It’s an irony that on the one hand the Chinese government actively courts the international publishing world - keen to take its place on the cultural world stage, to share Chinese values and promote its domestic scholarship - while on the other the regime takes steps which can do nothing but alienate the global book industry.
What could create worse feeling than, as appears to be the case as The Bookseller went to press, having your secret agents spirit away five publishers from a Hong Kong outfit that was planning a book unflattering to China’s president Xi Pinjing? One, Lee Bo, even has a British passport. How poorly that sits with 2015’s China-UK Year of Cultural Exchange, which saw the London China Book Festival coinciding with the president’s visit. What a bad fit with China’s massive presence at the 2015 BookExpo America.
There has been outcry from industry bodies all round. One of them, the International Publishers Association, finds itself in something of a hot seat regarding China, with its German member organisation, the Börsenverein des Deutschen Buchhandels, greatly disturbed by a recent vote allowing the Publishers Association of China (PAC) into the organisation. As the Börsenverein points out, Chinese publishers are state-owned and beholden to the government. How, given China’s record on persecuting authors and publishers, can the PAC take part in the IPA’s round tables on a key principle: freedom to publish?
Current IPA president Richard Charkin takes a different view. He argues that the IPA has more clout in arguing the case for freedom to publish in a territory where publishers are members; examples such as that of the United Arab Emirates have shown how the IPA can help facilitate change from within.
The fact is, international publishing is already very engaged with China. Academic publishers are piling into new ventures, enticed by China’s big Open Access spending. The children’s market too is presenting promising opportunities. Are we to do more and more commercial business there, yet hold back from engaging with China on the wider principles which underpin that business? Surely a robustly challenging engagement must be the way forward.
Meanwhile, at last year’s Shanghai Children’s Book Fair, Chinese publishers—keen to acquire rights but irritated by the one-way traffic with the West—spoke repeatedly about the need to export Chinese work, calling books “an ambassador” for the country and its values. Fine sentiments, but tough debates lie ahead if this relationship is to develop.
Benedicte Page is deputy editor of The Bookseller.