Ten years ago I wrote a book called “That’s China.” It told the story of how the magazine publishing business that I built in China, fighting all the way, mostly with the government bureaus that controlled media, was taken from me by the government, destroying my career.
The publishers of the book were excited about the project. We knew the story would upset powerful people in China. “We love controversy,” they said. “That’s what publishing is all about.”
At the last minute the publishers sent a review copy to their representative office in Beijing, whose response was: “We will never be able to develop business in China if you publish this.”
The publication was canceled. My editor admitted in private that they were afraid.
I was familiar with the power of the Chinese government. I had dealt with censors — “content inspectors,” as they preferred to be known — on a daily basis, face to face. I had listened to them explain: “We like a controversy. We love an argument. But we can’t let your readers have one, especially if they are Chinese.”
From time to time I did upset the censors. I was accused of supporting independence for Taiwan, interfering in the Tibet question, encouraging Falun Gong, the religious sect, selling sexual services, pornography and, ultimately, Muslim separatism. Yet every time I got into trouble, it was not because the censors themselves had read and found something upsetting. It was because my commercial rivals had found it for them.
Censorship was a commercial tool, a weapon in your business arsenal. You used it to hurt people. My magazines lost thousands of dollars in revenue thanks to the “sexual services” complaint, which was directed at our personal classified advertising. The competitor behind that attack went on to launch its own classifieds section, which ran pages of massage service advertisements offering “happy endings.”
Today, many of the same political and corporate leaders who complain about Chinese censorship and its harsh consequences — like the detention of writers such as the Nobel Peace Prize recipient Liu Xiaobo — quietly accept the censorship of the Chinese Communist Party themselves. Some even self-censor, in order not to upset the party or even, much worse, to avoid damaging their prospects of making money in China.
The South Africans denied the Dalai Lama a visa. The 2012 London Book Fair allowed the Chinese General Administration of Press and Publication (my old adversary) to dictate the guest list, and to bar another Chinese Nobel Prize winner, Gao Xingjian, who lives in exile in France. In November, top executives from international tech firms including Facebook, LinkedIn and Apple attended the inaugural World Internet Conference in Zhejiang Province. Access to many of the attendees’ sites and services is blocked in China, but none of them publicly raised the matter with the host, a state agency, despite the opportunity. Nor did any of them comment on the irony, at least in public. In March, Reader’s Digest made cuts to a publication being printed in China, at the request of the printer. In the same month the chairman of Bloomberg publicly questioned whether his organization should have “rethought” its coverage of politically sensitive news in China.
The world is falling over itself to please the Chinese Communist Party. We call it China, but that is a flag of convenience, a banana leaf to cover our embarrassment.
One of the Communist Party’s outstanding feats, one of its greatest successes, is the creation of an intangible, terrifying impression of a vast invisible force, a monster in the next room. It has no name, no identity. It is the spirit of the party, the ghosts of the “Revolutionary Martyrs.” Even the leaders themselves are afraid of it. If you cannot give something a name, you cannot speak to it or reason with it. All you can do is fear it.
The system thrives on fear. Yet the party is itself very afraid — of the people. Hence the censorship and punishment of those who dare to speak out.
Now the party’s monster is striking fear into the Western world. It controls the only hope, as the leaders of the West would have it, for the world economy. It must be appeased. Yet leaders of Western governments and major corporations rail against the censorship, the repression of writers and thinkers and human rights. Such double standards delight the Chinese Communist Party. It has co-opted the West into playing by its own rules, where hypocrisy is Rule No.1, where everyone is guilty to some extent and can be held to account at the convenience of whoever is in charge.
And the world is putting China in charge. It is a very old and very clever Chinese political maneuver. To the party, Chinese supremacy is only natural, a reversion to how things should always have been, if not for the Industrial Revolution and a few other blips in world history. China is the rightful leader of the civilized world.
As did the suzerain states that surrounded it centuries ago, the world again sends tribute in the hope that China will treat it with favor, and the party takes that as confirmation of its elevated position, takes the tribute for granted and sees the donor as weak, while the foreign government or corporation congratulates itself on being promised access to the Chinese market, or Chinese investment in its country or companies. They forget, or ignore the fact, that the Chinese market is for the Chinese, and so are the profits.
At the APEC conference in Beijing in early November, China censorship, how it works, how it should be stood up to, and how Western governments could deal with it came together in one brief moment at the final press conference. A New York Times journalist asked President Xi Jinping about the issuing of China visas for foreign correspondents. The New York Times has had difficulty getting visas since it ran a story about the private wealth of senior party members, the same topic Bloomberg wanted to rethink. Mr. Xi all but ignored the question. President Obama, standing to one side, turned to the media, raised his eyebrows, smiled and shrugged.
Let’s hope that was a shrugging off, and not a gesture of acceptance.
Mark Kitto, a publisher in Britain, is the author of That’s China: How a British Rebel Took On the Chinese Propaganda Machine, which was published in November.