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"We Tibetans are looking for a legitimate and meaningful autonomy, an arrangement that would enable Tibetans to live within the framework of the People’s Republic of China."

China erects Great Banner Wall at London Book Fair

June 15, 2012

[20 April 2012] Following protests on Monday, which saw Chinese Minister Liu Binjie withdraw from a keynote address, activists gathered on Wednesday at Earls Court in central London for the final day of the London Book Fair. Tibet Society joined Chinese and Uyghur activists to condemn the lack of freedom of expression in China and to give a voice to authors and poets who have been banned or imprisoned by the Chinese government.

The Great Banner Wall of China
Silent protests were held at the China Pavilion (the Chinese government's main stage at the Fair) during key talks and state-approved book launches on the final day of the Book Fair. Tibet Society joined the protests along with Chinese and Uyghur colleagues, displaying signs saying "Free speech is not a crime" and "Stop literary persecution" in both English and Chinese.

As soon as signs were displayed at the first protest of the day, workers at the Pavilion brought out dozens of seven-foot high pop-up banners to block the protest. The irony was not lost on the protestors who quickly dubbed the blockade "The Great Banner Wall of China". The 'banner wall', however, had a major flaw in that it gave the appearance that the Pavilion was closed. There was an analogy to the situation in Tibet - a beautiful open space (the pavilion was architectually impressive) closed off to the outside world at the first sign of protest!

Guerilla Poetry
With no official outlet for banned or dissident writers, it was decided to add a new tactic to the protests - guerilla poetry reading! At key locations within China's 'market zone', activists read out Tibetan, Uyghur and Chinese poems by banned and imprisoned poets.

Tibetan poems included Treaty on Man by Dawa Dorje (a writer detained in February), Helpless by Woeser (an author, poet and blogger under house arrest in Beijing) and Square by an anonymous blogger from inside Tibet. Both Helpless and Square were written in response to self-immolation protests. Also read were Wild Pigeon by detained Uyghur writer Nurmehemmet Yasin, It's Time by imprisoned Chinese dissident Zhu Yufu and June by imprisoned Chinese journalist poet Shi Tao.

All the World's a Stage
With the success of the protests on Monday, Robert Sharp from English PEN (an organisation dedicated to promoting the freedom to read and write) decided to join in with the guerilla poetry readings. Robert even created an amusing video showing the protests and the 'Great Banner Wall' (see above).

English PEN then kindly agreed to the use of their stage at the Literary Cafe, conveniently located near the China market zone. After quickly drawing up a programme, the grand finale for the London Book Fair 2012 was presented featuring dissident poems and writings from Tibet, China and East Turkestan. Kate Saunders, of International Campaign for Tibet, provided background information and context to the readings, as well as reading a poem herself from Woeser. Ma Jian, the banned Chinese author of Beijing Coma, made a special appearance and read out work from the incarcerated Nobel Peace Prize Laureate Liu Xiaobo.

At the end of the Literary Cafe session, several security guards approached the protestors who they had been assigned to keep an eye on, shook their hands and said, "Well done. Keep it up." They realised that the Chinese government's attempt to quell free speech in the UK was ridiculous, as had many of the Fair's participants, who gave us words of encouragement during the various actions.

The message had been sent loud and clear, to the Chinese government and all those attending the London Book Fair, that despite the censoring of the guest-list and efforts to restrict freedom of expression, the voices of those banned and imprisoned in Tibet and across China could not, and will not, be silenced.

Final note: Tibet Society will be following up with the British Council their outrageous collaboration with the Chinese government to invite only state-approved authors, and will call into question their claim, made in The Guardian, that censorship and human rights were to "feature prominently in all the discussions and debates" at the London Book Fair.

Further reading:
Tibet Society: Report on protests at London Book Fair on Monday 16 April
High Peak Pure Earth: Read more poetry and writings from Tibetans inside Tibet.

Media reports:
BBC: China writers hosted at London Book Fair (19 April)
Report focusing on China's presence, the lack of free speech & protest footage.
Guardian: Ma Jian protest paints the London Book Fair red (19 April)
Huffington Post: Honoring Chinese, Tibetan and Uyghur Writers (19 April)
Blog post by Kate Saunders who works for International Campaign for Tibet.
New York Review of Books: Bringing Censors to the Book Fair (18 April)
Blog post by journalist Jonathan Mirsky.
Evening Standard: 'Censorship in China is worse now than 10 years ago' (18 April)
An interview with Wild Swans author Jung Chang.
AP: London Book Fair's focus on China irks activists (16 April)

Paul Golding
Campaigns Coordinator
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