Free Speech and Chinese Regime Collide in Frankfurt

October 14, 2009 Updated: October 1, 2015
Poet Bei Ling, a representative of the Chinese authors at the Frankfurt book fair opening on Oct 13. (Jason Wang/The Epoch Times)
Poet Bei Ling, a representative of the Chinese authors at the Frankfurt book fair opening on Oct 13. (Jason Wang/The Epoch Times)

FRANKFURT—Media interest was unusually high for the opening of this year's Frankfurt Book Fair, which was rattled by a censorship scandal that pitted fair organizers against the Chinese Communist Party.

The Frankfurt Fair is the world’s largest and most prestigious event of its kind. With a pedigree dating back over 500 years, today it attracts some 7,000 exhibitors from over 100 countries. Activities during the five-day event, starting Oct. 14, range from readings, stage performances, exhibitions, music and culinary events, special conferences, and educational forums.

Each year, one country is highlighted as the Guest of Honor and this time, after several years of negotiations, China was given center stage.

“Frankfurt will present official China, but also the hundreds of faces of the other China: the faces of Chinese exiles, dissidents, and, last but not least, the view of China from the West. That is exactly the Guest of Honor principle: dialogue—intellectual debate through the medium of words,” says the Fair’s press release.

Fair organizers apparently did not consider that the Chinese regime—known for harsh censorship and intolerance of any dissent—would not want to share the stage with its critics.

The trouble bubbled to the surface in September, when two Chinese dissidents, journalist Dai Qing and poet Bei Ling, were invited to a symposium, an event preceding the Fair itself.

Chinese officials had not been told and were not happy. They told organizers to rescind the invitations or the entire Chinese delegation would boycott the Fair.

Fair Director, Juergen Boos, apologized for the supposed employee error and complied. A media maelstrom ensued. Die Welt newspaper and the German edition of The Epoch Times were the first to break the news and the pack followed.

Under public pressure, the invitations were reinstated and the writers attended under the auspices of the German PEN Club, a global association of writers defending freedom of expression.

The Chinese delegation, however, wasn’t told of the updated program and so, when the forum began, they got up to leave. After some hasty apologies from Boos, he convinced them to return.

The Fair Opens

October 13, an hour before the official launch, The Epoch Times in Germany and the International Society for Human Rights (ISHR), held a press conference where Mr. Bei Ling got his first speaking opportunity of the fair.

Bei Ling was arrested in China in 2000, for publishing an independent magazine. He spoke about the importance of the underground media and literature in China as an alternative voice to the Chinese Communist Party.

At the official opening, in front of a packed house, Boos called the Fair's Guest of Honor "touchy" in his opening remarks. No Chinese officials were there to hear it.

The delegation did attend the official ceremony later in the afternoon. Also there was German Chancellor Angela Merkel and China´s potential "heir to the throne," Xi Jinping, who is said to have the best chance to follow Hu Jintao as the next leader of the Chinese Communist Party.

“Books have played a big role in bringing down the Berlin Wall, and books have also played an important role in ending the Cold War,” said Merkel in her prepared remarks, making a clear connection between underground media and its role in bringing down communist regimes.

No Chinese officials spoke. 

During the week, Uyghur spokesperson, Rebiya Kadeer, will also make an appearance. She is for the Beijing regime a persona non grata on par with the Dalai Lama.

This year’s Fair will have over 230 exhibitors and 500 events on the subject of China. Around half are organized by institutions, publishers, associations and NGOs, while the other half is provided by the organization committee of the Chinese Guest of Honor.

With additional reporting by Kremena Krumova