I have just read a short but very effective piece in the latest New York Review of Books by Jonathan Mirsky on the scandal of the London Book Fair last month which was dominated by Chinese authors – but only those permitted to be there by the censors acting in concert with the book fair's organisers and the British Council. Excluded were any writers not approved of by the Chinese censors.
"We must be very powerful and they are frightened of us, said Qi Jiazhen, a septuagenarian Chinese writer who took part in a protest meeting of the excluded. The British Council's director of literature claimed that the officially permitted writers were more 'representative' because "they live in China and write their books there" in contrast to the "other writers who have left". This is the official Chinese censors' line but it raises a number of interesting questions. Does it mean that Joyce, Becket, Hemingway, Kundera, to choose some names at random from the long list of writers who have lived and worked out of their own countries, were somehow not real writers, not part of their originating culture and language? Are the only writers worthy of our attention the ones who stay at home or the ones who make themselves acceptable to the government of the day? And what is the British Council, an organisation dedicated to spreading culture beyond these shores, doing advocating such a grotesque idea?
"What's happening is that countries are becoming companies. And that's what the British Council is already, just a company cooperating with the Chinese company," Mirsky quotes one leading Chinese poet, Yang Lian, as saying.
There are, as it happens 35 Chinese authors who are not likely to be decamping to Paris shortly to write their books. That is because they are in jail for the words they have written.