Posted by: Third Tone Devil | 12 October 2009

China at the Frankfurt Book Fair: Qin Hui’s account of the symposium scandal

The Frankfurt Book Fair, the world’s largest, will open on Wednesday. This years special guest country in China, and the fair will be opened by German Chancellor Angela Merkel and China’s heir-apparent, Xi Jinping, attesting to the desire to make the event “a cultural Olympics.” According to Die Zeit, the Chinese government is spending 5 million euros on flying officials and authors to the fair. But the exiled Uyghur leader, Rebiya Kadeer, is also invited.

On 12-13 September, the organisers held a symposium entitled “China and the world: perceptions and reality.” Initially, they invited two critics of the Chinese government, both of whom have been arrested after 1989, to attend the symposium: Bei Ling (who now lives in the US) and Dai Qing, who has become a well-known environmental activist. After the Chinese government threatened to pull out, the invitations were cancelled. This raised an outcry in the German media, and the two were re-included in the programme, causing part of the official Chinese  delegation to walk out.

Qin Hui, a well-known liberal rural economist and professor at Tsinghua University, wrote a thoughtful account of the symposium, which he attended. The account has been posted on Tianya (and received surprisingly few comments, either because it was in the relatively highbrow books section or because flames have been removed). Qin describes the incident as a case of conflicting reactions within different levels of Chinese bureaucracy, and while being mildly critical of his “official” colleagues, he reserves most of the blame for the newspaper Huanqiu Shibao 环球时报, the popular offshoot of the People’s Daily.

Qin describes himself as both invited by the fair and delegated by the Chinese government, but he seems not to include himself in the official delegation. His colleague Li Qiang, a Tsinghua sociologist, was delegated by “the Chinese side.” Qin writes that the organisers had told him they would send him the invitation directly, but instead, he received it via the General Administration of Press and Publications. He reckoned the organisers had decided to express their respect for Chinese official protocol by sending the invitation to GAPP, which is the “responsible organ” for publications. But the organisers also sent Dai Qing’s invitation to GAPP, to which GAPP responded by returning it to the sender. But Dai Qing, with an invitation from the German PEN Club, went anyway. She told Qin that she had not been sure she wanted to go, but after the government’s attempt to shut her up, she had to go just to insist on her freedom of speech.

After arriving in Frankfurt on 11 September, the participants were alerted to an article in that day’s Global Times with the title “Symposium suddenly invites unwelcome guest; Chinese organisers sternly refuse; German media use fair to deliver vile attack on China” 研讨会突邀不速之客,中方组织者严词拒绝,德媒借书展恶毒攻击中国. The article praises the fair’s authorities for accepting China’s objection to the two participants, but attacks the media for pressuring the organisers. It also quotes a certain Zhao Junjie 赵俊杰 (apparently unknown to all participants but, as it turns out, an editor of Jiang Zemin’s and Li Peng’s works) as saying that the incident was a reflection of differences in values between China and Europe, but that it was “impossible to compromise on patriotism.”

Without knowing the story, the article would have seemed as just one more case of “saying no.” But the members of the Chinese delegations (which included the well-known New Left sociologist Huang Ping, who had spent a year at Berlin’s Wissenschaftskolleg) claimed that the fair organisers could have invited anyone they wanted, but by sending Dai Qing’s invitation to GAPP they put it into a position where sending it on would have been tantamount to an official endorsement of her inclusion. So GAPP “politely” sent the invitation back to the German organisers so they could handle it themselves. But instead, the German media described it as an official threat. An embassy official confirmed to Qin that they had not wanted to intervene in the Germans’ choices of invitees and that the German media was spreading misinformation. (Yet, according to several English-language news reports, China’s ambassador Wu Hongbo has described the invitations as unacceptable and an unfriendly act towards China.)

The next day, Boos apologised to the two dissidents for his “weakness” and, to applause, invited them onto the stage. At this point the official delegates left the room, according to Qin not because of the presence of the two dissidents, but because they felt offended by being upstaged. Then Boos went after them and apologised to them too, and they soon returned. (Qin remarks that, having apologised to the German media for cowing in to the Chinese government, and then to the Chinese delegates for cowing in to the German media, Boos — a former 1968 student radical — must have felt like Pigsy from Journey to the West looking into the mirror: not human either inside or out 里外不是人.)

Qin reckons that, for the higher echelons in the Chinese government, preventing Dai Qing and Bei Ling from attending a forum was not worth the price of the scandal, and points out that if they had really wanted to, they could have prevented Dai Qing from boarding the plane. (They have done so recently when Chinese blogger Michael Anti was due to travel to Germany to accept an award.) So Global Times probably acted without consulting the “appropriate organs” when they printed the story. Indeed, on 14 September, the paper printed another story (by the same authors!), in which it blamed the German media for spreading the “false news of dissidents being refused” by the symposium. But, Qin asks rhetorically, why did the German media end up as everyone’s scapegoat, when in fact, if there was misinformation, then its source was Juergen Boos himself?

Indeed, the story goes some way to explain why Western media end up at the receiving end of authorized nationalist attacks. It also nicely highlights both the lack of uniformity and the scapegoating mechanisms within China’s news industry. But in the end, the story is still unclear. Who was it who told Boos that the delegation would pull out if Dai and Bei attend? Or nobody did, but Boos decided to play it safe and then blame China? On the other hand, it might be more important for China not to allow unauthorized voices into such events than Qin thinks. And the strategy is succeeding: recently, the coordinator of an EU journalism training centre’s worldwide blog project told me that the Chinese journalist they invited to join was from the People’s Daily, as they did not want to pay the airfare for someone who in the end may not be allowed to board.

The story reminds me of 1999, when Hungary was the Frankfurt fair’s theme country. Then, Hungarian nationalist papers protested the inclusion of Imre Kertesz, a writer then little known in Hungary and critical of what he perceived as Hungarians’ lack of acceptance of responsibility for the Holocaust, in the featured programme. But, of course, Kertesz did not get “uninvited”, and later he got the Nobel Prize.

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