At Book Fair, a Subplot About Chinese Rights

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FRANKFURT — As China extends its economic reach, it has also increased efforts to promote its culture, or “soft power,” to counter Western influence and improve its image in the wider world.

Yet if Chinese goods are accepted everywhere, its arts and literature, embattled at home after decades of censorship and state control, are proving harder for the government to export.

After years of delicate preparations, China was the “honored guest” this past week at the Frankfurt Book Fair, the largest and most influential book trade event, based on the number of publishers represented. But what Beijing hoped would be a celebration of its cultural achievements turned into a tug of war between control and free speech, as much a showcase for Chinese dissidents as the state’s approved writers.

Mao Zedong said that power flowed from the “wielders of the pen,” not only from the gun. But the chairman would not be amused to find books like “Mao: The Unknown Story,” an indictment of his rule that is banned in China, displayed alongside the official Chinese exhibit at this year’s fair, which ended Sunday...

... Unlike the exquisitely choreographed ceremonies during the Beijing Olympics, the fair presented a messier and more ambiguous portrait of China on the rise — a country still deeply uncomfortable with its own discordant voices, yet eager to become more competitive with the West in the realm of ideas...

... Michael Naumann, a former German culture minister and now publisher and editor of Die Zeit, a prominent weekly newspaper, said German organizers misjudged the complications of honoring China in a year laden with controversy, including the 20th anniversary of the fall of the Berlin Wall, the 20th anniversary of the crushed Tiananmen Square democracy movement and the 60th anniversary of Chinese Communist Party rule.

“I think the people who run the book fair were kind of naïve when they invited the Chinese,” he said. “But opening this enormous window of the book fair to Chinese writers, whether they are censored or not, will give them a way to sniff out the open forum of intellectual debate.”

Since 2004, China has pursued what it calls its “going out” policy on the cultural front, trying to square its economic influence and new status as a global power, while trying to defuse criticism on issues like Tibet, Taiwan and human rights.

There have been yearlong cultural exchanges with many countries; the opening of hundreds of language teaching centers known as Confucius Institutes; new foreign-language services from official media like Xinhua and CCTV; and new interest in foreign platforms like the Kennedy Center and the Europalia festival in Brussels.

There have been other furors. When China was featured at the 2004 Paris Book Fair, officials initially persuaded the French not to invite the Nobel literature laureate Gao Xingjian, a French citizen whose books are banned in China.

But Frankfurt, with its 7,300 publishers and 300,000 visitors, was a much riskier venture...

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