Foreign Authors and the Allure of “Special Editions” of their Books for Chinese Eyes

“Please kindly let me know if it is possible for us to cooperate on a special version of your book for its China publication,” read a Shanghai publisher’s letter to Evan Osnos, formerly The New Yorker’s China correspondent.

Writing in the May 2 edition of the New York Times (China’s Censored World), Osnos gives us an idea of what such “special” renditions can entail.  One agent, writing on behalf of a Beijing-based potential publisher of Osnos’ unpublished manuscript, proposed that the author “agree to revise nearly 1/4 of the contents.”

Nowadays, Western authors and academics don’t always say “No” to China’s censors.

Ezra Vogel, for instance, the professor emeritus at Harvard who allowed them to mess with his Deng Xiaoping and the Transformation of China. He explains himself in Authors Accept Censors’ Rules to Sell in China, published in 4Q 2013 by the New York Times:

“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 percent of the book available here than zero.”

According to that article, back then China sales of his book on Deng—650,000 copies—had already dwarfed the mere 30,000 bought in the US.

Different strokes for different folks. Here’s how Osnos closes his New York Times Op-Ed:

“In the end, I decided not to publish my book in mainland China. (It will be available to Chinese readers from a publisher in Taiwan.) To produce a “special version” that plays down dissent, trims the Great Leap Forward, and recites the official history of Bo Xilai’s corruption would not help Chinese readers. On the contrary, it would endorse a false image of the past and present. As a writer, my side of the bargain is to give the truest story I can.”

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