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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.

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.