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A Chinese Reporter’s Journal of the Frankfurt Book Fair

December 12, 2009

Wu Min

October 9, 2009

My plane landed in Frankfurt at 5:00 a.m. I was tired and jet lagged. I had spent the whole eight-hour trip reading about China’s publishing industry. I was assigned by a U.S.-based publishing magazine to cover the 2009 Frankfurt Book Fair, the world’s largest trade fair on books. China had been made the Guest of Honor this year. Still fresh from the memories of running a successful Olympic Games, Chinese officials dubbed its appearance at the book fair as China’s “Olympics of Books” and generously opened up its wallet with a $15 million contribution. At a time when the sagging worldwide publishing industry was threatening to drag down book fair attendance, China promised to send a contingent of 2,000 writers, artists, and publishers. The organizers must have loved the generous gesture. Who wouldn’t?

Under normal circumstances, I tended to stay away from book fairs, which I found boring. It was different this time. I was drawn to the freedom of press issue, which, in the words of the book fair’s director Juergen Boos, “represents the foundation of this trade event.” Should the book industry honor a country where writers and intellectuals were jailed for voicing their criticism of the government?

The pathways to customs and baggage claim areas were long. I followed the crowd in a stupor and found my way to the carousel. An oversized back-lit billboard caught my eye. It was China’s Guest of Honor logo—a collage of white Chinese characters against red background in the form of a Chinese stamp. As I raised my head, I also noticed a TV monitor looping a promotional video featuring an elegant Chinese dancer.

Seeing that I was looking at the billboard, a black youngster came up to me hesitantly and then asked in fluent mandarin: “Ni shi Zhongguoren ma?” I answered: “Yes, I’m a Chinese.” When I had traveled to Germany ten years before, people always assumed that I was a Japanese tourist. How things had changed. The youngster was an Ethiopian-born German and had studied in the city of Chengdu for a year. He raved about his experience there. As we were chatting, I meant to ask his views on China’s being the Guest of Honor, but decided against it. I was too tired to carry any deep conversation.

As I left the airport, I could certainly feel the presence of China. I had to admit that I had never felt so good about being a Chinese. Many Chinese-Americans might be critical of China’s human rights practices, but any positive changes in China’s image in the world make us proud.

October 10, 2009


Liao Yiwu (廖亦武), a Sichuan-based poet and writer, was supposed to talk about his book at the Asia Pacific Literary Festival in Berlin today, but a month ago the Chinese government barred him from leaving China. That was the twelfth time that Liao had been turned down for an exit permit. The local public security officials considered him a national security threat. I wonder what kind of threat Liao could pose? Liao had been incarcerated for four years because he composed an anti-government poem, “Massacre,” following the bloody crackdown on the 1989 student democracy movement in Tiananmen Square.

The government decision to ban Liao’s travel generated a media storm in Germany. I went on Google after coming back to the hotel and typed “Liao Yiwu.” There were 76 related news stories on that day alone, putting the German version of Liao’s book The Corpse Walker on Der Spiegel’s extended bestseller’s list in the first two weeks of October.

A friend at a London-based NGO, Mitch Albert, emailed me after hearing about Liao’s case. “You’d think being a powerful empire-in-the-ascendant would impart a sense of invulnerability and an even more astute sense that the soft power projected by letting your writers speak would outweigh the damage they could do, such as it is . . . and not a cranky paranoia.”

October 11, 2009

I strolled around downtown Frankfurt. In front of the old Opera House, posters of Chinese pianist Lang Lang were pasted all over. He would perform on the book fair’s opening night. Lang Lang has turned into the government’s mascot these days. He graced the opening ceremony of the Beijing Olympic Games and recently appeared in a movie honoring the 60th anniversary of the Communist revolution. I wonder if it was overkill to invite these international stars to a regular trade fair. Too bad basketball star Yao Ming wasn’t known for his love of books. Otherwise, the government would probably have him parade around the exhibit halls.

PULL: Fortunately, Bei said the European media covered the standoff and brought international attention to China’s intolerance toward dissenting authors.

At the subway station, I ran into Bei Ling (贝岭), the exiled Chinese poet. He looked like a Taoist monk with his long hair and flowing garment. Bei had a history of bucking Chinese authority. I wrote a story about him in early 2000, when he was arrested in China for distributing his literary journal there. He had been in the news just the previous month when he and dissident journalist Dai Qing (戴晴) were struck from a symposium on China ahead of the book fair. The organizers reinstated their invitation following a massive public outcry. However, their appearance at the symposium caused the official Chinese delegation to walk out in protest. Mei Zhaorong (梅兆荣), China’s former ambassador to Germany was quoted as saying: “We didn’t come for a lesson on democracy. Those times are over.”

I inquired about his experience at the symposium. Bei said he and Dai felt very isolated. “Nobody stood up for us and Chinese officials were arrogant,” he recalled. “The organizers apologized profusely to the Chinese delegation for our presence.” Fortunately, Bei said the European media covered the standoff and brought international attention to China’s intolerance toward dissenting authors.

Bei was invited back to the book fair. The organizers had even promised to let him deliver a speech at the closing ceremony. “It is not my intention to stir up troubles at the book fair,” he said as we boarded the same train together. “I just hope to have the opportunity to sit in the same room and share a same platform with members of the Chinese official delegation. We could start some kind of dialogue.”

October 12, 2009

I went with my editor on a tour of the China Guest of Honor Hall. Outside, directions to the China hall were displayed prominently on a gigantic billboard. Li Jiwei (李继伟) was the chief designer of the “China Pavilion” inside the hall. He was short and soft-spoken. Dressed stylishly in his black jacket, Li was patiently directing the installation of his design while talking with reporters. Li told us that the China Pavilion aimed to showcase the four core elements of Chinese culture—paper, ink, Chinese characters, and books. The centerpiece of his design, entitled “Book Mountain,” took the form of a giant piece of “handmade paper” flying over shelves of bound Chinese books. The white sterilized background gave the feel of a contemporary art museum. At the end of the interview, I found out that Li had designed the well-known swimming center, the Water Cube, for the Beijing Olympic Games. China had really made an outstanding effort to put its best foot forward.

On the way back, I stopped by the booth of the Confucius Institute, an entity run by the China’s Ministry of Education to promote Chinese language and culture. It took up a prominent spot with an oversized screen showing videos about China. More than 30 Confucius Institutes from 15 countries in Europe were to showcase their services and publications. It would be the organization’s biggest footprint at book fairs. With the rising influence of China, Confucius Institute is developing fast. There are now 357 Confucius Institutes in 94 countries.

At a dinner with my writer friends, I sat next to a public relations executive for the book fair. He expressed disappointment at the European media for being overly critical of China’s Guest of Honor status. “We are merely running a trade fair, not a human rights convention,” he said. “I hope the media doesn’t solely focus on the controversies.” His remarks reminded me of a similar argument during the Olympic Games in which some athletes urged the media to focus on sports, not politics. The difference was that the German public had just celebrated the 20th anniversary of the fall of the Berlin Wall. The media were sensitive to any actions that brought back memories of the totalitarian rules under Communism.

Late at night, I heard that the Chinese government was upset at the negative media reports and dismayed that China was treated “unfairly.” Reportedly, Chinese Vice Premier Xi Jinping (习近平) had even considered skipping his speech at the opening ceremony, but went through with it at the urging of his advisers.

October 13, 2009

I could sense the tension in the air. Three hours before the opening ceremony, a large contingent of uniformed men and women with “polizei” emblazed on the back of their jackets descended and cordoned off the pathway to the auditorium. I expected that some “fireworks” might break out. I looked around for protesters but all I saw were regular attendees, strolling or hurrying along indifferently with colorful goodie bags in their hands. At about 4:00 p.m. groups of Chinese in blue suits filed in the auditorium. Other exhibitors didn’t seem to care too much about the opening. I got tickets from two American publishers: “Give them away if you can’t go,” they said.

They knew better. I ended up sitting through an uneventful session of speeches. The good thing was that no one shouted slogans or threw shoes.

Chinese Vice President Xi and German Chancellor Angela Merkel shook hands amicably for the camera. Once they stepped on stage, they each played their own tunes to please their own constituents.

I jotted down some of Merkel’s nice sound bites. “Books are burnt and forbidden in dictatorships,” she said, essentially referring to the Nazis. Merkel recalled her own past in formerly communist East Germany, saying that some courageous Westerners, instead of sending oranges, would smuggle books into East Germany. “Books point out inconsistencies which endanger a dictatorship.” Since books were decisive in overthrowing the East German dictatorship, she stated: “That’s why we can proudly say books are a part of our history!”

Vice President Xi calmly stuck with his own message. He called for enhancing cultural exchanges to boost world peace and said different cultures should learn from each other, rather than reject each other, to build a harmonious world.

I left before writer Mo Yan (莫言), whose book Red Sorghum used to be banned in China, delivered his keynote speech. With the presence of Vice President Xi and other Party leaders, I didn’t expect Mo to speak his mind. Instead, I went to see some friends at a Chinese restaurant near the Frankfurt train station. We had barely sat down when another group swarmed in. I recognized Dai Qing and Bei Ling.

Dai, in her seventies, looked young and energetic. In 1995, I interviewed Dai at a hotel in Beijing. At that time, several plain-clothed policemen sat nearby, closely monitoring us. After many years, Dai remained as determined as ever. She raved about Angela Merkel’s speech. I asked how she felt about Mo Yan’s keynote speech, which I had missed. Dai rolled her eyes. “So full of empty slogans.” Mo Yan, Dai said, talked about how freedom was relative and different in each country and that writers in China were enjoying relative freedom. A business friend who was also sitting at the dinner table also frowned upon Mo’s assertion. He said, “a writer may be free to write anything and criticize the Party in private, but if his works can’t be published and if the publishing houses are controlled by the government, you can’t say writers enjoy freedom of speech, can you?”

At the dinner, I was also introduced to Zhou Qing (周勍), author of a non-fiction book documenting the hazards of Chinese food to children. Based in Beijing, Zhou is currently a visiting writer in Germany. In 2007, Zhou said he had been beaten up by secret police after publishing articles critical of the government. Zhou, with his shoulder-length hair, exuded warmth and candidness that many Chinese usually associate with a northerner.

I had to leave the dinner early for Lang Lang’s concert, which was held in the beautiful old Opera House. The concert was intended for foreigners, but blue-suited mainland Chinese with cameras took up more than half of the seats. Lang Lang, in his usual exaggerated showman mode, swayed his head and body as he played his signature Yellow River Piano Concerto, a formerly patriotic choral piece written in 1939 by musician Xian Xinghai (冼星海), and then rearranged and revised under the supervision of Madame Mao during the Cultural Revolution. I always have problems with this piece because I think the concerto, which describes in the language of music China’s resistance war against the Japanese in the 1940s, clearly distorts history. It exaggerates the Communists’ role in the war. In the third movement, when “East is Red,” a song that had elevated Chairman Mao to the status of a savior, becomes a dominant theme, I found it jarring to the ear. Lang Lang had spread this propaganda piece around the world. It was hard to sit until the end. As the audience was being wowed by the former child prodigy, I snuck out.

October 14, 2009

The fair kicked off today. The entrance to the exhibit halls was crowded, with many Chinese in blue suits. Many years before, I remember seeing delegates from mainland China traveling in major American or European cities—they would always walk in groups with everyone wearing the same ill-fitted dark gray suits. Nowadays, Chinese on official business still travel in groups but their suits are well-tailored. When they don’t talk too loudly in public places, they actually looked very sophisticated.

My focus for the day was to profile Chinese publishers, especially private publishers. I was interested in writing about a recent directive issued by the General Administration of Press and Publication (“GAPP”), the Chinese government agency that regulates news as well as print and Internet publications. In the document, the government has officially recognized the legalities of China’s private publishing houses, which had been in existence since the 1980s. For many years, private publishers had to claim themselves to be book sellers. To publish books, they purchased ISBNs or book rights from state-owned companies. With the new regulation, private publishers can now operate in the open but will have to enter into partnership with state companies. “It’s all a matter of ideological control,” an editor with a private publishing house in Beijing told me. Even so, he said the new rules are signs of progress.

I spent the entire day in the China section, dominated by an intense red motif. The bright color didn’t attract too many visitors, and the area looked deserted. I milled around the stands. Most books on display were either Chinese language textbooks, children’s books, science journals , or books on tourism, cooking, or popular science fiction. The only political books were selected works of Deng Xiaoping and Jiang Zemin. Younger Chinese staffing the stands clustered together, chatting among themselves. I ran into a Chinese-American friend who shared an interesting anecdote with me over coffee. Earlier in the day, he had seen a German reporter perusing a Chinese cookbook. The reporter struck up a conversation with a young female executive of a state publishing company. They were speaking German. A blue-suited supervisor became visibly nervous, especially when the two started laughing. As he tried to interrupt the conversation, the woman ignored him. After the reporter had left, the supervisor immediately scolded the woman and asked what she had said. It turned out that the reporter had asked if how the Chinese still ate dog. “I joked with the journalist that only Cantonese eat dog. I said we never consider Cantonese as Chinese anyway.” The supervisor was somewhat relieved that his staff didn’t discuss anything politically sensitive. After he left, that female executive whined to my friend: “They monitor everything and take everything way too seriously. It’s so tense my muscles ache.” After telling me the story, my friend commented: “With its tight ideological control, I think an appropriate phrase to describe China’s ‘soft power’ is ‘rigid soft power.’”

October 15, 2009

I wrote an article on October 15th and my editor headlined it “Dissidents Have Their Day.” With the increasing public outcry over China’s action to exclude dissident writers from the book fair, the organizers had set up platforms so people could hear alternative voices from China. Bei Ling, Dai Qing, and Zhou Qing were shuffled from place to place, presenting their arguments. They joined Ma Jian (马建), author of the award-winning Beijing Coma, at a late morning session, attracting a large crowd of journalists outside the PEN German Center booth. The four dissidents lashed out at what they perceive to be an “Orwellian” situation in China’s publishing industry. In Ma’s words: “You see many Chinese publishing houses on display here at the fair with different names. In reality, they actually come under one name: the Communist Party’s ‘mouthpiece.’” Ma accused the Chinese government of building a huge “wall” on the Internet to censor politically sensitive topics. “When you commemorate the fall of the Berlin Wall, have you ever thought of China and the student protest movement that happened 20 years ago?” he challenged the audience.

Zhou Qing offered more sound bites for reporters. “The government divides writers into two groups: ‘us’ and ‘them’. Those who toe the party line are treated with special favors whereas independent thinkers are persecuted.” He continued, “The Chinese government uses the opportunity to show off its new wealth and has sent a group of writers that have been specially selected by the Party. These writers are here on a free trip paid by taxpayers’ money. They don’t want to talk with us and they can’t.”

PULL: “When you commemorate the fall of the Berlin Wall, have you ever thought of China and the student protest movement that happened 20 years ago?”—Ma Jian

Dai Qing said she had visited the Chinese section at the book fair. “If you look at a book on Chinese history there, you won’t find a single one that deals with the past brutalities of the Communist regime. There is no way you can get anything published without the approval of the Party,” she said. Using one of her books as an example, she added she either has to find a publisher in Hong Kong or simply pay a printer and get it printed by an unlisted publisher.

At noon, I attended a different session entitled “Freedom of Speech, Freedom of Word, Freedom to Publish.” Again, I saw Bei Ling and Zhou Qing. They shared a stage with a Norwegian publisher as well as Uyghur activist and journalist Kaiser Abdulrusul ÖzHun. In dramatic fashion, Zhou, acknowledging the ethnic tension in China that sparked violence in Xinjiang earlier this year, stood up and threw his arms around the Uyghur journalist, hugging him and announcing, “Why should I hate him because he is different than me, as I will show you here, we are friends.”

The attendees were mostly reporters. I did see a blue-suited publisher who was part of the Chinese delegation but preferred to remain incognito. He shook his head: “These people are using the book fair as an effective platform to promote their political views,” a situation he described as “unfortunate”. “China has made tremendous progress. One can’t ignore the fact that writers and publishers are gaining their freedom inch by inch.”

By 7:00 p.m., I filed my story for the day and rushed over to a party hosted by a major German publisher which had published many Chinese books. As I negotiated the crowded hallway, munching on snack sandwiches and sipping my drink, I ran into a German publicist who had been busy pitching Chinese government-sanctioned writers to the German media but with disappointing results. “The media are not interested in wasting their time and talking with writers who feel obligated to toe the Party line,” he said.

October 16, 2009

China’s e-publishing industry is booming. I interviewed a young executive with Shanda, a major online publishing company that operates several literary websites in China, including,, and Writers can register with the Shanda websites and post their fictional works online. The sites provide remarkable venues for online users to unleash their creative energy. So far, about 700,000 writers have posted over 2.7 million titles. When I asked the CEO how his company managed politically sensitive writings, he quickly explained that the sites are purely commercial and he has seldom encountered the scenarios I mentioned. On the other hand, he said there are many editors who monitor the sites and help discover talent and “problems” too. In other words, all the sites had to steer clear of politically sensitive materials in order to survive.

While the government might see the book fair as an opportunity as a political maneuver to expand its soft power, the Shanda executive said many Chinese private publishers were in Frankfurt to explore business partnerships. As we talked, his assistant reminded him of a meeting with a U.S. publisher in a different exhibit hall. “We are soliciting partners to publish and distribute Shanda’s teen literary works worldwide. We hope to create our own Harry Potter-like phenomenon.” Despite the political control, the success of Shanda as a private publishing house gives China hope.

I ran into Dai Qing again. Like a child, she excitedly led me to a publisher of oriental spiritual books. The owner had hung pages of the original Chinese text of Charter 08 in front of her tiny stand. Charter 08 is a manifesto calling for political reform that began circulating on the Internet in December 2008. It was initially signed by some 300 Chinese ranging from intellectuals to peasants and has since garnered 9,700 signatures. Liu Xiaobo (刘晓波), believed to be one of the Charter’s drafters, was detained that month and has remained in police custody since. Dai, one of the signatories of Charter 08, felt very encouraged. She had me take several pictures. “The Chinese government might have suppressed the document but it’s been spread all around the world,” she said.

As we sat down for some ice cream, Dai recalled an interesting experience she had that morning. Wu Shangzhi (吴尚之), an official at GAPP held a press conference touting China’s efforts to help with cultural development for minorities in China. Dai decided to go so she could engage in dialogue with Chinese officials. When it was time for questions, several German reporters asked why Liu Xiaobo, who had drafted Charter 08, had been put in jail for exercising his freedom of speech. Another wanted to know why the Taiwan booth in the China section only showcased books on wine and cooking, but nothing reflecting the vibrant political scenes there. Another reporter asked why there was only one voice representing China at the fair. Wu dismissed all of the questions with disdain. Then, Dai raised her hand, hoping to ask a question about China’s press law, but she was never given the opportunity. “Director Wu simply ignored me,” she said.

It was my last day at the fair. Since I didn’t get to attend the various China related sessions held at the fair and at various universities in Frankfurt, I decided to take one more look at the China Guest of Honor Hall. It was almost empty. At the main stage, some students of kung fu were performing. Unfortunately, there was only a smattering of people watching, most of whom were Chinese. I left the hall with a feeling of sadness. The book fair was basically a trade show, and people gathered to transact business and purchase good Chinese books. But the Chinese government had put on an extravagant show of Chinese Beijing operas, kung fu, and propaganda music, which inevitably encountered indifference.

October 17, 2009

Starting today, the book fair was open to the public. I left Frankfurt and visited friends in Berlin. In the afternoon, I surfed the Internet and read a headline by Xinhua: “World-class publisher gung ho about Jiang Zemin’s new books.” The English version of Jiang’s books, which contained his articles and remarks on the development of China’s science and technology, were published by a Dutch publisher Elsevier. In the Xinhua article, the reporter quoted an executive at Elsevier as saying that Jiang’s books would attract a large number of readers and also expand the horizons of world leaders. The article further said that a grand debut ceremony for Jiang’s books garnered a lot of attention from visitors. After reading the article, I almost burst out laughing at this relentless and shameless propaganda. I happened to pass by the grand debut ceremony where attendees were mostly Chinese officials and Chinese publishing executives. I couldn’t imagine that anyone would choose Jiang Zemin over Dan Brown. Had the Chinese government subsidized the publication of Jiang’s works? One had to wonder.

October 18, 2009

Bei Ling emailed me. He was never given the opportunity to deliver his speech at the closing ceremony. The director of International Affairs of the book fair told him that the German Foreign Ministry had decided not to invite him to speak. Bei never speculated on the reason, but it was quite obvious.

PULL: What they had experienced in Frankfurt, especially the controversies, offered a reality check on their government’s inflated sense of its new power and would make them more conscious of the political situation at home.

While in Frankfurt, there had been a lot of talk among Chinese delegates about the presence of the exiled Uyghur leader Rebiya Kadeer at the book fair. Many expected some confrontation. On October 14, while I was taking the train with a group of Chinese editors, someone exclaimed suddenly, “Look, it’s Rebiya there.” I could see immediate tension on the faces of several delegates. We all looked where he was pointing. It was at a gray haired German lady. As we were guessing whether it was really Rebiya, he laughed out loudly, “I’m only joking.” There was a collective sigh of relief.

This evening, I read a report that Kadeer finally arrived at the fair. She went to the Chinese Guest of Honor Hall and there were no clashes with Chinese officials, who seemed to be more relaxed at the end and didn’t care too much.

This brought me to think of my overall impression of the Frankfurt Book Fair. Many dissident writers condemned China’s participation as a shameless attempt by China to flaunt its influence and expand its soft power in the world. I tend to agree. Donning nicely tailored suits and throwing money around freely at the book fair, the Chinese leaders had hoped that the world would be attracted by its sophisticated looks and new wealth, accepting their ideology and, ignoring their crackdown on freedom of expression, a basic human value. In some cases, they succeeded, but overall I think the government scored dismally in Frankfurt. The negative media reaction illustrated what a U.S.-based independent Chinese publisher has said, “China is the beneficiary of the global economy, but it can’t stand on the world stage as a respected member of the international community without accepting the basic values of our modern civilization.”

Meanwhile, I also see it in a more positive way. China’s support for the book fair enabled a large number of Chinese publishers and writers to forge closer links with their counterparts in the West. What they had experienced in Frankfurt, especially the controversies, offered a reality check on their government’s inflated sense of its new power and would make them more conscious of the political situation at home.

I interviewed a Shanghai-based publisher which had purchased the rights of several Western bestsellers, which he was confident would sell well in China. “The economic reforms in the past 30 years have made it possible for a large number of Chinese to join the ranks of a Western-style middle class. As a result, the cultural gap between the East and West is smaller.” I assume the middle class values also include freedom of expression.