Date of this Version
September 28, 2009 in The China Beat http://www.thechinabeat.org/
The Frankfurt Book Fair (Frankfurter Buchmesse), the largest trade show of its kind, turned messy this year before it had even started. At the center of the brouhaha: China, the official guest of honor of the book fair 2009. Or, to be more precise, the row over the revoked invitation of two Chinese “dissidents,” Dai Qing and Bei Ling, to a symposium in the run-up to the Book Fair. The incident had an air of tragicomedy, and turned into a public relations disaster for the organizers as well as an embarrassment for about all those involved. In a larger sense, the debacle illustrates the paradoxes in the public perception of China in Germany; it also raises questions about the status of China-related knowledge in Europe and its ability to reach and influence decision makers in politics and business.
In comparison with the fallout, the story itself seems simple. During the planning stages of a symposium on “China and the World: Realities and Perceptions,” the hosts decided to invite, apart from representatives selected by the Chinese co-organizers, two intellectuals well-known for their critical opinions. The participation of Dai Qing and Bei Ling was announced to the press, only to be revoked a few days later after protests from the Chinese side: The Chinese co-organizers had threatened to withdraw from the event if Dai and Bei were allowed to participate in the planned symposium. After an internal debate (the actual process of the deliberations that took place remain unclear) the German side withdrew their earlier invitations and asked Dai and Bei not to come. Predictably, the revocation of the invitations caused a public outcry and allegations in the press that the organizers of Germany’s most time-honored cultural event were bowing to bullying from a Communist Chinese regime. Once the incident spilled over into the international arena – with reports that the two Chinese intellectuals had been “banned” from the Book Fair (patently untrue of course: they had been disinvited from the symposium, but not barred from participating in the book fair, which will be held four weeks later, from 14-18 October) – Dai and Bei were under pressure to react. Initially annoyed by the flip-flop of the German event management, both decided to attend the symposium nonetheless. Dai secured a visa with sponsorship of the German P.E.N. club (miraculously, she found her ticket to Frankfurt cancelled despite reassurances from the travel agency), while Bei flew to Germany at his own expense. Amidst enormous press attention, Dai and Bei attended the symposium as audience members, and – predictably – triggered a walk-out from the Chinese delegation, who agreed to return only after Dai Qing and Bei Ling had left the conference venue. The spectacle was perfect for the press.