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London book fair interrupted by protest at China's rights abuses

  • @adamsherwin10

Beneath the lavish pavilion devoted to the Chinese publishing at the London Book Fair, Dame Margaret Drabble is discussing the super-power's cultural heritage to approving nods from Beijing officials.

But in a corner of the Earls Court venue, a vocal protest from dissident writers accuses the British Council of putting profit before principles by rolling out the red carpet for a nation which continues to persecute and imprison authors.

This year's publishing industry showcase has extended a special invitation to China's burgeoning book market. A delegation of 180 publishing organisations and 20 leading authors will stage 300 events during the three-day fair, including seminars involving leading British writers and their Chinese counterparts.

More than 10,000 Chinese titles have been shipped over and the CEOs of Britain's largest publishing houses have been invited to meet the delegation's leaders, raising the prospect of Chinese media groups investing in the UK book industry.

The daily edition of The Bookseller handed out to Book Fair attendees provides a Chinese-language translation for phrases such as "which way to the rights centre?" and "seven-figure advance".

But the decision to award China the headlining "market focus" status through a partnership with the British Council, was attacked by human rights campaigners who claim that only authors "approved" by Beijing have been invited.

The head of the Chinese delegation, Liu Binjie, the Minister of the General Administration for Press and Publication (Gapp), has been described as "China's censor-in-chief" and the man responsible for the imprisonment of Liu Xiaobo, the Nobel Laureate-winning writer.

Smearing his face with red paint, Ma Jian, the author of Beijing Coma, a novel about the Tiananmen Square protests, said: "No Chinese writers enjoy freedom of speech. When you see 180 Chinese publishers here it may appear that there is a great variety but in reality they all come from the mouthpiece of the Chinese Communist party."

Speaking at an impromptu press conference, Jian, barred from re-entering China after his book's publication, said: "I'm happy that the British Council has set up a dialogue with China. But you will not hear mentions of any of the taboo areas of Chinese history like Tiananmen Square. This invitation dishonours the values that make Western civilisation strong."

Writer Tienchi Martin-Liao, President of the Independent Chinese PEN Centre, which campaigns for literary freedom of expression, said: "We are raising our voice to protest at the co-operation of the Book Fair with Gapp, which is responsible for the imprisonment and torture of our colleagues."

The protesters asked why no invitation had been extended to dissident voices such as Gao Xingjian, China's Nobel Literature Laureate or Yang Lian, the Chinese poet. The participating authors, who include the bestselling Mo Yan, Annie Baobei, the internet sensation, and the Tibetan writer Ah Lai, were chosen by the British Council in collaboration with the Gapp ministry.

Susie Nicklin, the British Council's director of literature, said there was no "approved" list of authors. "We believe that engagement is crucial for successful cultural relations between Britain and China," she said. "We've chosen 20 fresh, innovative writers and the seminars will give people here the chance to learn more about these creative artists and to engage with their country."

Although none of the writers were explicitly critical of Beijing, the Book Fair debates, with open questions from the floor, had covered many areas of contemporary Chinese society, Ms Nicklin said.

But Qi Jiazhen, who published The Black Wall, her personal account of 13 years in a Chinese labour camp, said: "The British Council knows full well that China is a dictator country that deprives writers of their rights. This invitation is shameful for Great Britain, which was once known as the cradle of democratic freedoms and human rights."