Foreign Affairs

NZ publishers feel long arm of Chinese censorship

New Zealand publishers are feeling the long arm of Chinese censorship, with many being told by their China-based printers to look elsewhere if their books contain material that may offend China.

The "offensive" material includes information relating to historical events like the the Tiananmen Square protests in 1989, or disputed territories like Taiwan and Tibet. 

The Bookseller, a trade journal for the British publishing industry, noted that books which included maps were being subjected to lengthy production delays as Chinese censors combed them for sensitive content. Closer to home, The Sydney Morning Herald voiced the concerns of Australia-based publishers who were also having problems.

New Zealand publishers are feeling the heat too. None spoken to by Newsroom would allow themselves to be named for fears of reprisals, but figures from across the publishing sector said they had been informed by their printers that China was stepping up its censorship regime. 

Other houses said they were not aware of the restrictions, although they admitted they were houses who published material that was unlikely to be censored. 

“If a publisher is publishing something related to Taiwan, they’d have to factor that into their pricing."

The problem isn’t yet acute — publishers have options. Books printed in black and white are relatively cheap to produce and it is more economical to print them in New Zealand and Australia than look for a cheap print deal in China. This means novels and long, black-and-white non-fiction are, so far, safe from censorship.

But high-quality colour printing and publishing in hardback is an expensive business. Glossy paper, detailed reproductions of photographs and maps don’t come cheap. Atlases, textbooks, and other colour non-fiction books are often printed in China, where high-quality printing comes at a massive discount. 

One publisher said that even when transport costs were factored in, a high-quality colour book could be printed in China for 45 percent less than in New Zealand. 

This is particularly problematic for New Zealand’s sizeable educational publishing industry, which publishes textbooks and other learning materials. Educational publishing directly employs 387 people and is worth roughly $38 million, according to a 2015 report from PwC. 

Newsroom could find no evidence that publishers had censored themselves. Publishers spoken to for this story said they would look to print sensitive books elsewhere, but this did have cost implications. 

“If a publisher is publishing something related to Taiwan, they’d have to factor that into their pricing,” said one publisher. 

Wiping Tibet from the map — just not yet

As early as March 2015, New Zealand-based publishers were being warned by printers that China was stepping up enforcement of longstanding censorship rules.

One publisher said China was the only country they were aware of that enforced its own censorship rules on books that would never be sold in its territory. Other countries tended not to enforce censorship rules on books that were intended to be sold elsewhere. 

For the moment, this has had only a limited effect on publishers’ choices.

One publisher told Newsroom that Malaysia, the Philippines, and South Korea all had relatively competitive printing operations, but another said that while there were other options, there would always be a cost impact for not being able to print in China. 

Australian publishers speaking to the Sydney Morning Herald said Chinese state censors had been vetting books written by Australian authors and intended for Australian readers, with one source telling the newspaper the regular turnaround time for maps could be up to 30 working days.

The paper reported that one printer had produced a list of key words for publishers to avoid. One publisher, Sandy Grant, said he had pulled a proposed children’s atlas after the censor ruled out a map.

The dogmatic truth

China has for decades employed a restrictive form of censorship within its own borders, but only recently has it used its economic might to enforce a form of that censorship overseas. 

It has forced international airlines flying to Taiwan to recognise the independently governed island as part of mainland China, for example. 

Geremie Barme, an academic and co-founder of the Wairarapa Academy for New Sinology, said the tightening of censorship rules had been dramatic and recent.

“Everything is gone through with a fine-toothed comb to a level that wasn’t being done a few years ago," Barme said.

He believed China was able to use its economic might to enforce its own censorship outside of its borders to an extent that was not possible previously.

Under the more autocratic leadership of President Xi Jinping, this meant China could enforce what is called "The China Story" overseas.

This meant recognising the Chinese Communist Party's version of events, and forcing the international community to accept it as "the dogmatic truth". 

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