It reads like a plot twist in a sci-fi novel: a trove of leaked emails revealing that administrators of science fiction’s most prestigious award, the Hugo, compiled political dossiers on authors to placate Chinese government officials. As a result, at least four authors were barred from nomination for their perceived criticism of the Chinese Communist Party. Among them were major writers like Neil Gaiman and R.F. Kuang. The prize administrators apparently went ahead with this scheme to avoid contravening China’s all-encompassing censorship while the 2023 award convention was being held in Chengdu.

The lead administrator, Hugo veteran Dave McCarty, tasked his team with highlighting “anything of a sensitive political nature” in authors’ work, essentially applying a political litmus test that would make authors ineligible if their writing was deemed to potentially run afoul of Chinese censorship.

This is galling, but perhaps not shocking; after all, the Chinese Communist Party has become adept at subtly pushing Western institutions to bend principles on creative and free expression in exchange for access to the lucrative Chinese market. From Hollywood to the Houston Rockets to Mercedes-Benz, organizations have changed their content, distanced themselves from their own employees, or apologized for their freedom of speech to avoid offending Beijing. 

What is highly unusual  in this particular case is that we have verifiable evidence of how Hugo administrators self-censored in order to please Beijing.  When the Hugo Awards first revealed their listings in January, members of the sci-fi community shared their suspicions that political censorship had played a role—but no one had hard evidence. It took an administrator leaking internal emails to supply evidence.

It is usually almost impossible to definitively prove that a Western institution made a change to its content specifically to please Beijing–as self-censorship happens behind closed doors, away from the public eye.

I can recall only one similar example where the public was offered a peek behind the curtain—the leak of hacked Sony Studios emails in 2014. The hack then “offered a rare glimpse of how normal it had become” for studio executives to debate making specific changes in order to please Chinese censors. Emails revealed that Sony executives had considered or made changes to the content of several films—from 2013’s Captain Phillips, to the 2014 RoboCop reboot, to 2015’s Pixels—to please CCP censors.

In the leaked Hugo Awards emails, McCarty mentions receiving guidance from Chinese counterparts—but he is vague about whether these were Chinese officials or simply business partners. He also is vague as to whether he received official instructions to blacklist certain individuals or not. As one journalist concluded after reviewing the emails, “It’s unclear if the awards’ administrators were acting under pressure or were pre-emptively seeking to avoid controversy.” 

If the latter, that is also unsurprising. A key feature of Chinese censorship is that it effectively compels people to self-censor, rather than wait for official censorship from authorities. 

Here, the Hugo administrators feared angering the Chinese government, the host of the 2023 WorldCon. So they self-censored in order to please their hosts—sacrificing the integrity of the Hugo in the process. 

The evil genius of the CCP’s censorship system is that it transforms the very people who should be the greatest defenders of creative freedom into accomplices of censorship.

As the leaked emails reveal, Hugo administrators compiled dossiers on whether authors posed “possible issues”, “minor possible issues,” or “no issues” when it came to Chinese politics. The head administrator instructed his team to be on the lookout for “anything negative about China.” 

This type of instruction makes every piece of content into a referendum: will Beijing be offended, or not? When you view art solely through a political lens and a  potential threat, you will find only threats. The administrator who later leaked the emails wrote that she was operating with “an abundance of caution” in flagging potentially problematic authors.

In 2002, scholar Perry Link wrote a seminal essay on understanding CCP censorship, “The Anaconda in the Chandelier.” Link wrote, “Normally the great snake doesn’t move. It doesn’t have to. It feels no need to be clear about its prohibitions. Its constant silent message is ‘You yourself decide,’ after which, more often than not, everyone in its shadow makes his or her large and small adjustments—all quite ‘naturally.’” It was, Link concluded, a feat of “psychological engineering” that even the Soviet Union’s censors did not rival.

As a life-long science fiction fan myself, I love how sci-fi books have allowed me to imagine sweeping new stories–from fictional communities on far-away planets, to everyday humans coping with life-changing new technologies. To subject these feats of imagination to the CCP’s all-controlling censorship system is a travesty. 

As sci-fi fans debate what this means for the credibility of the Hugo, at least one lesson should be clear: when you play ball with political censors, you end up doing the censors work for them.

James Tager is research director at PEN America. He is author of PEN America’s report Made in Hollywood, Censored by Beijing, on Chinese governmental influence over Hollywood movie content.