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By Sam Burt

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Is it acceptable for a publicly-funded British institution to be seen to be tacitly complying with the restriction of artistic freedom by another state in order to solicit partial cooperation from that state? This was the question that hung over the opening of this year’s London Book Fair (April 16-18). The Fair is a trade event that gathers together players in publishing every year to sell rights and strike deals, but it also features cultural events and discussions. Since China was this year’s ‘Market Focus,’ the British Council organized a program of ‘conversations’ with visiting authors from China, state publishers, and relevant experts.

The Council’s program was notable for the absence of any conversations with famous exiled Chinese authors (such as Nobel laureate Gao Xinjiang) or with ‘dissident’ writers living in China (such as the author and environmental activist Dai Qing). For critics like the journalist Nick Cohen, this was a case of self-censorship on the part of the program organizers, and, as the British Council is taxpayer-funded, a cause for ‘national shame.’ The Council claimed in its defense that there was no conflict of interest between their own choice of invited speakers and the list approved by the Chinese authorities, and that the program focused on writers resident in China. Nevertheless, it seems likely that fear of a rerun of the 2009 Frankfurt Book Fair was another powerful motivation. That year’s Fair, where Chinese writers and publishers were the Guests of Honor, was marred by a highly public spat between visiting Chinese state officials and the Fair organizers. The dispute regarded the attendance of two ‘dissident’ writers (Ma Jian and Dai Qing) and it culminated in a walk-out of the opening ceremony by Chinese officials, followed by a quick about-face on the part of the organizers. It was essentially the result of poorly-handled scheduling and miscommunication, and it probably focused minds on all sides at the London Book Fair about the need for shared understanding from the outset.

In forming a judgment about the propriety of the Council’s cooperation with the Chinese state, let’s consider the nature of restrictions confronting writers in China today. How censorship operates on a day-to-day basis has been transformed by wider changes in government policies and technology. When we think of the crudest forms of censorship that existed under Mao, we think of the government giving detailed orders to writers about what they are required to write. Since the ‘reform and opening-up’ began in the 1980s, we think of censorship operating in negative terms: the government warns writers not to write about certain politically-sensitive subjects, but otherwise they have much more freedom from government interference to write as they wish. Both images are inadequate descriptions of reality, because they focus only on government intervention and neglect fundamental structural factors.

A 2008 report by PEN—”Failing to Deliver”—illustrates how government censors in China have become more sophisticated with time, in part because the structural constraints and limited options confronting Chinese authors means they don’t have to be so heavy-handed; the state exerts pressure on publishers not to reprint—and leans on state media outlets not to publicize—disapproved works, fostering a culture of self-censorship, where authors often don’t realize they have been censored until they are informed via word of mouth or the blogosphere. It is not just that the Chinese government restricts artistic expression through codified ‘red lines’ enforced through sanctions—they are smarter than that. Officials understand that such ‘red lines’ have necessarily blurred edges and the criteria for what is permitted is often unclear. It is also commonly understood inside China that China’s recent economic success has not been matched by an equivalent impact on world literature; in 2011, China’s copyright import to export ratio for book titles was 3:1. They understand that this cannot be achieved by diktat or financial incentives alone; as the author Liu Xinglong puts it, “Even with the nation’s coffers of gold and silver at your disposal, you simply cannot buy literature, never mind masterpieces.”

Instead, the basic structure of the publishing industry in China has, to date, provided a sort of compromise solution. At the beginning of the 21st-century, there were only around 500 publishing houses in the whole of China (compared with over a thousand in Taiwan). Over many years the General Administration of Press and Publications (GAPP) has not permitted real growth in the number of officially-approved publishing houses, and has instead chosen to satiate rising demand by turning a blind eye to private outfits buying ISBN codes from state publishers (legal changes in 2010 officially sanctioned these trades). The fragmented core of Chinese publishing consists of many large, state-dominated firms. By contrast, a few large global publishing and media groups in France, Germany, Spain, the UK, and North America dominate an extremely competitive global market. Recognizing that their country lacks any equivalent publishing ‘giants,’ the Chinese government has tried to goad publishing houses, public and private alike, to form more joint-ventures, creating a more consolidated industry.

In the meantime, despite the relatively low penetration of e-reader devices into China, ‘internet literature’ in its various forms is a major part of the literary scene. Aspiring writers upload short stories and novels to lively online forums and communities, and, if their work is well received, they might be snapped up by one of the many publishers who monitor them closely. In 2011, several novels that were published in this way were received as entries for the prestigious Mao Dun Literature Prize.

This system tacitly recognizes that, in the pursuit of honest art, writers will occasionally transgress official boundaries, and they must feel relatively safe in doing so. In this sense, then, ‘internet literature’ provides a kind of testing-ground for new writers to experiment, whilst also reassuring nervous state censors—the literature forums are relatively easy to monitor, novels are usually uploaded online incrementally, and do not reach as many readers as printed editions do. There are over 500m internet users in China, and around 300m of these keep blogs. Cultural networking sites like are key means of promoting releases to new readers. Print sales are growing at half the rate they were five years ago, around the time that internet publishers began merging on a serious scale and transforming into serious—though also slow-growing—commercial ventures. The Economist describes how writers like Murong Xuecun have become used to writing “edgy” works online and making necessary cuts for the printed edition; Murong sees himself as “a proactive eunuch.” The ‘internet literature’ scene can also be seen as a substitute for what China is lacking (with the some ‘underground’ exceptions), namely a large number of vibrant, flourishing small and medium-sized publishers that can innovate and adapt quickly to new trends, fashions, and niches.

Among other reasons behind the inefficient structure of China’s publishing sector is obviously a fixation with control by the authorities, albeit within increasingly wide parameters. And the cost of control is both incomplete professionalization (with small operators and authors who self-publish not earning enough to regard it as a full-time profession) and lack of success overseas. Still too few translated editions of Chinese novels are published abroad, and often with lengthy delays. Partly this is due to a shortage of active translators. In any case, translating works of fiction is an inherently fraught process that depends for its success on the very intangible, personal factors that enable relationships of trust to grow between Chinese authors and their translators. Finding the right translator can take time, and different authors have their own specific ideas about what the role of a translator ought to entail (for instance, conventions about translating culturally-specific slang, which matter enormously in a country that speaks in at least 50 different dialects). Foreign editors frequently acquire the rights to Chinese novels before considering who should translate it, and whether the appropriate translator is available.

The problem is not quite that there are no authors in China who are writing honestly and authentically (many such authors write two versions of their printed work side-by-side, one to be distributed in China, the other for foreign release and/or private consumption), but that such work is often known only to a small minority both inside and outside China. So, what is to be done? For those of us who believe ardently in freedom of speech and expression anywhere in the world, a principled place to begin would be to provide the conditions for talented Chinese authors to achieve due recognition and success overseas. If it is true that censorship is a barrier to certain kinds of great literature, then it is reasonable to suppose that a Chinese author may in future become world-famous for a work that is only available in an edited version inside China.

If we really want to promote greater freedom for writers living and working in China, we need to create a conducive environment for new Chinese talent to make their name abroad, which will thus shine a spotlight on how China’s present system is failing its readers, and stimulate debate and pressure on the authorities. It is one thing to know that your favorite writer is self-censoring, and to long to be able to read their freely-given thoughts, but quite another when a book that more closely approximates that writer’s vision is not an abstract proposition but a real work being read and discussed by other people. In order to do that, we need to start by fostering the most basic cross-border creative partnerships and bonds of trust, which at its most basic consists of meeting face-to-face to discuss literature. Discussing literature for its own sake is foundational; as the visiting author Bi Feiyu put it when asked whether he found such events useful, “dialogue is the objective of dialogue.”

If the exclusion of authors disliked by the Chinese government was a necessary condition for the Council’s program to go ahead, so be it. Whether it in fact was necessary is a separate discussion to have; what matters is that some established writers visited from China to exchange ideas about new literary genres, globalization, and e-publishing, and to search for commercial opportunities. It is certainly shameful of the Chinese government to restrict the freedom of Chinese writers to travel abroad to book fairs and conferences, but it is not necessarily shameful of institutions like the British Council—with a remit to promote cultural exchanges around the world—to respond diplomatically if that is the price for having any exchange at all. The Fair already appears to have been a stimulus for other events throughout 2012 examining Chinese literature; hopefully this is a sign of things to come.


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