Censorship and Publishing in China

A ChinaFile Conversation

This week, a new PEN American Center report “Censorship and Conscience: Foreign Authors and the Challenge of Chinese Censorship,” by Alexa Olesen, draws fresh attention to a perennial problem for researchers, scholars, and creative writers trying to reach readers in China. The lure of China’s book market is powerful—revenues are projected to top $16 billion this year—but at what cost to freedom of expression?—The Editors


I have always refused to authorize cuts in translations of my work. In 1997, Xinhua Press published a Chinese translation of my coauthored book, The Great Wall and the Empty Fortress. They signed a contract promising no cuts, then left out an entire chapter. I discovered it when I received a copy of the published book. Things have improved: Today, Chinese publishers simply honestly refuse to commit to an unexpurgated translation. This has not prevented my work from being known in China; interested readers have accessed it through translations published in Taiwan and Hong Kong and on the Internet, and of course also in English.

To be sure, these channels reach fewer mainland readers than would be the case with a mainland edition. But I do not believe it is worth accepting cuts in order to reach more readers, because the price for doing so is to signal that I regard the censorship as in some way legitimate, and to say this would undercut one of the main points of my writing, and, I believe, of the writing of many other scholars and journalists. Cooperating with censorship equally undercuts the purpose of the enterprise of translation itself, which is to let readers know what writers have said.

One might say that readers won’t be aware of one’s compromise and so no harm will be done, but I do not think that is true. Some readers will figure it out, perhaps by seeing the English version or excerpts on the Internet, or through reviews or discussions about the work. Even if these savvy readers are a small group, I consider the message damaging: if an author has been willing to cancel out some of what he said in English, he didn’t really mean it, or didn’t consider it important. As for those readers who don’t figure it out, they will be misinformed by getting an incomplete picture of what I wanted to say. On the other hand, I believe the absence in bookstores of official Chinese translations of my work sends two valuable messages, although to a small audience: first, that the censorship is preventing readers from getting access to a book that they want to see, and second, that there are authors who do not allow censorship to prevent them from saying what they want to say. Such quietly made but clear points, even though reaching a smaller audience than a censored book reaches, are more valuable forms of communication in the long run. Sometimes silence is eloquent.

These points apply even if the deletions are minimal. In a way the point is all the stronger: for just this, they wouldn’t let the book be translated?

When those of us who live in a free system yield to censorship, it is as if we are inviting the censorship to extend itself beyond its own territory and into our lives. That is actually happening rather a lot. I think that people who voluntarily cash in their freedom in that way are making a mistake.

The PEN report is quite thorough and balanced, revealing a complicated and tough terrain. I think each writer must make his or her own decision according to his or her own specific situation and moral temperament. Personally, I have experienced Chinese censorship many times, for my work in English and in Chinese, and I have a mixed track record. When my first English book, China Pop, came out in 1995, editors from two Beijing publishing houses separately approached me for a Chinese edition, but both asked me to cut out parts about Tiananmen, which is an important theme in a book about China’s post-Tiananmen cultural transformation. I refused. No deal. No Chinese edition. In 2011, after my new English book Tide Players came out, a similar situation occurred: several mainland publishers inquired whether I’d be willing to consider an abridged Chinese version. This time my decision to refuse was extremely easy, for the book includes two chapters on very sensitive topics: “Enemy of the State” is a profile of my brother as a political prisoner in China; and the chapter “Servant of the State” has Liu Xiaobo as an important secondary character. If they took out these two chapters and cut out other offending bits and pieces throughout, they'd have left only the book's skeleton. My decision was also made easier by the fact that these two offending chapters had first appeared in The New Yorker and was quickly translated and posted on the Chinese Internet. A full Chinese edition of Tide Players was later published in Hong Kong.

But in 2006, before my Chinese book Bashi Niandai Fangtanlu (“The Nineteen Eighties”) was published by Beijing’s Sanlian Press, the manuscript went through three rounds of in-house checking and cutting, a typical mainland censoring process. And, after both wrangling and working with my editor, who is a veteran of the game and a definite liberal, I accepted the final result. The cuts were small, and I decided to take out a whole chapter which would have suffered more severe cuts. But at the end of each chapter and in my introduction to the book, the cuts were noted. A few months later a full version of the book was published in Hong Kong. The book has stirred up a lot of public discussion about the 1980s, a more idealistic era in China. Some readers compared the books’ two editions and posted on the Internet a detailed report on what was cut out. Would I prefer an unabridged mainland edition? Of course. But, given the circumstances, I do not regret my decision in this particular case. However, I agree with Murong Xuecun that dealing with China’s censorship is a constant struggle and compromise can lead to the edge of a slippery slope. Playing a game with the devil and trying to hoodwink him, we might lose our own soul in the process. We need to remind ourselves constantly that this is a very dangerous game that no one should get comfortable with.

Walking through Chinese bookstores can be a disconcerting experience. Many are attractive and modern, with all the accoutrements of the 21st century bookstore: a café that serves latte macchiato and cheesecake, a helpful staff of near-sighted young people, and a table of recommended titles such as The Dictator's Handbook or Henry Kissinger's On China.

And yet one constantly wonders what lies between the covers of these books. Are these the same works available outside China? Or is this bookstore another virtual China experience like the local Internet: similar to the real thing but watered down and carefully controlled? And are we—and more importantly the rising class of urban Chinese—being duped into thinking that China is participating fully in the global exchange of ideas, when it is not?

I touched on these questions in an essay that appeared recently in the New York Review of Books and which is reprinted here on the ChinaFile website. The piece looks at the popularity of Peter Hessler, whose writings about China have been embraced by Chinese eager to understand how the outside world sees them. Like virtually any author writing on China, his works have been touched up for the China market—Tiananmen described as “chaos” and not the already euphemistic “incident,” and references to specific leaders cut or toned down. But the substance is unchanged and his books have already spurred a cottage industry in China of authors interested in ordinary people and how economic reforms have changed their lives.

Accepting such cuts are tricky. Some authors take the perhaps realistic but still condescending attitude that it’s better that the poor Chinese get some of my pearls of wisdom than none. Opponents would counter by saying that any cuts turn books into another shanzhai product. Readers think they are getting the real thing, but it's another fake.

Like most authors, I've faced two extremes that have exempted me from these tough decisions. My book on grassroots change in China, Wild Grass, will never be published under China’s current government because it talks explicitly about judicial abuses, and violence against dissenters. I recently had a coffee with a Chinese publisher and he joked that the title would be fine because it references the famous Chinese author Lu Xun. But forget about the rest of the book. On the other hand, a Chinese publisher has recently contacted me about another book I wrote on how the West tried to instrumentalize Islam during the Cold War. This has virtually no China angle, although many interesting parallels to China's problems with its Uighur minority. Just to be safe, I asked to vet the translation, but assume it will be fine, and hope it can help China learn from mistakes the West faced in dealing with Islam.

The PEN report (which was very well reported and written by Alexa Olesen) gives a very fair and balanced assessment of two poles and all the grey area in between. To me, the key point is transparency. If you agree to cuts, you must say so somewhere in the front matter of the book. This way, Chinese readers will know what they are getting. The idea that Chinese “know” there is censorship is simply wrong, lazy, and self-serving. The key project of long-term authoritarian regimes is that they promote amnesia. Many people don’t know and by censoring themselves, authors are contributing to this effort.

I also think the PEN report highlights two other key points. One is that it is the author’s responsibility to stand up to foreign censors, just as they would stand up to a wrong-headed editor in the West. In fact, I’m sometimes surprised at how authors will fight tooth and nail over a comma, but give up key points of analysis. How, for example, can Henry Kissinger publish a book entitled On China that leaves out the guts of the Fang Lizhi case, which is one of the central dramas of U.S.-China diplomatic relations since normalization?

Harder to judge, but still leaving me uncomfortable was Martín Capparós’s decision to excise two pages on China’s famine. Perhaps one can argue that it is a tiny fraction of his 600-page work, but the Great Leap Famine is now widely considered the greatest man-made famine in human history. It is also a touchstone for censorship in China; no book or movie that discusses its true scale and the party's culpability is tolerated. To publish what appears to be a definitive book on hunger and to leave this out strikes me as deeply disappointing. A debate has gone on in China in recent years over the famine, and this could be used by party loyalists to say, see, it's not so important: even this big book on hunger doesn't mention it.

The PEN report cites an El Pais article by Capparós defending his decision. Unfortunately, he misses the point. He wrote that Chinese readers would be aware that some material was missing and understand that. But this is clearly wrong. The point is that a great amnesia has been foisted on the Chinese people about the Great Famine, the Cultural Revolution, June 4, and other key events in Chinese history. People are absolutely not aware of it. Cutting the famine from a big, important book on hunger helps the regime, even in a very small way, carry out its project of whitewashing history.

I'm sorry to pick on Capparos. These are difficult decisions. Thanks to the PEN report, I think we can learn that authors can request a note saying that the book is abridged or censored. The key has to be truth in advertising. People should know what they're getting.

In Peter Hessler’s New Yorker article “Travels With My Censor,” one sentence is a cold splash of water. Hessler writes that “one of the most striking qualities of foreign portrayals of censorship in China is the apparent lack of interest in Chinese readers and editors.” While that couldn’t be less true for authors struggling with those tricky decisions, much of the wider media coverage of Alexa Olesen’s nuanced report, in the context of Book Expo America, has been single note and focuses on the familiar narrative of monolithic Chinese censorship.

This ignores the fact that smaller publishers in China are just as keen to have as unadulterated a version as possible of foreign writing see the light, and are pushing bravely every day to test the limits of the machine, without compromising their own livelihood as book lovers. To diversify this conversation, I asked a friend who works in one of those smaller publishing houses (he understandably wishes to remain anonymous) as an editor and foreign rights liaison, to chime in from a Chinese perspective. Here’s what he wrote:

“It's important to know that all publishing in China is controlled by the state. The government controls all domestic publications through ISBNs, which private companies [like small publishing houses] have no access to, except by cooperating with a state-owned publisher. For the CPC, books and newspapers are "battle fields of ideology,” and the Party will not allow any publisher owned by the state to publish anything which could threaten its reign. Whenever the state finds any publisher that crosses the line or lines (direct reference to the Tiananmen massacre of 1989 is an absolutely line, for instance) it sets, it can simply eliminate the whole organization. So there is the question of survival for all publishers, and being an editor or publisher means having to be part of the censorship.

“One might think that state-owned publishers are only instruments of the state or the Party, but the truth is, there are always people with conscience, who wish to publish books with true value, be it historic, aesthetic; or intellectual, etc. For these people, publishing often means making difficult decisions negotiating the line between editing a book so it won't be denied any chance of publication, and keeping it as intact as possible. Communication between the local editor and the author is really important, and trust often comes from these exchanges.

“Translated books remain a very important source of information and ideas that keep the Chinese people on the same page as the outside world; people who are capable of reading in English or other languages are still a minority. For those books that are immediately connected with politically sensitive events or topics in China, it's often impossible to keep the main body intact (such as many of Andrew J. Nathan's books, unfortunately). But for most books, only a few lines or paragraphs are be deemed "reactionary,” and it would be a great loss for Chinese readers if these books could not be translated and published just because of those few words.”

Not far from where I live in Goleta, CA, there is a shepherd who sets up a portable electric fence for his flock to graze along the bluffs above the Pacific Ocean. Over the years, I have often walked past the sheep on regular walks and never once have I seen a single sheep get within five feet of that electric fence. Censorship in China is like an electric fence, and after a few zaps, most will eventually stop going close to the fence and perhaps in many cases, even stop seeing the fence for what it really is.

I would argue that when it comes to censorship in China the true elephant in the room is actually self-censorship. While the lines dictating what is permissible is sometimes vague and often-shifting, after several decades of various forms of censorship in publishing in China, virtually all intellectuals, academics, and writers have learned to judge where the electric fence is and how to play by the “rules of the game.” Not only that, but many have internalized the rules to such a degree that most censorship in China today takes place before the pen even touches the paper. This notion of self-censorship is partially a result of the rules in place (rules which can often be simultaneously invisible yet have very tangible repercussions), but self-censorship is also deeply tied to the “keep-your mouth shut and play it safe” (mingzhe baoshen) philosophy-of-behavior that dominated many generations of Chinese citizens who saw first hand the impact of what “speaking your mind” could mean from the Anti-Rightest Movement through the Cultural Revolution, and even up until today. Nor should the impact of several generations of parents who grew up with the mingzhe baoshen philosophy and, whether out of habit or precaution, passed it down to their children, even during periods of relative liberalism and stability.

My own first brush with Chinese censorship came more than two decades ago as a young college student studying abroad at Nanjing University. Assigned to write two term papers on modern China, I wrote my first paper on the “liberation of Tibet” and the second paper on June Fourth. It is hard for me to imagine exactly what 19-year-old me was thinking by selecting those topics. It was probably a combination of idealism and naivety fueled by a strong belief that “we American students can’t be expected to adhere to the same censorship standards as Chinese students, after all, we’re in China on an American-sponsored study program!” I quickly learned where at least one post on that electric fence was. I learned a bit about censorship as I was asked to re-copy the entire handwritten paper, leaving out certain problematic passages (which I never did). But I also learned about some of the unexpected repercussions of censorship, such as the incredibly uncomfortable position my actions put various teachers and campus administrators in. (How many meetings did they have about my case?) These were all issues that 19-year-old me could barely grasp, but fortysomething me still blushes when I think back to that moment, especially knowing what I know now about how things work in China.

In 2007, fifteen years after I was told to re-write a censored version of my term per, I published by first book in mainland China. The book was a simplified Chinese language version of Speaking in Images: Interviews with Contemporary Chinese Filmmakers (Columbia University Press, 2005). The book, which consisted of 19 in-depth interviews with leading filmmakers from China, Taiwan, and Hong Kong had already been published in traditional Chinese in Taiwan under the title Guangying Yanyu: Dangdai Huayupian Daoyan Fangtanlu (Rye Field, 2007). Although the book occasionally engages with topics such as June Fourth, the Cultural Revolution, underground Chinese film, queer cinema, and censorship, the book was intended as an oral history of contemporary Chinese film culture and I never considered “controversial” or “sensitive” as keywords, or even adjectives used to describe the book. Yet in the publisher’s letter, besides a polite request to publish the book in China, there was also a matter-of-fact clause stating that in order to proceed, I would have to agree to a list of deletions and revisions concerning sensitive passages. The list was more than three pages long and in most cases changes appeared alongside suggested replacement passages.

The question for me then was whether or not to accept these terms and compromise the way in which some of the material was presented. I didn't take the question I was facing lightly. But after some soul searching and careful consideration of what was at stake (a P.R.C. readership verses preserving a series of passages that touched on controversial historical moments), I ultimately decided to agree to the suggested changes and the book was published in 2008. For me, the value of having my work (and in this case, the stories of some of China's greatest living filmmakers) widely accessible to Chinese readers, albeit in a slightly revised form, made more sense than taking a hard line which would effectively make the book “unpublishable” in China. It helped that the book’s Chinese editors were sensitive enough not to outright delete many of the “problematic passages” but instead offer more ambiguous alternatives. For instance suggested replacements for passages such as, “Because of what happened during June 4th...” would be: “Because of the things that happened that year...” Though far from ideal, the revisions allowed careful readers to decode the implied meaning, although there were, of course, other passages, such as some of the direct references to film censorship, which were simply deleted.

Subsequent books of mine published in the P.R.C., such as a 2011 monograph on award-winning filmmaker Jia Zhangke’s Hometown Trilogy and a 2015 book-length interview with the acclaimed Taiwan film director Hou Hsiao-hsien did not seem to elicit the same scrutiny as Speaking in Images when it came to censorship. Even though the trio of films discussed in Jia Zhangke's Hometown Trilogy all were banned upon completion in China, in-depth discussion of them in my book didn't seem to raise any red flags (there are, of course, very different censorship standards in China for film, television, and publishing). Nor did censorship come into play in 2013-2014 during my one-year tenure as a weekly Chinese-language culture and film columnist for The Beijing News, a major daily newspaper with a print distribution of more than 800,000 copies. By the time I was writing my Chinese column, I had come a long way from my days as a 19-year-old foreign student intent on testing the limits and exercising my “freedom of speech.” The subject matter I wrote about was always true to my heart, honest, and genuine and at no point did I feel like I was censoring myself, but I of course was very conscious of the fact that if I wanted to write about more sensitive topics, I would have to find a venue outside China to publish my work.

There are no easy decisions when it comes to censorship in China. I deeply respect the stance taken by authors like Evan Osnos, who decided he would rather his book Age of Ambition not be published in China if it meant subjecting his work to censorship, but ultimately, those of us publishing books in Chinese must individually navigate the seas of censorship. I would rather get the conversation started rather than have my voice completely silenced.

Even as I write these words and reflect on these decisions, I am not oblivious to the contradictions at play—how can someone who doesn’t want his “voice silenced” willingly agree to let his work be censored? But I would prefer to engage in dialogue within China on topics that can be addressed and, hopefully, through that process further expand public discourse, sometimes even into once-taboo areas. And so I engage vigorously in public debate in China through essays, columns, and books on topics where there is room for debate. I am also keenly aware of the long (and unfortunately ongoing) tradition of westerners who see it as their “duty,” “right,” or “mission” to “enlighten/civilize/open up/reform, etc.” China. Some of the recent discourse on censorship in China comes dangerously close to that Orientalist discourse, whereby it is the West’s job to take a stance and "bring freedom of speech" to China. While I am a longstanding advocate of China appropriating a more liberal stance when it comes to censorship, I don’t see it as my job to bring about that change. In fact, I firmly believe that to think so would be an inappropriate, pretentious stance. So while I hope China sees liberalization in their censorship policies and one day “Banned in China” becomes a passé catchphrase, those changes will need to come from within China, from its people. At the same time, self-censorship is certainly not unique to China and can take on many forms; just think about the way in which honest discourse on the part of political candidates in the United States is constricted if not “censured” by political polls and projected voting trends. The electric fences, visible and invisible, come in many forms.

Shortly after we concluded this Conversation, Peter Hessler sent us a full length essay on a closely related topic. We published it as “Why I Publish in China,” in our Viewpoint section.