Wednesday, October 30, 2013

90% of the truth is a lie

Did you read the recent article about Ezra Vogel? The Harvard University professor emeritus had written "Deng Xiaoping and the Transformation of China," an 876-page examination of the Chinese leader's legacy. It had sold 35,000 copies in America, a respectable number, but he knew the real market would be in China.

All he had to do to sell it there was take out things that Chinese government censors didn't like.

No more acknowledgment that Chinese newspapers refused to report the fall of Communism in eastern Europe in the 1980s. No more mention of the state dinner during the Tiananmen Square uprising, where a shaky Deng couldn't keep food on his chopsticks in front of Mikhail Gorbachev. You get the idea.

Ka-ching! The book sold 650,000 copies. When asked about his decision, he said, "To me, the choice was easy. I thought it was better to have 90 percent of the book available here than zero."

I can forgive a professor for wanting to earn royalties on which he can live out his days. But why not just say, "Hey, I needed the money"?

Imagine the uproar if a biographer agreed to remove the Monica Lewinsky incident from a Bill Clinton biography and said, "Well, it still covers 90% of his time in office." (Actually, Hillary Clinton comes off well in this context: The New York Times reports that she yanked her book "Living History" off Chinese shelves in 2003, when she learned substantial portions had been removed.)

At least Vogel's book presumably made some sense when the censors were done. Qiu Xiaolong, who was raised in China but lives in St. Louis, now refuses to let his Inspector Chen mystery novels be published in his native land.

He told the Times his first three books were re-edited so badly that plots became incoherent. Chinese censors altered characters, rewrote plot lines to make them more flattering to the Communist Party and relocated the action from Shanghai to an invented locale called H City. Why? Because, of course, major crimes are never committed in Shanghai in real life.