By Siobhan O’Leary
The international symposium “China and the World – Perceptions and Realities,” scheduled for this weekend in Frankfurt has been overshadowed by a controversy involving the cancelled participation of Chinese dissident writers. As reported in most of the German dailies, including Die Zeit and the Süddeutsche Zeitung, authors Dai Qing (the 68-year-old who is one of China’s leading investigative and environmental journalists) and Bei Ling (who has lived in exile in the US since 2000 after being imprisoned in China for “illegal publication”) were recently stricken from the list of participants by China. According to the Frankfurter Rundschau, the invitation letter that the Book Fair sent to allow Dai to obtain a Visa to attend the Fair mysteriously disappeared.
Yet, on Thursday, Dai told Deutsche Welle that she had obtained her visa from the German Embassy in Beijing and that she would travel to Frankfurt for the weekend symposium. However, she could only attend as a guest and her original status as a symposium speaker has been changed. Bei Ling too confirmed that he would travel to Germany for the event, despite official objections from the Chinese.
The symposium is one of two official events co-hosted by the Frankfurt Book Fair and China, the official Guest of Honor at this year’s fair. The other is the final day’s handover ceremony, where China will pass along its Guest of Honor status to Argentina.
Questions about China’s actions were raised by journalists attending yesterday’s annual press preview for this year’s Fair. Frankfurt Book Fair director Juergen Boos responded to questions and rebuffed the suggestion that the Fair had bowed to pressure to accept the Chinese government’s terms with regard to their appearance at the Fair.
In a written statement, Boos assured critics that “The Frankfurt Book Fair will not allow itself to be pressured by anyone and, as a part of the German and international publishing industry, stands for freedom of speech, of expression, and of the press throughout the world.” And “With 7,000 publishers, 300,000 visitors and around 10,000 journalists, the Frankfurt Book Fair is a public forum that cannot be manipulated.”
Among the guidelines for organizing the Symposium was that the numerous event partners — the Frankfurt Book Fair, the Chinese organizing committee, along with the P.E.N. Centre Germany, the Robert Bosch Foundation, the Deutscher Akademischer Austauschdienst (DAAD) and the Instituto Cervantes — come to a mutual agreement on the list of topics and participants. The Chinese delegation threatened to pull out if the dissidents were allowed to participate.
“In the case of the symposium,” said Boos, “we decided, under difficult circumstances and after consulting with the co-operation partners, to allow the conversation to go forward and not to cancel the event.”
Nevertheless, the debate about the participation of Chinese authors critical of the Chinese government is certain to be a centerpiece of this weekend’s symposium, as well as at the Fair itself. Indeed, the creation of such dialog is key to a successful event.
“We welcome the huge amount of public debate in the German news media about China and the way it presents itself in Frankfurt. Our goal with the symposium this weekend is to start a dialog among people who would not normally talk to each other”, said Thomas Minkus, VP of Marketing & Sales for the Book Fair.
Watch this space for reaction at this weekend’s event and continued debate.