British Council colludes with China’s censors

Jonathan Mirsky writes in the current New York Review concerning the actions of the organizers of the London Book Fair (16–18 April) in cooperating with the Chinese General Administration to exclude dissident writers, both those still in China and those who have been exiled, from their official presence at the Fair (“Bringing censors to the Book Fair”, NYRB 59.9, 24 May 2012).He is drawing on the work of Nick Cohen at the Observer and also perhaps of Richard Lea at the Guardian.
This is one of those cases where the statements of the people in charge suffice to exhibit their abjectness. In a press release of 21 March, Susie Nicklin of the British Council writes:
The authors taking part in the British Council Cultural programme are internationally recognised as the leading voices writing from China today. Mo Yan, the veteran writer, Han Dong and Li Er, both of whom missed ten years’ schooling during the Cultural Revolution, Annie Baobei who became an internet sensation at the age of 24, Sheng Keyi (published by Penguin China) who writes about new migrations and the metropolis – these authors are writing their best work in contemporary China.
As the British reading public is aware, the situation for writers in China is not the same as it is in the UK.[…]
There was no disagreement with the Chinese government about the final list of British Council writers who regularly appear on well-respected lists of the best novelists and poets in China. These writers live in China and write their books there; other writers have left. The British Council respects both groups and there will be plenty of opportunities for both sets of writers to put their views across in the UK.
“Not the same ”: to show how inadequate—not to say callous—that bland phrase is, I will mention just one case. Yu Jie, author of Wen Jiabao: China's Greatest Actor, after a long campaign of harassment by the state, was abducted and beaten until he was unconscious; his family was placed under house arrest, their phone and internet connections severed; eventually he decided to leave. He is now finishing a book on a fellow dissident, the Nobel Prize winner Liu Xiaobo, who has is serving an 11-year jail sentence for having urged an end to one-party government in China (Tania Branigan, “Chinese dissident who fled to US tells of beatings and harassment”, Guardian
When Nicklin says that there was “no disagreement” about the final list, we are entitled to infer that the British Council not only endorses that list, but perhaps also that they did not even raise the issue of inviting writers other than those cleared by the Chinese authorities.
The implication of the statement that the “best” and most authentic authors are those still in China is not only false but corruptly false. Later, in response to a letter to the Guardian signed by 11 critics of Chinese censorship (“it is bad enough that writers, journalists, bloggers and academics are subject to heavy censorship in China, but we should not be allowing the authorities to replicate their restrictions on freedom of expression further afield”), Nicklin and Alistair Burtenshaw, the Director of the London Book Fair write:
The London Book Fair, together with the British Council, runs the event’s market-focus cultural programme[…]. Any international institution working with books in China needs to liaise with the General Administration of Press and Publication.
While many authors attend the London Book Fair at the invitation of the organisers, many more authors attend this business-to-business exhibition for a variety of other reasons, including publishers’ events, talks and for their own research purposes. The British Council has programmed events before, during and after the fair and will include festivals and a variety of partners from around the UK throughout 2012. We have participation from a variety of voices, including Ma Jian, Diane Wei Liang, Ou Ning, Murong Xuechen, Guo Xiaolu, A Yi, Sheng Keyi, Han Dong,Tsering Norbu and Jung Chang. No author has been refused involvement. Censorship and human rights are expected to feature prominently in all the discussions and debates. These are key issues for UK audiences.
From this it is reasonably clear that (i) the focus is on markets; (ii) the point of the protests is being ignored: it is not that there would be no dissidents at the Book Fair (some of them were invited by the Romanian delegation to speak at the Romanian book stall) but that the actions of the Chinese government were receiving the endorsement of the Fair and the British Council. You don’t have to be scholastic to understand the distinction. There is nothing amiss, of course, in a trade show’s focusing on markets. Nor should we be surprised, though we deplore it, if a trade organization puts trade before freedom of expression, though when the organization is devoted to books there is some irony in its doing so. The wrong here consists in the British Council’s, and by extension the British Government’s collusion with the trade show organizers in allowing the Chinese government to put a pretty face—more precisely, a panda face—on its ugly treatment of dissidents.
The underlying motivation here is acquiescence to the Chinese government. Cohen notes that the groundwork for the British Council’s action was laid earlier in a meeting in September chaired by Claire Fox from the Institute of Ideas, “successor organisation to the British Communist Party”. A statement by Jonathan Heawood, director of English PEN, who was present at the meeting, gives the gist of Fox’s remarks.
[Cohen quoting Heawood]: “I was at a British Council seminar last September at which Claire Fox chaired a discussion of Chinese literature. In response to a comment from the floor about the number of imprisoned Chinese writers, Fox asserted that we should stop talking about human rights and freedom of expression in order to talk about literature; that we should hold our own governments to account rather than ‘China bashing’; and that writers have always benefited from the creative stimulus of censorship.”
Heawood then went on to tell me that he found this “worse than risible”. He was surprised that “no-one from the British Council was prepared to rebut these absurd assertions”. I used both these lines in my piece.
An ominous new configuration is emerging both in the newly corporate-capitalist states of Asia and in the West. It combines capitalism—the capitalism of large corporations whose economic power is reinforced by the political power of a willing state—with suppression of dissent, preferably by PR campaigns, slander, and threats of legal action, but if need by more violent means. Free-market advocates have tended to overlook the differences between the systems they advocate and actually existing capitalism, and thus to overestimate the inevitability of freedom (respect for human rights and civil liberties) under capitalism. I think that there is good reason to think that the outcome of our present tendencies may resemble China’s version of capitalism, or Singapore’s, rather more closely than, say, the America of Jimmy Stewart (or rather of the characters he tended to play) and Norman Rockwell.
See also the Economist’s report (23 April). The creative stimulus of censorship was evident among the 21 writers invited by the Chinese government.
Much quieter were the 21 authors from China who were formally invited to talk, all of them accompanied by government minders. Bi Feiyu, an award-winning author, was set to attend a panel with Mr Ma in Oxford, but backed out at the last minute. Li Er, a Beijing-based novelist who attended the panel, denied any self-censorship (with a glance to his minder). His reticence spoke volumes in contrast with the bluffness of his émigré counterparts.
Worse yet were the insinutations of Martin Davidson, the chief executive of the British Council. He asks, pointlessly, whether we should engage with China—as if that were the issue.
Well my answer is an emphatic yes - not only can we, but we must. Having experienced the extraordinary level of change in China over the past 30 years, it is not only in our material interests it is also a moral imperative to be part of that change. It is easy to criticise an individual event or set of events but all cultural exchange has to be seen in the round and over a length of time. […]
It is unfortunate that some people feel that Chinese writing cannot be good quality or legitimate unless the author is imprisoned or exiled. The writers we are welcoming to London this week as part of the book fair's cultural programme do not primarily represent a country or ideology: they are first and foremost writers. It is in our interest to engage openly and frankly with them […]
I don’t how else to respond to this except with contempt. We heard arguments like this used by the friends of apartheid: they spoke of “constructive engagement”. Hundreds more people died or were imprisoned before that policy was recognized to have failed. The Clinton administration was not ashamed to use the phrase again to describe its policy on relations with China. That was over twelve years ago. Things have not gotten better.

LinkMay 6, 2012 in Literature · Society