Tao. The most fascinating conversation I had during the three days at Earls Court was with a correspondent for a Chinese media outlet, who described in detail the exasperating self-censorship she practices every day. It was depressing to learn the extent to which the Chinese censorship system works on a kind of auto-pilot, with individual writers making decisions about what not to write, rather than a formal censor moderating everything (although that kind of censorship happens too). However, it was also interesting to hear the distain that she felt for the system under which she operates, and her own frustration with others who enable the state to operate as it does. She was not a revolutionary, but her words exposed the made me hopeful that the current system is untenable, and will reform. Like the carpet borders and the wafer-thin pull-up banners, the foundations under which oppressive regimes operate are flimsy, and exist largely in the human mind.