China was the guest of honour at the Frankfurt Book Fair last week, just as the rest of the world were guests of honour at the Beijing Games in 2008. It was expected that the international press would pay attention to protests and dissent just as it did in Beijing. There had been threats to boycott the Fair, so there was reason for concern. In order to avoid unpleasantness of any kind, strenuous efforts were made not to offend the Chinese. At the opening ceremonies on Tuesday, Chancellor Angela Merkel said, in the presence of the Chinese Vice-President Xi Jinping, that there would be “no taboos.”
Press responses to the Fair were illuminating. The Spanish paper La Vanguadia noted that the Book Fair opened its doors with a divided heart. “On the one hand is money, on the other hand the well-meaning civilizing mission Europe has presumed to undertake in China for several centuries.… We must be careful not to lose sight of the true China between the official image and the dissident image promoted by the West. China’s useless censorship system is the subject of widespread ridicule, and in fact there is much tolerance and freedom of opinion in the country as long as you don’t get on the nerves of the Communist Party.”
The Swiss Neue Zürcher Zeitung objected to the excessive restraint displayed by the opening speakers. “It was clear from the outset that good manners come first. And no Chinese would want to tear away at the already gaping ideological gulf that still separates China from the free world. But did this year’s opening ceremony really have to be bland to the point of dreariness? …Not a single harsh word, no jokes, no irony and no deeper meanings.…”
The Frankfurter Rundschau is unhappy about all the things that were not being said. “We profited from their cheap labour for decades – without complaining. So, as happens at every Book Fair, this year too there will be a lot of lies spoken in a high moralizing tone. And as usual we are not supposed to care. Because in fifteen years at most China will be even more of a economic powerhouse and therefore finance our pensions.”
Much aware of the need to dance on eggs, the Fair arranged for Ai Weiwei and Bei Ling, two writers who were recently released from prison in China, to speak on the last day so that if the Chinese delegation decided to leave in protest, at least it wouldn’t have to rebook its flights.