Two British publishers have censored books intended for western readers to ensure they can be printed cheaply in China, in the latest instance of companies yielding to Beijing’s restrictions on free speech.
Octopus Books, part of literary empire Hachette, and London-listed Quarto have removed references to Taiwan and other subjects banned by Chinese authorities from several books, according to two people familiar with the matter.
The revelations follow a string of censorship controversies in the publishing sector. In 2017, academic publishers Springer Nature and Cambridge University Press were criticised after it emerged they had each blocked hundreds of articles from being accessed in China.
But evidence obtained by the Financial Times gives the first indication that books sold in the west are also being amended to appease Beijing.
Since 2020 Octopus, a self-described “leading publisher of non-fiction”, has removed references in at least two books to Taiwan, a democratic nation that China claims as its territory. In one case, an entire section relating to Taiwan was cut.
Over the same period Quarto, a picture book publisher that in 2020 released the New York Times bestseller This Book is Anti-Racist, erased mentions of Hong Kong and dissident artist Ai Weiwei from separate publications.
The nationality of people mentioned in one book was also changed from Taiwanese to East Asian, while references to Tibet, a region annexed by China in 1951, were revised in two books to suggest it was Chinese territory.
Both Octopus and Quarto have censored books after suppliers in China, which face legal restrictions on what they can print, said they were unable to publish the original text. The people familiar with the changes did not want to publicise the names of books affected as this could risk anonymity, but the FT has seen documents confirming the edits were made.
“Why do they still choose China to print the books for a cheaper cost, as they understand the law and restrictions on content?” asked Rose Luqiu, a journalism professor at Hong Kong Baptist University. She added that the controversy was just the latest “profit-driven” example of “how foreign companies proactively co-operate with censorship”.
Publishers across the industry told the FT that printing in China, where production fees are lower than elsewhere, has grown increasingly difficult.
Last year US printing company RR Donnelley & Sons distributed a memo seen by the FT, saying that its Chinese printers were unable to produce books mentioning human rights abuses in Xinjiang and suggestions that Covid-19 originated in China.
The people familiar with the matter said Quarto and Octopus have printed particularly sensitive books outside China, but cost pressures dissuaded them from doing so for all publications.
“[Octopus Books] don’t agree with it on a moral level. But [the company] does not disagree enough to increase the price of [its] books,” said a Hachette employee, who did not want to be named.
Publishing is supposed to be an “industry of ideas”, so censorship feels particularly “insidious”, the person added.
A spokesperson for Quarto said the publisher did not make changes at the request of suppliers and always protects the editorial integrity of its books.
But, the spokesperson added, the company had “a fiduciary duty to act in the best interests of our shareholders” and work with suppliers in China who “consistently deliver” value for money.
A spokesperson for Octopus Books said any books where sensitive details are relevant to the text are not printed in China. Changes that are made “are not material and we always ask the permission of the author first to check they are comfortable to proceed”.
A spokesperson for RR Donnelley said the company operated one of the largest print networks in the world and “in situations where materials are, or may be, rejected, we may offer alternative manufacturing locations”.
Additional reporting by Alex Barker, Patricia Nilsson and Eleanor Olcott in London