The Netherlands is guest of honour at this year’s Beijing International Book Fair, but that distinction is a mixed blessing according to some. A large contingent of Dutch writers and publishers is in China for the event and Amnesty International wants to know what they’re doing in a country where authors can be locked up for putting pen to paper.
“Mentioning individual cases [of imprisoned authors] to Chinese leaders won’t improve their situations,” Dutch deputy minister for culture Halbe Zijlstra told RNW at Wednesday evening’s opening of the Dutch pavilion in Beijing. He did, however, stress that he has emphasised the Netherlands' commitment to freedom of speech to the Chinese leadership.
It’s good to talk
'Dialogue' is the buzzword for those representing Dutch interests in Beijing. “Being here in China is a good thing. Through Dutch books we make Chinese readers aware of our values, the freedom of speech and freedom of press", Halbe Zijlstra said. A sentiment repeated by Dutch Princess Laurentien, who told Chinese officials at the opening that “We believe in the power of dialogue.” Today the princess will launch the Chinese edition of her children’s book Mr. Finney en de wereld op zijn kop [Mr Finney and the upside-down world].
Tiziano Perez of the Dutch literature foundation is the organiser of the Dutch pavilion which covers 1500 square metres, the largest in the history of the Beijing International Book Fair. He says Dutch writers will talk to both critical and pro-regime Chinese authors during the course of the event and dismisses the criticism from Amnesty International. Perez believes that more can be achieved by coming to Beijing than staying away. “I think it is important to represent art and literature related to where we are from, freedom and tolerance. It is in itself already a strong message.”
In his opening speech Deputy Minister Zijlstra stressed the broader importance of events such as the Book Fair:
“This (Dutch) government wants to allocate a larger role to the economic importance of cultural policy. That is one reason why we are so happy about our ties with China... It is for good reason that China is one of the 6 non-European countries on which our international cultural policy is focused.”
When asked about what he hoped would be achieved, Zijlstra said, “This is the first day of the event, we‘ve already seen Dutch writers set up appointments and contacts with Chinese publishers. This is really what this is all about.”