Saving Face

In Feature Articles by Edward Nawotka

Editorial by Edward Nawotka


Ever since the controversy surrounding the appearance of Chinese dissidents Bei Ling (貝嶺) and Dai Qing (戴晴) at the symposium “China and the World – Perceptions and Realities” last month, the media has pilloried the Frankfurt Book Fair, suggesting that the organization is compromising its values and support of free speech. What is disheartening to observe from the distance of America, where I am writing this, is the myopia of much of the press in dealing with the issue of censorship, not as exercised by the Chinese, but as they perceive it to be exercised by the Frankfurt Book Fair. The press is guilty of a lack of empathy and seems unwilling to try and see the whole story in context. I fear this will continue to be the case if some very simple issues are not immediately addressed.

First and foremost, it must be stated that inviting China to be a “Guest of Honor” was itself a bold and brave step. It was never going to be easy, but it remains a gesture towards dialog and mutual understanding.

As a reporter who spent six months of 1997 living in Hong Kong and documenting the handover of the British colony to Chinese control, I have some limited first-hand experience of working with the Chinese and writing about China.

One of the first things I learned during that time was that Asian cultures place a great emphasis on “saving face.” It was an important lesson to learn. A “yes” delivered in a public setting did not necessarily constitute a form of agreement or acquiescence. They were merely being polite, allowing everyone to “save face.” What’s more, as I learned while watching the preparations for and execution of the handover ceremony, there is little room for public improvisation in China. Everything is scripted. Last year’s doctored Olympic opening ceremony should have proved that.

My suspicion is that the firestorm of controversy that erupted in September at the German-China symposium was no accident, either on the part of the Frankfurt Book Fair or the Chinese officials. What is likely is that there were far more subtle negotiations happening in the background than were on view onstage or in the media. It is likely that some compromise was reached. (After all, it should be noted that the FBF has numerous Chinese-speaking staff). Under these circumstances, both parties were allowed “save face” under the glare of an increasingly hostile German media.

If this hostility continues, the German — and indeed world — media will miss a unique opportunity to learn first-hand about how the Chinese think, work and communicate. What’s more, I fear, they will miss the subtle subtext of China’s participation in the Frankfurt Book Fair: that the country is, albeit very gradually, becoming more open.

Earlier this year I was privileged to go on a Frankfurt Book Fair sponsored journalist trip to China where I was made privy to the thinking behind some of this year’s events. A large part of the program consisted of visits to many of the official organizers of the Chinese participation at the Book Fair, notably the GAPP (General Administration for Print and Publishing), which is the Chinese governmental body responsible for putting together China’s official program. Other visits included sessions with some of China’s largest publishing and media companies, among them the China Publishing Group, Sina, Shanda Literature, QQ and numerous others.

What was obvious from the very first day was that our group, which consisted almost exclusively of members of the German-language press and their Beijing-based correspondents, was that the journalists were exclusively focused on the topic of censorship. As a group, they were single-minded in their pursuit of getting someone to admit overtly and on the record that it existed and was a problem — as if this wasn’t already belaboring the obvious.

The Chinese publishing executives — whether representing print publications or digital endeavors — all offered some variation of the same answer. Officially, “No, there is no censorship in China.” Unofficially, “Yes, of course there is censorship in China, but it is complicated and often subtle, and takes some nuance for you to understand.” The more patient among our interlocutors took the time to explain that censorship is often a matter of “self-censorship” and that publishers are largely free to publish what they want provided it is not overtly critical of government policy. The industry, it was explained, is so vast that it is all but impossible to police all publications, so the government often found itself in a position to react only if and when an objectionable book became popular. It is then that the government intervenes to pull it from stores. The Chinese government, we were told, believes it is more expeditious to manage the mainstream than the margins.

One executive from an online digital publishing house went so far as to state that the existence of censorship actually made their job easier, as it kept pornography and profanity off of their servers — something they had no interest in trafficking in the first place.

But the point here isn’t the mechanics of censorship in China. It’s to point out that the question of censorship dominated the discussion to such an extent, it left virtually no room for any other topic, business, cultural or otherwise.

Much their credit, the organizers of the road show that I participated in this past June — the German Book Office in Beijing — had the foresight to set up sessions in the evenings with numerous intellectuals and writers, and, indeed, dissidents who addressed the problem of publishing in China from their own experiences. More than one had been imprisoned, others had been censored. One writer was so moved in talking to us that he shed tears. Each had some version of their personal journey to share with us.

On that week-long trip, which offered the opportunity to interview in excess of 50 people, a myriad of points of view were represented. What’s more, the GBO Beijing was the one taking the risk of mingling the press with individuals not pre-approved, as such, by the Chinese organizing committee and who were likely to be excluded from participating in the Fair.

My fear, as the Frankfurt Book Fair arrives, is that the larger story of China’s appearance at the Fair — and the opportunity that goes with it to understand this culture, one that is foreign to most of us — will be lost. The story remains that China and its publishing industry appears to be open to change. But it is doing so slowly and behind the scenes, where much happens in Asia and in China, in particular.

One Chinese publishing executive was reduced to pleading with collected group of journalists not to ignore the big picture. “You cannot know this,” he said, “but things are much better for us than they were ten or even five years ago.”

The extent to which that is true remains to be seen, but one fact remains: China’s cultural Great Wall will not be breached with hammers, but by someone extending a hand and helping us over. This is happening now. No, the hand is not clean, but it is there. Is it not our duty and, indeed, job as journalists to reach out our own hand in return, to seek out multiple perspectives and points of view, and challenge our own preconceptions?

If we don’t try harder to understand China and the Chinese, by the end of the Fair we may be left with our own sense of smug self-righteousness and nothing more.

About the Author

Edward Nawotka

A widely published critic and essayist, Edward Nawotka serves as a speaker, educator and consultant for institutions and businesses involved in the global publishing and content industries. He was also editor-in-chief of Publishing Perspectives since the launch of the publication in 2009 until January 2016.