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German Book Fair Head Defends Choice Of China

The director of the world's largest book fair said Wednesday that the selection of China as the event's special guest should help the country move closer to the West and away from censorship and restrictions on dissent.

Critics contend China is out of place at the Frankfurt Book Fair, an event where the free exchange of information and ideas on the printed page, online or by word of mouth should be encouraged at all costs.

"It is important that official China take a stand on Western values and sharpen its self-awareness _ and by taking a step closer to us, it also challenges us to sharpen our own self-awareness," said Juergen Boos, director of the annual event, billed as the world's largest book fair.

The event's previous special guests _ Turkey in 2008, Korea in 2005 and the Arab World in 2004 _ drew similar outcry.

Some 500 events will feature themes surrounding China, roughly half of them sponsored by the Chinese culture ministry and the other half by the book fair organizers _ an attempt to include critical voices as well as those backed by the Chinese government.

"In hindsight, it has always been proven true that it was important and right for the Frankfurt Book Fair to provide a driving force and not to take the line of least resistance," fair spokesman Thomas Minkus said.

Among the nearly 6,900 exhibitors are 20 from Taiwan, the country that China maintains is a renegade province. A spat in September saw members of the Chinese delegation walk out of a pre-book fair symposium after two dissident writers _ Dai Qing and Bei Ling _ attended.

Another dissident writer, Ma Jian, the author of "Beijing Coma" was long-listed for the 2009 Man Booker Prize, and is scheduled to attend the event.

Ma drew from personal experiences to write his novel about the 1989 Tiananmen Square protests.

He said no Chinese publisher would touch "Beijing Coma" because it's too politically sensitive. The book was published elsewhere, including the U.S. and Britain.

Dagmar Yu-Dembski, who heads the Confucius Institute at the Free University of Berlin, said that while discussions about "human rights and censorship" are difficult for the Chinese government, they have learned from their experience hosting the 2008 Beijing Olympics.

"I think they have learned how to deal with this situation. I think they're also a little more open for discussion," she told The Associated Press Wednesday. "Of course, they always ask for respectful dialogue at the same eye-level."

China has spent some euro5 million to take on its role at the book fair and more than 100 works of Chinese literature have been translated into English and German for the event. More than 2,000 attendees at the five-day event are coming from China and include writers, journalists, publishing workers and others.

Yu-Dembski said that the Chinese government will promote traditional Chinese philosophy books in the same vein as Confucius, but that they will also laud the works of more liberal Chinese authors.

One is Yu Hua, whose novel "Brothers" was met with wild success upon its publication in two volumes in China in 2005 and 2006. The novel deals with small-town corruption in 1960s and 1970s China

It has since been translated into English and, more recently, into German.

Aside from China, the larger topic of taking books off the printed page and into the digital realm, is drawing interest, too.

A recent survey of 840 managers and executives from publishers worldwide found that the book industry is taking an active approach to digitizing content, but "is still in the midst of orientation," organizers said.

The survey, conducted last month, was done by the Book Fair and trade magazine buchreport in cooperation with Publisher's Weekly.

It found that the ideal avenue for new strategies was still being formed and included electronic book readers like Amazon's Kindle and Sny's eBook reader, as well as putting work online and getting paid.

This year's book fair runs from Wednesday to Friday for members of the industry and opens its doors to the public Saturday and Sunday. Organizers estimate that 300,000 people will attend the event.

More than 6,900 exhibitors from 100 countries are on hand, down from the nearly 7,450 in 2008, a reminder of the financial crisis that has wracked not only publishing, but industries worldwide.


Lane reported from Berlin.


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