NEW YORK (AP) — Chinese and American authors gathered Wednesday to protest a major U.S. book fair’s focus on China that they say ignores the country’s glaring problems of censorship and intimidation.
Jonathan Franzen, Xiaolu Guo, Andrew Solomon, Ha Jin and others stood outside the main New York Public Library to demand that China free Nobel peace laureate Liu Xiaobo and professor Ilham Tohti from prison, stop restricting other writers and have the confidence to allow free speech.
The authors took a group photo with the crowd holding placards spelling “free expression” in English and Chinese. Organizers said the photo will make its way into China via virtual private network services that let Internet users jump the Great Firewall.
Protest organizer PEN American Center said this week’s BookExpo America features a China delegation of hundreds of people “hand-picked by the Chinese government.”
At the expo, which opened Wednesday, PEN volunteers handed out fliers entitled “Governments Make Bad Editors.” China’s publishing delegation, meanwhile, kept the mood firmly positive with such presentations as “Book Launch for The China Dream.”
On the convention floor, where China had purchased more than 20,000 square feet, featured books ranged from the sayings of Mao Zedong to “A Study of the Important Speeches Made By Secretary-General Xi Jinping.”
Chinese Embassy spokesman Zhu Haiquan has said the Chinese government protects its citizens’ right of freedom to publish but those exercising that freedom must abide by Chinese law.
The BookExpo, the publishing industry’s annual national trade show, said China represents a significant market that’s critical to the industry.
Ruediger Wischenbart, director of international affairs, Wednesday night reiterated BookExpo’s belief that “it’s important for them to have a seat at the table and engage in a cultural and commercial exchange that could have a positive impact on the future of publishing both at home and across the globe.”
One American publisher who issues Chinese books for the American market acknowledged having conflicted feelings.
Paul Harrington, vice president and associate publisher of CN Times Books, acknowledged that books his company was translating “went through whatever propaganda process is in place there” and that “if it made me too uncomfortable, I suppose I could quit.”
Across town at the protesters’ shadow expo, the literary dissidents took bets with author Paul Auster shortly before the protest on whether China, dominated by the Communist Party, would see democratic elections within 20 years. Only author Murong Xuecun, the youngest of the group at age 41, said China will.
But his pessimism remains. His next book, coming out this year, is set in China and “is like ‘1984,’” he said.
Xiaolu Guo was hit so hard by Chinese censorship that she said “my last three books I wrote only in English.”
Ha Jin said that since President Xi Jinping came to power in 2012 he has tightened controls on all kinds of expression. There is “every indication the country has started moving backwards,” he said.
Publisher Bao Pu warned that the censorship and self-censorship extends to foreign authors publishing in China’s booming market as well.
The protest drew people like Joe Zhao, who was born in China and said he had never heard of the authors in the protest until he came to the United States eight years ago.
“You can’t seal all the people’s mouths,” he said before joining the group protest photo.
AP National Writer Hillel Italie contributed to this report.
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