Few countries have a more fascinating list of bestsellers than China. In 2011, the fiction bestsellers were dominated by the Twilight vampire saga, with Guo Jingming’s young adult books offering solid competition. Seven of Guo’s books (I Will Always Miss You Like a Darling; To Be Blind, To Be Loved) dominated the top 15; Gabriel Garcia Marquez’s One Hundred Years of Solitude made an unexpected entry into the lists.
Chinese readers kept Steve Jobs’ autobiography at the top of the non-fiction list, though the late Apple magnate had stiff competition from Zhu Rongji Speech Records, volumes one to four, and the bestselling parenting book, A Good Mom is Better Than a Good Teacher.
What was missing was any sign of dissident literature. Yan Lianke’s Dream of Ding Village is among the many novels periodically banned in China; Hu Fayun’s popular novel Such is This World@sars.come has been edited and “corrected” to the point where the original text exists as a ghost shadow behind its multiple versions. And so even reading a bestseller list from China becomes a reminder of the missing — writers and artists who have been persecuted, like Ai Weiwei, or silenced, or exiled.
The big debate at the London Book Fair, which began on Monday, was over whether the Fair had crumbled to pressure from the Chinese delegation. The official delegation includes Chinese writers living in China, but no dissidents, and no writers in exile.
Zhu Yufu, for instance, is not on the list. “It’s time, people of China! It’s time! The Square belongs to all!” the writer had written in a poem posted online. The reference to the Tiananmen Square massacre earned him seven years in jail. This is his second seven-year sentence — Zhu was jailed in 1999 for founding the Opposition Party magazine.
From 2008 onwards, China has maintained the right to censor and control, but within this ambit, the state has also opened up the publishing industry considerably. In the last four or five years, the number of private publishing firms in the country has risen, and China seems likely to be a significant book buyer in the future. Given the massive size of the Chinese publishing market and the vast numbers of readers in a country with high literary levels, which fair, from Frankfurt to London, is going to refuse China a seat at the table?
The writer Ma Jian has been in exile since 1986, when his works first attracted censure in China. He moved from Hong Kong to Germany to London; his most recent work, Beijing Coma, is banned in China. Dai Wei, the protagonist of the novel, has been in a coma since he was shot at Tiananmen Square, conscious but unable to communicate — the symbolism is obvious.
“Today, China is producing literary exiles at a faster rate that the Soviet Union ever achieved. No British governmental institution would have invited the chief Soviet censor as its guest of honour at an event celebrating Russian literature. So, why the double standard?” Ma Jian wrote in an article for The Straits Times. Ma is not an invitee, though he helpfully points out that the delegation of writers from China is being led by Liu Binjie, “China’s censor-in-chief and the point man for silencing the Nobel Laureate Liu Xiaobo”.
Liu Xiaobo, writer and critic who has often been jailed for his criticism of the regime – his chair at the Nobel banquet in 2010 remained empty, a reminder that the winner of the Peace Prize was once again in prison – is another of those missing at the Fair. It should be an interesting experience for the writers in the Chinese delegation to hear about him and his writings — Liu’s books were banned, one by one, and then, after he wrote part of and signed Charter 8, a demand for more democracy in China, his name was banned in the country. It cannot be spoken in public and will not show up on search engines in China.
Yu Jie, who is now in Washington, was beaten and tortured when Liu was awarded his Nobel. “We could bury you alive in half an hour,” he was told by the police; and he believed them. Yu Jie will not be at the London Book Fair either, yet another of the growing list of ghosts at the banquet.
Some aspects of China’s presence at the London Book Fair are unpredictable: what will the encounter mean, for instance, for the writers who are part of the delegation, and who may not necessarily agree with the official position on China’s history? Some are far more predictable: there will be no official readings from Liu Xiaobo’s June Fourth Elegies. Written for “the Tiananmen Mothers and those who can remember”, this collection of poems is everything that the official delegation cannot be. Freedom is “a brand-name tie”, writes Liu, asking us not to forget “the ease with which money/forgives bayonets and lies”.
The author is at twitter.com/nilanjanaroy