Hillary Clinton’s new book will not be sold in mainland China, despite efforts by her publisher, Simon & Schuster, to sell the memoir there.
Chinese publishers have declined to purchase translation rights to Hard Choices, an account of Clinton’s four years as secretary of state, her publisher told BuzzFeed.
The book will not be sold in English either: One of China’s largest import agencies will not allow distribution of an English-language edition. The day after Clinton’s book hit stores in the U.S., executives at Simon & Schuster were told by Shanghai Book Traders, which supplies foreign books to Amazon China, that the title would not be approved for sale in China. The decision came only after the agency was able to screen the book, the publisher said. As a result, Hard Choices was removed from the country’s Amazon site.
Hard Choices has been received well in nearly every major international market, except for China, Simon & Schuster said. In total, 16 other countries have purchased foreign rights to the book, which was released in the U.S. on June 10.
Simon & Schuster president Jonathan Karp said in an interview that China’s response to Clinton’s book amounts to an “effective ban” by the country.
“It’s outrageous and unfortunate,” Karp said. “And it’s a pretty clear indication of the low level of intellectual freedom in China right now.”
Clinton’s book, a 656-page retelling of her tenure at as secretary of state, is critical of the Chinese government. She details its censorship practices and characterizes the country as “full of contradictions” and the “epicenter of the antidemocratic movement in Asia.”
The book also includes several passages about her dealings with Chinese senior officials. In one section, Clinton references a discussion with Dai Bingguo, China’s state councilor, about the U.S. “pivot strategy” in Asia. “Why don’t you ‘pivot’ out of here?” Dai is quoted as saying.
Clinton dedicates a full chapter to her efforts on behalf of Chen Guangcheng, the blind Chinese dissident and civil rights activist who sought asylum in the U.S. Another chapter focuses on democratization in Myanmar, where China has political and economic interests, and on Aung San Suu Kyi, Myanmar’s opposition leader.
Clinton also revisits her 1995 address to the United Nations Conference on Women in Beijing, where, she writes, she “felt the heavy hand of Chinese censorship when the government blocked the broadcast of my speech.”
Simon & Schuster believes that Chinese publishers and the import agency, Shanghai Book Traders, consider the book unprintable. “It really is about a Chinese business fearing the wrath of the Chinese government,” Karp said.
Before the book was published, a total of 13 countries, including China’s neighbor Taiwan, bought the book “blind,” without even reading an advance copy.
“No one in China was willing to buy the book blind because the political sensitivities involved in publishing any author who might be critical of China,” Karp said.
But even after the book came out, Chinese publishers held off. “There has been silence,” Karp said. “We have received offers all over the world for this book. We’ve just sold the Mongolian rights. We’ve had an offer from Russia. We either have sold the book or are in the process of selling the work to all the major territories.”
“China is the one big exception. The phone isn’t ringing for China.”
Karp said Simon & Schuster made a concerted effort to find a Chinese publisher, but there was no interest. Executives didn’t even reach the point of negotiating with a Chinese publishing house. “It’s been deafening silence,” said Karp.
“We approached all the likely candidates,” he added. (Clinton’s last Chinese publishing house, Yilin Press, which ultimately lost the Living History contract because of censorship, did not make an offer to Simon & Schuster, Karp said.)
The day after Clinton’s book was released, executives at Simon & Schuster were told that Shanghai Book Traders, the import agency that would have supplied an English-language copy of Hard Choices to Chinese readers, had also refused to approve the book for sale. Amazon China, which Shanghai Book Traders supplies for Simon & Schuster titles, removed the Hard Choices listing.
“There’s no formal written explanation for why, except for the obvious reason that, in the past, we’ve been told that the import agencies don’t want to risk the wrath of the Chinese government,” Karp said. “They could be shut down.”
Clinton’s publisher initially hoped the agency might reconsider the block upon seeing sales and coverage in the United States and other countries. Although sales dropped by nearly half here in its second week, the book remains at the top of the New York Times best-sellers list. It is also a best-seller in the United Kingdom, Australia, India, and Canada, according to the publisher. But so far, Shanghai Book Traders has not indicated an interest in distributing the title.
The block on Clinton’s book came as a surprise even to her publisher’s rivals.
“I know that individual publishing houses in China were prepared to make offers late last year,” said Jo Lusby, the managing director of Penguin China, a branch of Penguin Random House, who said she had expected Hard Choices to be a Chinese-language best-seller.
“Non-fiction books by major U.S. public figures carry serious price tags in China, and this should have been no different,” Lusby said.
Chinese publishers often ask to remove passages from foreign books before agreeing to purchase the rights. The Chinese edition of Clinton’s first memoir, Living History, was significantly altered in 2003 without approval, causing Simon & Schuster to pull the book from circulation after a first printing of 200,000 copies.
The book, titled Qinli Lishi, or “Personal History,” was advertised by the government-backed Chinese publisher, Yilin Press, as the “most unabridged foreign political memoir” in the country’s history, keeping “99.9% of the original’s content,” Yilin Press told reporters at the time. But in September of 2003, Simon & Schuster discovered that the translated edition had altered passages about the human rights activist Harry Wu and removed references to the Tiananmen Square protests.
An additional printing of the book had been planned in China — it had become a best-seller there immediately — but Simon & Schuster withdrew the rights.
Former president Bill Clinton also had problems with his 2004 memoir, My Life. Bootleg translations, widely circulated throughout bookstores in China, included fabricated passages about the degree to which Chinese innovations had “left us in the dust.” In one pirated edition, Clinton tells his wife to call him by his nickname, “Big Watermelon.” In another, the book’s first sentence is re-written to read, “The town of Hope, where I was born, has very good feng shui.”
Import agencies are said to screen content before agreeing to distribute a title. The companies could face fines, sanctions, and loss of their licenses if they release material which the government deems disadvantageous, executives said.
Not all political writers have had problems in the Chinese market.
Justice Sonia Sotomayor had an easy time finding a publisher there, and was not asked to make changes to her manuscript, according to her agent, Peter Bernstein.
This spring, Evan Osnos, a writer for the New Yorker, published a book on China called Age of Ambition, and wrote about his experience with censorship in a recent New York Times op-ed. After a Shanghai publishing company asked him to remove certain political figures from the book, Osnos decided to forfeit a Chinese-language edition altogether.
“If you want to publish a book in Chinese that touches on politics, it’s almost guaranteed that there will be things they’re going to want to change,” Osnos said.
“On the one hand, we want outside information coming into China. That’s good for Chinese readers and for Western authors,” he added. “On the other hand, you don’t want to make compromises that undermine the integrity of the work.”
Simon & Schuster plans to push sales in Taiwan, where a publishing house called Business Weekly purchased rights, and in Hong Kong, the former British colony where books blocked by the Chinese government are available for sale.
Representatives from Amazon, Amazon China, and Shanghai Book Traders did not respond to questions on Thursday regarding the sale of Clinton’s memoir.