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How to politicize a book fair

With China as the "guest of honor," the Frankfurt Book Fair became embroiled in human rights debates.

A woman holds Chinese books at a booth during preparations for the Frankfurt book fair Oct. 12, 2009. (Johannes Eisele/Reuters)

BERLIN, Germany — The annual Frankfurt Book Fair, the world’s largest trade fair for books, normally serves as a week-long stage for literary events.

This year, though, the book fair has a broader agenda. By inviting China to be the annual national “guest of honor” during the five-day event starting Wednesday, the organizers of the fair unwittingly transformed it into a platform for politics only tangentially related to books. Prior to this year's fair, Germans aren’t discussing new releases, they’re debating their country’s fundamental principles in foreign and domestic policy.

From the moment that the “guest of honor” was announced nearly a year ago, critics in Germany have charged that China’s government, with its history of repressing intellectuals and dissidents, shouldn’t be allowed to take center stage at an event meant to celebrate the free exchange of ideas. Responsible for organizing dozens of exhibitions, cultural events and readings for the some 300,000 people expected to attend the fair, the Chinese government was granted a latitude of expression in Frankfurt that it fails to extend to Chinese writers and artists.

Attempts by the fair to reconcile commitments to freedom of speech with principles of tactful diplomacy have only inflamed the tensions. A public relations event in Frankfurt two weeks ago meant to introduce China to the international spotlight only served to spread controversy throughout Germany. At China’s behest, book fair officials rescinded plans to have two emigrant Chinese dissidents participate in the introductory event. When the Chinese delegation discovered that the two intellectuals had, nonetheless, been invited to join the audience, it walked off the stage.

Mei Zhaorong, China’s former ambassador to Germany, made a show of returning to the hall in order to deliver an admonishment. “We did not come here to be instructed in democracy!”

The fair organizers have defended their choice to feature China, though they also acknowledge that there have been difficulties. Jing Bartz, head of Beijing’s book fair office in Frankfurt, admitted that the negotiations over China’s involvement were “extremely long.” “The Chinese want to know, repeatedly, where the limits lie, what they are allowed to determine and what not.”

Still, organizers say that they were disappointed to discover that journalist Liao Yiwu had been denied an exit visa in order to attend the fair and that China hadn’t asked important figures to attend, including the novelist Yan Lianke and the blogger Han Han — both of whose works have been banned in China.