How foreign authors are willing to bow to China's censors

Foreign writers who allow their books to be altered find results can be frustrating and time-consuming but extremely profitable

PUBLISHED : Monday, 21 October, 2013, 4:09am
UPDATED : Monday, 21 October, 2013, 8:41am


Chinese readers of Ezra Vogel's sprawling biography of China's 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 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. His book, Deng Xiaoping and the Transformation of China, sold 30,000 copies in the United States and 650,000 in China.

"To me the choice was easy," he said during a book tour of China through nearly a dozen cities. "I thought it was better to have 90 per cent of the book available here than zero."

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.

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.

Qiu, who writes in English but was born and raised in China, said he reluctantly agreed to some of the alterations, but that others were made after he had approved what he thought were final translations. "Some of the changes are so ridiculous they made the book incoherent," he said. 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.

Jo Lusby, managing director at Penguin Books China, which has published 250 foreign titles in the past eight years, said she often tries 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.

For Western writers, the process can be time-consuming and confounding. Vogel, whose Chinese publisher, Sanlian, is one of China's most respectable publishing houses, said it took a year to settle on a final translation, which was adapted from the unexpurgated version published in Hong Kong.

Many deletions involved passages that detailed squabbles between top leaders or specific adjectives, like those describing Mao Zedong as "paranoid" and "vindictive."

So was a phrase suggesting Deng, then in his 80s, was aloof from the yearnings and complaints of ordinary Chinese.

"The impressive thing is how much actually got through," Vogel said.


The best-selling foreign titles in China in 2012.


1. One Hundred Years of Solitude by Gabriel Garcia Marquez

2. Before I Go To Sleep by SJ Watson

3. The Kite Runner by Khaled Hosseini

4. The Unbearable Lightness of Being by Milan Kundera

5. Norwegian Wood by Haruki Murakami

6. The Da Vinci Code by Dan Brown

7. Byakuyako ("Into The White Night") by Keigo Higashino

8. The Catcher in the Rye by JD Salinger

9. Love in the Time of Cholera by Gabriel Garcia Marquez

10. The Lost Symbol by Dan Brown



1. Steve Jobs by Walter Isaacson

2. The Secret by Rhonda Byrne

3. The Greatest Salesman in the World by Og Mandino

4. Rip It Up: The Radically New Approach to Changing Your Life by Richard Wiseman

5. Youth, It's Painful by Rando Kim

6. On China by Henry Kissinger

7. Dale Carnegie's Lifetime Plan for Success by Dale Carnegie

8. Life Without Limits: Inspiration for a Ridiculously Good Life by Nick Vujicic

9. A Global History: From Prehistory to the 21st Century by LS Stavrianos

10. A Brief History of Time by Stephen Hawking



1. Totto-chan: The Little Girl at the Window by Tetsuko Kuroyanagi

2. Charlotte's Web by EB White

3. Pippi Longstocking by Astrid Lindgren

4. Harry Potter and the Philosopher's Stone * by JK Rowling

5. The Cricket in Times Square by George Selden

6. Fantastic Mr Fox by Roald Dahl

7. Guess How Much I Love You by Sam McBratney

8. The Life and Adventures of Robinson Crusoe by Daniel Defoe

9. Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets by JK Rowling

10. Tiger Team: Witch Swamp & Ghost Castle by Thomas Brezina

*Published in the United States as Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone.