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Chinese Dissidents Silenced for London Book Fair

BEIJING, Apr 14 2012 (IPS) - A dissident Chinese author has expressed dismay at the lack of independent and exiled authors represented at this year’s London Book Fair (LBF), where China is guest of honour. An ensuing public spat, revolving around accusations that the Fair’s organisers have bowed to Chinese authorities, has thrust the thorny issue of censorship to centre-stage.

In a letter sent to the British Council and LBF, Bei Ling, founder of the Independent Chinese PEN Centre (ICPC), said that he is “astonished that no independent literature voice nor exiled writer from China is being represented at the London Book Fair programme.”

He goes on to state amazement that the state-run Chinese Writers’ Association have chosen the 31-strong author delegation travelling to London to represent China, which is this year’s market focus country.

“Also shocking is the London Book Fair’s cooperation with GAPP (General Administration of Press and Publication which overseas the Writers’ Association) – the very ministry that’s responsible for censorship,” Bei writes in the letter.

Missing voices at the fair Apr. 16-18 include the exiled novelist Gao Xingjian, who won the Nobel Prize in Literature in 2000, and poet Liao Yiwu, who escaped China last July. Nobel Peace prize winner and poet Liu Xiaobo, currently serving an 11-year prison sentence, will also be unrepresented.

“This is very embarrassing, because the London Book Fair should be choosing writers to join the panels independently,” Bei tells IPS. “Sure, LBF may consult the opinions of GAPP, but it doesn’t mean that it has to blindly follow GAPP’s instructions…LBF should show that they are independent instead of being manipulated.

“Exile literature, underground literature, and independent writings are also a part of Chinese literature,” he adds.

The argument echoes the 2009 Frankfurt Book Fair scandal in which Bei and investigative journalist Dai Qing were cut from the list of authors invited following pressure from China. The two writers were restored after a media furore, leading to walkouts from Chinese representatives at the Fair.

Moves have been made to counter the official list in London. Bei will be sharing a stand at the LBF for the ICPC alongside a Hong Kong-based publisher. English PEN also held their own event Mar. 29 , “China Inside Out”, for authors not invited in the approved delegation.

Tibetan poet and blogger Tsering Woeser, 46, who was placed under house arrest last month, is another author excluded from LBF. Woeser was granted both the Norwegian Authors Union’s Freedom of Expression Prize and a freedom of speech medal by the Association of Tibetan Journalists in 2007. She was invited to Frankfurt in 2009, but was unable to attend because she did not have a passport.

“I am used to getting ignored,” Woeser says from her home in Beijing. “This is the reality of China. If you are a writer within the system, for example you are a member of the Chinese Writers’ Association, you will have opportunities for publishing and attending literary events like book fairs. But if you are outside the system, even if you are a good writer, the chances for publishing are few and book fairs are more unlikely.”

Woeser publishes her thoughts in an influential (and blocked in China) blog which has helped expose the rash of Tibetan self-immolations and unrest over the past year in south-west China.

Authors who are part of the delegation, however, have complained that the media furore has taken the emphasis away from literature to politics.

Alice Xin Liu, managing editor of Pathlight, a new English language literary magazine featuring translations from top contemporary Chinese writers, says the LBF features many of today’s most exciting authors. Examples include Bi Feiyu, winner of the 2010 Man Asian Literary Prize.

“Writers such as Han Dong (author of the Cultural Revolution novel ‘Banished!’) are quite daring. So it’s quite murky – (Bei’s) distinctions are actually way too clear cut,” the Beijing-based translator and editor tells IPS.

She adds that while listening to the voices of exiled authors is important, “the large majority of the population are reading writers not like him – they are reading writers like Mo Yan and Sheng Keyi, the writers who are going (to the fair).”

Regardless, Bei Ling is holding out optimism that dissident writers will be heard. “I still have hope they can include an independent writer or exiled writer to join a panel,” he says.

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