Chinese delegates, dissidents face divide at Frankfurt fair

17th October 2009, Comments 0 comments

When Merkel inaugurated the world's biggest book fair on Tuesday, she said "it is possible to have discussions without taboos, and I am sure that will happen" at the trade show.

Frankfurt -- At the Frankfurt Book Fair, guest of honour China and Chinese dissidents cross paths but have not met in public debates despite calls for talks without taboos by Chancellor Angela Merkel.

"Is the scandal that there is no scandal?" the Frankfurter Rundschau newspaper asked.

When Merkel inaugurated the world's biggest book fair on Tuesday, she said "it is possible to have discussions without taboos, and I am sure that will happen" at the trade show.

"Books make a difference, a difference that threatens dictatorships and bolsters democracies," the German leader had added, urging visitors to "exercise your curiosity."

Fair director Juergen Boos had stressed that "we condemn limitations of human rights and limitations of freedom of speech," adding that "not talking about unpleasant subjects has not helped in the past."

Dissident Chinese poet Bei Ling told media he and others "have another voice" that differed from those approved by Chinese authorities, and Boos stressed that "there will be some interfaces" during the five-day event.

The director said he looked forward to a "controversial and not always convenient book fair."

But a clever organisation, a refusal by the official Chinese delegation to take part in debates and when necessary a strong security presence have managed to quell real debate on freedom of expression.

Boos broke with tradition by organising a symposium devoted to the guest of honour three weeks before the fair opened, rather than the day before.

Two dissident intellectuals were invited to the symposium but then "de-programmed" when the official Chinese delegation protested.

Faced with an uproar in Germany, the organisers reversed their decision, causing some Chinese official representatives to slam the door.

China's ambassador to Berlin, Wu Hongbo, declared the invitation to dissidents "an unacceptable lack of respect."

Vincent Brossel, who covers China for the media defence group Reporters without Borders, said: "That was clever, both sides flexed their muscles but before the fair itself. Emotions have had time to calm down since."

Strong security was then deployed for the opening ceremony, and Chinese Vice President Xi Jinping was well-protected from any disagreeable encounters.

Boos acknowledged that security was tighter than in previous years, but put it down to recent threats by Al-Qaeda against Germany owing to the presence of its troops in Afghanistan.

Within the vast Frankfurt fairgrounds, China occupies a separate building, as have previous guests of honour.

And the 100-odd writers who are part of the official delegation do not participate in roundtable discussions on freedom of expression or problems faced by publishers in China.

Boos also told media "less than half the 500 events devoted to China are official."

That might be so, but the others still have rules they must follow.

"We cannot organise events on our stand with dissidents," Amnesty International Germany official Renate Stahlheber told AFP.

A roundtable discussions presented as a highlight of the show's 61st edition and titled "Freedom of expression - Freedom of speech" organised by the writers association PEN, the fair and the German foreign ministry fell flat.

What might have been a spirited debate became a friendly conversation between Abdulrussul OezHun, a writer from the Turkish-language Uighur minority living in exile in Sweden, poet Bei Ling who is based in the United States, and Zhou Qing, who lives in Beijing but has broken with Chinese officials and has spent time in prison for advocating democracy.


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