The new biography of Helen Kelly by Rebecca Macfie was with the printers and all set to go – and then Chinese censors stepped in.
Here’s an email you don’t want to receive days before your splendid important book goes to press:
The book mentioned sensitive contents … the printing license [will] not pass … So we can’t proceed to print this book at the moment, we will cancel this title, thanks for your attention.
That’s what landed in the inbox of Mary Varnham, publisher at Awa Press, just a couple of months ago.
She laughs about it now, saying it was probably “naive” to send Rebecca Macfie’s new book, a biography of New Zealand trade union giant Helen Kelly, to China for printing in the first place. But she was used to sweeping for sensitive content in books headed for China, and thought this one would breeze through. “We were sure the Chinese censors would approve of the book.”
Printing in China is comparatively cheap and efficient, and delivers amazing quality, Varnham told The Spinoff. The books back her up on this: for example, all four finalists in the illustrated non-fiction category – that’s the peacocks – at this week’s Ockham New Zealand Book Awards were printed in China. So was Madison Hamill’s essay collection, Specimen, and Hinemoana Baker’s book of poems, Funkhaus.
But for years, unpredictable censorship has made printing books in China something of a crapshoot. Maps have recently been a particular sticking point – Varnham had one book held up for a month while censors checked maps in a cruising guide to Antarctica. In 2019 the news website Foreign Policy covered the censorship creep, and the list of red flags:
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 … 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.
Fergus Barrowman, publisher at Victoria University Press, has faced similar problems. “We got in the media on this subject a couple of years ago in relation to Rebecca Priestley’s book about Antarctica,” he said in an email. “Publishers know that Chinese printers are subject to Party censorship, and we … deal with it by identifying potentially sensitive content and placing those books elsewhere. We get tripped up every now and then, by terms like ‘Everest’ (in Rebecca’s book; the censor wanted the local name, which is not entirely unreasonable, but doesn’t really work for a film title), ‘Tibetan Buddhism’, ‘New Zealand Communist Party’. It’s just an ongoing thing, no new development as far as I know.”
Varnham doesn’t believe censors actually read Macfie’s book at all – they only had it one day before deciding to decline the printing licence, and it is a long, meaty book. She suspects a keyword scan flagged up some sensitive terms and the censors simply assumed the worst.
The irony is if they had read it, they would have found those terms popped up in stories about Kelly’s parents, Cath and Pat, who for 13 years were dedicated members of the China-aligned Communist Party of New Zealand. “Cath was delivering copies of People’s Voice to a factory in Kaiwharawhara the day before Helen was born,” Varnham explains. “I mean, [she] even gave the party 3000 pounds when she was a young woman, from her inheritance from her parents.”
The couple visited China, separately, in 1967; there is a photo in the book of Pat meeting with Chairman Mao Zedong that year. They talked for an hour and 20 minutes. “Mao gave [Pat] a copy of his Little Red Book, so we thought this book would be sure to be approved … How wrong we were.”
The decision back in March put Awa Press in “a terrible situation”. The print run had been tight already – it was geared around getting copies into the country in time for promotion at the Auckland Writers Festival, which is on this weekend – and they were already planning to airfreight the first batch of books over. There was no slack in the system. They were banking on the efficiency of the Chinese printer. “And they had gone a long way down the track, the printers over there. We were discussing finer points of the print job. We had no warning really that it was going to suddenly be censored.”
Varnham, scrambling, found a printer in Australia. It all worked out in the end, sort of: they managed to keep the print run the same size, and got the books here just in time. But to print in Australia, Awa Press had to find $9,000 to make up the difference. “The price was, I would say, nearly four times as much,” Varnham said. And that’s without any penalties for the quick turnaround.
Yet the crapshoot will continue. “We can’t afford to cut our losses with China, their production is so good and they’re so much cheaper, and also they give us 90 days’ credit whereas the Australian publishers want money upfront. So it is quite a difference. So we’ll continue to print our books in China,” she said. But: “We certainly will be much more cautious about sending anything there that mentions China, in future.”
Rebecca Macfie will be in conversation with Spinoff editor Toby Manhire about the book at the Auckland Writers Festival tomorrow afternoon. Macfie will also host a workshop on Sunday. We’ll have more coverage of her book in coming weeks.
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