Peter Hessler, Henry Paulson, and Chinese Censorship

Peter Hessler, Henry Paulson, and Chinese Censorship

At the New York Review of Books, Ian Johnson discusses author Peter Hessler’s enormous success in China and describes the complexities of writing about the country: why “foreign correspondents only write about the bridge that collapses and not the thousands of bridges that don’t,” how “if China were a country primarily defined by the troubles reported in the media, it would be a basket case,” and how Hessler approaches the subject differently. He also confronts the question of censorship as a cost of publication within China:

People began buying Chinese editions of Hessler’s books published in Taiwan. Chatrooms began filling up with reports of his doings. By the time his books began to be published in China in 2010, he was a full-blown celebrity, eclipsing any other foreign writer on China. His only book not to be translated is Oracle Bones, a wide-ranging work that includes the Nato bombing of the Chinese embassy in Belgrade, the crushing of the Falungong spiritual movement, and ethnic tensions. Hessler’s Chinese editor told me that these topics made the book too political to pass censorship so the publishing house hasn’t tried. Still, Hessler has sold 500,000 books in China in just four years.

But this puts Hessler at the center of a vexing and heated discussion: How should Western writers deal with censorship? Writing on contemporary China and publishing there almost inevitably mean accepting government cuts. Is this acceptable if a writer is trying to achieve what he takes to be the larger aim of portraying a little-known reality?

[…] Hessler has recently put up a website ( with a Chinese-language page that lists the major cuts. He also got his Chinese publisher to include a short note at the start of new editions of his books directing them to this site. To date, the site has all the major cut passages from his three books published in China, but not the smaller word changes. [Source]

Hessler himself recently wrote about these decisions at The New Yorker (via CDT). His successor there, Evan Osnos, has offered a different view, arguing that “altering the proportions of a portrait of China gives a false reflection of how China appears to the world.” The two discussed these perspectives last month on the magazine’s Out Loud podcast.

One way to avoid cuts in translation is to anticipate them in the original. Reviewing Henry Paulson’s “Dealing With China” at The Wall Street Journal on Sunday, Jeffrey Wasserstrom accused the former Goldman Sachs CEO and U.S. Treasury secretary of writing with an eye on the Chinese market:

On the fraught question of Chinese civil society […] Mr. Paulson is too soft on his “old friends,” including the man now in power, Xi Jinping. True, he chides Chinese leaders for such things as restricting free speech and trying to control tightly the “great public square of our time, the Internet.” The author views these moves as not just morally wrong but “ultimately self-defeating,” since limiting transparency and creativity will prove an obstacle to China’s economic growth. [See some different views on this question via CDT.]

But Mr. Paulson frames such criticism cautiously. To be more precise, the author carefully uses language that will not bother the Chinese censors unduly when they prepare the mainland edition of “Dealing With China.” In writing of the Tiananmen Square protests and crackdown of 1989, he says that he was “deeply disturbed by the imposition of martial law” and made “uneasy” by the government dealing “harshly” with those who “sought greater freedom.” But in referring to the brutal June 4 denouement, he employs the anodyne term “incident” and gives no hint of a massacre in which Chinese troops killed hundreds. [Source]

Johnson notes that in the mainland edition of Hessler’s “Strange Stones,” the event is described as “chaos” rather than a “crackdown” as in the original.

Another review by James Kynge at The Financial Times is less critical, but concludes that the book “may win friends in Beijing but will be less popular among US allies in Asia.” Read more on Western authors and Chinese censorship via CDT.


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