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We Must Engage With China Through Culture

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This week the Chinese government has sent a delegation of more than two thousand political, cultural and educational figures for a week of dialogue and events around the London Book Fair.

This year's London Book Fair is a sign of China's increasing international engagement and visibility. Elsewhere, by the end of August 2011, 353 Confucius Institutes had been established in 104 countries. There is no reason to think that this international cultural and educational expansion won't continue - the Chinese government aims to increase that total to one thousand by 2020. How things have changed.

When I first went to China in 1984, the British Council there was an operation of six people working in a converted bicycle shed at the back of the British Embassy. The only way to speak to a Chinese 'man on the street' was in the cycle lanes that criss-cross the city. From time to time cyclists would lean across at the traffic lights, pull aside their facemasks and practice their English with me through the exhaust fumes.

This surge in cultural relations between our two countries also naturally leads to questioning some aspects of our societies. While events like the London Book Fair provide an invaluable opportunity to engage with a country of real long term importance to us, others ask whether it is right to engage with a country that imprisons intellectuals over a difference of opinion. Can we engage effectively with such a country?

Well my answer is an emphatic yes - not only can we, but we must. Having experienced the extraordinary level of change in China over the past 30 years, it is not only in our material interests it is also a moral imperative to be part of that change. It is easy to criticise an individual event or set of events but all cultural exchange has to be seen in the round and over a length of time.

Some seem to have misunderstood the role of the British Council and our involvement in the cultural programme at the book fair. Our task for Britain is not to criticise or praise the governments in the 110 countries where we work. Our role is to strengthen ties between people there and the UK - to the benefit of both. And in doing so we do have to work with ministries to actually make educational and cultural exchange happen. If we didn't we would not have been able to work in Eastern Europe in the cold war, in South Africa before the release of Nelson Mandela, through recent unrest in the Arab world and in Burma, Iraq and Afghanistan through the last decade. Ours is a story of engagement and we stay in countries through good times and bad.

The programme of events before, during and after the fair includes festivals and a variety of partners from around the UK throughout 2012. So, while the London Book Fair is a major event, it is just one of a series. We have participation from a variety of voices including Ma Jian, Diane Wei Liang, Yan Liang, Ou Ning, Murong Xuechen, Guo Xiaolu, A Yi, Sheng Keyi, Han Dong, Tsering Norbu and Jung Chang. Censorship and human rights are featuring prominently in all the discussions and debates. These are key issues for UK audiences and it is right that they are debated. We believe that exposure to our open and pluralistic society leads to long term benefits both for the UK and the countries in which we operate.

It is unfortunate that some people feel that Chinese writing cannot be good quality or legitimate unless the author is imprisoned or exiled. The writers we are welcoming to London this week as part of the book fair's cultural programme do not primarily represent a country or ideology: they are first and foremost writers. It is in our interest to engage openly and frankly with them and also to ensure that there are ever greater opportunities for further exchanges with them and others in the coming years. The London Book Fair is a moment in a continuing series of exchanges with China. I hope that there will be many others.

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