Peter Hessler on the China Translator and “Defensive Censorship”

In Travels with My Censor: A Book Tour, author Peter Hessler decides the best way to understand censorship in China is to spend some quality time with the humans — they aren’t machines or faceless apparatchiks — who practice it. Very educational for him and us, I’d say. This piece in The New Yorker also leaves me feeling he is more attuned to life in China than Evan Osnos, who wrote an op-ed for the New York Times (Censorship Percentage Stats) explaining why he refused to have his Age of Ambition translated, censored and published in China. Below, Hessler explains how censorship works at a book publisher:

At Shanghai Translation, each manuscript passes through three levels of political review: the editor, his supervisor, and the head of the company. Occasionally, the higher levels make a change, but the vast majority of censorship is handled by editors like Zhang. In 2013, when the Times ran an article about foreign authors publishing in China, it noted that “publishing houses are required to employ in-house censors, most of them faithful party members.”

But this isn’t accurate. At Shanghai Translation, there’s no employee whose primary job is to monitor political content. Such a distinction may seem academic, but it matters greatly in a country with many types of political control. In China, newspapers and magazines are censored much more heavily than books, and state-run papers like China Daily actively promote the Party line. On the Internet, censors excise all references to certain taboo topics.

But for an editor like Zhang, who is not a Party member, there is no ideology and no absolute list of banned subjects. His censorship is defensive: rather than promoting an agenda or covering up some specific truth, he tries to avoid catching the eye of a higher authority. In fact, his goal — to have a book translated and published as accurately as possible — may run counter to the goals of the Party.

One thought on “Peter Hessler on the China Translator and “Defensive Censorship”

  1. This is a nice illustration of ‘soft power’, Chinese style. If you draw the lines vague enough but threaten people’s standing or livelihood if they transgress them, of course they will ‘self-censor’.

    China is a country where it’s more dangerous to transgress political rules than it is to break ordinary laws or engage in socially or economically shady behaviour.


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