In a few days, the London Book Fair will open. Among its many international activities, the Fair will welcome a delegation of 21 Chinese writers and 180 publishers, headed by Liu Binjie, and organized with the assistance of the British Council, which also bring 10.000 Chinese literary works to the fair. Liu is the head of the General Administration of Press and Publications, which is the administrative body in charge of literary matters in China. It also controls the part of the print news sector that is not under direct Party control (such as the People’s Daily). As such, Liu is also vice-director of the Central Propaganda Department, the CCP Central Committee body in charge of daily management of the press, as well as general policymaking related to the cultural industries and the press sector.
This visit seems to fit hand in glove with the GAPP’s “Marching Out” strategy that was published about a year ago, in which one of the policy objectives was to increase Chinese participation in prestigious international exhibitions. Probably, there is significant financial input for this as well. However, the politically-guided nature of the visit has led to strong criticism from Chinese writers. Ma Jian, for example, accuses the fair organizers of kowtowing to the “censor-in-chief” of the Chinese government, while Britain should know better about the consequences of appeasing with dictatorial regimes. This comparison seems a bit overblown. In contrast to the examples Ma mentions, Nazi Germany and Napoleonic France, there are few indications that China is preparing to launch an armed conflict of a continental scale in the near future.
Nonetheless, the question on how to engage with China in issues of cultural or academic exchange is an important one and should be asked. At a time where European cultural and academic institutions are faced with austerity measures and budget cutbacks, the millions that the Chinese leadership is investing in international exchange activities suddenly become very attractive. It is also not unimaginable that university science or law departments, facing dwindling numbers, might overrule critical voices about engagement with China, or that the promise of significant investment in a Confucius institute is enough to draw an academic, who is on an umpteenth temporary contract, across the line.
Certainly, the issues are clear. Taking the book delegation as an example, Ma Jian quite rightly points out that the selection of literary authors could be supplemented by other Chinese language writers, not in the least Nobel Prize winner Gao Xingjian. The current set-up seems to reduce the potential diversity of authors being given a platform on this Fair. The same is true for other forms of cultural and scholarly exchange. In other words, if the Chinese government is allowed be the only voice in deciding the content of exchange and interaction, the consequence may be that the range of Chinese art, literature and scholarship to which foreign audiences are exposed is narrowed to the official selection. However, that does not mean that there should be no engagement at all. Rather, it is also the responsibility of domestic interlocutors to broaden channels for different voices from China to enter the public discourse. Universities, research organizations and NGOs have a shared responsibility in this regard.
Furthermore, Ma Jian rightly draws attention to the physical violence to which writers in China are sometimes subject. It is clear that there can be no excuse for this sort of behaviour. At the same time, the question remains to what extent that justifies not engaging with China, which might be more counterproductive, and feed the fear of foreign hostility which is clearly present at the highest levels of Chinese politics. Space must be sought in the middle ground, where open and honest, but also cordial dialogue can take place.