- Associated Press - Monday, April 16, 2012

LONDON (AP) - Britain’s biggest book fair opened Monday amid criticism of its decision to extend a special invitation to China, a country that regularly censors and imprisons authors.

A lone protester demonstrated outside the “China Market Focus” section of the fair Monday morning, holding a picture of imprisoned Nobel peace laureate Liu Xiaobo and a sign saying “stop literary persecution.” Writers and anti-censorship groups also have criticized the decision to invite an officially sanctioned slate of Chinese writers to the fair.

“We’re disappointed that the full breadth and depth of Chinese literature is not represented at the book fair,” said Robert Sharp of the free-speech group English PEN.

The three-day book fair features seminars on Chinese literature and readings from about 20 Chinese authors, and is being attended by more than 180 Chinese publishers.

The invited authors, who include internationally known writers such as Bi Feiyu and Mo Yan and best-selling young novelist Annie Baobei, were chosen by the British Council in collaboration with China’s General Administration of Press and Publications, the agency that regulates printed media.

Critics say the selection excludes dissident voices such as Gao Xingjian _ China’s only Nobel literature laureate and a resident of France _ and jailed writer and political activist Liu, who won the 2010 Nobel Peace Prize.

Writer Ma Jian, who lives in Britain, said the fair was “giving tacit approval to China’s suppression of free speech.”

“The fair is giving the Communist party a stage on which to perform its propaganda show,” he told The Guardian newspaper.

The Frankfurt Book Fair, the world’s largest publishing trade show, faced similar criticism when it made China its special guest in 2009.

London Book Fair organizers say Chinese writers not on the official list, including exiles, will attend the fair outside the official China Focus slate.

Fair director Alistair Burtenshaw and British Council literature chief Susie Nickin defended the China program as “a great opportunity to deepen understanding and strengthen cultural and business links between the U.K. and China.”

They said the British Council was promoting events with a wider slate of Chinese writers around the country.

“Censorship and human rights are expected to feature prominently in all the discussions and debates. These are key issues for U.K. audiences,” Burtenshaw and Nickin said in a letter published in Monday’s Guardian newspaper.

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