To publish or not to publish? Foreign authors grapple with China’s publication taboos

By Zhang Yu Source:Global Times Published: 2015-7-6 19:38:01


Ezra F. Vogel's book Deng Xiaoping and the Transformation of China in a Chinese bookstore Photo: CFP

As more foreign books enter the Chinese market, their authors sometimes have to face a dilemma: whether or not they should allow Chinese publishers, under China's publishing regulations, to change the content of their books. Different publishing houses and authors deal with this conundrum in a variety of ways, and their differing choices will eventually affect the number and content of foreign books that Chinese readers have access to.

The authors of The Dictator's Handbook did not know that their 2011 book was topping bestseller lists in China. Nor did they know that the version of their book on sale in China is different from their original text.

The Chinese version of The Dictator's Handbook had at least 20 sentences and paragraphs that mention China and its leaders removed, but Bruce Bueno de Mesquita and Alastair Smith, the professors at the New York University's Department of Politics who wrote the book, said they were not aware of the changes.

Their 2011 book, which explains how autocrats operate and why, was published in Chinese last May by the Jiangsu Literature and Art Publishing House and Hantang Sunshine, a Beijing-based publishing company. It soon garnered high praise from liberal Chinese critics, and sat in the "recommended reading" sections of many mainstream bookstores, even though it wasn't difficult for readers to discover that some of the text were missing.

A Chinese blogger, who calls himself Piaopiao Baiyun, searched for the words "China" and "Chinese" in the English text, compared them with the Chinese translation, and found that every mention of the country had been scrubbed from the work. Other changes include North Korea simply being referred to as "a country in Northeast Asia."

"I probably would not have agreed to the publication had the publisher told me the book would be censored," Professor Bueno de Mesquita said in an e-mail interview.

Professor Smith, who coauthored the book, described his feelings towards the changes as mixed. "It seems that it was clumsily censored in the sense that any mentions of Chinese proper nouns were de facto removed independent of what it said… The edits don't change the sense of the book," he told the Global Times in a Skype interview.

"If you ask me if I want people in China to read my book with all references to China removed, or just not be able to read it at all, I would probably go for the former," he said.

Hantang Sunshine, the company which owns the right to publish the book in the Chinese mainland, didn't respond to an interview request from the Global Times.

Filtered ideas

Thanks to the Internet, sophisticated Chinese readers have been able to access books that are not published in China. Equipped with an account on Amazon's US or UK sites, for example, they can buy the digital versions of foreign books and read them on electronic readers. Those who travel frequently can also buy books from abroad. However, translations into Chinese and publication by a local publisher is still the only way for many monolingual readers, from students to white-collar workers, to access foreign books and engage in public discussions about them.

The number of books imported to China has been growing steadily over the past decade as China's book market expands. In 2003,  12,516 overseas books were published in China. In 2013, that number had grown by 33 percent to 16,625, including 5,489 from the US, 2,521 from the UK and 1,461 from Hong Kong, Macao and Taiwan, according to the National Copyright Administration of China.

The Chinese publishers, however, have their own standards because they are afraid of breaching China's publishing laws and regulations. The regulations ban obscenities and ask all publications to conform with the Party's spirit. Works that discuss sensitive topics including historical, political and religious issues must report to the authorities for approval.

Didactic dilemma

Since The Dictator's Handbook is by nature a book about global politics, the publishers only needed to make relatively minor changes to it before they felt it was safe to publish. For writers whose books are solely about modern and contemporary China, the situation is more complicated.

Some of them think publishing censored copies in China is acceptable. Ezra F. Vogel reluctantly accepted the censorship of his 2011 book Deng Xiaoping and the Transformation of China when it was published in China in 2013. However, he said he was very satisfied with the editing done by the Sanlian Publishing House, the Chinese publisher in charge of the editing and publishing process.

"Sanlian and I had an agreement that any changes to the Hong Kong Chinese translation (published by the Chinese University Press in Hong Kong) would require my approval or I would have to disown the translation. A Sanlian staff member worked with me very closely and sent me all the proposed changes so that the book could be published in China," the Harvard University emeritus professor of social sciences told the Global Times in an e-mail interview.

"In the cases in which I disapproved of the changes to the ideas I wanted to get across, my editor at Sanlian tried to find a way that my ideas could be expressed and be acceptable to those officials who might check over my work. Sanlian did an excellent job in keeping my original meaning, deleting only about 5 percent of things that might have caused a problem with censors," he said.

The final Chinese mainland edition had around 27,000 characters from the main text and parts of the appendix omitted, according to media reports, but had managed to preserve considerable sections that talked about the Tiananmen Square incident and Tibetan issues.

Evan Osnos, former China correspondent for the New Yorker, however, refused to let his book Age of Ambition: Chasing Fortune, Truth, and Faith in the New China, be published by Chinese mainland publishers after one of them asked him if he would approve a "special copy" for China, which would have removed considerable parts of the book that dealt with political activists. He chose to publish his book in Taiwan instead.

 "It is tempting to accept censorship as a matter of the margins - a pruning that leaves the core of the story intact - but altering the proportions of a portrait of China gives a false reflection of how China appears to the world at a moment when it is making fundamental choices about what kind of country it will become," he said in an opinion piece published in the New York Times last May.

Peter Hessler, staff writer for the New Yorker and a former China correspondent, has published three popular books about China in the country with relatively few changes, but has refused to publish his fourth book, Oracle Bones, as he believes it would require edits that would harm essential meaning of the book.

Vogel said, "In writing about certain topics where publication is difficult in China, we Westerners have no choice but not to publish in the mainland. But we still have the opportunity to publish in Hong Kong. In other cases, we can often find ways to publish in the mainland while keeping our original meaning."

Maintaining meaning

While the consensus seems to be that the decision about whether or not to publish in China depends on the nature of the book, some authors are optimistic that introducing more books and ideas to China will benefit the Chinese people. "I see my publication in China in more positive terms, as a reflection of my belief in the importance of education and access to information," said Peter Hessler in an article written for the ChinaFile website.

His view is echoed by his Chinese readers. "As a foreigner, he can often observe interesting things that are taken for granted by Chinese journalists and writers. Some reveal histories that were hidden from textbooks," Xie Si, a 26-year-old woman who works at an international bank in Shanghai, told the Global Times.

"And what's precious is that he never criticizes or questions China from a Western perspective. You can sense from his texts that he has a deep affection for China and many of its people," she said.

In 2011 and 2012 respectively, the Chinese versions of Country Driving and River Town, two of Hessler's books, ranked second on the bestseller list of All Sages Bookstore, one of Beijing's most popular social sciences and humanities bookstores for college students and intellectuals. Each book has sold over 100,000 copies in China.

Vogel's book, selling over 500,000 copies the week it was published, also managed to shed light on sensitive issues for Chinese readers, preserving its sections about the Tiananmen Square incident and Tibetan issues. "It helps me understand the backstory and reasons behind the incident, and that's even more important than knowing about the details of the incident itself," one reader wrote on, a Chinese website which hosts book discussion forums.

The Dictator's Handbook, also on the bestseller list of All Sages Bookstore, was lauded by the Chinese media as an insightful book that addresses a serious issue with clear examples. Following its publication, it sparked several healthy public discussions among scholars and readers on the art of politics.

Newspaper headline: Cut for China

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