|Deng Xiaoping (left) and Mikhail Gorbachev. The following sentence has been removed from the Chinese version of a book on Deng: “While on camera during the banquet honoring Gorbachev, Deng, hands shaking, let a piece
of dumpling drop from his chopsticks”
Beijing, Oct. 20: Chinese readers of Ezra F. Vogel’s sprawling biography of reformist leader Deng Xiaoping may have missed a few details that appeared in the original English edition.
The Chinese version did not mention that Chinese newspapers had been ordered to ignore the communist implosion across Eastern Europe in the late 1980s. Nor that General Secretary Zhao Ziyang, purged during the Tiananmen Square crackdown, wept when he was placed under house arrest.
Gone was the tense state dinner with the Soviet leader Mikhail S. Gorbachev when Deng, preoccupied by the throngs of students then occupying the square, let a dumpling tumble from his chopsticks.
Vogel, a professor emeritus at Harvard, said the decision to allow Chinese censors to tinker with his work was an unpleasant but necessary bargain, one that allowed the book to reach the kind of enormous readership many western authors can only dream of.
His book, Deng Xiaoping and the Transformation of China, sold 30,000 copies in the US and 650,000 in China.
“To me the choice was easy,” he said during a book tour of China that drew appreciative throngs in nearly a dozen cities. “I thought it was better to have 90 per cent of the book available here than zero.”
Such compromises, almost unheard of just five years ago, are becoming increasingly common as American authors and their publishers are drawn to the Chinese market.
With a highly literate population hungry for the works of foreign writers, China is an increasing source of revenue for American publishing houses; last year e-book earnings for American publishers from China grew by 56 per cent, according to the Association of American Publishers. Chinese publishing companies bought more than 16,000 titles from abroad in 2012, up from 1,664 in 1995.
This month, Chinese book agents and publishers flocked to the Frankfurt book fair, aggressively bidding on the works of Western writers and offering handsome advances, especially for titles by best-selling authors.
China can also be a gold mine for royalties. Last year J.K. Rowling took in $2.4 million here, and Walter Isaacson, the author of the biography Steve Jobs, earned $804,000, according to the Huaxi Metropolitan Daily in Chengdu, which publishes an annual list.
But while best-selling mysteries like The Da Vinci Code, by Dan Brown, or classics like Gabriel García Márquez’s One Hundred Years of Solitude are often faithfully translated, the authors of sexually explicit works or those that touch on Chinese politics and history can find themselves in an Orwellian embrace with a censorship apparatus that has little patience for the niceties of literary or academic integrity.
Some books, like Fifty Shades of Grey, the erotic blockbuster by E.L. James that has been published in more than three dozen countries, may be beyond salvaging. A Chinese publisher who reportedly paid handsomely for the rights last year has so far been thwarted from bringing it to press, according to industry executives.
Foreign writers who agree to submit their books to China’s fickle censorship regime say the experience can be frustrating.
Qiu Xiaolong, a St. Louis-based novelist whose mystery thrillers are set in Shanghai, said Chinese publishers who bought the first three books in his Inspector Chen series altered the identity of pivotal characters and rewrote plot lines they deemed unflattering to the Communist Party.
Most egregiously, he said, publishers insisted on removing any references to Shanghai, replacing it with an imaginary Chinese metropolis called H city because they thought an association with violent crime, albeit fictional, might tarnish the city’s image.
Qiu, who writes in English but was born and raised in China, said that he had reluctantly agreed to some of the alterations, and only after heated discussion, but that others had been made after he approved what he thought were final translations.
“Some of the changes are so ridiculous they made the book incoherent,” he said in a phone interview. Having been burned three times, he said he has refused to allow his fourth novel, A Case of Two Cities, to be printed in China.
The title of When Red is Black was changed to A Farewell Song to Shikumen in China. According to the author, Qiu Xiaolong, the words “red” and “black” were considered too politically sensitive.
Other authors have resisted, too. In 2003, Hillary Rodham Clinton ordered her memoir Living History pulled from Chinese shelves after she discovered that large sections of the book had been excised without permission.
More recently, a Chinese version of Alan Greenspan’s Age of Turbulence was shelved after he refused to approve significant changes to the book.
James Kynge, a columnist for The Financial Times and the author of China Shakes the World: A Titan’s Rise and Troubled Future — and the Challenge for America, walked away from a potentially lucrative deal last year after one publisher demanded that an entire chapter be cut.
“As a journalist committed to accuracy,” he said, “I felt it would be terrifically hypocritical to waive that principle just to gain access to the Chinese marketplace.”
But such stands, it seems, are becoming increasingly rare. Many writers say they are torn by their desire to protect their work and the need to make a living in an era of shrinking advances. For others, it is simply about cultivating an audience in the world’s most populous country, a rising superpower that cannot be summarily ignored.
“As an academic who doesn’t write for a large publication, I’m always happy to have a readership that extends beyond the three people in my family,” said Rebecca Karl, a professor of modern Chinese history at New York University whose book Mao Zedong and China in the Twentieth-Century World: A Concise History was recently purchased by a Chinese publishing house.
She said most of the cuts demanded by her publisher, Hunan People’s Publishing, were relatively painless, although she fought back on every one of them. “It’s about what I expected,” she said.
What she did not expect was that the book would be withheld from publication. The book was rushed to publication for the coming 120th anniversary of Mao’s birth, but when Karl came to China for the launch in June, it had been cancelled. “It could end up never being published,” she said.
Jo Lusby, managing director at Penguin Books China, which has published 250 foreign titles in the past eight years, said she often finds herself trying to ease communications between indignant western writers and the Chinese editors whose job it is to iron out passages they deem unacceptable. In most instances, she said, the Chinese side refuses to bend.
Even if the process remains opaque and unpredictable, publishing executives say the broad outlines of China’s censorship regime have changed little in recent years.
Topics that deal with ethnic tensions, Taiwan and Falun Gong, the banned spiritual movement, are off limits, and books that contain even a passing reference to the Cultural Revolution or contemporary Chinese leaders can expect fine-toothed scrutiny.
Gone are the days of the 1990s when Chinese publishers would buy boundary-pushing titles from abroad and hope to sneak them past the censors. The country’s 560 publishing houses are required to employ in-house censors, most of them faithful party members. Then there is the General Administration of Press and Publications, whose anonymous officials can order the removal of chapters or kill an entire book. (The administrative agency did not respond to requests for comment.)
But it is the editors at Chinese publishing houses themselves who often turn out to have the heaviest hands. “Self-censorship has become the most effective weapon,” said the editor-in-chief of a prominent publishing house in Beijing. “If you let something slip through that catches the attention of a higher-up, it can be a career killer.”