China, the Unwelcome Guest

Controversy as Frankfurt Book Fair Fetes Beijing

By Wolfgang Höbel and Andreas Lorenz

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."

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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."

Every year 150,000 books are published in China. The most impressive bookshop in the center of the city has a concrete facade decorated with golden letters and calls itself the Beijing Books Building. It belongs to the same state-owned company that operates the official state news agency, Xinhua, which means "new China." Incredibly large crowds of customers throng the four-story building, pushing their way through stuffy aisles of bookshelves. The bestsellers are books with tips on how to lead a healthier life and get-rich schemes, including the "Sales Bible" and the collected wisdoms of the great guru of capitalism, Warren Buffett.

"I often walk around Beijing with an incredible feeling of rage," says novelist and filmmaker Guo Xiaolu. She lives half the year in London, and the other half in Beijing. When Western visitors rave about China's enthusiasm for new beginnings, and its energy, she gets angry. "They fail to notice that this manic enthusiasm for new high-rises and new cars has an incredibly melancholic, even depressed core."

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Photo Gallery: Chinese Literature in Frankfurt


 

She was born in 1973 in a fishing village in southern China. "No one there, not even my parents, ever picked up a book," she says. She started writing as a 10-year-old schoolgirl and published her first book of poetry at the age of 14. At the age of 18 she managed to get accepted into the Beijing Film Academy. Her film "She, a Chinese" won the coveted Golden Leopard at the Locarno International Film Festival. It is the story of a Chinese girl who moves to the big city, where she is surrounded by hookers and killers, and finally ends up in the UK.

In 2002, Guo Xiaolu went to Europe on a scholarship. She now works with British and German publishers and producers, but doesn't want to give up her apartment in Beijing. Her latest book, entitled "UFO in Her Eyes," is a satire on China's modernization that is set in the year 2012.

In her novel, the mayor of a Chinese village proclaims that "everything old must make way for the new," and has banners displayed with slogans like "Get rid of the weak, get rid of the lazy!" The book also includes a few dim-witted state security agents and a mother who bemoans the 5,000 miners, most of them young people, who die every year in China's mines. It is totally out of the question that "UFO in Her Eyes" will ever appear in China, says Guo Xiaolu. She says she grew up as a communist, but today she often suffers from "asphyxiation" in Beijing.

Army of Censors

A huge army of censors -- whose names and exact number remain unknown -- watches over China's media. Novelists are handled by a special government agency, the General Administration of Press and Publication (GAPP). The GAPP is the official partner of the Frankfurt Book Fair. It organizes the guest country program and has launched a number of initiatives, including donating half a million euros (roughly $739,000) in subsidies for the translation of Chinese novels into German.

The censors at the GAPP intervene when important leaders of the Communist Party are attacked, when ethnic minorities in the country are portrayed in a less than flattering manner, or if allusions are made to the student revolts of 1989. But the agency also acts to suppress pornography, or what passes as such in prudish China. In general, anything that could endanger the "stability and unity of China" is considered undesirable.

As in other communist states, books were the most incisive weapons of intellectual discourse in China until well into the 1990s. But for the past few years, the Internet has served as the main platform for intelligent and rebellious debate.

It is always hard to get an overview of what is happening in Chinese media, with 150,000 books published each year and millions of Chinese Web sites. But what is particularly confusing is that many ostensibly banned topics can now be discussed in Beijing without the authorities so much as batting an eye.

'We Don't Ask for Permission'

One example of this newfound tolerance can be found behind the gray walls of the Sanwei Bookshop, which lies on the main east-west artery in the heart of the city, not far from Tiananmen Square. The building is a traditional town house, like the thousands and thousands that once dotted the city of Beijing. Now it stands forlorn amid office high-rises and huge construction sites, like a dwarf among giants.

Since 1988, Li Shiqiang has run the city's first independent bookshop here, together with his wife, Liu Yuansheng. The walls are covered with framed black-and-white photos of old Beijing and, in a space the size of two living rooms, books of a primarily political nature are displayed on high wooden tables. There are books about Barack Obama, global climate protection, the economic downturn and Bob Dylan. Visitors from Germany may also be surprised to find an anthology of essays by German philosopher Jürgen Habermas translated into Chinese as well as former German Chancellor Helmut Schmidt's book "Men and Power: A Political Retrospective."

In the tea salon that belongs to the bookshop, there are five dozen chairs and a few tables. Occasionally there are jazz concerts, and every Saturday afternoon people are invited to attend presentations and discussions. Participants here talk about the moral limits of greed and excessive profits, about the political explosiveness of Islam and the constraints of Chinese censorship. "It almost never happens that an event is banned by government authorities," says Li Shiqiang. "We simply don't ask for permission, and usually nobody cares about us."

Preventing Catastrophes

Li Shiqiang was born in 1945, after the Japanese occupiers had been defeated, when China was a battlefield torn apart by civil war. He was four years old when hundreds of thousands celebrated the birth of the People's Republic of China on Tiananmen Square. Li became an engineer. In 1958, his wife lost her job as a teacher because she was supposedly a "rightist." In 1966, Chairman Mao proclaimed the Cultural Revolution, and all well-educated individuals were suddenly regarded as scum.

For seven years, from 1968 to 1975, Li languished in prison. "We have experienced many catastrophes," he says while his wife serves tea. "And even though it may sound ridiculous, because we are only two ordinary individuals, we intend to use the work in our shop to do everything possible to prevent further catastrophes."

In 1989, when the military used tanks to crush the student rebellion on Tiananmen Square, Li's daughter was among the protesters and was imprisoned for two years. She now lives in South Korea. After the Tiananmen massacre, the afternoon presentations in the Sanwei Bookshop were banned. It wasn't until 2002 that they could begin again with discussions, "and we've noticed that there have recently been new visitors from the affluent middle class."

Sometimes he gets angry about what China's novelists write these days, says Li. "It is pure greed, not censorship, which prevents them from writing about the important political issues facing our country. Our entire society wants to earn money, and I've realized, to my disappointment, that this is also true of our authors."

China has an enormous, colorful range of media, and has rapidly risen to become an economic superpower ever since the chairman of the Communist Party, Deng Xiaoping, spurred the masses by saying "To get rich is glorious!"

Yu Hua, a short, stocky man with a wild shock of hair and a mischievous twinkle in his eye, has sold 1.5 million copies of his latest novel "Brothers" -- not including the many pirated copies. "I was just lucky," he says loudly, waving his arms around. "A few months earlier, or a few months later, and my book would have never been allowed to appear in China!"

IMAGE GALLERY

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Photo Gallery: Chinese Literature in Frankfurt


 

He "slipped by the censors," Yu assumes, because his book was published shortly after the death of a famous politician's widow, a prominent victim of the Cultural Revolution, and the state watchdogs were waiting for new directives about whether it was permissible to speak more openly of the murderous insanity of this period in Chinese history.

"Brothers," which takes an irreverent look at this slaughter ordered by Mao and the turbo capitalism of present-day China, also promises to be a hit in Germany, where it has been translated, along with many other Chinese novels, to mark China being guest of honor at this year's Frankfurt Book Fair. It is an epic, bawdy, picaresque novel. The book tells the story of the shrewd businessman Baldy Li and his unfortunate brother Song Gang, who is a sensitive loser.

Grotesque Real Life

Baldy Li is uneducated, but self-assured, a typical member of the nouveau riche in today's China. He's one of those guys who yell into their mobile phones in the first-class lounges of airports, who grab at girls in karaoke bars, speed through the city in expensive convertibles and like to flash big rolls of bills. Li amassed a fortune with garbage, second-hand imported suits from Japan and shady real estate deals. He used his profits to buy himself a golden toilet.

Li's brother Song Gang is one of those people in today's China who can't cope with the rapidly changing times. He is one of the many who sit in tea salons or dusty offices and desperately brood over the question of how to catch up with those in the fast lane of society. At least Song manages to hook the most beautiful girl in the city -- but she later becomes the madam of a whorehouse. His career is no better. Song manages to eke out a living as a purveyor of "breast enhancing cream," and he even gets breast implants to demonstrate the effectiveness of the product to skeptical customers.

"Brothers" may be grotesque, but Yu Hua emphasizes that his novel is based on real life. Even the golden toilets really exist. "Shortly after my book came out, two readers called me and said: 'Unbelievable, you've written about my toilet!'"

The Limits of Dissent

Yu was born in 1960 and grew up in a small city in central China. He worked for years as a village dentist. For over two decades now he's been living as a novelist in Beijing. In 1994, when director Zhang Yimou filmed his novel "To Live," with the famous actress Gong Li in the leading role, the film was banned in China. It doesn't look good for the film version of "Brothers," either. Yu says that the authorities have already indicated their disapproval, telling him that the book does not cast a positive light on Deng Xiaoping's reforms and opening-up policy.

Yu will travel with the official delegation to the Frankfurt Book Fair, but he still says things that one wouldn't expect from a successful Chinese novelist. "The most urgent problem in China is injustice," he says. "Our judges and police are corrupt. Over the past year, 10 million official complaints were made across the country. Ten million people feel like they have been treated unjustly. That is our greatest human rights problem."

Perhaps the country cannot be fully controlled because it is simply too large. Perhaps it is merely a coincidence that Yu is rich and famous today and is representing Chinese literature in Frankfurt while others are locked up in prisons or writing books that will never be published in China. It's very difficult to understand where the limit lies between being outspoken and being a dissident.

Controversial Orgasms

Renowned Chinese novelist Yan Lianke is also not a dissident, but he has nevertheless written a fairly open and courageous book. It is entitled "Dream of Ding Village," and it deals with a real scandal. During the 1990s, tens of thousands of people were infected with HIV from dirty needles and tainted blood. The dealers who were responsible for this man-made disaster were protected by corrupt party functionaries. Needless to say, the book is banned in China.

Yan was a career soldier until the mid-1990s and, ironically, worked as a propaganda writer for the military. But after he produced objectionable texts and gave interviews, he was discharged from the People's Liberation Army. Recently he has become a professor of literature at the People's University in Beijing, where he teaches classical literature of the 20th century.

"Dream of Ding Village" is not the first book by Yan to be banned. In an earlier work, the 2005 novel "To Serve the People," the wife of a high-ranking military officer has such wild sex with one of the soldiers under her husband's command that busts of Mao get broken, causing them to have incredible orgasms. The censors were not amused.

If a book is banned, there are generally no discussions and no objections can be made. It can also be an expensive affair. In contrast to the film business, where screenplays have to be presented for approval, book censorship only takes place after publication. Yan's "Dream of Ding Village," for example, was in bookstores for three days. Then the publishers had to collect all the printed copies. Due to the loss, they quarreled with the author over his fee. It is this financial risk, often exacerbated by penalties from the authorities, that makes Chinese censorship so effective. "Self-censorship is much worse than all the interventions of the watchdogs," says Yan. "I've also made compromises for years. And what good has it done? None at all! China's novelists have censorship in their blood."

'I Have to Think of My Mother'

Then Yan says with a sarcastic smile that the situation of Chinese authors has actually vastly improved. "Thirty years ago, disagreeable novelists were tortured and killed. When one of my novels was banned for the first time 15 years ago, I regularly had to report to state offices for half a year and write self-criticism. Today, no one interferes with my private life."

Yan was prevented from traveling to Germany as part of the official delegation. Since his books are published by Germany's Ullstein publishing house, he could come to Frankfurt anyway, but he would rather not. "It's better not to travel there and to remain quiet," he says. In Frankfurt they are organizing "a temple fair" like at a Chinese spring festival, he says, and he would only contradict the politicians and functionaries who traveled there, and that would be dangerous.

"I have to live in China," he says. "I am not strong, sometimes I'm even a coward. I have to think of my mother, my wife and my daughter. I don't want to get them into trouble."

Translated from the German by Paul Cohen