Letter from Beijing

Getting around the censors
September 18, 2013

There was the sound of heavy footsteps in the hallway. I glanced at the clock: 7.30pm. Mum came in, tossed her handbag on the dinner table and sunk into the sofa. She stared blankly at the evening news on the television, slowly rubbing her temples.

“Which book is it this time?” I asked

“The one on Tibetan Buddhism,” she mumbled, and suddenly raised her voice. “I thought everything was fine! Today I received a directive from the central bureau. It was killed. No explanation.”

We sat together in silence. There was more frustration than surprise in her voice. A long-time Editor-in-Chief of a state-owned publishing house, she is no stranger to the capricious censorship rules from above. To reconcile herself with them, however, is another matter.

Compared to the more clear-cut censorship rules applied to films and news—topics like Taiwanese independence and the Tiananmen Square massacre are strict taboos—publishing censorship is more fluid. This is largely a result of the colossal size of the industry, the largest in the world: in 2012, China released 414,000 print titles, which defies any attempt at exhaustive censorship. This allows writers and publishers occasional leeway, but also makes it difficult for them to predict where the boundary lies.

Mum specialises in publishing books in humanities and social sciences for a lay audience. They have been gaining appeal among the Chinese middle class, who are increasingly socially aware. But they are also often deemed too sensitive by state censors, as many deal with religion, current events, or tragic episodes in recent Chinese history. The degree of censorship depends as much on the political climate as on the whims of individual apparatchiks. The political environment has tightened in the past few years, mum senses. Topics she was previously allowed to explore have come under closer scrutiny, or become off limits: memoirs of liberal academics, diaries of controversial Republican era politicians, and books on Tibetan Buddhism, even when they are expurgated of any mention of the Dalai Lama.

Still, there are exceptions. In January, a new biography of Deng Xiaoping, written by Harvard scholar Ezra Vogel, came out in China, and sold half a million copies in a week. To the astonishment of many publishers, the discussion of the 1989 Tiananmen massacre was excised in the Chinese edition, but not erased. “Editors at Sanlian recognise the value of the book,” mum explained about the publishing house that released it. “So did some of their more liberal in-house censors.”

She wishes the censor at her publishing house were equally enlightened. A retired editor who was hired back by the government to do the job, Mr Wang is in his mid-sixties, and, in mum’s words, both “softly spoken and sincere.” But he has repeatedly blocked book ideas, or required them to be submitted to higher levels of censor for review. To get books past him, mum and the publisher had run the gamut of tactics, from imploring, to arguing, to delivering shopping coupons to his doorstep on Chinese New Year. Still, book ideas kept getting stonewalled. Two month ago, the publisher found a mutual friend he and Wang shared, and asked if he could arrange a dinner. At dinner, mum and the publisher toasted Wang. “Thank you for always helping us out,” they raised their glasses. “Hope we can keep up the good relationship moving forward.” “I understand how you must feel,” Wang sighed, toasting back. “I am just doing my job.”

Soon after the dinner, Wang quietly approved several book ideas that he had kept impending, including the one on the spiritual philosophy of Tibetan Buddhism. A few weeks later, I inquired about Wang while chatting with mum. “We are friends now,” she told me, smilingly.

No one, however, had expected the rejection from “the central bureau”—the General Administration of Press and Publication, the ultimate censorship organ in the publishing industry. “They refused to give an explanation, by which I think they mean ‘No more books on Tibetan Buddhism.’” Sitting on the living room sofa, mum shook her head. “I heard a rumour that they are looking into our series on Christianity as well.”

“But I thought they were supposed to come out next week?” I asked. “Can you ask for special permission, or reason with the censors?”

“Why would I do that?” Mum sat up from the sofa. “Of course their directive can always arrive one minute too late,” she arched her eyebrows. “If they ask after the books come out, I will apologise.”

More opinions in this month's Prospect:

The battle of Whitehall: Welfare reforms are at the centre of a deep rift between politicians and civil servants, explains Rachel Sylvester

It's gone too far: The EU’s extreme version of the “precautionary principle” could cost us our health, argues BjørnLomborg