Chinese censorship laws could prompt foreign book publishers to look elsewhere for printers

Linda Lew

Publishers from Australia and New Zealand are looking for printers outside China after falling foul of censorship laws that require maps to be vetted.

A number of businesses have been hit by delays or cancellations – even if the books in question are not intended for local distribution or do not contain China-related content.

Awa Press, a New Zealand publisher, suffered a one-month production delay in October last year when printing the fourth edition of a travel book called Antarctica Cruising Guide because the book contained a map of Antarctica and the Chinese printers needed the extra time to have the map vetted.

“We would have to think about whether we will continue printing in China or not. There are printers in other countries who are also good printers and wouldn’t require this extra month,” Mary Varnham, the editor in chief of Awa Press, said.

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The previous editions of Antarctica Cruising Guide, which was first published in 2006, had all been printed using the same Chinese press with no problems.

But a rule introduced in January 2018 requires all maps to be approved by the State Bureau of Surveying and Mapping before being published, republished, exported or imported.

The rule was intended to crack down on “problem maps”, which China sees as inaccurately representing the country and its territorial claims and therefore constitute a serious affront to its sovereignty and safety, according to state news agency Xinhua.

PEN America, the US chapter of the international literary and human rights non-governmental organisation, said it was very concerned by the development.

The organisation has been raising awareness about how China’s censorship extends beyond its borders.

“The [Chinese Communist Party] is very happy to have foreign publishers accept their censorship mandate, as it helps in their goal of suppressing stories about China that challenge the official government narrative,” James Tager, the deputy director of free expression policy and research at PEN America, said.

Most of Awa Press’s titles are printed in China but Varnham explained the firm would look to other countries to print its travel books should this continue to be a problem.

“I feel sorry for the Chinese printers because I’m sure they will be losing work due to this,” she said.

A map of Antarctica meant that printers had to gain approval from the government regulator. Photo: Handout

Publishers are starting to look at alternatives elsewhere in Asia, such as Singapore, Malaysia and Vietnam, where the cost is comparable.

The Australian publisher Hardie Grant is also considering alternatives and said a proposed children’s atlas had been scrapped, with the agreement of the author, after the Chinese publisher asked for changes to be made to reflect Beijing’s official stance.

Its objections included a reference to Tibet and the fact that “Taiwan” was in the same-sized typeface as “China” – which could be taken to imply that the island is a separate country. China regards Taiwan as a renegade province that must eventually be reunited with the mainland.

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However, the firm’s chief executive Sandy Grant said the quality of printers in other parts of Asia would not compare to China, especially for colour-printing.

“They have significant power over colour printing, so they probably are highly influential in what’s printed and published,” Grant said.

Michael Gordon Smith, the chief executive of the Australian Publishers Association agreed that China offers a superior cost and quality for printing.

“If the cost and quality of printing were easily available elsewhere, there wouldn’t be an issue. China has managed, not just in printing, in many areas of manufacturing to offer a price and quality combination that has resulted in a great deal of work being done in China,” he said.

Grant said his company was looking at using Vietnamese printers in future.

“I believe Vietnam is opening up a plant but that could be with a Chinese publisher. It’s possible this is a way to deal with these issues,” Grant said.

Hardie Grant also looked at using printers in Germany and Italy for the atlas, but the cost of doing so would have been 50 per cent more than going to China.

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In some cases, publishers have also found the language they use being policed.

The term “Everest” was removed from Victoria University Press’s book Fifteen Million Years in Antarctica, after the printer took issue with the word, the New Zealand news website Stuff reported.

The mountain, which straddles the border between Tibet and Nepal is known as Mount Qomolangma in Chinese.

China launched a campaign to stop people using the English name in 2002, with state run newspaper China Daily characterising the use of Everest as a way of “humiliating Mount Qomolangma with English-language hegemonism”.

Fergus Barrowman,Victoria University Press’s publisher, declined to elaborate on this incident and said that printers operating under Chinese laws have been known to impose restrictions on what they print on other occasions.

Chinese censorship extends beyond books published in China. Photo: Xinhua

In March 2019, the Guangdong government ordered a self-published novel called The Sassoon Files, which was set in 1920s Shanghai, to be destroyed even though it was not going to be on sale in China.

Jesse Covner, a Japan-based games designer, who co-wrote the book with a team of writers, said a government inspector told him he had found a sensitive topic in the content and ordered the books’ destruction.

He later published a video on YouTube in which he discussed the incident, saying: “I couldn’t believe what I heard when he said that, I thought my Chinese was rusty. I was shocked to learn that a Chinese government officer is required to inspect all book printing, including books that are only meant for export.”

The story featured triad gangsters, as well as Communists and Nationalists and was inspired by the life of the British colonial businessman Victor Sassoon.

A long line of international publishers and media companies have already been subjected to censorship in China.

Taylor and Francis, a British academic publisher, decided to remove more than 80 journals from its line-up in China at the government’s request in late 2018.

Other publishers such as Springer Nature, which releases the journal Nature, and Cambridge University Press, blocked online access to some of their articles.

Cambridge University Press eventually restored access after a public outcry.

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