On 16 April, the 41st London book fair, one of the world’s most important publishing trade fairs, opens. This year, its “market focus” is on China, with 21 Chinese writers in attendance, selected by the British Council and approved by the Chinese government. Missing from the invitation list will be some well known exile figures: Ma Jian, who has lived in London for many years; Yang Lian, a celebrated Chinese poet, also London-based, Gao Jian, China’s Nobel-prizewinning author who lives in exile in Paris. The Chinese government would not welcome their presence, and according to the LBF’s critics, the price of cooperation is their exclusion.
Organising cultural events with China can be a high-risk business. The Frankfurt book fair two years ago, the last high profile China-focused literary event, ended badly all round: many of the writers on the official delegation had not volunteered to be there and let their lack of enthusiasm show by failing to turn up for listed appearances. The presence of large numbers of Chinese security personnel “guarding” the writers struck a jarring note, and the Chinese government was upset by the presence of hostile figures outside the official delegation. It was a miserable affair that nobody wishes to repeat. So, what, if anything, will be different in London?
China is taking the event seriously, for good or ill. The minister in charge of publishing will stay for a week, accompanied by a large delegation of Chinese publishers interested both in selling their writers to British readers and, perhaps more controversially, in scouting for opportunities to buy into British publishing. For the book fair’s critics, though, Chinese government participation, with all its implications, renders the exercise illegitimate. The argument is posed in stark terms: government censorship versus free expression, collaboration versus boycott.
It is always salutary to be reminded of China’s continuing cultural controls, but this discussion is, in part, a category error: if the London book fair were to claim to represent the totality of literary exchanges between Britain and China in 2012, its critics would be unassailable. But LBF describes itself as a “global marketplace for rights negotiation and the sale and distribution of content across print, audio, TV, film and digital channels”. In other words, it is a trade fair, run by Reed Exhibitions, a commercial venture. Its market focus events, which have previously featured the Arab world, India, South Africa and Russia – and this year include three days of professional business and licensing workshops – aim to stimulate deals between publishers. They do not sum up the state of cultural relations.
There is no doubt that the Chinese government tries to present to the world a cultural landscape that accords with its own political narrative. High-profile exhibitions – such as the Three Emperors exhibition at the Royal Academy in 2005, a celebration of the power of the Qing dynasty, or the Qin Shihuangdi show at the British museum in 2007, a tribute to the brutal first emperor of the Qin dynasty – have told a story that chimes with the government’s version of history.
But there is equally little doubt that Chinese publishing today is a vast and varied field in which it is not hard to find writers who both satirise and criticise the Communist party and its record. One member of the official delegation, Mo Yan, has had books banned at home, and another, Yang Lianke, has characterised his literary career as: “one book for the publisher and one for myself”.
Thirty years ago, it was plausible to argue that all critical writers were exiled, silenced or in jail, but that is no longer the case. Today a writer runs a greater risk of being co-opted by the regime with golden chains than being imprisoned. That may also be bad for literature, but it is progress of a kind.
Debate, dissent and creativity are still fettered in China, but despite the constraints on freedom, all have grown with the government’s abandonment of Maoism, and with China’s increasing complexity and prosperity. The government continues to censor, but there is still space inside China for those who prefer continuing reform to revolution, and who find ways to express their views.
There are just 21 Chinese authors on the official list and it is difficult to know whether they had the freedom to refuse. The British Council has been a strategic partner of the book fair for five years and argues that its task was to choose writers working in China, rather than authors who live in voluntary or forced exile. Does that mean that the authors were selected for the kind of political reliability that guarantees government cooperation, rather than literary merit?
Given that some 20 million books were published in China between 2006 and 2010, it would be foolish to pretend that 21 authors can represent the full depth and variety of Chinese letters, or that all of them exemplify conspicuous dissent. It is, nevertheless, an interesting group of authors that includes Ah Lai, a Tibetan-born writer, Bi Feiyu, (who won the Man Asian Literary prize 2010 for his novel, Three Sisters), a Man Asia Prize winner, A Yi, a former policeman turned novelist and, Annie Baobeia, a bestselling novelist who came to success through publishing on the web. Their task, in the midst of the rights deals, the seminars, the readings, the drinks parties and the post-drinks-party parties, will be to engage the interest of British publishers.
The writers in exile, excluded from the fair’s cross-cultural book deals, will not be materially affected. China’s well-known exile writers are, by definition, already translated and published outside China and are likely to continue to be so. While it is true that writers in China may still feel the chill of official disapproval and be excluded from officially sanctioned delegations, a boycott of the London book fair is less likely to change that than engagement and debate.
The London book fair is only one of a series of Chinese literary events in the UK this year and its China market focus has undeniably stimulated a debate around Chinese letters, notably an all day event organised last month in London by English Pen, which gave a platform to the writer Ma Jian, one of the book fair’s fiercest critics.
Other writers in exile, including Yang Lian, long a pillar of Free Chinese Pen, will appear in events organised by British Council partners, which include literary festivals and arts venues across the country. In addition to the book fair cultural programme, another 30 Chinese authors will be appearing in literary festivals and events throughout the UK, open to questions about their freedom to work and publish, and available to meet both British authors and readers.
No doubt some of this high tide of literary exchange might have happened without the London book fair, but the event has brought a fresh stimulus to the discussion of a literary world that is still remote to most British readers. The debate around freedom to write and publish is best served by engagement. It shows every sign of being unconstrained in Britain this year.