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China Takes Tough Measures to Control International Image


China is flexing its muscles internationally to control its image. From attempts to censor international cultural events to blocking the international movements of Chinese activists, the Beijing government is involving itself in matters beyond its borders.

Repeatedly in recent months, China has pushed to get foreign governments and cultural organizations to ban visits by people Beijing does not like. Most of these people are critics of the Chinese government, which is trying hard to control what foreign audiences hear about it.

Immigration authorities in South Korea last week prevented an Uighur activist from entering the country to attend a conference on democracy. Dolkun Isa is the secretary-general of the World Uighur Congress, and a German citizen. He also has been on a Chinese wanted list since 2003.

Isa says he was held at the Seoul airport for 57 hours and was never told why.

"Of course South Korean authorities never told me exactly very openly, 'Because of China's pressure we arrested you or we don't let you in to South Korea.' They never told me that line. But actually it is the reason," Isa said.

After human rights groups and the German and United States embassies lobbied on Isa's behalf, South Korean authorities put him on a plane back to Germany on September 18.

China considers Isa a terrorist involved with a separatist organization in Xinjiang, where Uighur Muslims have long complained of discrimination by the Beijing government.

China Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Jiang Yu said Tuesday that Isa is a major leader of the East Turkestan Liberation Organization.

Jiang says that on this matter the Chinese government did contact South Korean officials.

China says Isa's case is about terrorism and security. But in another case involving Germany, Beijing has been trying to weigh in on a cultural matter. China is the guest country of honor at this October's annual Frankfurt Book Fair, the largest in the world.

The Chinese delegation recently threatened to boycott the event when organizers invited two dissident writers to attend a pre-fair symposium. China's ambassador to Germany called the invitation unacceptable.

Fair organizers responded by removing environmental activist Dai Qing and poet Bei Ling from the guest list. The two came anyway, prompting the Chinese delegation to at one point walk out of the symposium. Mei Zhaorong, China's former ambassador to Germany, said the delegates "did not come to be instructed about democracy."

China has acted similarly in the past. It pulled films out of a festival in Australia when organizers showed a documentary about Uighur activist Rebiya Kadeer in July. Organizers of a film festival next month in Taiwan recently bowed to Chinese pressure and announced it will not screen the film. Instead, it will be shown this week at the Kaohsiung city government's Film Archive.

Eric Abrahamsen is a consultant to the organization assembling the Chinese delegation to the book fair in Germany. He says while China is used to controlling public discourse within its borders, government officials are even more sensitive about exposing foreign audiences to Chinese cultural works.

"Things that can be published or talked about inside China, they'll often refrain from talking about outside of China because it's considered embarrassing or prone to misinterpretation, that sort of thing," Abrahamsen said.

He says some of the authors going to Frankfurt write about controversial topics in Chinese society and history. But he thinks these works will be downplayed at the fair to present a more sanitized version of Chinese literature. He also says the Chinese delegation is taking special care to omit any reference to the Cultural Revolution, which caused political upheaval four decades ago, in the materials promoted in Frankfurt.

China is doing more than most governments do when they are the country of honor at Frankfurt. More than 2,000 publishers, artists, journalists and writers will attend, and the government has invested $15 million in the event.

But China may still be unhappy about some of the other participants. Uighur activist Kadeer is to attend, as is an envoy of the Dalai Lama, Tibet's exiled spiritual leader.

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