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Chinese writer banned

September 27, 2009

Controversy continues to swirl around this year's Frankfurt Book Fair, as guest-country China bans a dissident writer from traveling to Germany. German and Chinese organizers have clashed over attendees.

Presentation of guest nation China at the Frankfurt Book Fair
The Frankfurt Fair has been criticised for picking China as guest nationImage: picture-alliance/ dpa

"Massacre" is the name of the poem written by Liao Yiwu that sent him to prison for four years. In it, he condemned the 1989 killings in Tiananmen Square. In his book "The Corpse Walker" - that's just been published in German - he tells the stories of people from the bottom-rung of Chinese society - from a village teacher to a blind street musician - left behind in the country's economic boom.

The fifty-year-old Chinese musician, reporter, and author, was supposed to travel to Berlin next month to participate in a panel discussion at the Berlin House of World Cultures. But, he says, Chinese authorities have banned him from traveling.

"Chinese state security officials told me that I will not be allowed to fly to Germany," Liao was quoted in the Sueddeutsche Zeitung newspaper.

Book cover of a German translation of one of Liao Yiwu's books
Liao's books are available in Germany - not in China

"For people in the West, it's the most normal thing in the world to be able to write freely. In China, we have to fight for this," he told Deutsche Welle.

Controversy surrounding Frankfurt Book Fair

The event at the Berlin House of World Cultures is one of several connected with the Frankfurt Book Fair, which takes place from October 14-18. China has been invited to be this year's guest nation, but organizers in Germany are finding it difficult to work with a country that limits press freedom.

Two weeks ago, two Chinese dissident writers had their invitations to the Frankfurt Book Fair revoked by German organizers, after China's organizing committee complained. The move angered many in Germany who felt China was taking charge of the event.

However, China expert Matthias von Hein says China does not have as much control as critics think.

"China is in a strange position at this book fair because it has been willing to present itself there, knowing that the Frankfurt Book Fair is an event that cannot be totally controlled by the propaganda department," he said.

He added that there are many Chinese writers in attendance at these events who have drawn the ire of Chinese officials.

Press freedom in the "new" China

While China's economic boom has made it a more formidable presence on the world stage - as was demonstrated by its hosting of the 2008 summer Olympic Games - it still struggles with what face to put forward - one of a modern, open society or one that resembles more of the "old" China.

Fireworks at the Olympic Stadium, Beijing
Critics accused China of using the Olympic Games as a PR event while at the same time suppressing criticism and dissent within ChinaImage: AP

Liao Yiwu's work is still unavailable in his homeland. And though he is dismayed by his travel ban, he vows never to stop expressing his views.

"Even if the authorities try to censor me, I will continue to work. At least if people read my book, I'll have made an impact," he said.

Although there has been much controversy surrounding the choice of China as a guest country for the Frankfurt Book Fair, stemming from the past weeks' events, Matthias von Hein believes this is a good step for both Germany and China.

"I believe it is always good to challenge Chinese partners with different concepts of press freedom, human rights, democracy and the rule of law. And the more opportunities there are, the better it is."

Editor: Andreas Illmer