Dissidents and Officials Face Off at Frankfurt Book Fair’s China Symposium

In Feature Articles by Hannah Johnson

By Hannah Johnson

Bei Ling and Dai Qing

FRANKFURT: A crowd of journalists swarmed around two slightly overwhelmed people on Saturday morning, September 12th at the Instituto Cervantes (the Spanish Cultural Institute) in Frankfurt, Germany. Chinese dissidents Bei Ling (貝嶺), a poet and journal editor, and Dai Qing (戴晴), an investigative journalist, had come to attend the much anticipated symposium, “China and the World – Perceptions and Realities.” The two writers gave public statements at the start of the symposium sessions. In her statement, Dai Qing addressed the violation of freedom of expression in China, but acknowledged that some progress had been made.

News of the China Organisation Committee’s opposition to the dissidents’ appearance provoked a strong reaction from the German media, which accused the Frankfurt Book Fair of compromising freedom of expression. Numerous headlines claimed that the two dissidents had been “uninvited” or “banned” from the symposium.

Juergen Boos, director of the Frankfurt Book Fair, tried to clarify the situation, telling Deutschlandfunk Radio on Saturday morning, “They were never uninvited…. I believe this week we had problems with communication and organization of this seminar.”

The Frankfurt Book Fair and the P.E.N. Centre Germany jointly decided on Saturday morning to offer the podium to Bei Ling and Dai Qing and ask them to make public statements prior to the symposium’s first session.

Bei Ling, Dai Qing, Peter RipkenAs the two writers took the stage, members of the official Chinese delegation walked out of the room in protest. Boos responded by announcing to the audience, “I am disappointed, really disappointed.”

Apparently, the members present from the China Organising Committee had not been informed about the program change beforehand. After Boos apologized to the Committee for the oversight, the Chinese officials returned. In a written statement issued Saturday afternoon, Juergen Boos said, “It was important to me and to P.E.N. to give Bei Ling and Dai Qing the opportunity to make a statement at the start of the event. This led to a program change that could not be communicated to all of the event partners in a timely manner.”

After this tumultuous start to the symposium, the first session began, appropriately with Chinese and German speakers stressing the importance of exchanging ideas and beginning a more open discussion to understand each other’s differing perspectives. Bei Ling and Dai Qing gave dozens of interviews throughout the day and posed questions to the panelists at the various sessions.

During the last session on Sunday afternoon, a lively and controversial discussion started between audience and panelists, dissidents and Chinese officials. Called “Literature in Danger or Even More Necessary Than Ever,” the session panelists included Mo Yan and Xu Xing, two of China’s most successful and well-known authors.

Although the symposium was called “China and the World,” Xu Xing pointed out that what had actually been discussed was “China and the West,” and that Western culture often takes itself to be the measure of all things.

Also during this session, Mo Yan refuted last week’s German media reports, which alleged that he did not want to be in the same room with Bei Ling and Dai Qing, and instead referred to the two authors as colleagues who have the right to express themselves.

Bei Ling added to this discussion that, as a poet, he should have been included on this panel. He said later that the symposium was “a very good opportunity” to talk about China, politics and literature.

In a closing statement on Sunday, Zhang Yuling, the Director of the Academic Division of the Chinese Academy of Social Science, said that China faces a multitude of problems, including corruption and environmental challenges. Echoing the sentiments of other panelists from the two-day symposium, Zhang said China needs to find its own way to solve these problems, and that the only way to proceed is through dialogue, by listening and taking the other perspective into account.

Contact Bei Ling, Chinese poet and journal editor


Contact Dai Qing, Chinese investigative journalist


Images from the “China and the World” Symposium:

[flickr-gallery mode=”photoset” photoset=”72157622224361309″]

About the Author

Hannah Johnson


Hannah Johnson is the publisher of international book industry magazine Publishing Perspectives, which provides daily information and news about book markets around the world. In addition to building partnerships with international cultural and trade organizations, she works with the Frankfurt Book Fair to organize and support a number of its overseas initiatives. Hannah has also worked as the managing editor for an online media company, The Hooch Life, focused on craft distillers and cocktail experts. Prior to that, she worked as a project manager for the Frankfurt Book Fair’s New York office, managing various business and marketing activities.