Why I nobly agree to be censored



The heir to the Oliver P. Wendall Thurgoöd writing dynasty on publishing his work in China

The concerned author

Blough: concerned, quite seriously

It has been a sad duty, these last few months, to witness the growing debate and name-calling among foreign writers, journalists and publishers about how to deal with the censorship of their work on the Chinese mainland.

Casting my sorrowful eyes over the many inches of well-intentioned newsprint devoted to this subject, I see none of the wide plurality of views offered in Chinese media.

Instead, articles regarding the PEN report, entitled ‘Censorship and Conscience,’ mostly focus on the bad aspects of censorship, with little mention of the positive effects of editing books. Let me say this only once. If just a single person gets to read even a bowdlerized version of my work, it will have made a huge difference – however small. If many more choose to buy and be enlightened by these books, then so be it: I will suffer their royalties.

Certainly, this is not about anything so vulgar as “money” or “fame,” as a number of commentators have implied. I shudder to read the veiled suggestion that esteemed fellow alumni Dr. Ebenezer McDougal might have had any financial motive for agreeing to censor He Was Wise (Ivy League Press, 2013), his weighty biography of visionary leader Li Peng, for Chinese readers. In fact, as reviewers have noted, the English edition was just as compromised. Truth be told, his decision had nothing to do with money: Ebenezer was grateful for the readers.

Despite this simple truth, the good intentions of those principled few who bow to censorship are rarely honored. Instead, authors like Ebenezer, who agree to sacrifice parts of their work for the greater good of humankind, are somehow forced to sacrifice their reputation, too. It hardly seems just. Simply because Chinese censors do not take a complicated, nuanced and tolerant view of foreign writers doesn’t mean that foreign writers shouldn’t take a complicated, nuanced and tolerant view of Chinese censors.

We should not sink to the level of petty bureaucrats, insisting on the use of certain words or phrases or paragraphs or chapters that are considered “sensitive” or which offend official sensibilities. It is a matter of semantics. And what is semantics but the study of the meaning and symbolism of words? One person’s “tragedy” is merely another’s “necessary contingent for the purposes of peaceful economic development.”

It is true that, despite decades of rapprochement from the West, the Communist Party shows no sign of relenting its iron grip on information control. Indeed, the conditions governing freedom of speech have considerably worsened in recent years. That’s why I believe that closer engagement with China is now critical for allowing Americans to better understand and appreciate its authoritarian rule.

When visiting China, I’m often brought to sweet tears of joy by the responses of readers, who are always utterly grateful for the opportunity to receive whatever pearls of wisdom their overlords allow them. In fact, without such heavy censorship, foreign writers would probably have far less of an audience in China, as their subjects would be freely discussed by Chinese writers, educators and journalists, instead of ours. So in some ways, I’m grateful to censors for greatly enhancing the value of my work.

Yet whatever material gains there may be – and there are, regrettably, many – there is a far, far greater mission to consider: the education and healing of these simple, honest people.

That is why, when I receive royalty checks from Chinese publishers, I immediately rip them into hundreds of pieces – before getting down on my hands and knees to gather all the tiny shreds from the floor. Afterward, using a magnifying glass and some Scotch tape, I painstakingly reassemble the fragments into a recognizable check, albeit with some parts missing or otherwise altered. My bank manager, Steve, accepts this small totem as a form of legal tender. For allowing me this humble gesture, I am grateful to Steve and my publisher, as well as the many Chinese who make such symbolism possible.

This is the third in a series of monographs planned by the author on this subject

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