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In a moving, live, Skype interview, Angela Gui, the daughter of Gui Minhai, the Chinese/Swedish publisher and bookseller who is the recipient of this year’s International Publishers’ Association ‘freedom to publish’ Prix Voltaire Prize, spoke to delegates about her father’s plight in a an emotional address from the UK broadcast on a giant screen.
The theme of the session was ‘Do Awards and Recognitions Help?’, but delegates were simply eager to hear the latest updates on a very worrying case that has gone on for more than two years. Minhai has been in and out of custody ever since the Chinese authorities took exception to his publishing and selling titles critical of the leadership, which his Mighty Current publishing house released and which were sold at his Causeway Bay bookstore in Hong Kong.
“My father was apprehended on a train to Beijing about three weeks ago,” she said. “He was travelling with two Swedish diplomats to a medical appointment. There was no warrant for his arrest. A so-called interview with him appeared last Friday (9 February) in which he is clearly forced to say that he has been led astray by the Swedish diplomats who have encouraged him to divulge state secrets. What state secrets could he have known? He has been in custody.
“I have lots questions about his legal status at the moment. I don’t know where he is. I am worried that he will be in custody for a long time. I don’t think there can be any doubt that everything he said in the interview was scripted, especially the part about not wanting the Prix Voltaire. When he was shortlisted for it in 2015 he was very happy. I think it is horrible that he has been made to put on this performance.”
In a response to a question from the session’s chair, Jessica Sanger, of Germany’s trade association the Borsenverein, Gui questioned the acceptance of the Chinese Publishers Association into the International Publishers Association, raising one of the industry’s most sensitive topics. “I am not quite sure how to proceed with my own advocacy from here. But I would like to know why the Chinese Publishers Association is allowed to be part of the IPA. How is this defensible against the IPA’s values?”
This prompted a question from the floor from Hugo Setzer, vice-president of the IPA. He asked Jennifer Clement, President of PEN International, who had spoken earlier, how she saw collaboration between the IPA and PEN progressing. Clement replied that there would be collaboration, but added: “At PEN we have strict rules about who we take money from. For example, we would not take money from any organisation backed by China.”
The question of whether to engage or not is one that the publishing industry is battling with; some feel that it is better to have countries like China inside the organisation than out, that more is achieved through dialogue. Others take a purer stance and say that a line has to be drawn somewhere. It is a debate that continues.
Clement also used the occasion to highlight gender issues. “I am the first woman President of PEN International. Therefore, one of my missions has been to help women writers and explore how violence against women creates censorship. The immeasurable variety of violence that women face–- from sex-selective abortion to stolen girls who are sold and trafficked, to female students at universities who are rated and slut-shamed on social media – one common result is that it silences the voices of women.
“The historic lack of freedom for women and girls has in the past and is also in the present day almost always defended by reference to culture, religion and tradition. These arguments underscore that few groups have suffered greater violation of human rights in the name of culture than women.
“It is the extraordinary legacy of women writers and journalists that inspire us at PEN to continue fighting the many barriers women writers still face. Whether that is censorship in the form of physical or emotional violence, a society that stereotypes and marginalizes them, or a publishing industry that still sees women earning less, publishing less, and being reviewed less than their male peers. Because of this PEN has created the PEN’s Women’s Manifesto, which stands for non-violence, safety, education, access and parity.”