Chinese dissident authors criticise British Council at unofficial London Book Fair event

A form of censorship has “entered the Chinese soul”, dissident author Ma Jian told Index at the London Book Fair today, arguing that a fear of freedom and human rights is instilled in the country.

Following a press conference held by the Independent Chinese PEN Centre (ICPC) to highlight the exclusion of dissident and independent writers from the China-focused section of the event, Ma said self-censorship among domestic authors is a “wide-scale threat” and a “disease” that is “almost part of the Chinese psyche”.

The three-day book fair held in London’s Earls Court is being attended by over 180 Chinese publishers and will feature 21 authors from the People’s Republic, in partnership with the British Council. Yet the Council has received criticism for collaborating with the country’s General Administration of Press and Publications (GAPP), the agency that regulates printed media, by only inviting authors sanctioned by the body. Index was among the signatories of a letter to the Guardian last week raising the issue:

It is bad enough that writers, journalists, bloggers and academics are subject to heavy censorship in China, but we should not be allowing the authorities to replicate their restrictions on freedom of expression further afield.

ICPC president Tienchi Liao said it was “unacceptable” that the British Council chose to collaborate with GAPP while many of her colleagues were imprisoned.

“The event is supposed to promote cultural exchange but it co-operates with the perpetrators,” Liao told Index.

Speaking to Index after the conference, Ma said he was “saddened” that China was invited to the fair as guest of honour, given its reputation for detaining and imprisoning authors who discuss taboo or sensitive issues, and censoring related content in print, broadcast and online.

“Dialogue is necessary but it must be open and free and encompass different voices,” he said. “The Chinese government has brought heads on a platter but where are the arms and legs?”

Ma, who lives in London and was banned from re-entering China in 2011, said the fair and other cultural events should “lead by example” and invite independent authors alongside those sanctioned by GAPP.

“The British Council should have been braver and push the limits,” he said, suggesting they ask Liu Xia, the wife of imprisoned Nobel peach prizer winner and dissident author Liu Xiaobo, who has been under house arrest since late 2010, to attend.

When asked if a certain amount of appeasement was to be expected as the West attempts to foster improved diplomatic relations with China, Ma said he was not an advocate of a total boycott of the event. “I advocate engagement but it mustn’t compromise freedom of speech and human rights,” he said.

“Is there an alternative? Maybe not,” Tienchi Liao said. “But the planning could be more strategic. The British Council could invite authors who aren’t ‘official ones’ — Yan Lianke, or Su Tong — who aren’t state-approved but are not forbidden either.”

“If that had happened we wouldn’t be so outraged,” she added.

In a letter to the Guardian today, London Book Fair director Alistair Burtenshaw and literature director of the British Council, Susie Nicklin, said the programme of authors invited were diverse, with the programme representing a “great opportunity to deepen understanding and strengthen cultural and business links between the UK and China.”

Any international institution working with books in China needs to liaise with the General Administration of Press and Publication,” the pair wrote. “The selection of writers for the cultural programme at London Book Fair 2012 was undertaken by the British Council in wide consultation with its official partners, industry professionals, and experts in the field both in China and the UK.

The Chinese literary figures attending include novelist Mo Yan and 2010 Man Asian literary prize winner Bi Feiyu.

 Marta Cooper is an editorial assistant at Index. She tweets at @martaruco.