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On Dealing with Chinese Censors

It was a hot afternoon in June in the East China city of Jinan. I was returning to my hotel after an afternoon coffee, thinking of the conference I had come to attend and trying to escape the heat on the shady side of the street. My cell phone rang, and I heard the distinctive regional accent of my Chinese publisher, calling from California, where he had recently bought a home so his wife could raise their child free of China’s stifling pollution. Had I received the emails with the requested revisions, he asked. He needed a response within 48 hours. I explained that I was traveling, would be attending a conference for the next two days, and could not possibly reply that quickly. “What are you doing tonight?” he asked—knowing that it was only 4:00 p.m. in China and there were still several hours left in the day. He explained that my book launch was scheduled for mid-July, less than a month away, and we had to move quickly. In China, everything needs to move quickly.

A couple of years ago, I had published Ancestral Leaves: A Family Journey Through Chinese History. It had received generous reviews in academic journals, but attracted little attention beyond college campuses. The interest was greater in China, where several members of the Ye family, whose history I had traced from imperial times to the present, were known to the educated public. A translation was completed early this year, and I reviewed it line by line to assure both accuracy and reasonable fluency in Chinese. Now I needed to negotiate passage through two groups of censors.

The first group consisted of people I knew. Ancestral Leaves told the history of my wife’s extended family, and while the relatives had no complaints about the English edition, they sent page after page of suggested changes to the Chinese translation. Some of these were helpful corrections of typographical errors that had crept into the Chinese version, birth dates, and certain details about their parents’ background and education. Then there were attempts to adjust the text to portray family members in a more favorable light, or to assert unusual family solidarity during the politically fraught years of Mao’s China. It took me most of that evening to deal with these suggestions, rejecting those that seemed inaccurate or unnecessary, but eventually sending off a reply agreeing to the changes I felt would improve the book. Though the time constraint was distinctly Chinese, the accommodation of suggestions from parties to the narrative didn’t differ that much from what any author would confront in the U.S.

Then it was time to turn to the second document. This came from the press itself: a list of suggestions for changes to allow the book to pass Chinese government censorship. Despite the tens of thousands of petty bureaucrats tasked with policing the Internet, press, and publishing houses of China, there is no way this army of censors can preview the more than 400,000 books published each year, to say nothing of the roughly 10,000 magazines and 2,000 newspapers. So each publisher has its own internal censors, who follow formal and informal guidelines to determine what may be allowed. The publisher I was working with had a reputation for pushing the envelope—the Chinese term comes from ping pong: he hits shots that glance off the edge of the table (cabianqiu). His very successful business model (enough to buy that house in California) involves publishing books that are a little bit controversial, and therefore popular.

In this case, however, it was explained to me that “current conditions” (transparent code for the tight grip of China’s new President and Communist Party Chairman Xi Jinping) had reduced the size of the envelope (or the ping pong table). This quickly became clear as I reviewed the 27-page document of requested changes and deletions. One large group of changes had to do with the history of ethnic conflict within China. Members of the Ye family had been officials in China’s last dynasty, the Qing, and one had served as governor of the northwestern province of Shaanxi as it recovered from a massive and destructive rebellion by the local Muslim population, much of which had been wiped out in the process. The press admitted that the narrative could not ignore this rebellion, but all mention of its ethnic dimension had to be cut.

The same principle guided discussion of the Qing dynasty itself. The Qing was ruled by Manchus from the north, and their armies had conquered the previous dynasty and greatly expanded the empire to include Mongolia, Tibet, and the Turkic Muslim regions that are now Xinjiang. But the Manchus are now one of the 56 official “nationalities” that make up the Chinese people, so the Manchu conquest had to be rephrased as nothing more than one (implicitly Chinese) ethnic group coming from beyond the Great Wall to rule the rest of China.

Religion was another problem. China’s imperial rulers had been challenged periodically by rebellions inspired by various popular religious sects. Presumably because of analogies to the proscribed Falun Gong organization in contemporary China, references to “heterodox sects” had to be removed.

But the greatest shock came when I got to the republican era and a discussion of the Chinese nationalist leader Sun Yat-sen’s collaboration with the Soviet Union and the Chinese Communist Party in the 1920s. I had written that despite this collaboration, Sun opposed “communist revolution… [for] encouraging class warfare instead of national unity.” This was a well-documented historical fact, but for some reason the press’s censors wanted to take that out as well.

At this point, I decided I had had enough. It was approaching midnight; I was tired and getting increasingly irritated. I stopped reading, slept fitfully through the night, and called my translator the next morning to say we were going to have to abandon plans to publish in China. I was willing to tinker with language to get the book past the censors, but I was not going to rewrite history. Ethnic and religious conflicts had happened, and could not be erased. And if the censors could not accept the fact that Sun Yat-sen had opposed class conflict, Lord knows what they would want to change in the parts of the book that dealt with Mao’s China. Even if it would complicate my desire to promote conversations with Chinese colleagues about their nation’s past, it would be better to publish in Hong Kong, and have the conversation based on such copies as could be smuggled into China, or would somehow circulate on the Internet.

* * *

Well, it turned out that this hard line worked. When I got back to my base at Central China Normal University in Wuhan, I got a revised request for changes. The 27-page document had been reduced to nine. Sun Yat-sen was allowed to oppose class struggle. Ethnic and sectarian rebellions were back in the text. But still, there were a number of issues to contend with. This time, however, I felt more confident that censorship was a negotiable process, and that appeals to agreed historical facts carried some weight in the negotiations.

As I worked to respond to the censors, several things were clear. Significantly, none of my Chinese historian friends disputed the accuracy of my account, and most were as puzzled as I was by some of the requested changes. Among academic historians, China’s officially sanctioned history—the history of the state’s textbooks, newspapers, and the endless historical dramas on the state-run television stations—is often challenged; and professors frequently present contrary views in their lectures. On the other hand, all accept the fact that published accounts must pass the censors, and the scholar’s task is to determine how to present one’s own point of view in an acceptable form. In the process, however, one soon discovers that the censors have certain red lines that cannot be crossed, that the nature of these red lines tells a lot about the authorities’ sensitivities, and that sensitivities constantly shift with the political winds. The French historian of nationalism, Ernest Renan, famously wrote that, “Forgetting, I would even go so far as to say historical error, is a crucial factor in the creation of a nation.” In China, the history of the nation involves a great deal of forgetting, and a fair dose of historical error.

The first issue that was obvious from the beginning was ethnic relations, what the Chinese call the “nationalities issue” (minzu wenti). My publisher had specifically mentioned this in his initial phone call, and most of the changes requested for the nineteenth-century portion of the book were of this nature. In the past, Communist historians celebrated ethnic rebellions as resistance to the “feudal oppression” of China’s imperial rulers; but with growing Uighur resistance to Chinese domination of the Western province of Xinjiang, and protests (sometimes violent) against restrictions of the Uighurs’ Islamic culture, all discussions of ethnic relations have become closely scrutinized. In September, the Uighur scholar Ilham Tohti was given a life sentence for allegedly promoting “separatism” for his homeland. Though Tohti was a peace-loving academic trying to make constructive criticisms of China’s policies in Xinjiang, the court accused him of “bewitching” his students and “exploit[ing] foreign forces to create pressure to make Xinjiang an international matter.” Clearly all foreign comment on the “nationalities issue” was something the press had to monitor very closely.

The remaining issues concerned more recent history and most related to the activities and policies of the Chinese Communist Party. Last year, Xi Jinping clearly stated that one cannot use the successes of the era of reform to negate the Maoist era. This pronouncement, together with his endorsement of such Maoist practices as the “mass line” and “rectification”—terms associated with Mao’s campaigns against his opponents dating as far back as the 1940s—has led to a public discourse on the Maoist era that is much less critical than before. This clearly was on the censors’ minds as they dealt with my book.

An obvious example was their firm rejection of any effort to quantify the magnitude of the famine that followed Mao’s disastrous Great Leap Forward. The English version of my book called the famine “the worst in Chinese history: reliable estimates now put the death toll between twenty and thirty million.” Although some recent publications suggest death tolls in excess of forty million, the censors refused to countenance even my more conservative numbers. I protested that a recent official Chinese history had admitted ten million deaths in just one year of the three-year famine. That, I was told, was acceptable in an official publication, but the press could not use such numbers. A related mention of “millions” dying in one particularly hard-hit province was also rejected. They suggested “not a few” (bushao) or “a lot” (xuduo), which I rejected as gross underestimations of the tragedy. In the end, I had to settle for “many,” and in the passage referring to the worst famine in Chinese history, a clear indication (“…”) that a passage had been deleted.

Similar compromises were made on other issues: the fabrication of germ warfare accusations against the United States during the Korean War; the suicide of Politburo member Gao Gang after his purge in 1953; student and worker strikes during the Hundred Flowers movement of 1957; the Lin Biao incident of 1971, in which Mao’s designated successor and “closest comrade in arms” suddenly flew to his death in a plane crash in the Mongolian desert. Since my subject was how the political turmoil of the Mao era affected the Ye family, the details of high politics were not critical to my narrative. In fact, they had been included largely as background for an American audience, and most educated Chinese did not need to be reminded of them. So most of these changes I accepted, but insisted that the text clearly indicate where deletions had been made (an agreement that was not always adhered to).

In many ways, the most revealing negotiations I had were over the characterization of the era of economic reforms that followed Mao’s death in 1976 and took off under Deng Xiaoping in the 1980s. In the book’s epilogue, I had written that “For years, Mao Zedong had struggled against the ‘restoration of capitalism,’ but this was one battle the Chairman would lose. A vibrant, often corrupt crony capitalism now drives the Chinese economy at a feverish pace...” The publisher insisted that these sentences be cut. In an effort to preserve the basic idea, I suggested a number of compromises: drop “corrupt” and “crony” as descriptors of Chinese capitalism; change “capitalism” to “market economy.” But on this, compromise was impossible. The sharp distinction I was making between the two eras of Chinese socialism was exactly the opposite of the message of continuity that the current regime of Xi Jinping has mandated. This was a battle I was bound to lose.

In the end, I found my clash with the censors instructive. We went back and forth on the final points, with cell phone debates on alternative wordings of the last few issues that went right down to the day before the manuscript went to the printer. It was a useful opportunity for a foreigner to experience the world in which all Chinese writers live. Perhaps the most important concession I extracted was a clear statement in the preface to the Chinese edition that some parts had been deleted or changed, and in this respect the English edition should be regarded as authoritative. This passage was noted by almost all the journalists who wrote reviews or interviewed me after the book was published, and it was clear that they too wished to push the envelope, to see if they could slip some sensitive passage past their in-house censors. Indeed, one colleague explicitly asked me for a copy of the English edition, and the full list of deleted passages. He plans to write a longer review which includes the deleted passages. Whether he succeeds or not, only time will tell.

In one of the more brazen efforts to outwit the thought police, one journalist asked several questions about an article I had written on “How the Qing Became China.” It addressed the hypersensitive issue of how, in 1911, the Republic of China (and later the People’s Republic of China) inherited the expanded borders of the Qing Empire’s territorial conquests. Several years ago, a colleague had translated the article and tried several times, without success, to get it published in China. But the translation had circulated privately on the Internet, and this journalist had read it and clearly wanted to bring the debate to a larger audience. To my surprise, he succeeded. The interview was printed, almost in its entirety, and in this way even more people learned about the suppressed article.

As a result of all this publicity, the Chinese edition of my book is now number 4 on one prominent Chinese best-seller list. The lesson I take from this is that it is virtually impossible to censor history in the age of the Internet. However much the Chinese state may wish to rewrite history or mandate forgetting, there will always be some Chinese who insist on remembering. And in this process, foreigners can play their part. For some, that will mean public criticism of the suppression of free speech in China. But for others, and I include myself in this number, it means continuing a dialogue with Chinese colleagues, engaging the censors, and pushing the envelope to its greatest possible extent. This will never be a smooth process of progressively open debate, and the policies of the current regime certainly represent a retreat toward the more repressive policies of the past. But the struggles against the censoring of history will continue, and in the end, I am convinced, a clearer understanding of China’s past will emerge.