PEN Launches Anti-Censorship Campaign as BookExpo America Prepares to Spotlight China

NEW YORK—Many Western authors, agents, and publishers have not paid close attention to what happens to their books when published in China, to the point where many are not even aware that they have been censored, PEN American Center says today in a new report. Other authors have willingly or tacitly agreed to censorship, including cuts that satisfy Chinese censors’ aim of deflecting attention and awareness from historically significant events like China’s Great Famine during the Cultural Revolution.

Released just a week before BookExpo America (BEA)—the publishing industry’s largest U.S. trade show—opens at New York’s Javits Center on May 27 with a focus on China’s fast-growing book market, Censorship and Conscience: Foreign Authors and the Challenge of Chinese Censorship (also available in Chinese) illustrates an under-explored dimension of China’s massive censorship machine: the censorship of some of the thousands of international titles published annually in China. Chinese censors omit or sanitize most mentions of politically sensitive topics, including the so-called “three Ts”—Tiananmen, Tibet, and Taiwan—as well as sexually explicit material and material related to LGBT issues. The report examines real examples of excisions from books translated for publication on the Chinese mainland and addresses the role of Western publishers, editors, agents, and authors in abetting or resisting Chinese censorship.

“While there may not be much Americans can do about widespread censorship of Chinese books and authors, when it comes to their own work foreign writers have a choice,” said Suzanne Nossel, PEN Executive Director. “The American publishing industry, with its long tradition of support for free expression, needs to wake up to the impact of Chinese censorship so that authors can make informed decisions about whether or why to allow their writing to be doctored. If we continue to look the other way, it won’t be long before writers and editors begin to factor Chinese political sensitivities into their work from the outset, aiming to avoid topics that could complicate access to readers in China or elsewhere once their books are translated.”

With the help of professional translators and seasoned publishers, Censorship and Conscience provides advice to foreign authors and agents considering publishing in China on how to negotiate proposed cuts or changes with Chinese publishers and how to vet the final translation to identify any unauthorized changes. PEN recommends that authors resist any changes that would fundamentally alter their books or distort references to major historical, political, and human rights concerns in China. The report also advises authors, publishers, and agents to call attention to altered portions of their translated works when censorship does happen and notes several measures that Western authors can take to mitigate or bypass the effects of censorship.

The report is part of a PEN campaign to tackle censorship and other free expression violations in China—where the Committee to Protect Journalists documents at least 44 writers are currently in prison—and their impact both domestic and global. Under the slogan “Governments Make Bad Editors,” the campaign will also include a Shadow Expo during BEA next week to counter the aggressive propaganda presented by the state-sponsored delegation in BEA’s China-focused events. A May 26 panel discussion, “Censored in China: Dissident Writers Speak Out,” and a Rally for Silenced Chinese Writers the following day will feature PEN’s own delegation of leading Chinese literary dissidents and acclaimed American authors to spotlight some of China’s silenced writers and demand the release of the all those jailed in China for their words.

“Every author has a right to make these decisions,” said author and PEN President Andrew Solomon. “It is critical that authors and publishers know what is going on, and that they take steps to resolve censorship issues on a case-by-case, page-by-page basis. If enough of us have notes in the front that say that the work was censored, I hope we can remind the Chinese people of their lack of freedom in ways that may help galvanize them to create change from within, which is the only kind of change that I have seen work in China.”


Founded in 1922, PEN American Center is a community of 4,000 U.S. writers working to bring down barriers to free expression worldwide. Its distinguished members carry on the achievements in literature and advancement of human rights of such past members as Langston Hughes, Arthur Miller, and Susan Sontag. To learn more, visit

Suzanne Nossel, Executive Director: [email protected], (646) 779-4810
Sarah Edkins, Communications Manager: [email protected], (646) 779-4830