For all its prowess in exporting manufactured goods in a globalised world, China has difficulties when it comes to ideas. This was dramatically demonstrated at this autumn’s Frankfurt book fair, which was marked by walk-outs by Chinese officials, the attempted gagging of dissident voices, and the firing of one of the organisers.
In recent years, the People’s Republic has stepped up its efforts to extend its “soft power” through the propagation of its culture to show the world it is not simply a manufacturing hub that lies at the core of the global supply chain and whose current bounding growth figures contrast with the soggy results shown by other major economies. That can lead to clashes as the freedom essential for the propagation of ideas conflicts with Beijing’s insistence on clamping down on anything it sees as a political challenge.
The issue is not confined to China. Governments and organisations round the world, which are often loath to antagonise Beijing, often pre-emptively bend to potential pressure from the heirs to the Mandate of Heaven, as these heirs seek to expand their country’s reach culturally as well as materially.
China was the guest of honour at the Frankfurt fair, the world's biggest marketplace for literature. The reason it was chosen reflects the dual nature of books. On the one hand, they are physical products which are bought and sold. On the other, they are a vehicle for ideas, imagination, controversy, political positioning and dissidence.
The choice of China was motivated both by the growing importance of its book business in domestic and international terms, and by a feeling on the part of the organisers that it was time to pay more attention to the development of modern Chinese literature. For its part, China spent an estimated $7.5 million on the event at which more than 200 mainland publishing houses participated.
While the fair saw more than 2,000 copyright deals involving Chinese publishers, it also showed up China’s insistence on exercising control over what is written and published. With 270,000 titles published in 2008, China is anxious to establish its position in global literature and Frankfurt offered an ideal opportunity to do that.
The man who will probably be the next leader of the Chinese Communist Party, Xi Jinping, underlined the importance Beijing attached to the occasion by visiting the fair. A government body arranged for 100 Chinese books to be translated into English and German for the event. A list of Chinese writers who were to be officially approved for appearance at the fair was drawn up by the Chinese authorities. It included some authors whose frank books about the less decorous side of Chinese ordinary life, complete with sex and narcotics, would not have seen the light of day on the mainland in the past.
Their inclusion was in line with the increase in individual freedom that is evident in China today. Where the control mechanism comes into play, however, is in anything that involves politics - in particular, anything that is seen by the Communist Party as challenging its monopoly of political power.
On October 1, the Party chief, Hu Jintao, presided over an elaborate celebration in Beijing of the 60th anniversary of the founding of the People’s Republic. The occasion was symbolic of the regime for at least three reasons - it was dominated by a display of military hardware; Hu donned a suit of the kind worn by Mao Zedong to stress his links with the Great Helmsman; and ordinary people were not allowed to go into the streets of the capital to see the procession. They had to stay indoors and view the whole thing on television - they were not even permitted to go out on their balconies to watch the parade.
That was redolent of the insistence on control and security that underpins the regime in Beijing. So when the Frankfurt organisers invited a leading Chinese writer on the environment and social matters and a poet and critic who has leveled pointed questions at the Party, they were walking into trouble. The Chinese delegation protested and the Frankfurt organiser reacted by cancelling the invitations to the environmentalist, Dai Qing, who has been a trenchant critic of the Three Gorges Dam but is no longer published in her homeland, and to the poet, Bei Ling.
Undeterred, Dai went ahead and got a visa to enter Germany with the help of the writers’ organisation, PEN, made it to the fair and gave a round of interviews in which she attacked China’s censorship and jailing of dissident writers. She was not given a place on the platform but spoke in a discussion from the floor, provoking another walkout by the official Chinese delegation, which brought an apology from festival organisers. In a less than apt phrase, at least for a Western audience, the former ambassador to Berlin, Mei Zhaorong, declared: “We didn't come for a lesson on democracy.” To which Dai responded that she could speak freely in Frankfurt, and the fair organiser wrote that it was “not offering instruction in democracy, to be sure, but it is democracy in action.” A project manager at the fair was then sacked, according to German radio, because he had stopped Dai and Bei from speaking at the closing ceremony - he said that he had acted on instructions from the German Foreign Ministry.
Frankfurt is not the only place where China has sought to shape cultural events outside its borders to its agenda. Chinese directors withdrew from a film festival in Melbourne in protest at the showing of a documentary about Kadeer, whom Beijing blames for the deadly rioting in the western region of Xinjiang earlier in the year - she denies any role. Closer to home, China also protested against the projection of the film at a festival in Taiwan.
Behind all this lies the dual nature of China today. On the one hand, the country has become much more relaxed and more open in the 30 years since Deng Xiaoping launched the market-led economic reform. On the surface, urban centres such as Beijing and Shanghai look like other world cities, sometimes outdoing Western metropolises in their display of consumerism. People in the streets do not appear cowed or regimented. But the underlying reality of control is still present everywhere from the secretive discussions in the ruling Politburo to the arrest of dissidents and the instruction to judge that their first duty is to serve the interests of the Party.
China has made enormous steps forward materially in the last three decades, but its leadership is still unable to grasp the nettle of allowing free debate and seeks to use its hard methods to support its claims of influence in the realm of culture and ideas.
The fracas at Frankfurt showed that all too clearly. One of the great imponderables about the regime that has just celebrated its 60th anniversary is whether the straitjacket it imposes is endemic to its nature and rule. The challenge for foreign governments, companies and organisations that believe in the values of democratic freedom is to find a way of accepting China’s emergence on to the global stage without giving tacit approval to the silencing of voices like those of Dai and Bei.