Sanwei Bookshop in central Beijing

China has excelled in recent years at producing Olympic gold medalists, skilled factory workers and more billionaires than any country other than the United States. But authors are another story. The influence of China’s novelists and other writers has long been stunted by the country’s history of censorship and custom of detaining government critics. At the Frankfurt Book Fair, billed as the world’s largest gathering of publishers, government officials said they want to extend China’s cultural clout by persuading the West to read more of its books.


China was this year’s featured country at the five-day fair, which ended Sunday, and was a contentious choice.

“Like the Olympics, the government is using the book fair as a battleground to display its soft power,” or cultural influence, Dai Qing, a Beijing-based writer whose books are banned in China, said from Frankfurt. “The (Communist) Party controls freedom of expression and does not allow books that critique major contemporary issues.”

The director of the annual event, Juergen Boos, said last week that featuring China should help move the country away from censorship and restrictions on dissent.

“It is important that official China take a stand on Western values and sharpen its self-awareness — and by taking a step closer to us, it also challenges us to sharpen our own self-awareness,” he said.

Hong Kong publisher Bao Pu said the Chinese officials at Frankfurt “would like the rest of the world to think China is moving forward and all kinds of restrictions on freedom will go away, but in reality, it’s obviously not the case.”

He points to a book he published last month, Chinese Civilization Revisited by mainland journalist Xiao Jiansheng, which had been banned in China. The book covers 5,000 years of history but almost doesn’t touch on the years after 1949 when the Communist Party took control.

“So what are they afraid of?” Bao said. “There is a set of values behind the book that the Chinese authorities would not tolerate: pluralism, democracy and individual rights. This book illustrates the problems we have related to the issue of freedom.”

Chinese Vice President Xi Jinping led a delegation of 2,000 officials, writers and publishers who had translated 100 titles into German and English as part of Beijing’s “going global” program for Chinese literature.

“We believe that cultural exchanges require understanding and respect, as well as overcoming prejudice and misunderstanding,” Xi said at the opening.

China publishes more books than any other nation: 275,000 titles in 2008. Yet, “China’s book export volume is still quite small, and the influence of Chinese books internationally is still quite weak,” said Liu Binjie, head of the state publishing agency.

The government blames that on a lack of good translators who can tackle the complexity of Mandarin, as well as slow market reaction time.

Jo Lusby, China director for British publisher Penguin, said China’s literary scene is more diverse than the West realizes. “Despite some legal restraints and censorship, there is an enormous amount of writing with great integrity,” she said.

At the massive Beijing Books Building west of Tiananmen Square, the Communist Party’s latest books are displayed near the entrance, but customers are elsewhere in the store, crowding the best-seller shelves of self-help books and biographies of Warren Buffett and others.

Readers also crowd the modern literature aisles, searching for titles by hip, young novelists such as Guo Jingming and Han Han.

“There is a fast-growing choice of books in China now, although most contain little criticism of our modern society,” said Shen Yu, 28, a website designer browsing in the shop last week. “I can’t stand reading books about the (Communist) Party, as they are too fake.”

Li Shiqiang, who has run the independent Sanwei Bookstore in Beijing for 21 years, said China’s best modern literature was produced before the Communist Party took power and created the People’s Republic of China.

“Over the past six decades, the party’s greatest success has been to install a policeman in everyone’s mind, making us ask, ‘Can I write this?’ ” he said.

“When I go to book fairs, I feel faint from the abundance of choice, but in reality it’s like fishing for a needle in the ocean. It’s so difficult to find an interesting book of real value,” he said.

Via USA Today