Chinese readers of Ezra Vogel’s sprawling biography of China’s reformist leader Deng Xiaoping (鄧小平) may have missed a few details that appeared in the original English edition.
The Chinese version did not mention that Chinese newspapers had been ordered to ignore the communist implosion across Eastern Europe in the late 1980s.
Nor that Chinese Communist Party (CCP) general secretary Zhao Ziyang (趙紫陽), purged during the Tiananmen Square crackdown, wept when he was placed under house arrest.
Gone was the tense state dinner with then-Soviet president Mikhail Gorbachev when Deng, preoccupied by the throngs of students then occupying the square, let a dumpling tumble from his chopsticks.
Vogel, a professor emeritus at Harvard, said the decision to allow Chinese censors to tinker with his work was an unpleasant, but necessary bargain, one that allowed the book to reach the kind of enormous readership many Western authors can only dream of.
His book, Deng Xiaoping and the Transformation of China, sold 30,000 copies in the US and 650,000 in China.
“To me the choice was easy,” he said during a book tour of China that drew appreciative throngs in nearly a dozen cities. “I thought it was better to have 90 percent of the book available here than zero.”
Such compromises, almost unheard of just five years ago, are becoming increasingly common as US authors and their publishers are drawn to the Chinese market. With a highly literate population hungry for the works of foreign writers, China is an increasing source of revenue for US publishing houses; last year e-book earnings for US publishers from China grew by 56 percent, according to the Association of American Publishers.
Chinese publishing companies bought more than 16,000 titles from abroad last year, up from 1,664 in 1995.
This month, Chinese book agents and publishers flocked to the Frankfurt book fair, aggressively bidding on the works of Western writers and offering handsome advances, especially for titles by best-selling authors. China can also be a gold mine for royalties.
Last year, British author J.K. Rowling took in US$2.4 million in China and Walter Isaacson, the author of the biography Steve Jobs, earned US$804,000, according to the Huaxi Metropolitan Daily in Chengdu, which publishes an annual list.
However, while best-selling mysteries like The Da Vinci Code by Dan Brown or classics like Gabriel Garcia Marquez’s One Hundred Years of Solitude are often faithfully translated, the authors of sexually explicit works or those that touch on Chinese politics and history can find themselves in an Orwellian embrace with a censorship apparatus that has little patience for the niceties of literary or academic integrity.
Some books, like Fifty Shades of Grey, the erotic blockbuster by E.L. James that has been published in more than three dozen countries, may be beyond salvaging.
A Chinese publisher who reportedly paid handsomely for the rights last year has so far been thwarted from bringing it to press, according to industry executives.
Foreign writers who agree to submit their books to China’s fickle censorship regime say the experience can be frustrating.
Qiu Xiaolong (秦曉龍), a St Louis-based novelist whose mystery thrillers are set in Shanghai, said Chinese publishers who bought the first three books in his Inspector Chen series altered the identity of pivotal characters and rewrote plot lines they deemed unflattering to the CCP.