Why I’m Giving Away My Book in China

After a decade covering Asia for The Wall Street Journal, I devoted three years of my life to researching and writing a book about China’s one-child policy, One Child: The Story of China’s Most Radical Experiment.

This month, I’m giving away the Chinese-language edition of my book for free.

Anyone from Shanghai to Shenzhen can download the electronic file I made available, print copies, sell them, and I won’t see a penny.

I decided to take this step because tightening censorship would have made it almost impossible for my book to see the light of day in China otherwise. In the past, writers in similar predicaments have had to either submit to censorship or not be published in China at all. But given today’s advances in digital publishing, I felt I could surmount this problem with some ingenuity—though no little difficulty. As I embarked on my likely problematic publishing odyssey, I was strengthened by the growing belief that writers must think outside the box if they want to reach key audiences, even as traditional publishing methods die and authoritarian regimes strengthen.

Four years ago, after selling the English-language rights of my book to Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, my agent told me I’d received a good offer for the Chinese-language rights from CITIC Publishing, a division of CITIC Group, one of the biggest state-owned companies in China. The offer came with strings attached: CITIC wanted the right to alter any “sensitive” content.



Chinese Censorship of Western Books Is Now Normal. Where’s the Outrage?

Alexa Olesen
In September 2014, I was commissioned by the New York-based free speech advocacy group PEN American Center to investigate how Western authors were navigating the multibillion-dollar Chinese publishing world and its massive, but opaque, censorship...

This is fairly standard for China, and many writers have had to make compromises to reach one of the largest reading markets in the world. Discussing a 2015 PEN report she wrote on censorship in China, Alexa Olesen noted, “What surprised me most was how frequently Western books, even seemingly innocuous ones, were being censored, regardless of genre.

You might think any book weighing the ramifications of China’s controversial family planning policy would be considered instantly verboten, but there had been a great deal of public discussion on the costs and benefits of the policy, particularly after a 2012 story went viral on China’s Internet about Feng Jianmei. Feng had been seven months pregnant with her second child when authorities forced an abortion on her, igniting public outrage.

In addition, with a growing worker shortage, significant gender imbalances, and problems with eldercare, there was growing disquiet that the 30-plus-year policy was starting to impede the country’s economic future. There were signs that Beijing was preparing to do away with the policy, and a growing sense that the one-child policy was no longer a taboo topic.

With this in mind, I told my agent to table the offer until I finished writing the book and we could concretely discuss cuts.

The next four years saw China’s leadership change hands, and growing repression that affected all aspects of civil society, not just the media. In this new climate, CITIC no longer felt it could obtain official approval to publish my book. Several other approaches from mainland publishers also went nowhere.



One Child

Mei Fong
When Communist Party leaders adopted the one-child policy in 1980, they hoped curbing birth-rates would help lift China’s poorest and increase the country’s global stature. But at what cost? Now, as China closes the book on the policy after more than three decades, it faces a population grown too old and too male, with a vastly diminished supply of young workers.Mei Fong has spent years documenting the policy’s repercussions on every sector of Chinese society. In One Child, she explores its true human impact, traveling across China to meet the people who live with its consequences. Their stories reveal a dystopian reality: unauthorized second children ignored by the state, only-children supporting aging parents and grandparents on their own, villages teeming with ineligible bachelors, and an ungoverned adoption market stretching across the globe. Fong tackles questions that have major implications for China’s future: whether its “Little Emperor” cohort will make for an entitled or risk-averse generation; how China will manage to support itself when one in every four people is over sixty-five years old; and above all, how much the one-child policy may end up hindering China’s growth.Weaving in Fong’s reflections on striving to become a mother herself, One Child offers a nuanced and candid report from the extremes of family planning. —Houghton Mifflin Harcourt

Typically, writers shut out of publishing in mainland China can opt for the less restricted, though considerably smaller, Hong Kong or Taiwan markets. Books published there, though in a different version of the Chinese script, can trickle back to mainland readers.

Such is China’s growing influence that even these traditional avenues are closing. In 2015, five employees working for a Hong Kong publishing house specializing in books critical of China’s leadership vanished, only to re-appear in mainland China giving televised “confessions” to a variety of alleged crimes.

This sent a chill through the Hong Kong publishing world. Bookstores began pulling sensitive titles off the shelves. In an email, one publisher on the island told me that Hong Kong was suffering from “an increasingly hostile publishing environment,” and “Almost all Hong Kong bookstores are banning sales of books that we publish. Without good local distribution as our base, we face an uncertain future.” I was also unable to find a publisher in Taiwan.

I found it puzzling that there were no Chinese publishers—even outside China—that would publish my book. One Child had been well-received in the U.S. and U.K., garnering praise from The New York Review of Books, The Wall Street Journal, and The Times of London. A Japanese edition is in the works. It was featured on the BBC Radio 2 Fact Not Fiction Book Club, and recommended by the Council on Foreign Relations.

Moreover, One Child’s debut had fortuitously coincided with Beijing’s announcement of a move to a nationwide two-child policy. Interest in the topic was, and continues to be, high, especially given recent official attempts to encourage people to have more children in the hopes of filling China’s growing worker shortage.



Why I Publish in China

Peter Hessler
A couple of weeks ago, I received a request from a New York Times reporter to talk about publishing in China. The topic has been in the news lately, with the BookExpo in New York, where Chinese publishers were the guests of honor. In May, the PEN...

In the past, writers didn’t have many options when they couldn’t publish their books. When the author Iris Chang couldn’t get a Japanese-language version of her bestseller The Rape of Nanking published, she fruitlessly contemplated printing copies and smuggling them into the country, according to biographer Paula Kamen. But that was 1997, when books were heavy and cumbersome things. Now we have e-books, easily transmitted and cheaper to publish, and while that has hurt the mighty publishing industry’s profits, it can also offer the humble writer some opportunities.

In early summer, when it became clear I could not find a Chinese-language publisher, I decided to go it on my own, commissioning a translation and shouldering costs myself. Even that wasn’t easy. One translator shied away from the project, citing fears of political persecution. The translator I wound up hiring asked to remain anonymous for the same reason.

To cover my costs, I have put up a virtual tip jar via crowdfunding platform GoFundMe. I’ll also be making the Chinese-language version available for print-on-demand and digital purchase, to reach readers beyond the Great Firewall.

Overall, it has been a harder slog than I envisioned. But it’s worth it. I interviewed many Chinese people for this book—from academics to officials to everyday folk. They spoke honestly, and at some risk to themselves, about how the one-child policy shaped their lives. Their observations and experiences deserve to be part of the conversation about China’s past and future. I was not willing to have their voices silenced.

To write a book about China that most Chinese cannot read is to admit defeat. I couldn’t do it.