Tea Leaf Nation
Chinese Censorship of Western Books Is Now Normal. Where’s the Outrage?
I spent months investigating how Chinese publishers slice out material — and how Western writers respond with a shrug.
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 apparatus. Writing the resulting report, Censorship and Conscience, was fun and important work. Many China-focused writers and people in the industry had a sense of how bad the censorship problem was for Western authors, but no one had satisfactorily mapped the contours of the problem. Did it affect everyone, or just nonfiction writers who couldn’t avoid touching on Chinese human rights topics? How often were writers caving to censorship requests, or were they just as likely to opt for publishing without cuts in Taiwan or Hong Kong?
I emailed with Chinese dissident writers scattered around the globe, some under virtual house arrest in China, others in exile in the United States and Europe, and met with famous American authors and literary agents. Reporting stretched from the originally planned eight weeks to more than four months. What surprised me most was how frequently Western books, even seemingly innocuous ones, were being censored, regardless of genre — and how blasé nearly everyone was about the issue.
I heard about cuts to self-help, poetry, fiction, history, and reportage. The missing material usually involved Tibet, the 1989 Tiananmen crackdown, or some shameful chapter of Chinese history like the Cultural Revolution or the Great Famine. (Sex could also get a book censored.) As the anecdotal evidence started to accumulate, it became clear that though cuts tended to be surgically precise, they were also extremely common. Only rarely was there outrage. Many were fatigued by the idea of having to police all their overseas editions. With international publishing, they argued, something is always going to get lost in translation. Many had simply decided to not worry about it.
On top of the lack of concern, there was also an Escher-like chain of deniability, with authors deferring to agents, who deferred to publishers, who deferred to foreign rights agents, who deferred to Chinese co-agents and publishers who said they were following their gut, trying to conform to a set of unwritten but implied government guidelines. The opacity and the web of shared but poorly delineated responsibility lets many people off the hook. In the case of Brooklyn-based writer Paul Auster’s censored Chinese version of Sunset Park, his latest novel, I was struck by the bold honestly of the Chinese publisher, Peng Lun, deputy editor at Shanghai 99, which co-published the book. Peng took full responsibility for his decision to edit out any mention of the jailed activist Liu Xiaobo from Auster’s book; it wasn’t what he wanted to do, he said, but what he had to do to stay in business.
I did not find that people were selling their souls, submitting to censorship just for the money. For a few authors, of course, a Chinese contract was gravy. One agent told me it was like “found money” — and who doesn’t like that? But most writers I spoke with weren’t getting rich from China royalties. The truth was possibly something worse than a mere mercenary instinct: Authors were submitting to it because they couldn’t be bothered to figure out how to avoid it.
While there was some occasional shame or self-recrimination, those involved usually felt that in their case, censorship was not important enough to justify fierce resistance. Robert Hass, the former U.S. poet laureate, told me he regretted not having been more proactive about shepherding his collected poems through publication in Mandarin. (The publisher ended up cutting out a line about Tiananmen in the introductory essay.) To have monitored changes and fought them would have been “another literary chore,” that he didn’t want to deal with, he said. But he also said that he didn’t feel that his standing up to the censorship machine would have mattered. “I don’t know who would have the moral authority or force to make a difference by refusing to be published in Chinese — but I was not in that position,” Hass told me. Hass’s remark seemed to epitomize the general sense of fatigue and powerlessness that surrounds the censorship question. Writers are siloed by their craft: They sit, solitary, at their writing desks. Whether out of modesty or a sense of competition, they tend not to swap stories or compare notes about their publishing deals in China. As a result, there is no united front of writers battling the issue.
Significantly, those who knew China best were the most likely to advocate for negotiated censorship. It wasn’t that they were less principled, but because they wrote about China – as opposed to simply having their work translated into Chinese — they were among the most likely to face censorship. At the same time, they were the most motivated to reach a Chinese audience. And because most of them spoke the language, they were able to engage with their publisher, which fostered trust and sympathy. Finally, they were able to talk to their readers during book tours and explain how and why their works were cut firsthand. That seemed to minimize the discomfort of launching an incomplete version in China. But should it?
While reporting the piece, which ended up as a 10,000-word report that dropped on May 20 — shortly before BookExpo America feted China as its 2015 guest of honor to a collective shrug — I was careful to reserve judgment. As a journalist, I keep my political views private. But at the same time, truth and transparency are paramount to my field. After all the interviews and research, my personal conclusion is this: When it comes to publishing in China, every individual author can and must let their conscience be their guide. But their conscience should tell them to reject censorship.
Photo credit: AFP/Getty Images
Alexa Olesen has a master’s degree in contemporary Chinese literature from SOAS University of London and was a foreign correspondent for the Associated Press in Beijing for eight years. She is the director of research at China Six, a New York-based consulting firm. Twitter: @ael_o