How my run-in with Chinese censorship shows the country as more than a global Big Brother

World View: The life of Aung San Suu Kyi, who successfully confronted dictatorship, is too sensitive for publication in China

Whatever else the New Year may bring, one thing is certain: more than ever before, the planet will find itself at the mercy of China. If its economy continues to flourish, we in Europe may enjoy stability, and perhaps modest growth. If its economy crashes, all bets are off. 

The People’s Republic’s burgeoning power is not all bad. Its potential for good was demonstrated at the recent climate conference in Paris, where its about-turn made the difference between success and failure. Faced with ecological Armageddon, China has grasped the dangers of galloping economic growth. And because it is an authoritarian state, we can be fairly confident that it will now go on to do something about it – on a scale that can make a difference.  

But China’s actions and policies are often not as clear and decisive as its government would like the world to believe. Because it is a one-party state with a neutered mainstream media, emerging from the historic culture of East Asia where discretion, tact and “face” have always been valued highly, China succeeds in giving the impression of a vast nation acting like a single awesome machine. But in my own experience the reality is rather different.

Four years ago my biography of Aung San Suu Kyi, The Lady and the Peacock, was published in the UK and the US. The Chinese language rights were snapped up by Linking Publishing Co in Taiwan and the edition of the book in the complex characters used in the island became a bestseller. The struggle of an indomitable Asian woman to rescue her country from tyranny was hugely appealing to a Chinese readership. 

The book’s success did not go unnoticed in Beijing, and after a while a mainland publisher approached my agent about producing a version in the simplified characters used in the People’s Republic. I was told there would have to be some cuts, and when I found myself in Beijing speaking at a literary festival I visited the publisher’s offices to discuss them. Any form of censorship is undesirable, but I take the view that some cuts may be worth accepting if they are the price for getting one’s ideas across to a large new readership. When the story concerns a champion of democracy confronting a one-party state, the opportunity is especially appealing.

At the publisher’s office I asked what cuts they had in mind. Various delicate passages were mentioned: anything showing the PRC in a bad light was going to be taboo. But one curious point of sensitivity sticks in my memory. The nice young woman in charge of the translation pointed out that the word “communist” appeared several times in the book. I had recorded that an uncle of Suu Kyi was the leader of the Burmese Communist Party. She wasn’t sure that this would get past the censors.

How could the use of the word “communist” be an issue in the world’s biggest communist state? I was baffled. 

But some months later, before any decision could be taken about cuts, my agent forwarded me an apologetic mail from the publisher: the policy on publishing politically sensitive works had been tightened (Xi Jinping had recently come to power), and no licence to publish my book would now be forthcoming. The publisher was very sorry, and paid a decent kill fee in compensation. 

Bizarrely, exactly the same thing has just happened all over again: my Chinese literary Groundhog Day. Another Beijing publisher approached my agent about the rights. We started discussing an advance, royalties, print run and so on, and I felt it prudent this time to insert a kill fee into the contract. But before it could be signed, word came that publication had again been blocked. “So frustrated to let you know that the publisher still cannot be allowed to publish this title in China,” the Chinese agent wrote. “We both pour much of the time and energy into this project so are also feel [sic] very depressed to hear this news.”

I like to think that this saga has a positive message. Behind its monolithic exterior, its awful government-approved newspapers, its poker-faced leaders and rubber-stamp parliament, the People’s Republic teems with people and organisations doing their best to make their country a more human, less repressive, more open-minded place. They don’t have an easy time of it and – as happened with my two publishers – the big foot of authority is ever ready to stamp on their endeavours. But they keep on trying! I start the year in hope of a third offer of publication from another plucky Beijing publisher. This time, with Suu Kyi installed in power, it might even come to pass.

These Chinese publishers are not alone in challenging state dogma. The only foreign embassy in London with a permanent demonstration on its doorstep is China’s, with round-the-clock protesters from the blacklisted religious group Falun Gong parked across from their front door. The career of the artist Ai Weiwei, successively imprisoned and commissioned, intimidated and applauded, exposes a state with a scary propensity to bully its citizens, but a citizenry increasingly disinclined to take it. 

We need to see China less as a global Big Brother than as one billion-plus souls desperate to connect with the rest of the world. And slowly succeeding in doing so.