A Chinese edition of my book, “The Pentagon’s New Map,” was published in the People’s Republic last month, ending a three-year censorship battle that had twice derailed publication.
The entire process was an education in how things get done inside China and how that regime slowly changes as it opens up to the outside world.
My literary agent received several inquiries from Chinese publishers following the book’s North American release in early 2004. We eventually settled with Beijing University Press for two reasons: (1) the prestige factor, and (2) unlike many Chinese publishers, the university actually pays authors their book advances — in advance.
I was thrilled with the outcome, inking the contract two weeks before my wife and I took off for a lengthy adoption trip to China that August. As a parent facing trans-racial adoption, the prospect of being an author who’s been published there made me feel somewhat less alien.
Upon returning home, I was contacted by a Chinese lawyer heading up the translation team. He assured me the volume would be published “as is,” meaning no cuts. This surprised me some because a Japanese version had trimmed more than 10,000 words — with my approval — to reach a text length better suited for local tastes.
By February 2005, the translation was complete, and I was asked to pen a special preface.
The book was set for summer release.
Late that spring, my agent received a surprise list of last-minute deletions from Beijing University Press: roughly ten thousand words, but this was no editing for length. Instead, the press had erased all references to the Chinese Communist Party, Taiwan, North Korea and Iran, plus eliminated any descriptions of Pentagon debates regarding China as a future military threat.
The university was simply afraid to submit the book to government censors until those “dangerous” passages were culled.
Worse, in their pre-emptive panic, the editors had sliced entire pages of text before and following each offending citation — just to be sure!
In reply, I countered with highly selective cuts encompassing several hundred words, declaring I would go no further.
Beijing University Press reluctantly agreed but then demanded I insert a proviso on the cover stating, “this text reflects the author’s personal opinions and not those of the university.” That was an easy give, so a new deal was struck.
But then the university kept delaying publication across the rest of 2005 as China’s mass media suffered a period of renewed censorship from above.
When several youth publication editors were sacked by the party in early 2006, a new demand arrived from Beijing University: Either I agreed to the maximum cuts previously proposed or the deal was off.
I answered no and sent the publisher an angry letter declaring that they’d someday rue this cowardly decision.
My agency then tried to seek other publishers for the book, only to be told by all that, in the current political climate, they’d likewise seek similar cuts. At that point, I seemed out of options.
Then another door opened, thanks to two trips I made to Beijing in the summer and fall of 2006, ostensibly to deliver speeches to policy think tanks associated with the Chinese military, Communist Party and the ministries of foreign affairs and internal security. These talks were arranged by Chinese scholars and policy analysts familiar with my work and were quietly designed to resurrect the idea of publishing my first book.
Upon my return from the second trip, my agent received two e-mails within rapid succession: The first came from Beijing University Press, officially rescinding the original contract; the second, arriving 30 minutes later, came from an obscure Chinese press offering a new advance and promising to publish the entire book without a single cut.
What happened seemed easy enough to decipher.
Beijing University Press, a high-profile state-run publisher, had been allowed to withdraw from this controversial project. But enough rising players within China’s burgeoning public policy realm were pushing for my book’s publication that a suitable substitute was quickly and quietly found.
In the end, my book, unexpurgated and uncensored, reaches the limited population currently designated by the ruling elite to discuss such matters in relative freedom.
Glass half empty or half full?
Think of it as a drink barely sipped for now but one that addresses a deep and growing thirst.