It’s Not All About the Censorship

A veteran <i>New Yorker</i> correspondent on why he publishes his books in Mainland China.


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 City, where Chinese publishers were the guests of honor. In May, the PEN American Center released “Censorship and Conscience: Foreign Authors and the Challenge of Chinese Censorship,” an excellent and extremely useful report on the restrictions in China, and PEN organized a protest to coincide with the Expo. I’ve published three books in China, having agreed to small changes that were deemed politically necessary, and I’ve refused to publish a fourth because it would require deletions that in my opinion would fundamentally alter the meaning of the text. At the beginning of the year, I wrote an essay for the New Yorker about my experiences on a Chinese book tour, where I was struck by the contrast between the repressive political climate and the sophisticated and aware readers that I met. I told the Times reporter that I was happy to talk, and I gave her a couple of days and times when I would be available by phone.

As a journalist, I’m painfully aware of all the leads that I fail to follow through on. Time runs short, material piles up, the focus of a project changes — there are lots of reasons for not making a call. But there’s always the risk that you miss something. After not hearing from the reporter, I saw the story in the paper, where it appeared under the headline “China’s Publishers Court America as Its Authors Scorn Censorship.” The article included a number of quotes from outraged writers, both Chinese and foreign, who have been censored, and it also referred to foreign writers who have agreed to publish books with some changes. But there weren’t any comments from these authors, and nobody pointed out that some censored books still provide important resources for Chinese readers.

Over the past couple of years, I’ve noticed a problem with the coverage of the issue of Chinese censorship of foreign books. In 2014, when I was interviewed for a feature in the South China Morning Post, the story felt imbalanced — it took more than a thousand words to reach a comment by a writer who noted any benefits to making more material available in China, even if it suffers some censorship. My colleague and friend Michael Meyer, who has written two books on China, including one, The Last Days of Old Beijing, that has been published on the mainland, has complained that journalists seem to avoid mentioning that foreign China specialists who work closely with their publishers are often able to include material in their books that otherwise isn’t available in China. “The focus in these articles is always on monetary, not intellectual, exchange, and on what has been cut, not what has been preserved,” he told me recently. His book is highly critical of the redevelopment of Beijing, and yet less than one page, total, was removed from the mainland edition. “More surprising than the three passages that were sliced was all the material that remained intact,” he says.

Meyer believes that his experiences were not accurately represented by the Times when the paper wrote its first long feature on the issue in October of 2013. The main subject of that piece was Ezra Vogel, a professor emeritus of sociology at Harvard, who had agreed to censorship of his biography of the former Chinese leader Deng Xiaoping in order to publish on the mainland. From the moment the piece appeared, I felt particularly uneasy about one aspect. It emphasized financial motivations for authors who publish in China, and the headline was “Authors Accept Censors’ Rules to Sell in China.” Vogel is a retired professor in his eighties, and while he might be making compromises in order to reach Chinese readers, I doubted that he was in it for the money. Sure enough, the Times quickly printed a letter from the president of Ohio Wesleyan University, who said that before publishing in China, Vogel had contractually donated all of his royalties to the college, his alma mater, to fund academic exchange programs.

Vogel, who later told me that he felt “blindsided” by the article, said the Times never asked him anything about royalties or money. Andrew Jacobs, the Times reporter who wrote it, confirms this, although he says that the article doesn’t directly claim that Vogel was motivated by financial gain. This is true, but the implication is troubling, given the headline and overall tone. To date, Vogel’s royalties have resulted in a donation of $1,037,000 to Ohio Wesleyan. A retired sociologist who gives away that kind of money shouldn’t be tainted by even indirect accusations of greed.

The Times also received another letter from the director of the Chinese University Press of Hong Kong, who complained that the article failed to note that despite the censorship, Vogel’s book represented the first time that many key details about the Tiananmen Square massacre were published in China. I believe that it’s important to debate the compromises of authors like Vogel, but in the interest of fairness, the article should have mentioned that this was the first time certain sensitive historical material was published in the mainland. (Vogel says that he emphasized this detail in his interviews with Jacobs, and his mainland editors, as well as editors in Hong Kong, would have confirmed it.)

In our news cycle, this is all ancient history — the story appeared more than a year and a half ago. But anybody who searches the Times website still gets the original article without any correction, clarification, or reference to the letters. And reporters still draw on the story. The recent Times article about the BookExpo referred prominently to Vogel and his publication in China, although he was not contacted or given an opportunity for further comment. (He tells me that he disagrees with the way his views were summarized in the recent Times piece and that he would have appreciated the opportunity to explain himself.) And this reflects what I believe to be a problem with how this issue is covered. Stories tend to emphasize money and the size of the Chinese market, without any comments from actual Chinese readers; the result is that we see the hordes rather than the individuals, who may in fact have a more sophisticated sense of the ways in which their government limits information. And foreign journalists seem to have little interest in hearing the reasons why some authors have chosen to publish in China. It’s an issue in which reputations are at stake, and criticism can be intense; after I wrote my essay in the New Yorker, one fellow author of a China book compared my decision to publish on the mainland to the abuse of captive labor in the United Arab Emirates.

Meyer recently wrote me, “I’ll take censorship over this brand of journalism, thank you.” He was joking, of course; nobody would say that biased or incomplete research by American journalists is remotely as egregious as the way that the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) stifles writers, dissidents, and free information. But we need to be careful not to let the worst aspects of China influence the tone of our discussion. This is especially true during the current period, when the political climate in China has become increasingly repressive. These days, foreign journalists are subject to routine harassment by the Chinese authorities, and the Times has been treated particularly badly.

Nevertheless, our own discussion of the question of publishing in China should be more nuanced, with a genuine effort to hear the different voices involved. There needs to be a recognition that freedom of information is also undermined when journalists ignore certain legitimate perspectives. This would have been one of my recommendations for the PEN report: In my opinion, it would have been worthwhile to mention that the current climate creates a risk of biased U.S. coverage, as well as possibly unfair attacks on those who publish in China. But in order to know this, PEN would have had to speak with more China specialists who have had books appear on the mainland. Alexa Olesen, who prepared the PEN report, contacted me while I was working on my New Yorker essay, and I told her that I would be happy to talk after my piece appeared, but she didn’t follow up. Nobody from PEN spoke with Vogel. Olesen had a minimal email exchange with Meyer, but no formal interview. We are among the few who have published in China, reviewed our work carefully in Chinese, engaged in book tours on the mainland, and talked to the Western press about this issue. Our names are mentioned prominently in the PEN report, so it would have been appropriate to have talked with us.

* * *

Having said that, I want to emphasize that on the whole the PEN report is excellent. It’s thorough and highly detailed, and it avoids the black-and-white portrayal of this issue that’s been so common. Most important, PEN reached out to many Chinese writers, dissidents, and editors, and the report includes their ideas. Olesen deserves enormous credit, and PEN has created an invaluable resource for anybody who considers publication in China. The report highlights one of the biggest problems: If a writer simply signs a Chinese contract and doesn’t monitor the process, material might be removed without his knowledge or permission. PEN recommends that authors work with reliable publishers, hire independent translators to check the Chinese version, and negotiate whenever possible to resist changes.

In general, there is a difference between China specialists and other foreign writers who sign a contract and don’t engage further. The media coverage rarely distinguishes between these groups — actually, most criticism tends to be leveled at China specialists, whereas those who don’t bother to check their books are invariably portrayed as innocent victims of the censors. It is important to recognize that specialists who opt for publication on the mainland often do so out of principle. This is usually portrayed as a compromise, or even as a weakening of values; the PEN report has tipped the scales slightly by subtitling sections “Informed Decisions: Writers Who Agree to Censorship” and “Standing Firm: Authors Who Refuse Censorship.”

I suppose that I’ve “agreed to censorship,” but I see my publication in China in more positive terms, as a reflection of my belief in the importance of education and access to information. I worked in China as both a teacher and a journalist, and these experiences convinced me of one thing: You need to have a very good reason before you deliberately withhold ideas and information that may be useful to people. The fact that their unelected and repressive government censors other material is not by itself adequate justification. My feelings on this issue are particularly strong because I witnessed the ways in which many Chinese have been able to improve their awareness and educational level despite the political restrictions. Like Meyer, I began as a Peace Corps volunteer in the mid-1990s, and I taught in a small city called Fuling, where the majority of my students came from poor homes with no tradition of higher education. Most college administrators were conservative CCP hacks, and materials were limited in ways that they aren’t today. Nevertheless, those students learned, and almost two decades later, many still tell me how much they were influenced by their contact with foreigners.

Certainly the experience also changed me forever. After leaving the Peace Corps, my research and writing continued to focus on individuals like my students — Chinese whose families had been poor, uneducated, and isolated, but who were now in the process of becoming something else. As a result, I feel strongly about trying to make my books available in editions that are inexpensive, easily available, and in a language that average Chinese can read. I especially want the books to be accessible in the communities where I lived and researched. When we discuss such issues, we tend to give disproportionate weight to Chinese dissidents, writers, and intellectuals — but if we’re really motivated by a democratic instinct, then we also have to think carefully about how information reaches the vast majority of Chinese who are not elite.

My books are also published in uncensored Taiwanese editions, and some mainland readers find ways to read them. But it’s generally not easy to do this. At times, the books can be found on a retail site like Taobao, but the price is usually about seven times higher than that of a mainland edition, and lately I’ve noticed that such sales seem to be restricted. Even if mainland readers can find a Taiwanese book, they usually struggle with the traditional characters and vertical text. Recently, I was interviewed by Zhang Mengke, a student at Zhejiang University who is working on her thesis, and in an email she mentioned my second book, Oracle Bones, which I’ve chosen not to publish in China. “You may find that I never asked any questions about Oracle Bones,” she wrote. “Many Chinese readers may not hear of this book. I have just finished reading it, and I would say maybe it is my favorite.” She continued, “However, it’s a pity that it will probably never be published in China. I hate the censorship….” When I asked for her opinion on my publication of the other books, which have been censored in small ways, she wrote, “But I do think the books (like yours) are still worth being published in China.” The PEN report includes similar comments from Chinese writers, and I have yet to hear from somebody in China who believes that it’s wrong or damaging for me to publish my mainland editions. In fact, every Chinese person that I’ve talked to about this issue says that such books represent a useful resource.

In the end, there’s no long-distance solution to Chinese censorship. I have to accept that if I choose not to publish a mainland version of Oracle Bones, the readership will be limited to a relatively small number of elite Chinese, many of whom are fluent in English or travel out of the country. My other books cover much less sensitive topics, and I’ve decided that the compromises are worthwhile. There’s a prominent note at the front of the books explaining that some material has been removed, and it directs readers to my website, where I’ve listed the deletions. I often receive notes from Chinese readers who access the site, like this one from a high school student in Hebei province, who wrote earlier in the spring:

“I am just a very common chinese [sic] student and my english [sic] is not so good ,if my message isn’t very clear ,please forgive me ,i just want to express my thanks because your books are so helpful for a girl trying to know the country where she live [sic].”

Finally, the issue of publishing in China needs to be considered in the larger context of foreigner activity in the country. Journalists sometimes tell me that anybody who allows his or her book to be censored is tacitly endorsing a regime that imprisons writers and dissidents. In the Times, the historian Elliot H. Sperling recently made a similar argument: “When those outside China acquiesce to censorship of their work — regardless of how they excuse such behavior to themselves and their colleagues — they are actively contributing to the further constriction of the space available to many brave writers and artists inside the country….” By the same logic, no foreigner should teach in Chinese institutions, where materials and topics are restricted by the authorities, and which serve an important propaganda purpose in a country that sometimes imprisons scholars. No foreign-language student should study in China, where he willingly enters such an environment and allows his fees to contribute to perpetuating the system. No academic exchanges, no government cultural programs, no Fulbright scholars, no NGO activity. All of these activities are politically circumscribed to some degree in China, and cutting them off would lead us to the intellectual equivalent of the Cuba policy, from which we are currently trying to extricate ourselves.

Most reasonable people believe that foreign engagement in China should be judged on a case-by-case basis. When a foreigner stands up in a Chinese classroom to teach a course in oral English, he is not tacitly supporting the regime’s imprisonment of dissident academics — he’s teaching a course in oral English. In fact, he may reasonably believe that such exchanges serve a small but positive function in a society that’s trying to overcome a long and painful history of isolation. Of course, there are some lectures that a foreign teacher should not give in China, just as there are some things that foreign NGOs should not do there. The boundaries often shift — as a result of the current political crackdown, a number of foreign NGOs are being forced to reevaluate their position in China, and some may very well decide that they can’t responsibly continue their work. But others may be able to serve a positive function with minimal compromises, and it would be wrong to condemn them simply because of the overall tone of the regime.

In the same way, I believe that some censored books can be responsibly published in China, while others cannot. My final small disagreement with the PEN report is its recommendation that authors “should resist censorship” that deals with references to “major historical, political, and human rights concerns,” including the Tiananmen Square massacre. Some foreign writers have stated that no book should be published in China if there is any censorship or word change connected to such events. But this is another example of allowing the worst aspects of the CCP to dictate the terms of our discussion and our behavior. In their paranoia and unwillingness to accept free speech, Chinese authorities have created certain strict red lines for their citizens. But we don’t have to do the same. If we make every decision to publish in China contingent upon whether we are forced to change a reference to the Tiananmen Square “massacre” into an “incident,” then we are contaminated by the same petty mentality as the censors. Much as we might loathe the Orwellian nature of these euphemisms, we shouldn’t, as the PEN report suggests, make this a primary criterion for publishing.

In order for me to publish a mainland edition of my first book, River Town, I had to agree to the removal or rephrasing of certain passing references to the massacre and to the national leaders involved. But the focus of that book was the personal connections that I developed with my students and other people in town, and the ways in which we exchanged ideas despite the larger political climate. Headline history and national leaders were very distant in a place like Fuling, and it would violate the spirit of the book to prevent its Chinese publication because such small references have to be removed. It would also contradict everything that I learned as an educator in Fuling.

In contrast, in Oracle Bones I include a long description of visiting Tiananmen Square on the 10th anniversary of the massacre. The main theme of that book is the creation of narrative and history, and the ways in which stories are shaped by forces ranging from political restrictions to journalistic bias. So I believe that it would fundamentally alter the book to allow that scene to be censored, along with other key elements, and as a result I have refused to publish it on the mainland. Same author, same historical event — but a completely different response. This shouldn’t be hard for us to grasp; we have a long tradition of appreciating situations in which various sets of morality or law happen to contradict, creating a dilemma that requires careful thought. As Huck Finn, whose story is still a target of censors in the United States, once said: “All right, then, I’ll go to hell!”

Photo credit: STR/AFP/Getty Images

Peter Hessler is a staff writer at The New Yorker, where he served as Beijing Correspondent from 2000 to 2007.

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