China's awkward effort to showcase its 'soft power'

China's awkward effort to showcase its 'soft power'

As China extends its economic reach, it has also increased efforts to promote its culture, or ‘soft power,’ to counter western influence and improve its image in the wider world.

Yet if Chinese goods are accepted everywhere, its arts and literature, embattled at home after decades of censorship and state control, are proving harder for the government to export.

After years of delicate preparations, China was the ‘honoured guest’ at the recent Frankfurt Book Fair, the largest and most influential book trade event, based on the number of publishers represented. But what Beijing hoped would be a celebration of its cultural achievements turned into a tug of war between control and free speech, as much a showcase for Chinese dissidents as the state’s approved writers.

Mao Zedong said that power flowed from the ‘wielders of the pen,’ not only from the gun. But the chairman would not be amused to find books like ‘Mao: The Unknown Story’, an indictment of his rule that is banned in China, displayed alongside the official Chinese exhibit at this year’s fair.

Unlike the exquisitely choreographed ceremonies during the Beijing Olympics, the fair presented a messier and more ambiguous portrait of China on the rise — a country still deeply uncomfortable with its own discordant voices, yet eager to become more competitive with the West in the realm of ideas.

China controlled its own massive display of books, artwork and authors at the fair, including even books from Taiwan, to underline its assertion of ‘One China.’ But it could not censor the 2,500 books about China displayed by others. And while Beijing had many consultations with the German government and arguments with the fair organisers, it ultimately did not push to prevent dissidents and critics — even representatives of the Dalai Lama — from attending the event.

Still, Chinese officials did not attend dissident events, “which were full of people who already agreed with the dissidents,” said the German novelist Tanja Kinkel. “They were preaching to the choir.”

The Chinese themselves were annoyed. With Spiegel Online heading its coverage, “China, the unwelcome guest,” several official Chinese delegates told colleagues that Europe’s politicians and news media were strongly biased.

Li Pengyi, a delegation member and vice president of China Publishing Group Corp, said happily that China had sold nearly 900 copyrights here. But he complained about the coverage.

Even so, the Chinese did not pull out. The Beijing leadership sent Xi Jinping, China’s vice president and heir apparent to President Hu Jintao, a measure of the political weight they attached to the event.

Michael Naumann, a former German culture minister and now publisher and editor of ‘Die Zeit’, a prominent weekly newspaper, said German organisers misjudged the complications of honouring China in a year laden with controversy, including the 20th anniversary of the fall of the Berlin Wall, the 20th anniversary of the crushed Tiananmen Square democracy movement and the 60th anniversary of Chinese Communist Party rule.

Since 2004, China has pursued what it calls its ‘going out’ policy on the cultural front, trying to square its economic influence and new status as a global power, while trying to defuse criticism on issues like Tibet, Taiwan and human rights.

There have been yearlong cultural exchanges with many countries, the opening of hundreds of language teaching centres known as Confucius Institutes, new foreign-language services from official media like Xinhua and CCTV, and new interest in foreign platforms like the Kennedy Centre and the Europalia festival in Brussels.


There have been other furors. When China was featured at the 2004 Paris Book Fair, officials initially persuaded the French not to invite Nobel literature laureate Gao Xingjian, a French citizen whose books are banned in China.

But Frankfurt, with its 7,300 publishers and 3,00,000 visitors, was a much riskier venture. Jing Bartz has been the fair’s chief representative in Beijing since 2003 and negotiated strenuously with Chinese publication officials. “China has really wanted to use this platform to promote Chinese culture,” she said. “On the other side, they are worried because they can’t use Chinese rules to do it.”

What helped persuade China was the cultural trade gap. At the 2005 Beijing book fair, the Chinese were shocked that German publishers sold 600 copyrighted works to China while the Chinese sold just one to Germany, Bartz said.

Chinese officials worried particularly that the Dalai Lama might attend, or that books would be displayed from adversaries like the banned movement Falun Gong.

The breakthrough came in 2006, said Bartz, when Shi Zongyuan, then head of the General Administration of Press and Publication, told organisers: “We just have to make it very clear what is our guest of honour programme, and what are the other events.”

China invested $15 million and managed nearly every detail of its exhibition. There was much argument over what translations to fund. The 20 new German-published volumes China funded include works by major writers, like Jiang Rong’s ‘Wolf Totem,’ Yu Hua’s ‘Brothers,’ and Xu Zechen’s ‘Running through Zhongguancun.’

Xu’s hit, about a migrant hawking pirated DVDs and fake IDs in the capital, was unexpected. But of some 100 newly translated titles that China promoted, most are banal introductions to China from state publishers.

“The government has not put on such a concentrated, large-scale event before to promote Chinese literature, so I think it’s a good opportunity,” said Xu, 31. “Because of the government's involvement, there are inevitably going to be these ideological problems. But we just have to be responsible to ourselves.”

Since the uproar over the symposium last month, said Boos and Bartz, China has appeared more relaxed. Officials eventually gave up protesting the attendance of those like Uighur independence advocate Rebiya Kadeer; the Dalai Lama’s envoy, Kelsang Gyaltsen; Dai; Bei; or Gao.

“They tried to learn,” Bartz said. But she confirmed that while the Chinese were “very satisfied with the business results” of the fair, “they don’t really feel they were welcomed as guests here.” The word went down from the top, she said, not to react to demonstrations or provocations from protesters or journalists.

Back in China, however, the fair has not brought any noticeable easing of restrictions. Liao, the writer and musician, was imprisoned from 1990 to 1994 after he wrote a poem about the Tiananmen massacre. Despite an invitation here — he hoped to promote his book about China's downtrodden, known in English as ‘The Corpse Walker’ — the police would not lift a ban on him going overseas.

Liao said it was not a complete loss for him or other underground writers, given the publicity. “Only by going through these incidents, it seems, can we become known to the outside world,” he said.