Frankfurt Book Fair's Controversial Guest of Honor: China

Article excerpt

The Frankfurt Book Fair is about literature, art, and culture. It's also a platform for controversy. Whom the fair chooses as its guest of honor is what gets it in trouble. That was the case with Turkey in 2008, Spain's Catalonia region in 2007, Korea in 2005, and the members of the Arab League in 2004. And now, with China. Why, many say, highlight a country that muzzles writers with strict censorship laws, allows them to languish in prison, and has a poor human rights records, as with Tibet? And when Chinese officials walked out of a pre-fair symposium to protest the presence of two dissident writers, Dai Qing and Bei Ling, many asked: Did China deserve to be invited to the world's biggest publishing marketplace? But books build bridges, German Chancellor Angela Merkel said at the book fair's opening ceremony Tuesday. Recalling the thrill of waiting for books to be smuggled from (then) West Germany into (then) East Germany, where she grew up, Mrs. Merkel said that "books played a big role in winning the cold war." Inviting China to the world's largest reading room, she said, could help China get closer to the West. The fair, which attracts around 300,000 visitors, usually chooses the literature of one nation as a central theme. More than 6,900 exhibitors from 100 countries are on hand at the five-day event, which runs through Sunday. "The book fair opens up a window for people to get to know China better," said Xi Jinping, vice president of the People's Republic of China. "Mutual understanding is the reason for all of us to come here," Chinese novelist Mo Yan said. Ms. Mo was among some 2,000 Chinese authors, publishers, journalists, and artists participating in the event. It took years 15 years of convincing on the part of Frankfurt fair organizers get China to come. China's General Administration of Press and Publication spent millions of euros on the event. "China used to be very poor. It's taken a long time, but after decades of opening itself to the world, it is in a position to be able to do so," says Tan Yue, chairman of one of China's largest publishing houses, PPMG. "It's a fact that the Chinese love to learn from the West, but that in the West, few people show interest in China. …