Li Pengyi (李朋義) was brimming with cheer as he ticked off the business done so far by Chinese publishers at the Frankfurt Book Fair, the world’s top marketplace for books and book rights.
“We’ve sold a large number of rights. We’ve signed up to buy hundreds of rights,” said Li, vice president of China Publishing Group Corporation (CPGC), the biggest Chinese book publisher.
The company is part of China’s official maxi-booth in pavilion 6 at the annual fair in Germany.
But when the conversation changed to the cultural diplomacy side of China’s presence in Frankfurt — China is this year’s guest of honor at the Book Fair — his face darkened.
“We don’t feel we’ve been hospitably treated,” he said. “China sent more than 2,000 people to Frankfurt. And now this barrage of criticism.”
The German media, intellectuals and politicians have been pummeling China all week, attacking it for jailing writers, for refusing to include dissident authors in the official party and for trying to paint a false image of Chinese harmony.
Free speech is a motto of the Book Fair. Special guests usually hail their great authors and mumble apologies to those discredited in the past. As guest a year ago, Turkey demonstrated inclusivity, adroitly claiming Jews and Armenians as part of its rich heritage.
But China did not do this.
The delegation from China, which arrived so proudly in Frankfurt, is clearly hurt by the hostile public reaction in Germany.
“We were not expecting to be treated like this,” said Zhao Haiyun, spokesman for the state-run General Administration of Press and Publication (GAPP).
Zhao said China had put on an impressive exhibition and arrived with a well-thought-out cultural program.
But instead of dwelling on Chinese literature, the German media had focused on human rights policy.
“The German media are very biased,” Zhao said.
GAPP is China’s principal censorship body, since it decides what may be published in China and what not. Zhao’s colleagues supervised the Chinese program at the fair.
Social critics such as the Beijing environmentalist Dai Qing (戴晴) and London-based voice of the downtrodden Ma Jian (馬健) were not invited, but they came to the fair anyway, at the expense of publishers and activist groups and have been widely quoted in the German media.
Unlike Book Fair officials, Zhao did not offer this as evidence of balance.
“I have no knowledge of the Book Fair offering a platform for opposition events,” he insisted.
The Book Fair has exposed a deep rift in perceptions between Chinese officialdom and the Western democrats.
Beijing’s Foreign Ministry regularly denounces criticism of Tibetan policy and human rights practices as interference in Chinese internal affairs. Westerners believe they are duty-bound to remind the Chinese of these concerns, on behalf of those who have no voice.
“There should be no taboos in the debate, and I am sure there won’t be any,” said German Chancellor Angela Merkel in a speech at the opening of the fair Tuesday evening in Frankfurt.
It was a clear riposte to listening Chinese Vice President Xi Jinping (習近平), who had just uttered an appeal to the same audience for “understanding and respect” from the German hosts. Li, of publishing house CPGC, fumed about the remark.
“If Germany or Merkel had been playing the guest role in China, we would never dream of addressing them in such a way,” he said.
He said he detected considerable prejudice in the speeches of Merkel and Roland Koch, the premier of the German state of Hesse, who bluntly told the Chinese he had been concerned about Tibet for many years.
Li said he hoped the Book Fair still offered an opportunity to modify German views, but consoled himself with business prospects.
“Our business dealings have not been harmed by these misunderstandings,” he said.
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