Censorship in China

Evan Osnos recently wrote an article for the New York Times titled China’s Censored World.

His article relates to his recently written book, titled Age of Ambition: Chasing Fortune, Truth, and Faith in the New China.

After reading the piece, I found Evan’s email and wrote to say that reading his article made my day. Truly.

He promptly replied, thanking me for the note.

How much of your news is censored?


Why is his piece important?

For Evan’s United States published book also to be published in China, editors for the Chinese publishing company required him to modify the text. He would have to remove the statement that China ‘is the only country in the world with a winner of the Nobel Peace Prize in prison.’ He would also have to reduce the quantity of his addressing the contribution of the peers of Den Xiaoping to the economic success of China (apparently such praise would dilute what the editors thought Deng should wholly receive). He would also have to make several other minor, though significant, changes.

Evan’s article then elaborates on China’s history of censorship, and the current national and governmental mindset toward censorship. By the end of the article he reveals that he decided not to have his title published in China. He wrote:  “To produce a “special version” that plays down dissent, trims the Great Leap Forward, and recites the official history of Bo Xilai’s corruption would not help Chinese readers. On the contrary, it would endorse a false image of the past and present. As a writer, my side of the bargain is to give the truest story I can.”

Imagine a government that decides what you are allowed to read


Rather than justify or rationalize a decision to publish in China in order to reap more potential profits, Evan chose a path of greater integrity – to stick with the truth.

In my email to Evan I wrote:

Congratulations on your bravery and your conveying the truth – in print – that you do not believe it right to alter or distort reality in order to pander to a potentially greater source of financial profit. We live in an age when it often appears convenient for businesses to look aside, close one eye, or simply ignore the truth that although China verges on a superpower in financial (and potentially soon enough, military) terms, their roguish attitude toward repression of freedoms is diametrically opposed to the founding principles of what made the United States a great power.

You did not make excuses, you spoke the truth: their censorship practices are a hindrance, not a propellant, toward any national growth that will maintain and convey a sense of dignity for the Chinese population.

Well done. Your article made my day. Thanks.

I notice what appears to be a ‘halo effect’ regarding the rise of China’s power in the world. Because they verge on becoming an economic (and in the not too distant future, perhaps a military) superpower, I constantly hear broadcasters speak with almost untarnished praise and awe toward China – despite the fact that censorship is rampant, stealing trademarked and protected military and industrial secrets from foreign governments is a state sponsored activity, and activists such as the Dalai Lama are excoriated by the Chinese government simply for speaking the truth about atrocities the Chinese perpetrate in Tibet.

Decades ago I lived in Malawi in Africa, where I traveled throughout the country for work (described in my book Water and Witchcraft – Three Years in Malawi). There I discovered the Economist Magazine, and was surprised that it was more about world news than economics, and respected the clarity of the writing. I bought a copy at the news agent whenever possible (and when my meager volunteer salary would allow). Any time that an article was critical of Malawi, the deft and scissored hands of some state employed censors snipped out the piece, or the entire page, from each issue sold in the country. I now live in an Asian nation, where we can watch major network news on television – BBC, Sky, CNN, Fox. Whenever a station is overtly critical of this nation’s policies or governance, the channel suddenly becomes unavailable for weeks or months – replaced with a notice informing viewers (as I saw recently for the Fox News channel): This Channel is Unavailable.

Ultimately, censorship, like racism, is boring. It leads (or tries to lead) people toward predictability, inclusion within prescribed limits, control, and constraint. It is based on the assumption that a few people grasping hold of power know what is best for the majority. It is the belief that the earth is Flat, resources are limited, and that the world of today should remain the same tomorrow. Years ago I visited Cuba and realized that Fidel Castro wanted, ultimately, to freeze time. He wanted a country locked in the 1950s, with the same cars, the same pathetic struggling economic model, and keeping him – the same long-winded leader – at its helm. Censorship was rampant. Why? Because of fear. Fear that knowledge and enlightenment and progress and critical thinking and analysis might topple some of the wrongly placed powerful from their ill-gained positions.

Congratulations to Evan, for realizing the importance of a principle we regard essential to civilized living: freedom of speech and press.

Want to know more about writers exiled because of their opinions and word? Check out PEN International.


New Format to Roundwood Press Web Log Coming Soon…

The new format of this web log (published every two weeks) will always include at least one of the following sections:

The Circular View – Video

Worn Sandals, Leather Notebook – Travel, Writing

Invisible Authors – Banned Books, Exiled Writers, Censored Words

The Siege Tower – Controversial Viewpoints

Contours and Chronometers – Geography and History

Illuminating Manuscripts – Book Reviews

The Satchel Peg – Bookstores

Currents of Thought – Quotes from Roundwood Press

Thanks for staying tuned in!

Comments from Readers

  • Guess I better read the article before commenting further. In the meantime though, wanted to offer a couple observations:
    -Chinese treatment of TIBETANS has many similarities with US/ European treatment of North & South American indigenous people. What a difference 100 years makes to our National morality.
    -Seems to me Censorship is an example of the tendency of Powerful to maintain their power. The US still has plenty of “secrets” that are effectively censored from public discourse. Snowden being a prominent example, but WIKI LEAKS / CHELSEA MANNING establishing the pattern.

  • Tom

    Sure, I can see your points. I will only address the second point now. Yes, we keep secrets in the US regarding publication of documents related to national security. But generally if a person wants to write a book and publish it, they may alter the content to increase its marketability, but do not have to do so simply because it offends leaders.

    If I write a book about prisoners who are considered political, and also write negative comments about some of the country’s leaders, an editor or publisher may suggest I revise the text to improve the storyline, or to improve the marketing, or to better align with known facts – but not because they are afraid of the repercussions of portraying our judicial or leadership system in a poor light. To be required to constantly alter the truth, or to delete the truth, so as not to offend others is Orwellian.

    I do appreciate the insight however. Before we knock others, it is always best to regard how to best improve ourselves. True!

Share Your Thoughts