How my book on China and water was censored in China

Authors critical of the government find it a struggle to be published in China without restrictions

March 15, 2022
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The Yangtze River in China. Credit: Julia Hiebaum / Alamy

“I’m very glad to see your book The Water Kingdom published in China last year. Congratulations!” This message from a colleague in China would have been delightful, had its content not been total news to me. I’d fervently hoped to see my 2016 book, a cultural history of China presented through its relationship with water, reach a domestic Chinese audience. I thought it might supply a useful mirror that revealed to Chinese people aspects of their culture perhaps too pervasive for them to notice. Xinran, the Chinese writer now living in the west, commented that the book “is one of the very few that will be respected both in the west and in China.”

But having now obtained a copy of the translated book, which has been published without my knowledge or consent, I find—as I’d feared—that, far from treating it respectfully, the publisher has, as far as I am concerned, censored it extensively. This includes the removal of a pivotal chapter explaining how China’s history of water management can help us understand its modern hydraulic mega-engineering, from Mao’s sometimes disastrous campaign of dam-building to the construction of the controversial Three Gorges Dam on the Yangtze. I argue in the book that the ancient Chinese notion of a heavenly mandate to rule, arbitrated by the state’s ability to control the country’s unruly waters, remains a powerful determinant of governance even today.

If the book were ever going to appear within China under Xi Jinping’s repressive administration, some cuts were always inevitable. Yet I had hoped that judicious bargaining would enable the key message to survive: that we cannot understand the decisions of the Chinese Communist Party on matters such as environmentalism and climate, regional water resource management, and even the mobilisation of myth for state propaganda, without recognising the connections to the past.

Ironically, the publisher’s explanation (on being contacted by my agent) for the removal of the chapter on dams was because “in 2018 Xi Jinping spoke highly of the Three Gorges Project during the inspection of the project, describing it as a ‘national instrument,’ ‘an initiative in the history of Chinese water control,’ and ‘the century-old dream of the Chinese nation,’” rather proves my point. To this extent, the book is a plea for better cross-cultural understanding, and cautions against an overly simplistic imposition of western preconceptions on China’s goals and motivations. It tries to be both critical and culturally sympathetic.

This is why I think the censoring of The Water Kingdom exemplifies a broader issue than just the questionable practices in Chinese publishing, or even the intolerance of the Chinese government of anything that smacks of criticism. It shows how a state that spreads fear and suppresses history hides a country from itself and widens the gap between outsiders and those who seek to promote dialogue. 

I declined one offer from a Chinese publisher precisely because they had insisted on extensive cuts, before accepting another offer that seemed to entail only some relatively minor omissions. Of course, any constraints to an author’s freedom of speech compromise the work. But because I hoped that, on balance, publication of a lightly expurgated version of the book in China might serve the greater good—for example by offering to Chinese people some contextualisation of the country’s recent history and its current struggles with pollution and climate change—I was prepared for a little give-and-take.

My publisher had initially asked, for example, for the removal of an image of the 1994 painting by Liu Wei called Swimmers ’94, showing Mao’s famous river-bathing exploits in the presence of a lewdly depicted naked woman. (The painting is a commentary on the vulgarity of Mao’s socialist dream today.) Omitting Wei’s image—which might indeed offend a sense of propriety within China—seemed a small price to pay for retaining my wider point here: how the battle against catastrophic floods that created political and social instability has valorised water imagery as a potent, coded symbol of discontent.

But having agreed to a number of such tweaks, I was suddenly told by the publisher, out of the blue, that they would need to make cuts every bit as swingeing as those I had previously declined. I explained that I could not agree to this—not just because the cuts would eviscerate the book but also because I am committed to supporting the rights of authors worldwide and because I felt that I would be disrespecting friends and colleagues within China by withholding information from them. It was a wrenching decision to decline publication, but I had no hesitation in making it. I assured the publisher that, although I was saddened by having to do so, “my feelings of friendship and respect towards the Chinese people will be undiminished.”

That was the last I heard until my Chinese colleague sent his congratulations on the book’s publication. Evidently, the same publisher had decided simply to ignore my wishes and go ahead. Normally, Chinese publishers are scrupulous about sending copies of translations, and I can only surmise that this did not happen here because they feared my response would be precisely as it is. (Poignantly, the images I have seen suggest that the book itself looks gorgeous.)

This kind of misdemeanour is sadly still not uncommon in Chinese publishing. American political scientist Andrew Nathan had a similar experience in 1997 when Xinhua Press published a Chinese translation of his co-authored book The Great Wall and the Empty Fortress. Having signed a contract promising no cuts, he found when he received a copy of the translated book that an entire chapter had been omitted. Nathan has written eloquently about the difficult choices authors face: while, like me, he feels that accepting censorship sends a perilous message, the cost-benefit analysis of getting even expurgated information to a Chinese audience is complex. He quotes an editor of a small Chinese publisher: “Translated books remain a very important source of information and ideas that keep the Chinese people on the same page as the outside world.” Writer Peter Hessler (on whose excellent River Town: Two Years on the Yangtze I drew in my book) has commented on why he has sometimes accepted cuts to his own books on China: “I see my publication in China… as a reflection of my belief in the importance of education and access to information.”

“To me, the key point is transparency,” says Nathan. “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.” I think this is right; as Nathan says, we cannot assume that Chinese readers know that what they are reading has been censored.

In the event, these difficult choices were simply taken out of my hands. Perhaps my editors felt they had already committed themselves beyond a point of no return: to simply cancel the contract, as I had requested, would be to lose face. I certainly understand their reluctance to publish the book in a form that could incur serious consequences; as I had explained to them, I had no wish to see them run any risks, which is why I would rather withdraw it. It remains unclear whether the cuts were made at the demand of party officials, or whether, as seems more likely, this was pre-emptive self-censorship. At any rate, the publisher has now agreed not to reprint the current version of the book beyond the 3000 copies already distributed, although they might seek permission from the Chinese authorities (rather unlikely to be forthcoming, I think) to publish an unexpurgated version at a later date.

What seems so dismaying is what the cuts say about the fragility of the Chinese Communist Party. The party is, for example, still unable to countenance even passing references to the Tiananmen Square killings. It still feels it is too dangerous to permit criticisms of the Mao era (except for those the leaders themselves make of Mao). And while my book, written in 2015, explained how activism around water and environmental issues was permitting a hopeful degree of de facto pluralism in Chinese political life, now that too has been suppressed. There is, as far as I’ve been able to ascertain, no mention left in the current translation of my book of China’s serious pollution problems. As the publisher has said in its defence, the material that “reveals the current state of water pollution in China and the CCP’s mismanagement of water resources” conflicted with how “the state media has been emphasising the governance effect of ‘green mountains and clear waters’”—so “to show China’s shortcomings [in this respect], it is difficult to pass the review of the higher authorities.”

By refusing to let history be used as anything other than decorative patriotism—to prevent it from being a vehicle for actually learning and reflecting both about the past and the present—the Chinese state demonstrates a depressing anti-intellectualism. Like Nathan, I don’t want a battle but rather a dialogue through which public discourse in China might be expanded.

Xi’s statement in 2014 that art and literature should “take patriotism as a theme, leading the people to establish and maintain correct views of history, nationality, statehood, and culture” fundamentally denies that healthy views of history and culture are shaped not by fiat but by contestation and debate. I suspect many British historians will see parallels with the culture-wars jingoism of our own government. We are not yet at the stage of state censorship, but we shouldn’t take it for granted that everyone is content to see “official history” contested here either.