Boyd Tonkin: Fill the book fair's empty chairs

The week in books

"China belongs to everyone/ Of your own will/ It's time to choose what China shall be." What China is, as poet and long-time democracy campaigner Zhu Yufu found out again this February, is a paranoid authoritarian regime that still routinely sentences writers, journalists and bloggers to lengthy prison terms (seven years for Zhu Yufu; nine in other recent cases) for the entirely peaceable expression of opinions and ideas unacceptable to the state and ruling Party. Far from being a hangover from a fading era of clumsy repression, the incarceration of Nobel laureate Liu Xiaobo (see p.20) has proved the harbinger of a fresh crackdown. Party fears that the Arab Spring would blow a wave of sympathetic protests across China have made the persecutions more severe.

This weekend, the London Book Fair opens with China as its "market focus" and a touring party of 21 Chinese authors due to speak and read not only in London but around the country. They include some outstanding literary figures – Han Dong, Mo Yan, Geling Yan among others – as well as fêted authors whom I'm eager to discover, such as the internet fiction sensation Annie Baobei and Sheng Keyi, a leading voice of women's experience in today's China. All of them deserve the warmest of welcomes and the widest of audiences.

Questions arise not about any of the LBF visitors – joined at Earls Court by around 180 Chinese publishing houses – but about the process that resulted in this list. The British Council arranged the Fair's "cultural programme" in cooperation with China's general administration of press and publications, GAPP – in effect, the main state censorship authority.

Did the BC have any alternative? Almost certainly not. But, via its literature director, it has chosen to tell us, chillingly, that "There was no disagreement with the Chinese government about the final list of... writers who regularly appear on well-respected lists of the best novelists and poets in China." Indeed. But so do many other Chinese writers - who live not only in exile but also at home, where they may have a vexing relationship with the cultural authorities. That's not to mention the dozens brutally silenced in the courts. At Amnesty International, the Tiananmen Square veteran Shao Jiang has greeted the run-up to the Book Fair with an invaluable day-by-day log of imprisoned Chinese writers: learn their stories at blogs/countdown-china.

The non-state Chinese Independent PEN Centre comments, with grave courtesy: "We cannot but ask: to understand Chinese literature, should the British people rely on... recommendations by the Chinese government alone?" The Centre has objected to the British Council's collaboration with the GAPP, saying that if it "wishes to promote an authentic cultural exchange in a free and civilised way, please do not disregard the independent writers whose works are dedicated to shaping Chinese civil society".

Perhaps we should take the LBF "China focus" as an opportunity to celebrate not only the guests endorsed by GAPP, and not only eminent democracy-movement émigrés – among London residents, that would include poet Yang Lian and novelist Ma Jian – but free thinkers back in China too. Bei Dao, the Nobel-tipped poet now teaching in Hong Kong after long years of exile; Yan Lianke, the formerly banned Beijing novelist and academic shortlisted this week for the Independent Foreign Fiction Prize (see p.21); Su Tong, the versatile and resourceful bestseller; Yu Hua, hard-hitting, controversial and divisive: these and many other China-based heavyweights ought to be present in spirit, if not in body, during the LBF debates.

I have sympathy for the British Council in its unenviable task of talking with the tigers in order to open channels of communication and bring benefits to both sides. It has done its diplomatic job as well as it possibly could. Mine – and that of every author who cherishes their liberties – is a rather different one. China's wholesale persecution and imprisonment of peaceful dissident voices remains an outrage. No writer, no publisher, no cultural official, who values freedom of expression should ever refrain from saying so – and especially not at the Book Fair. The Chinese state should halt every such prosecution and release all writers jailed for their views. At a global literary gathering, this demand cannot be a sideshow. It should take centre-stage.

From Penguins to Pushkins

A new chapter for Pushkin Press, the boutique publisher of global literature in elegant editions. Its recent triumphs include Anthea Bell's versions of Stefan Zweig (right) and, this month, Traveller of the Century by the Argentinian wunderkind Andrés Neuman. The imprint has been acquired by Adam Freudenheim, until now publisher of the great Penguin Classics list, and Stephanie Steegmuller, a former senior manager with the group. For all Freudenheim's achievements with the mighty dead, it's good to know that he plans a broader list of living authors. Melissa Ulfane, Pushkin's founder, made all her books as beautiful without as within. Long may that continue.

The snoopers shut my library

Despite the tenacity of local campaigners, culminating in a last-ditch sit-in, the library that enchanted my childhood - Friern Barnet in north London – shut its doors last week. Barnet Council, Tory-run and dismissive of a Labour-majority ward, behaved with stubborn arrogance. It has done next to nothing to back its claim that a new library within a local arts centre would replace the branch: a mere "temporary facility" is promised. Protestors feel "deceived, manipulated and mistreated". As for Barnet's abysmal leadership, don't take my word for it but listen to their political ally Eric Pickles. The Communities Secretary last year flayed Barnet for hiring private security to snoop on troublesome bloggers (at a cost of over £1m.) "without a tendering exercise, without a written contract, and no proper invoicing". Indeed, Pickles hailed Barnet bloggers' "microjournalism" as "the perfect counterblast to town hall Pravdas". Wasteful, secretive, borderline-illegal: just the kind of council that closes libraries.

Suggested Topics
Arts and Entertainment
Performers drink tea at the Glastonbury festival in 2010

GlastonburyWI to make debut appearance at Somerset festival

Arts and Entertainment
Lena Headey as Cersei Lannister

TV reviewIt has taken seven episodes for Game of Thrones season five to hit its stride

Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

Arts and Entertainment
Jesuthasan Antonythasan as Dheepan

FilmPalme d'Or goes to radical and astonishing film that turns conventional thinking about immigrants on its head

Arts and Entertainment
Måns Zelmerlöw performing

Arts and Entertainment
Graham Norton was back in the commentating seat for Eurovision 2015

Arts and Entertainment
Richard Hammond, Jeremy Clarkson and James May on stage

Arts and Entertainment
The light stuff: Britt Robertson and George Clooney in ‘Tomorrowland: a World Beyond’
film review
Arts and Entertainment
Reawakening: can Jon Hamm’s Don Draper find enlightenment in the final ‘Mad Men’?
tv reviewNot quite, but it's an enlightening finale for Don Draper spoiler alert
Arts and Entertainment
Breakfast Show’s Nick Grimshaw

Arts and Entertainment

Arts and Entertainment
'Youth' cast members Paul Dano, Jane Fonda, Harvey Keitel, Rachel Weisz, and Michael Caine pose for photographers at Cannes Film Festival
Arts and Entertainment
Adam West as Batman and Burt Ward and Robin in the 1960s Batman TV show

Arts and Entertainment
I am flute: Azeem Ward and his now-famous instrument
Arts and Entertainment
A glass act: Dr Chris van Tulleken (left) and twin Xand get set for their drinking challenge
TV review
Arts and Entertainment
MIA perform at Lovebox 2014 in London Fields, Hackney

Arts and Entertainment
Finnish punk band PKN hope to enter Eurovision 2015 and raise awareness for Down's Syndrome

Arts and Entertainment
William Shakespeare on the cover of John Gerard's The Herball or Generall Historie of Plantes

Arts and Entertainment

Game of Thrones review
Arts and Entertainment
Grayson Perry dedicates his Essex home to Julie

Potter's attempt to create an Essex Taj Mahal was a lovely treat

Arts and Entertainment
A scene from the original Swedish version of the sci-fi TV drama ‘Real Humans’
Arts and Entertainment
Hugh Keays-Byrne plays Immortan Joe, the terrifying gang leader, in the new film
filmActor who played Toecutter returns - but as a different villain in reboot
Arts and Entertainment
Charlize Theron as Imperator Furiosa in Mad Max: Fury Road
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    Fifa corruption: The 161-page dossier that exposes the organisation's dark heart

    The 161-page dossier that exposes Fifa's dark heart

    How did a group of corrupt officials turn football’s governing body into what was, in essence, a criminal enterprise? Chris Green and David Connett reveal all
    Mediterranean migrant crisis: 'If Europe thinks bombing boats will stop smuggling, it will not. We will defend ourselves,' says Tripoli PM

    Exclusive interview with Tripoli PM Khalifa al-Ghweil

    'If Europe thinks bombing boats will stop smuggling, it will not. We will defend ourselves'
    Raymond Chandler's Los Angeles: How the author foretold the Californian water crisis

    Raymond Chandler's Los Angeles

    How the author foretold the Californian water crisis
    Chinese artist who posted funny image of President Xi Jinping facing five years in prison as authorities crackdown on dissent in the arts

    Art attack

    Chinese artist who posted funny image of President Xi Jinping facing five years in prison
    Marc Jacobs is putting Cher in the limelight as the face of his latest campaign

    Cher is the new face of Marc Jacobs

    Alexander Fury explains why designers are turning to august stars to front their lines
    Parents of six-year-old who beat leukaemia plan to climb Ben Nevis for cancer charity

    'I'm climbing Ben Nevis for my daughter'

    Karen Attwood's young daughter Yasmin beat cancer. Now her family is about to take on a new challenge - scaling Ben Nevis to help other children
    10 best wedding gift ideas

    It's that time of year again... 10 best wedding gift ideas

    Forget that fancy toaster, we've gone off-list to find memorable gifts that will last a lifetime
    Paul Scholes column: With the Premier League over for another year, here are my end of season awards

    Paul Scholes column

    With the Premier League over for another year, here are my end of season awards
    Heysel disaster 30th anniversary: Liverpool have seen too much tragedy to forget fateful day in Belgium

    Liverpool have seen too much tragedy to forget Heysel

    Thirty years ago, 39 fans waiting to watch a European Cup final died as a result of a fatal cocktail of circumstances. Ian Herbert looks at how a club dealt with this tragedy
    Amir Khan vs Chris Algieri: Khan’s audition for Floyd Mayweather may turn into a no-win situation, says Frank Warren

    Khan’s audition for Mayweather may turn into a no-win situation

    The Bolton fighter could be damned if he dazzles and damned if he doesn’t against Algieri, the man last seen being decked six times by Pacquiao, says Frank Warren
    Blundering Tony Blair quits as Middle East peace envoy – only Israel will miss him

    Blundering Blair quits as Middle East peace envoy – only Israel will miss him

    For Arabs – and for Britons who lost their loved ones in his shambolic war in Iraq – his appointment was an insult, says Robert Fisk
    Fifa corruption arrests: All hail the Feds for riding to football's rescue

    Fifa corruption arrests

    All hail the Feds for riding to football's rescue, says Ian Herbert
    Isis in Syria: The Kurdish enclave still resisting the tyranny of President Assad and militant fighters

    The Kurdish enclave still resisting the tyranny of Assad and Isis

    In Syrian Kurdish cantons along the Turkish border, the progressive aims of the 2011 uprising are being enacted despite the war. Patrick Cockburn returns to Amuda
    How I survived Cambodia's Killing Fields: Acclaimed surgeon SreyRam Kuy celebrates her mother's determination to escape the US

    How I survived Cambodia's Killing Fields

    Acclaimed surgeon SreyRam Kuy celebrates her mother's determination to escape to the US
    Stephen Mangan interview: From posh buffoon to pregnant dad, the actor has quite a range

    How Stephen Mangan got his range

    Posh buffoon, hapless writer, pregnant dad - Mangan is certainly a versatile actor