The year is 1925, and Shanghai is in flux. Communists, Nationalists, and Triad gangsters are all fighting for control of this vice-laden city, and one “preeminent bon vivant,” Victor Sassoon, is fighting to keep evil at bay. Almost a century later, however, on China’s south coast, Sassoon is burnt to a crisp, a victim of the government’s ever-tightening restrictions on the imaginative world.
Victor Sassoon was a real person—but he’s also the hero of The Sassoon Files, a roleplaying game supplement (think Dungeons and Dragons) designed by Jesse Covner and Jason Sheets, two Americans living in Japan. Last week, via a recorded video message, Covner broke the news to their 511 followers—who had crowdfunded $24,183 to make the book a reality—that the entire print run of The Sassoon Files had been destroyed by the factory in Guangzhou contracted to fulfil the order. A government official had visited the manufacturer and ordered that all the books be destroyed within 24 hours, even though they were scheduled to be shipped directly overseas, with no plans for sale to the Chinese market. “I couldn’t believe what I heard,” lamented Covner. “I’d never heard of China’s government getting involved with printing issues for export to foreign markets.”
The Sassoon Files is the latest casualty of the Chinese government’s ever-increasing political paranoia and determination to control the global narrative. Whether it’s demanding that Cambridge University Press censor its offerings in China, grooming foreign journalists, or expanding its infiltration of Western newspapers with inconspicuous supplements from the state-run China Daily, Beijing’s propaganda drive has gone from the defensive to the offensive.
As the journalist Louisa Lim and researcher Julia Bergin have argued, the Chinese Communist Party has embarked on an “aggressive drive to redraw the global information order.” Part of this drive is controlling what can and can’t be produced in what used to be the world’s workhouse, regardless of who the intended audience is, or of the commercial consequences. The printing industry in China is worth about $93 billion—making up more than 10 percent of the worldwide total, and second only to the United States.
Jo Lusby, a former CEO of Penguin Random House North Asia who now runs her own publishing consultancy in Hong Kong, stresses that rules about what printers in China can print have always been in place, and those with a license to print foreign ISBNs know that they will face extra administrative hurdles and scrutiny. “It’s like trying to print a T-shirt that says ‘Free Tibet’ in China—that factory would get shut down,” she explained. Industry veterans have navigated these murky waters for a long time. What has changed, though, is the expanding list of topics deemed sensitive.
Earlier this year, this list was put in writing for the first time and circulated among publishers. Its scope is farcical: As well as widely known sensitive subjects such as Tibet, Taiwan, and the Tiananmen Square massacre, any mention of any political figures whatsoever is verboten. Lusby said that even the phrase “Deng Xiaoping-era policies,” a common proxy term for the reform and opening up of China that began in the 1980s, has been flagged before.
This rule is where The Sassoon Files faltered—one of the options in the game is to work as a secret agent for Zhou Enlai, Mao Zedong’s second in command. “The cultural department examined the books and found some false reports about the great men of Chinese history, so did not allow us to print [them] and ordered us to destroy the books,” a spokesperson for China Seven Color Group, the factory used by Covner and Sheets, told Foreign Policy. Covner and Sheets declined to comment, citing security concerns for their friends and colleagues in China.
It is not just newcomers who have had print runs scuppered by China’s censorship laws. Last year, the Australian publishing house Hardie Grant was forced to abandon two book projects after its Chinese suppliers refused to cooperate. Both issues were cartographical: In one book, the font used for Taiwan on a hand-drawn map was the same size as that used for China, which was “unacceptable,” they were told; the other book, a children’s atlas, showed a hard border between China and Tibet. Maps are a particular shibboleth in China, where “incorrect” images are regularly destroyed.
Sandy Grant, Hardie Grant’s co-founder, said that he hadn’t anticipated any problems, given that neither book was pegged for release in China. Still, the publisher tried to find workarounds. But when the illustrator of the Taiwan map refused to compromise on the design, and color printers for the children’s atlas in other countries were too expensive, both books had to be dropped. “We don’t want to change what we do,” Grant said, “but anything that requires international mapping we will [now] not do or look at very carefully.”
Grant believes the result of China’s demands is that self-censorship “is not just a risk in the industry—it is prominent.” As in many other sectors, such as technology, aviation, and film, publishers around the world are having to consider how far they are willing to capitulate to China’s view of the world in order to exploit its economic offerings. In the case of publishers, though, it is not about reaching a Chinese audience—it is about what version of China to communicate to the rest of the world. For Lusby, the issue of self-censorship is not clear-cut, although she conceded that it can “creep in” in the “tiny judgement calls” that publishers are forced to make over, for example, whether Taiwan should be listed as a separate country. Major academic publishers have already conceded to censoring for the Chinese market, if not the global one.
Any publisher has to consider the cost of printing in order to be commercially viable. Cheap black-and-white printing is available worldwide, but China still has a market edge when it comes to color or other special features—one publisher estimates that it is 40 percent cheaper to print books in China than it is in North America. This could change, though, as publishers feel less confident about investing resources into print contracts that could fall through at the last minute or be subject to lengthy delays. Printing is where “the commercial meets the political,” Lusby said, adding that rising labor costs in China and delays caused by factories being forced to close because of air pollution reduction targets have meant that Chinese printers are becoming less competitive.
What is certain to make Chinese printers less competitive is book burning. China Seven Color Group said that The Sassoon Files was the first time that it had been forced to take destructive action—a technique once common in the bonfires of the Cultural Revolution Publishers might be willing to put free speech concerns aside for the sake of profit, but if Chinese printers are forced to bear the brunt of the government’s obsessions, they’ll pay a sharp price.