World's biggest book fair opens with a spotlight on China

14th October 2009, Comments 0 comments

Organizers have the tricky task of hosting China as the guest of honour while simultaneously discussing the country’s human rights and freedom of speech violations.

Frankfurt -- The Frankfurt Book Fair's 61st edition opens Tuesday with the red carpet rolled out for guest of honour China, while hosts also stressed support for freedom of expression by dissident voices.

"We condemn limitations of human rights and limitations of freedom of speech," director Juergen Boos told a press conference at the sprawling fair grounds, acknowledging that some had questioned the organizer's choice.

"Not talking about unpleasant subjects has not helped in the past, we have to be open and deal with them," he said.

Gottfried Honnefelder, president of the German publishers and booksellers association, told media the world's largest book fair was proud of being "a vibrant international platform for freedom of expression and speech."

But he also expressed "great respect" for the Chinese culture, "the birthplace of print and paper."

Boos said: "I am happy China is presenting itself here and facing the discussions we are going to have," and urged visitors to "develop their own idea" of what the world's most populous country had to offer.

Official Chinese events represent less than half those scheduled, while Chinese writers living abroad will have many chances to present their works and views.

A few events would also bring both sides together for discussion, Boos noted.

Dissident Chinese poet Bei Ling told another press briefing he and others "have another voice, this underground literature voice, underground poetry."

German Chancellor Angela Merkel has pledged not to avoid thorny topics in meetings with Chinese Vice-President Xi Jinping, tipped as a possible successor to President Hu Jintao.

"In my talks I will make it clear to Chinese representatives that freedom of opinion is not a threat, but an opportunity," Merkel, who angered the Chinese government by meeting the Dalai Lama in 2007, said over the weekend.

Merkel and Xi were scheduled to officially open the world's biggest book fair at 5:00 p.m. (1500 GMT).

The fair "is an unique opportunity for China to present the richness of its culture and its literature," Merkel said. "I hope therefore that China makes use of the opportunities that this presents."

In mid-September, a symposium organised ahead of the trade show created a flap when Bei Ling and journalist Dai Qing were taken off the programme because of protests from Beijing.

Following a German uproar, the pair were finally asked again to attend, causing part of the official Chinese delegation to storm out.

China's ambassador to Germany, Wu Hongbo, called the action "unacceptable."

The book fair is used to controversy however, and last year's guest Turkey was also taken to task for curbing freedom of expression.

Some 6,900 exhibitors from around 100 countries are to gather in Frankfurt until Sunday, around 400 fewer than last year, and each publisher has trimmed the size of its participation.

Last year, it welcomed 300,000 visitors, but the sector is facing upheaval brought on by the development of digital publishing and disputes as the US Internet search engine Google seeks to make millions of books available online.

Google and US publishers and authors appear close to a deal on the plan to establish an independent "Book Rights Registry," which would provide revenue from advertising to authors and publishers who agree to digitize their books.

But others firmly oppose what Spanish publisher Jesus Badenes called Google's "napalm approach" that does not take European Union copyright holders into account.

Google's plans to create the largest online body of human knowledge and make it available for free has some publishers worried they will be forced out of business.

William Ickes/AFP/Expatica

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