Most egregiously, he said, publishers insisted on removing any references to Shanghai, replacing it with an imaginary Chinese metropolis called H city because they thought an association with violent crime, albeit fictional, might tarnish the city’s image.
Qiu, who writes in English, but was born and raised in China, said he reluctantly agreed to some of the alterations, and only after heated discussion, but that others were made after he had approved what he thought were final translations.
“Some of the changes are so ridiculous they made the book incoherent,” he said in a telephone interview.
Having been burned three times, he said, he has refused to allow his fourth novel, A Case of Two Cities, to be printed in China.
Other authors have resisted, too. In 2003, former US secretary of state Hillary Rodham Clinton ordered her memoir, Living History, pulled from Chinese shelves after she discovered that large sections of the book had been excised without permission.
More recently, a Chinese version of Alan Greenspan’s Age of Turbulence was shelved after he refused to approve significant changes to the book.
James Kynge, a columnist for the Financial Times and the author of China Shakes the World: A Titan’s Rise and Troubled Future — and the Challenge for America, walked away from a potentially lucrative deal last year after one publisher demanded that an entire chapter be cut.
“As a journalist committed to accuracy,” he said, “I felt it would be terrifically hypocritical to waive that principle just to gain access to the Chinese marketplace.”
However, such stands, it seems, are becoming increasingly rare. Many writers say they are torn by their desire to protect their work and the need to make a living in an era of shrinking advances. For others, it is simply about cultivating an audience in the world’s most populous country, a rising superpower that cannot be summarily ignored.
“As an academic who doesn’t write for a large publication, I’m always happy to have a readership that extends beyond the three people in my family,” said Rebecca Karl, a professor of modern Chinese history at New York University whose book, Mao Zedong (毛澤東) and China in the Twentieth-Century World: A Concise History, was recently purchased by a Chinese publishing house.
She said most of the cuts demanded by her publisher, Hunan People’s Publishing, were relatively painless, although she fought back on every one of them.
“It’s about what I expected,” she said.
What she did not expect was that the book would be withheld from publication. The book was rushed to publication for the coming 120th anniversary of Mao Zedong’s birth, but when Karl came to China for the launch in June, it had been canceled.
“It could end up never being published,” she said.
Jo Lusby, managing director at Penguin Books China, which has published 250 foreign titles in the past eight years, said she often finds herself trying to ease communications between indignant Western writers and the Chinese editors whose job it is to iron out passages they deem unacceptable. In most instances, she said, the Chinese side refuses to bend.
Even if the process remains opaque and unpredictable, publishing executives say, the broad outlines of China’s censorship regime have changed little in recent years.