China — Future Shock — But not too shocking

Stephen DeAngelis

October 16, 2006

Working with Tom Barnett, whose books have a large and influential following in China, I’m aware that the Chinese like to censor literature coming from the West — even if they basically like it. Here is how Tom blogged about his first reactions to proposed Chinese edits:

The original, long list of proposed deletions was just too much. I just had this feeling that I would hold the Chinese version in my hand and think to myself: it wasn’t worth it. I can understand Beijing U Press being nervous about printing anything critical about the Party. Fine. I can likewise understand wanting to eliminate statements about China “threatening” Taiwan or lumping that potential conflict in with a host of others, thus suggesting the strong possibility of war with the United States over this issue. To me, that’s like asking the Government Printing Office of the U.S. to publish something that predicts the demise of the GOP or suggests that the U.S. is readying an invasion of Cuba. You can counter, “But Beijing U. isn’t government.” But, of course, it sort of is. In ten years I don’t think we have this conversation, but for now, we do. Again, those narrow cuts I can live with and rationalize. It was cutting all the references to Iran, North Korea and Kim, and Pentagon planning on China that was too much. Plus some cuts that involved oblique critiques of socialism or suggested possible Old Core-vs-New Core tensions. Those cuts just crossed my sense of a threshold: better not to publish if that’s the price. So I cut down the rather long list to 14 cuts, and those cuts were slimmed down individually to the very distinctly offensive phrases on the Party or Taiwan, leaving the rest intact. I passed this slimmed down list to the Chinese-American lawyer in NY who helped broker the deal and was involved in the translation. I have had no direct comms with Beijing U. Here’s my hope: BUP was gaming this all along, and thus proposed the larger list in the hope that I would balk but still be amenable to the far smaller list of statements on the Party and Taiwan, or the ones they might really catch hell on. The risk here is minimal, in my mind: it’s just not worth publishing with the longer list of cuts. I’d rather write them a check for the full advance myself–something I offered to do.

Eventually, they accepted Tom’s compromise along with disclaimer in the book saying its ideas were Tom’s and not reflective of the publisher. Alvin and Heidi Toffler, authors of Future Shock, also have an enthusiastic following in China and they too have had their works censored according to a Washington Post article by Peter Eisner [“Alvin Toffler, Esteemed and Edited in China,” 12 Oct 2006].

Alvin Toffler, the American futurologist, has a loyal following in China. He is held in such esteem that the Communist Party considers him among 50 foreigners — including Karl Marx, Richard Nixon, Marie Curie and Michael Jordan — who have most significantly influenced the country’s modern development. In fact, Toffler is apparently so beloved that Chinese editors — with the help of government censors — decided to massage his image a bit by removing potentially controversial references to China from his most recent book, “Revolutionary Wealth.” The Mandarin edition, published by China Citic Press, adds an unauthorized preface, makes substantive changes on sensitive political issues, such as violent unrest, and deletes two-thirds of a page about what the book describes as the “cultist quasi-religious Falun Gong movement.” Members of that group have been imprisoned and banned in China.

Chinese publishers have not always bothered to get permission to publish copyrighted works, but in Tom’s case and the case with Revolutionary Wealth they did. Toffler had an interesting reaction to the edits made in his book:

The censorship “doesn’t completely surprise me, especially given the nature of what some of the passages say,” said the 78-year-old Toffler, best known for his 1970 book “Future Shock.” His reaction to the changes, he said, was more bemusement and dismay than anger because he considers the book to be quite friendly to China. “Revolutionary Wealth,” written with his wife, Heidi, analyzes global redistribution of wealth in this accelerated age of social and technological development, and deals only briefly with China. “It would have been more elegant Chinese diplomacy or manners to have discussed them with me in advance,” said Toffler in a phone interview from Los Angeles. “Some of the changes could have been altered, but unfortunately there was no advance discussion of the changes that would be made.”

Tom was at least more fortunate in that regard. The changes made to Toffler’s books were along the same lines as those made to Tom’s including the elimination of any mention of the country moving away from communism, passages that would cast doubt on it Maoist past, or those that question continuing progress in the future. Such edits reflect a weakness that Chinese leaders will eventually have to overcome. They understand that serious protest throughout the country could generate instability that would negatively impact their economic growth. They obviously wish to avoid such scenarios. Continued progress and connectivity, however, means that Chinese government attempts to control media content will prove fruitless. Its leaders will find themselves in a position where they must exercise the softer powers of persuasion and intellect rather than harder police and military powers. It will be a good change, both for the leaders and the people. People don’t naturally seek anarchy and instability — quite the opposite. They desire security and stability. For China to become truly resilient, it must be flexible enough to accommodate protests and stable enough to keep the country moving forward. Permitting the free flow of ideas can only help the Chinese and I reckon they will discover this sooner rather than later.