A Censorship Test for China

Peter Osnos peruses a Beijing bookstore and finds that they also read Lolita in Beijing—but Marx and Stalin collect dust.

Elizabeth Dalziel / AP Photo

The preferred shopping environment in China is captured in the characters for “renao,” which translates as “commotion” or, more literally, “hot and noisy.” By that standard, the Beijing Books Building is idyllic, five floors of books packed with excited customers, overwhelmingly young on a weekday morning. There is an astounding cross-section of Chinese and international titles with a breadth and depth that would—and actually did—impress an American publisher on an informal mission to find out what is readily available to China’s 1.4 billion people. This bustling vista overwhelmed the inclination to measure what is there against what was not allowed or to dwell on the problem of piracy.

In a simple test, I went in search of Vladimir Nabokov’s Lolita, a masterpiece of 20th-century English-language fiction, with a distinctly salacious if apolitical theme. That turned out to be almost too easy. The book was prominent in a display of novels in English on the first floor. On the second floor was the Chinese edition, published by Shanghai Translation Publishing House in an “arrangement” with the Nabokov estate through China’s copyright agency. I bought a copy for 27 yuan ($3.95) and noted that it was the 15th printing since this edition was released in 2005, which probably means about 150,000 copies sold, pretty good for a classic anywhere. Chinese readers can choose among the very best of contemporary and popular American and English writers: Philip Roth and Salman Rushdie, Stephen King and Dan Brown. There was plenty of Harry Potter, of course, and the current sensation, Stephenie Meyer’s Twilight series. I can only imagine the linguistic acrobatics necessary to translate Doctor Seuss, but that’s been done.

There was, naturally, an extensive section of Marx, Lenin, Engels, Stalin, and other ideological mainstays, where there was distinctly less traffic.

On the nonfiction side, there was a bonanza of Barack Obama books and spinoffs. Both his own books were stacked up, plus among other items, a collection of his speeches and my favorite, a work called Barack Inc.: Winning Business Lessons of the Obama Campaign, a book published by Pearson in the United Kingdom and in China by Renmin University Press. Business, economics, and management titles abounded. As the American publisher for George Soros, I was pleased to see a translation of his latest book, The New Paradigm for Financial Markets: The Crash of 2008 and What it Means, along with a variety of titles purporting to describe his investment strategies. There were multiple books by or about Warren Buffett, Jack Welch, Ben Bernanke, and a bevy of other business gurus.

Cruising the aisles randomly, I noted Thomas Friedman, Jack Kerouac, Carly Fiorina, and so forth. There was, naturally, an extensive section of Marx, Lenin, Engels, Stalin, and other ideological mainstays, where there was distinctly less traffic.

My guide was Wei Zhao, the owner of Everest International Publishing Services, who sells the U.S. editions of a number of publishers, including PublicAffairs Books, to Chinese distributors and bookstores. She said that 2008 was a banner year, led by the English version of Twilight, which she has sold throughout the country, including in Tibet. Wei worked for Random House in New York for nine years and received an MBA from New York University before returning home to start her business. She estimates that there are about 30 million Chinese who read English well enough to buy books and that number is increasing yearly because English instruction is required beginning in primary schools. China joined the international copyright convention 20 years ago, so the piracy issue has receded for imports, if not for Chinese-language books. At the Beijing Foreign Language Bookstore, a sign prominently assures customers that they are buying “genuine” publications. Piracy of Western movies and PC software, however, is still rampant.

According to a report issued the other day by the China Internet Network Information Center, there are now 338 million Internet users in the country, an increase of 13.4 percent over last year—a total that exceeds the entire population of the United States. Wei says that books in Chinese are starting to show up on the Web, but these seem to be authorized as short-term marketing devices rather than ripoffs. There are two major online retailers: Joyo, which is Amazon’s Chinese affiliate, and locally owned DangDang. Until recently, books were delivered by couriers who also collected payment. Lately, PayPal and credit transactions have become more common.

The neuralgic issue of censorship is confined to a substantial but specific range of books both in Chinese and from abroad. Chinese publishers know where to draw their own lines, so they don’t even bother to release, say, critical biographies of Chinese leaders and unauthorized examinations of the Cultural Revolution or other sensitive turning points in Chinese history. Chinese editions of these books are published abroad and trickle in, one way or another. Some are even sold in a few Hong Kong bookstores. More complicated are translations of political biographies or memoirs—Bill Clinton, Hillary Clinton, or George H.W. Bush, for example—that touch on tricky issues. These tend, subject to negotiation, to be modified in the translation process or passages may be discreetly excised. When the changes are caught by careful Chinese readers abroad, embarrassment ensues all around.

There was something moving about the enthusiastic crowd in Beijing’s biggest bookstore. (Wei guesses turnover there is about $100 million a year). Aside from all the Chinese-language information and literature on offer, there clearly is enormous interest in ours. Americans, beyond the small group of specialist Sinologists, should consider the value of reciprocating.

Peter Osnos is a senior fellow for media at The Century Foundation. Osnos is the founder and editor at large of PublicAffairs Books. He is vice chairman of the Columbia Journalism Review, a former publisher at Random House, and was a correspondent and editor at the Washington Post.