China's recent attempts at employing soft power to improve China's image abroad was met with mixed results at the recent Frankfurt Book Fair. For sinophiles interested in finding a well translated version of Lust, Caution by Eileen Chang or Man Asian Booker prize winner Wolf Totem by Jiang Rong, the book fair could not have been better.
For Chinese officials however, the challenge of defending China's rigorous control of everything intellectual and artistic within China's own borders proved a little more difficult than anticipated.
In a forum meant for the open exchange of ideas, China's efforts to sell a positive image, and score sales deals, whilst simultaneously trying to squelch debate on China's own book bans and efforts to prevent attendance by some of its own controversial authors were difficult to reconcile and met with considerable skepticism. As a result, Chinese officials sulked “We don’t feel we’ve been hospitably treated.”
Of course, such quotes were not to be found in China's own press, which, in typical fashion, trumpeted China's showing at the fair as an unmitigated success by appealing to record sales deals. "China has done something far better than any previous guest of honor at the fair," glowed Cambridge University Press chief executive Stephen Bourne.
In actuality, China's presence at the fair was not met with such uniformly glowing praise. Predictably, Exiled Uighur leader Rebiya Kadeer sharply criticized the fair for inviting China as a guest of honor, noting the country's abysmal human rights record.
However, in a sign of the growing intellectual maturity of China's own intellectual class, several of the Chinese writers in attendance, some without the Chinese government's blessing, offered dissenting opinions of their own.
"It is a disgrace that we still can't read what we want here," said writer and environmental activist Dai Qing. "It seems as if these ridiculous rules are getting stricter by the day. And we writers are helping them by censoring ourselves, whether consciously or unconsciously."
Novelist Yan Lianke's Dream of Ding Village and To Serve the People are both banned within China. "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." Though he notes that writers who were once tortured and killed simply have their books banned nowadays, the financial penalty this incurs is enough for writers to develop their own internal censor.
Jeremy Goldkorn, whose Danwei media blog was recently blocked in China, lamented censorship's stifling effect on creativity in a recent piece for the Guardian UK, but also offered a more nuanced analysis of China's media and literary scene. However, in the end,
"China's writers, film-makers, publishers and editors waste their creativity and squander their powers of innovation on self-censorship and red tape."
Unlike the Beijing Olympics with their comically ornamental "protest zones," and the upcoming Shanghai Expo 2010-with its own all-good-news all-the-time machine, book fairs and other international creative events are environments Chinese authorities cannot control, but require them for showing the world modern China's human face.
The paradoxical fact remains that China needs its culture to be showcased on the world stage, unavoidably putting China's literary scene under the microscope. The more China tries to showcase its culture, the more attention its own dissidents receive. Will China learn to love its dissidents and show the world it can take criticism?
As China endeavors to create a highly intelligent and skilled population, that population inevitably learns to look at authorities critically and demand more freedom. The test for China in the future will be whether it can balance the need to accommodate divergent opinion and maintain stability in a massive, economically and culturally diverse population. Success in this endeavor could mean a new chapter in China's amazing economic miracle, a future of mind-boggling opportunity. Let's hope they "get it."