October 23, 2013

Authors face censorship decision to publish in China


In this weekend’s New York Times, the paper’s Beijing bureau correspondent Andrew Jacobs reported that Western writers have faced a dilemma recently when publishing their books in China: submit their work to censorship or forgo being published there at all.

Jacobs points to Ezra Vogel, author of Deng Xiaoping and the Transformation of China as an example. The Chinese edition has had numerous facts redacted, including the fact that Chinese newspapers were ordered not to report the decline of communism in the Eastern Bloc, and an anecdote about Deng Xiaoping dropping a dumpling during a state dinner with Mikhail Gorbachev. Vogel describes the choice to allow censors to edit his book was an “unpleasant but necessary bargain,” yet also an easy choice when the time came to make it. “I thought it was better to have 90 percent of the book available here than zero,” he explained.

Given China’s buying power, it’s not surprising that Vogel and other Western writers, in increasing numbers, are allowing their books to face the censor’s stamp. Deng Xiaoping and the Transformation of China has sold more than twenty times as many copies in China as it has here in the US (650,000 copies compared to 30,000). Jacobs reports that ebook earnings there have increased 56% in the past year, and authors have tapped into a gold mine of royalties; J.K. Rowling, for instance, has raked in $2.4 million. And some books, bestsellers and classics in particular, make it to the Chinese public translated faithfully enough that publishing there doesn’t always present an ethical dilemma.

Still, some authors are holding their ground and declining the opportunity to have their books sold in China. Qiu Xiaolong, who was born and raised in China but writes in English, allowed changes to his first few mystery novels, but has since refused to allow his fourth, A Case of Two Cities, to be printed there. His Inspector Chen mystery series is set in Shanghai, but censors insisted on relocating it to the fictional H city, as well as altering key characters and rewriting plot lines they deemed “unflattering to the Communist Party.” Qiu explains that after reluctantly agreeing to some changes, even more were made after he approved what he believed to be final translations. “Some of the changes are so ridiculous they made the book incoherent,” he told Jacobs in a phone interview.

In addition to dealing with the threat of General Administration of Press and Publications, Chinese publishers are required to employ in-house censors, who end up doing a lot of the editing themselves. The editor-in-chief of one publisher told the Times, on the condition of anonymity, that “Self-censorship has become the most effective weapon. If you let something slip through that catches the attention of a higher-up, it can be a career killer.”

Vogel says that most of the deletions from his book about Deng were related to disagreements among political leaders and adjectives that pejoratively described people like Mao Zedong. In the end, though, he remains optimistic, saying, “The impressive thing is how much actually got through.”


Nick Davies is a publicist at Melville House.