It is time to make readjustment to Li Yinhe’s well-known quotation of Chinese censorship. During an interview by New York Review of Books, Li states “There are two main criteria for banning books or censoring. One is black and one is yellow. Black are political issues stating you’re opposing the Chinese Communist Party (CCP). Yellow is sex.” There should now be a third category: green, the colour of economic warfare on a competitor that seeks to threaten the CCP’s narrative in states far from its border. While censorship has existed since the beginning of the CCP, there is a general perception that the censorship of physical books peaked during Mao’s reign, and that with the recent rise of online censorship in China, the public perception is that the banning and editing of physical literature have faded. Unfortunately, the censorship of books has been overshadowed by the widely covered “great firewall” that monitors China’s internet. Literature has increasingly come under fire for the dissidence included in the pages regardless of where the book is to be published, thus jeopardizing the trade between the western-based publishing houses and second-largest publishing market in the world.
China has for decades banned hundreds of books, artworks and any other works deemed anti-CCP, by the Communist Party’s Central Publicity Department (CPD), which seeks to enforce the authoritarian state needed to control the global narrative by determining whether books are approved, altered or outright banned. There has always been contention on what can be published in China but in recent years the list of topics deemed sensitive has grown to almost laughable extremes, with the Sydney Morning Herald reporting that a list of “keywords to be alerted” was passed around publishers. This list includes any mention of so-called political incidents, including pro-democracy protests, independence movements or the 1989 Tiananmen Square protests along with “anything relating to Chinese political icons in recent history.” Any book that breaks these strict rules will be subject to “prohibition” by the CPD. This is not including the list of sensitive items that require vetting before production, including any mentions of most major religions, sexual subjects and many Chinese locations – current or former. This includes any works published in China for sale to the overseas market. Foreign Policy reported that Jesse Covner and Jason Sheets found the entire print run of their book The Sassoon Files was destroyed after a CCP official, visiting the China Seven Colour Group (the printer the pair had hired in Guangzhou) found the material to be sensitive and ordered the book to be destroyed, despite the fact the book was never intended for the Chinese market.
The New York Times, Sydney Morning Herald and Foreign Policy all report that while these restrictions have in theory existed for decades, there has been a sudden and violent escalation by Xi Jinping’s CCP, as the western economic and political machine has become more hostile to Chinese expansion. This has in turn affected whether books that may be seen as sensitive to the CCP are published at all. China’s near stranglehold on the cheap publishing market means that should a book be banned from production by the CPD, then it may not be financially viable to publish the book at all. Australian publishing house Hardie Grant found this out when it was forced to abandon several projects after the Chinese suppliers refused to cooperate. One publisher estimates that high-quality printing is 40 percent cheaper in China than elsewhere in the world, thus stripping many smaller publishers and authors of the ability to print anywhere else and to remain financially stable.
Chinese financial bullying is not new and certainly not limited to the physical publishing space as proven by both the removal of the NBA for anti-CCP comments and the banning of Google under the auspicious of Chinese national unity. What is more concerning that this oppression mainly targets small publishers and academics whose ideas shape the wider understanding of the world both now and in the future. This censorship damages the rights of all people as it has given a single power the ability to suffocate any narratives that defy its twisted self-created reality of a utopian China that is free from any dangerous dissidence from democratic and religious freedoms that threaten the CCP’s control.