China, the Unwelcome Guest: Controversy as Frankfurt Book Fair Fetes Beijing

By Wolfgang Höbel and

China, which bans hundreds of books every year, was a controversial choice as the guest of honor at this year's Frankfurt Book Fair. But some of the Chinese authors appearing at the fair, which begins Wednesday, have managed to slip political works past the censors.

A striking woman in an elegant black blouse sits in a bulky chair in the lobby of the Beijing Kempinski Hotel. Her name is Tie Ning and she is the chairwoman of the Chinese Writers' Association, which means that she represents a total of 8,920 state-supported authors.

"Censorship?" she says. "What censorship? Artists enjoy great liberties in China." She adds: "We are enthusiastically looking forward to the open exchange of opinions that will take place in Frankfurt."

Photo Gallery

6  Photos
Photo Gallery: Chinese Literature in Frankfurt

This could be a merry book party indeed. With an official delegation of exactly 100 authors, along with over 1,000 functionaries and publishing managers, the Chinese are appearing at the world's largest book fair as this year's guest of honor. Organizers in Frankfurt are promising a "critical dialogue" at the event.

In Beijing, says the stern-looking Tie, who has apparently never heard that approximately 600 books are banned in China each year, "one must comply with the laws and regulations. It is not allowed, for example, to offend national minorities. That is all." Then Tie straightens her back, adjusts the large silver brooch on her blouse, and shows a rigid smile.

Destroyed Humanity

Tie Ning is 52 years old. In the past, she wrote novels which were perfectly respected. One of these is entitled "Rose Door" and tells of the horrors of the Cultural Revolution, of a time in which, as she herself says, "every sense of humanity was destroyed."

On the annual worldwide index of press freedom published by the non-governmental organization Reporters Without Borders, the People's Republic of China currently ranks 167 out of a total of 173 countries. At least 40 journalists and authors are currently being held in prison. Torture and abuse are "widespread," says Amnesty International. Environmental activists are shadowed by state security agents. Anyone who unfurls a protest banner proclaiming the rights of Tibetans and Uighurs can face years behind bars. In this economic powerhouse, there are many days when not even the popular social networking Internet platform Facebook can be accessed on the millions of computers across the country because the Web site has been blocked once again. All of this is well known and depressing enough.

And yet within China one often encounters an amazing sense of defiance. Many Chinese find the state repression to be nowhere as bad as is commonly assumed in the West.

Money Beats Politics

In a posh agency on Beijing's Third Ring Road, it's possible to meet a slender, young man who is widely acclaimed in China as a hip, successful poet -- a popstar of young Chinese literature. And he in no way gives the impression that he feels weighed down by any aspect of life in modern China.

Guo Jingming is 26 years old, but as thin as a 10-year-old. His hair is combed forward and teased up. He is wearing rouge on his cheeks, a striped sweater and white tennis shoes. Guo has been writing since he was 18 and he says he focuses exclusively on the things that really move him -- his life and his love. He writes lines like: "You showed me a tear drop, and I saw the ocean in your heart." His current book is called "Tiny Times."

Guo Jingming owns apartments in Beijing and Shanghai. In the capital he drives a Cadillac and in Shanghai a Mercedes S-Class, or rather, his chauffeur does the driving. He earns more than most authors in China. "Money is great," he says. The British author J. K. Rowling, who created the hugely popular Harry Potter series, is Guo's role model.

Guo appears on TV game shows, has a blog and publishes a magazine. He's thinking about going into the film business, and he employs people to answer the 500 e-mails that he receives every day. There are people who say that he allows himself to be heavily inspired by the ideas of others, for example, by Hollywood films such as "The Devil Wears Prada."

Guo sees China as a land of unlimited opportunities, a land that has given him wealth, which he is now able to enjoy.

What about politics?

"Politics," he says "doesn't interest me."

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