Peter Hessler was The New Yorker’s Beijing correspondent from 2000-2007, and the author of four highly-celebrated books on China. Earlier this year, Hessler published an essay in The New Yorker outlining his experiences traveling with his censor Zhang Jiren and the man’s relentless work to maintain the integrity of his titles while also allowing them mainland publication, and questioning a common Western media narrative highly critical of authors who allow their work to be altered for publication in China. At ChinaFile, Peter Hessler again criticizes this ongoing trend in Western coverage of the censorship of foreign books in China: an imbalanced focus on the financial benefits that China’s burgeoning book market can offer foreign authors and publishers obscures a nuanced discussion of the topic. The author also explains in detail why he has allowed two of his books to be edited for a China release:
Over the past couple of years, I’ve noticed a problem with the coverage of the issue of Chinese censorship of foreign books. Last year, when I was interviewed for a feature in the South China Morning Post, the story felt imbalanced—it took more than a thousand words to reach a comment by a writer who noted any benefits to making more material available in China, even if it suffers some censorship. My colleague and friend Michael Meyer, who has written two books on China, including one, The Last Days of Old Beijing, that has been published on the mainland, has complained that journalists seem to avoid mentioning that foreign China specialists who work closely with their publishers are often able to include material in their books that otherwise isn’t available in China. “The focus in these articles is always on monetary, not intellectual, exchange, and on what has been cut, not what has been preserved,” he told me recently. His book is highly critical of the redevelopment of Beijing, and yet less than one page, total, was removed from the mainland edition. “More surprising than the three passages that were sliced was all the material that remained intact,” he says.
[…W]e need to be careful not to let the worst aspects of China influence the tone of our discussion. This is especially true during the current period, when the political climate in China has become increasingly repressive. These days, foreign journalists are subject to routine harassment by the Chinese authorities, and the Times has been treated particularly badly.
Nevertheless, our own discussion of the question of publishing in China should be more nuanced, with a genuine effort to hear the different voices involved. […]
[…] I suppose that I’ve “agreed to censorship,” but I see my publication in China in more positive terms, as a reflection of my belief in the importance of education and access to information. […]
Most reasonable people believe that foreign engagement in China should be judged on a case-by-case basis. […]
In the same way, I believe that some censored books can be responsibly published in China, while others cannot. […] [Source]
Over the past month, and due in no small part to China’s status as “Global Market Forum Guest of Honor” at last month’s BookExpo America, there has been a steady flow of foreign reports focused on this very topic. Prior to the BookExpo, PEN America released a report outlining censorship in China and offering recommendations for authors looking to publish there. In Hessler’s recent essay, he praises PEN’s document as an “excellent and extremely useful report on the restrictions in China,” while also offering PEN his own recommendations: “in my opinion, it would have been worthwhile to mention that the current climate creates a risk of biased U.S. coverage, as well as possibly unfair attacks on those who publish in China.”
Also listen to a recent New Yorker Out Loud conversation (via CDT) between Hessler and Evan Osnos, his successor in Beijing for the magazine, in which the authors discuss the complexity of their decisions to publish in China—or not to.