How to politicize a book fair

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 At China’s behest, book fair officials rescinded plans to have two emigrant Chinese dissidents participate in the introductory event.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.

Realizing that the credibility of the fair was at stake, the organizers have set up 250 parallel events that will shed light on the lives of dissidents in China and other critics of the regime. “The book fair is a marketplace for freedom,” declared director Juergen Boos in an open letter addressing the controversy. But he has some convincing to do. Critical artist Ai Weiwei has already declined the invitation to participate. If he doubts the good faith of the Chinese government to participate in a dialogue, it may be with good reason: Earlier this month, prior to opening a retrospective exhibition in Munich, Ai underwent emergency brain surgery there for injuries he suffered during beatings in China from police officials. The controversy has found resonance in Germany precisely because it echoes longer-term debates the society has been having about the proper balance between human rights and cultural sensitivity. It hearkens, certainly, to the controversy over the infamous cartoons depicting the prophet Mohammad that were published in a Danish newspaper and led to uproar among Muslims in Europe and abroad. The subsequent debate in Germany pitted absolutist advocates of free speech against those who said that such principles needed to be tempered and modulated according to context.

The tensions at the Frankfurt Book Fair also echo one of the more noteworthy political debates during Chancellor Angela Merkel’s first term. Merkel and her Christian Democratic Party came into office promising to place a greater emphasis on human rights in foreign policy than her predecessor Gerhard Schroeder, who had famously prioritized business ties over human rights.

Merkel’s new accent in foreign relations noticeably cooled Germany’s relations with Russia and China and brought criticism from her then-Foreign Minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier, of the rival Social Democrat Party. The debate came to a head when Beijing expressed its displeasure after Merkel met with the Dalai Lama in the chancellery. Steinmeier publicly rebuked Merkel for running an unprofessional foreign policy that was only good for “the display window.”

Of course, there will be plenty happening at the Frankfurt Book Fair away from the “display windows” of the public cultural events. Indeed, the controversy over dissidents and freedom of speech has obscured one of the biggest reasons that China will likely prove a hit, at least among insiders. With its communities of writers still undiscovered in the West; its growing indigenous population of educated readers; and its state monopoly over the distribution of information that is bound to loosen over the coming years, China is among the more attractive markets for the beleaguered book industry. Public relations calamities and bureaucratic red tape notwithstanding, book publishers stand to make a lot of money by dealing with Beijing’s officialdom.