Foreign authors accept censoring to sell in China

Professors, novelists and journalists say they are faced with a choice of protecting their work or gaining access to the Chinese marketplace. Some well-known figures have resisted, others acquiesce, while some decide no to allow their work to be published in China

By Andrew Jacobs  /  NY Times News Service, BEIJING

Thu, Oct 24, 2013 - Page 9

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.

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.

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

5. Norwegian Wood, by Haruki Murakami

6. The Da Vinci Code, by Dan Brown

7. Byakuyako (“Into The White Night”) by Keigo Higashino

8. The Catcher in the Rye, by J.D. Salinger

9. Love in the Time of Cholera, by Gabriel Garcia Marquez

10. The Lost Symbol, by Dan Brown


1. Steve Jobs, by Walter Isaacson

2. The Secret, by Rhonda Byrne

3. The Greatest Salesman in the World, by Og Mandino

4. Rip It Up: The Radically New Approach to Changing Your Life, by Richard Wiseman

5. Youth, It’s Painful, by Rando Kim

6. On China, by Henry Kissinger

7. Dale Carnegie’s Lifetime Plan for Success, by Dale Carnegie

8. Life Without Limits: Inspiration for a Ridiculously Good Life, by Nick Vujicic

9. A Global History: From Prehistory to the 21st Century, by L.S. Stavrianos

10. A Brief History of Time, by Stephen Hawking


1. Totto-chan: The Little Girl at the Window, by Tetsuko Kuroyanagi

2. Charlotte’s Web, by E.B. White

3. Pippi Longstocking, by Astrid Lindgren

4. Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone, by J.K. Rowling (Published in the US as Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone)

5. The Cricket in Times Square, by George Selden

6. Fantastic Mr. Fox, by Roald Dahl

7. Guess How Much I Love You, by Sam McBratney

8. The Life and Adventures of Robinson Crusoe, by Daniel Defoe

9. Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets, by J.K. Rowling

10. Tiger Team: Witch Swamp & Ghost Castle, by Thomas Brezina