Protests give voice to Tibetan, Chinese and Uyghur writers at London Book Fair
[17 April 2012] Tibetans were joined by Chinese and Uyghur human rights defenders at the London Book Fair, in actions highlighting the Chinese government's continued crackdown on the freedom of expression. Readings of banned writers were given and protests took place at several events. Following the actions Chinese Minister Liu Binjie cancelled his appearance at the Fair. The actions were organised by Tibet Society in conjunction with International Campaign for Tibet, Students for a Free Tibet UK and colleagues from Chinese Uyghur Tibetan Solidarity UK and the Independent Chinese PEN Centre.
The London Book Fair is a three-day annual international trade fair for the publishing industry. It hosts hundreds of companies from around the world and has approximately 25,000 attendees. This year China was the focus of the Fair. Under the auspices of the Chinese government's General Administration of Press and Publishing (GAPP), 180 Chinese publishing companies exhibited at the Fair.
Given that the organisers of the London Book Fair and the British Council apparently caved-in to pressure from the Chinese government and failed to invite dissident authors and poets from China, Tibet and East Turkestan, a series of actions were organised to give banned and imprisoned writers a voice and to highlight China's persecution of defenders of free speech.
Chinese Minister afraid of facing protest
In a major embarrassment for the London Book Fair organisers, Chinese Minister Liu Binjie cancelled his appearance at one of the Fair's main forums at the last minute, following protests earlier in the day at the Fair (see below). Liu Binjie was due to give the keynote address along with UK Minister for Culture, Communications and Creative Industries, Ed Vaizey.
Just before the forum event was due to begin security officials were seen in long discussions with organisers and pointing out various protestors who were in the audience. After a delay, it was announced Liu Binjie was unable to attend. Instead, his speech was read by Zhang Fuhai, International Director of GAPP.
During the speech, signs were held up, in a silent but dignified protest. The signs in both English and Chinese, read "Free speech is not a crime" and "Stop literary persecution". A poster of imprisoned Nobel Peace Prize winner Liu Xiaobo was also displayed during the talk.
Security guards tried to prevent the protest, by forcing the arm down of the first protestor to hold up a sign and threatening removal from the auditorium, but when other protestors began to display signs the security guards gave up. About 10 Tibetans, Uyghurs and Chinese protestors held up protest signs throughout the 20 minute speech. Though not formally acknowledged by any of the forum's speakers, the protest made a visible impact and gave a strong reminder to all present that China continues to flout international standards by denying the right to freedom of expression.
Protest at China Pavilion
The first protest at the London Book Fair took place by Chinese dissident and Tiananmen Square survivor, Shao Jiang. Standing next to the China Pavilion, where state-approved books were being launched and discussed, Shao Jiang held up the two protest signs - "Free speech is not a crime" and "Stop literary persecution" - in both English and Chinese.
Security were quickly on the scene and tried to end the silent protest, but Shao Jiang stood his ground, claiming he had the right to express his opinions and that he was not disrupting the event. Chinese officials then tried to block the protest from being viewed with screens, but as the pavilion had been designed as an open space this proved fruitless as Shao Jiang simply walked around the pavilion!
Banned writers given a voice Later in the day, and thanks to a sympathetic exhibitor, one of the performance spaces at the Book Fair was used for a public reading of banned Tibetan, Uyghur and Chinese writers.
Called Transcending the Terror, the unofficial event included Tibetan poems by Woeser, a Tibetan author living in Beijing and an outspoken critic of the Chinese government, Ombar, a Tibetan who has written for Shardungri (Eastern Snow Mountain) a banned publication in Tibet and, Namlo Yak, a Tibetan writer who escaped into exile in 1999.
Following the readings a press conference was held by Independent Chinese PEN Centre, who had a stand at the Book Fair under the name of "57 Publishing Company" (pictured above with Tibetan, Uyghur and Chinese writers and activists). Banned Chinese writers, who had not been given an official platform at the Book Fair, were introduced, including Qi Jiazhen, an exile writer from Australia, Bei Ling an exile writer from Germany, and Ma Jian (pictured right), author of Beijing Coma, a novel about the Tiananmen Square protests in 1989.
As he spoke, Ma Jian smeared his face with red paint in defiance to the Chinese authorities who have banned his work and barred him from returning to China. He said, "No Chinese writers enjoy freedom of speech. When you see 180 Chinese publishers here it may appear that there is a great variety but in reality they all come from the mouthpiece of the Chinese Communist party... This invitation dishonours the values that make Western civilisation strong."
Organisers claim 'censorship and human rights to feature prominently'
Prior to the London Book Fair, Tibet Society along with a number of other concerned NGOs wrote an open letter to The Guardian stating their disappointment that dissident authors and poets had not been invited to an event which should be promoting the freedom of expression, rather that tacitly condoning it.
In a printed response, the London Book Fair organisers and the British Council said the participation of the Chinese government was to "strengthen cultural links with China". They also claimed that "censorship and human rights are expected to feature prominently in all the discussions and debates".
As Tibet Society discovered, the only nod to these issues was provided by several fringe events organised by the NGO English PEN. However, the main talks and forums focussed on issues such as international trade, digitisation and new technologies and 'safe' topics such as education, health and children's books. A scan of the London Book Fair guide reveals no events specifically looking at the issues of freedom of expression or banning of books.
Tibet Society and its partner organisations plan to continue with further actions at the London Book Fair on Wednesday. View more photos: facebook I flickr (larger set)