Writers protest Chinese lack of free speech

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Prominent American writers such as Jonathan Franzen and Paul Auster and China-born novelists Ha Jin and Xiaolu Guo were among a handful of writers gathered on the steps of the New York Public Library on Wednesday night to protest against the limits on free speech and expression in China.

The gathering, organised by the Pen American Center, was sparked by the presence of a large delegation of Chinese publishers at BookExpo of America, a major publishing trade event taking place in Manhattan this week.

The juxtaposition was striking. This week, thousands of booksellers, librarians, publishers and authors mingled at BookExpo, at the Jacob K. Javits Convention Center, where Chinese publishers were being feted as international guests-of-honour.

To mark the event, the Chinese government sent a 500-person delegation from 100 publishing houses and 26 of its top authors.

Chinese publishers claimed close to 25,000 sq ft of floor space at the hall and planned 50 events around the city, including poetry readings, film screenings, author panels and presentations from its largest publishers.

Not many blocks away, Chinese writer Murong Xuecun stood on the library steps and read aloud from an open letter he had written to Chinese censors in 2013, after his social media account was blocked and its contents deleted.

"You treat literature as poison and free speech as a crime," he said.

He was joined by writers such as Ha, Guo, Franzen, Auster, Francine Prose and A.M. Homes.

They took turns reading works by Chinese authors who are in prison or under house arrest for their writing, including Tibetan poet Tsering Woeser, writer Liu Xia and her husband, poet and Nobel Peace Prize winner Liu Xiaobo.

"There are all of these writers in China who are in jeopardy for expressing themselves, and if you have a government- sanctioned delegation, you're only getting part of the story," said executive director Suzanne Nossel of the Pen American Center, an organisation that promotes free speech.

BookExpo's organisers called China's featured role at the expo an unprecedented and historic meeting between the world's two largest publishing industries.

"We're going to remember this for a generation, because it's going to be the beginning of opening some doors," said event director Steve Rosato for BookExpo.

He said the event was not an appropriate forum to address censorship.

China has accelerated its effort to export books and authors as part of a broader strategy to exert "soft power" by raising its cultural profile internationally.

Chinese publishers have heavily promoted their catalogues at the London and Frankfurt book fairs in recent years.

Major deals are taking place between American and Chinese content companies. Earlier this year, American e-book distributor Trajectory signed a deal with Chinese digital company Tencent to distribute Tencent's catalogue of 200,000 Chinese e-books in North and South America.

The Chinese book business has ballooned into an US$8 billion (S$10.8 billion) industry, the second largest after the United States.

Chinese publishers released 444,000 titles in 2013, up from around 328,000 in 2010. The country is adding around 20 million new English speakers a year.

Chinese publishers have been eagerly acquiring Western titles, especially by British and American authors.

In 2013, they bought the rights to more than 16,000 foreign books, including nearly 5,500 from the United States, more than double the number purchased a decade earlier.

"Chinese people are very curious about culture in other countries," president Wu Xiaoping of Phoenix International Publishing Group said in an interview through a translator after appearing on a panel at BookExpo.

"There will be more and better relationships between Chinese and US publishers."

When asked whether certain topics were off limits for writers and if his publishing house adhered to government guidelines, he replied: "No comment."

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