In a recent article titled “Authors Accept Censors’ Rules to Sell in China,” the New York Times offered Harvard social scientist Ezra Vogel as exemplary of an apparently growing cohort of writers willing to see their work edited so that it may reach Chinese readers. In citing the impressive Chinese sales of Vogel’s Deng Xiaoping and the Transformation of China, though, and lumping Vogel with the likes of Dan Brown, J. K. Rowling, and E. L. James, the article may leave its readers with the impression that commercial concerns inspired Vogel to accept compromises to his book. In fact, though, Vogel viewed the publication of his book in mainland China as a chance to help inform the legions of young Chinese who have been seeking a greater understanding of their country’s history than government censorship typically affords. As Vogel explains below, the book—all income from the Chinese sales of which he has conferred on his alma mater, Ohio Wesleyan—has been a breakthrough on that front.
I recently returned from a tour of some ten Chinese cities where I was lecturing in Chinese about Deng Xiaoping, the Chinese leader who moved the country toward reform and opening. It was a bit daunting to find that this year more Chinese have learned about Deng from my book, Deng Xiaoping and the Transformation of China, than from any book by a Chinese author. From mid-January some 650,000 mainland Chinese bought copies of the mainland Chinese version of my book and countless numbers have found other ways to acquire the book or parts of the book.
I believe many Chinese readers bought my book because censors allowed it to be published with the basic facts of the June 4, 1989 Tiananmen Incident and readers are eager to find the truth about their own history. For over two decades, since the Incident, Chinese authors have not been allowed to discuss it, and blogs mentioning “June 4” have been forbidden. The Chinese press in Hong Kong described the issuing of my book in the mainland as a “breakthrough” because it meant that young Chinese on the mainland, for the first time in their lives, could read about the Tiananmen Incident.
The first Chinese edition of my book on Deng was published by the Chinese University of Hong Kong Press as a direct translation with no omissions. It was distributed in Hong Kong, Taiwan, and Singapore where it sold some 50,000 copies during the first year, partly in simplified characters, partly in more complex characters. I am told that many copies of this edition made their way into China.
The Chinese U Press then sold the translation rights to Sanlian, which was able to keep over 90 percent of the book unchanged. I am grateful to my publisher Sanlian, a respected academic press, for their editors made every effort to push the envelope in expanding academic freedom. The Sanlian staff was creative in thinking about ways that would permit controversial parts to remain. Many mainland readers expressed surprise that the book was able to contain as much open discussion as it did. Mainland Chinese friends who visited book stores found that in the piles of books, many copies opened immediately to the part on Tiananmen because so many readers had wondered what it said about the Incident. For a few weeks before June 4 this year, propaganda department officials discouraged discussion of the book, fearful that some students might want to march again, but sales never stopped.
Chinese students had no way to learn about the Tiananmen Incident in school. It is as if the Incident never occurred. Difficulties in the Great Leap Forward and the Cultural Revolution are glossed over lightly. Chinese students have an enormous curiosity and a desire to learn what really happened in their history. Censors fear large numbers of readers uniting to cause trouble so they remove from the web postings that might be critical of the Communist Party and government.
Many Chinese intellectuals believe that Deng Xiaoping could have and should have done more to expand the range of freedom in China. But overwhelmingly, they are thankful to Deng for bringing an end to revolution, for opening the country far wider than at any time since 1949, for reopening universities and resuming entrance exams, and for laying the basis for economic growth.
When I lectured in China, there were no restrictions placed on my public presentations. Students and faculty were remarkably frank in talking about Chinese problems and in asking my views. Many Chinese academics were appreciative that my book had expanded the range of freedom, allowing them to discuss more topics than had been possible before the book was published.
Chinese publishers now pay royalties. I had arranged before the mainland edition came out that all my rights for royalties in mainland China be passed to my alma mater, Ohio Wesleyan, to form an endowment that would support East Asian studies. Sanlian promptly passed all the agreed royalties to the Chinese University Press, Hong Kong, which in turn were passed directly to Ohio Wesleyan.