Topics that deal with Taiwan, ethnic tensions and Falun Gong, the banned spiritual movement, are off limits, and books that contain even a passing reference to the Cultural Revolution or contemporary Chinese leaders can expect fine-toothed scrutiny.
Gone are the days of the 1990s when Chinese publishers would buy boundary-pushing titles from abroad and hope to sneak them past the censors.
The country’s 560 publishing houses are required to employ in-house censors, most of them faithful party members. Then there is the General Administration of Press and Publications, whose anonymous apparatchiks can order the removal of chapters or kill an entire book. (The administrative agency did not respond to requests for comment.)
However, it is the editors at Chinese publishing houses themselves who often turn out to have the heaviest hands.
“Self-censorship has become the most effective weapon,” said the editor-in-chief of a prominent publishing house in Beijing that publishes more than 300 foreign titles a year, who spoke on condition of anonymity. “If you let something slip through that catches the attention of a higher-up, it can be a career killer.”
For Western writers, the process can be time-consuming and confounding.
Vogel, whose Chinese publisher, Sanlian, is one of China’s most respectable publishing houses, said it took a year to settle on a final translation, which was adapted from the unexpurgated version published in Hong Kong. Friends of Vogel told him the book was considered so sensitive that even the children of long-deceased party luminaries mentioned in the book were given a chance to comment on the galleys.
Many deletions involved passages that detailed squabbles between top leaders or specific adjectives, like those describing Mao as “paranoid” and “vindictive.”
Edited out, too, was the phrase suggesting that Deng, then in his 80s, was aloof from the yearnings and complaints of ordinary Chinese.
“The impressive thing is how much actually got through,” Vogel said.
Michael Meyer, whose 2008 book The Last Days of Old Beijing laments the destruction of the city’s historic fabric, had a similar reaction after seeing the final galleys of the Chinese edition last year.
“I kept waiting for the other shoe to drop,” he said.
In the end, editors made a few predictable deletions: a reference to the Tiananmen Square crackdown, a passage in which Chinese artist Ai Weiwei (艾未未) criticizes the city’s leaders, and a title change that sought to cast the book as a nostalgic love letter (See You Again, Old Beijing).
For Meyer, the most amusing changes involved two text messages sent to him by a New York architect who was attending a municipal planning session in a large coastal city.
The first described the presence of a young woman, who was hanging on the arm of a middle-aged man with a comb-over and loudly sucking on a lollipop. The second message announced that the man was the mayor and the woman was his mistress.
The passages were removed.
Popular in China
The best-selling foreign titles in China last year.
1. One Hundred Years of Solitude, by Gabriel Garcia Marquez
2. Before I Go To Sleep, by S.J. Watson
3. The Kite Runner, by Khaled Hosseini
4. The Unbearable Lightness of Being, by Milan Kundera