Unless we push back, even our cherished institutions that defend freedom of speech risk becoming the victims of the CCP’s propaganda machine
One recurring theme in my writing about the “China threat” over the years is that of self-censorship and the complicity of others in Beijing’s suppression of human rights and free speech. We’ve seen this at movie festivals, in the media, in governments’ refusal to grant landing visas to dissidents — all for the sake of not “angering” the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) or securing the next profitable business deal.
Even the most jaded Realist cannot avoid realizing that communist China is the closest thing we have today to Big Brother and the propagandistic and revisionist Ministry of Truth in George Orwell’s prescient and stunningly durable novel Nineteen Eighty Four. Only the North Korea regime has taken newspeak to even greater heights, but Pyongyang’s ability to affect and transform the international community is so minimal (nuclear war aside) that it doesn’t qualify for our purposes here.
The “Beijing Consensus,” as one reporter recently titled a book on the subject, is changing our lives, one censorship at a time. This isn’t only about reporters who aren’t allowed to accompany foreign delegations on a visit to Beijing, as was recently the case with Canadian Prime Minister Stephen Harper’s call at Zhongnanhai. This is also about institutions whose original intent was exactly the opposite of what the CPP is trying to accomplish on freedom of speech.
One such institution is the London Book Fair, which celebrated its 40th anniversary last year and runs April 16-18. The main theme of this year’s fair is China, with the aim of showcasing “the very best of Chinese literature today.”
At first glance, the line-up is an impressive one: 180 publishers from China and 21 Chinese authors, all brought to London in partnership with the British Council.
But there’s a problem. Not a single author is independent — all have been vetted and approved by Chinese censors, which means that their work is as much art as it is propaganda for the CCP, or at least isn’t regarded as “spiritual pollution” by the regime. This also means that not a single exiled Chinese author has been invited.
Still doubt the organizers’ complicity? The London Book Fair is cooperating with the General Administration of Press and Publications (GAPP), the agency that “regulates” all print media in China. Furthermore, another organization involved is The Chunqiu Equinox Institute, which was founded by Eric X Li, who argued in an op-ed in the New York Times last year that the US should roll back its democracy to become more like China.
“[The delegation] doesn’t include any independent voice, they are cleaning us away,” exiled writer Bei Ling (貝嶺), the head of the Independent Chinese Pen club, who now lives in California, told the BBC last week. Because of this, Pen has decided to downgrade its ties with this year’s book fair. One could very well argue that when dealing with China, inviting writers as part of a delegation, rather than as individuals, can only but invite such censorship on the part of Chinese authorities.
At the Frankfurt Book Fair in 2009, which also had a special focus on China, the same Bei Ling, as well as the investigative journalist Dai Qing (戴晴), were removed from the list of participants at the request of Chinese authorities. The pair were re-invited after the decision caused a stir, leading the official Chinese delegation to walk out of the event.
The Germans didn’t yield, principles of free speech were upheld, and the Chinese walked out. Their loss. There’s a lesson to be learned from this: Engagement and the promotion of one’s culture is a two-way street. We don’t have to declare defeat on elements of our culture and beliefs that are essential to who we are.