Two British publishers have censored books aimed at Western readers to ensure they can be printed cheaply in China, in the latest case of companies caving in to Beijing’s restrictions on free speech.
Octopus Books, part of the Hachette literary empire, and London-listed Quarto have removed references to Taiwan and other topics banned by Chinese authorities from several books, according to two people familiar with the matter.
These revelations follow a series of controversies over censorship in the publishing industry. In 2017, academic publishers Springer Nature and Cambridge University Press came under fire after it emerged they had each blocked access to hundreds of articles in China.
But evidence obtained by the Financial Times gives the first indication that books sold in the West are also altered to appease Beijing.
Since 2020, Octopus, which describes itself as “the 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 out.
During the same period, Quarto, a picture book publisher that published the 2020 New York Times bestseller This book is anti-racistdeleted 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 they were a Chinese territory.
Both Octopus and Quarto have censored books after vendors in China, who face legal restrictions on what they can print, said they were unable to release the original text. People familiar with the changes did not want to publish the names of the books affected because it might risk anonymity, but the FT has seen documents confirming that the changes have been made.
“Why do they still choose China to print the books cheaply, when they understand the law and content restrictions?” 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 are proactively cooperating with censorship.”
Industry publishers told the FT that printing in China, where production costs are lower than elsewhere, has become increasingly difficult.
Last year, US printing company RR Donnelley & Sons distributed a memo seen by the FT, claiming that its Chinese printers were unable to produce books mentioning human rights abuses in Xinjiang and suggestions that Covid-19 originated in China.
People familiar with the matter said Quarto and Octopus have printed particularly sensitive books outside of China, but cost pressures have deterred them from doing so for all publications.
“[Octopus Books] don’t agree with that on a moral level. Corn [the company] doesn’t disagree enough to raise the price of [its] pounds,” said a Hachette employee, who did not wish to be named.
Publishing is supposed to be an “industry of ideas,” so censorship seems particularly “insidious,” the person added.
A spokesperson for Quarto said the publisher made no changes at the request of vendors and was still protecting 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 to work with suppliers in China who “consistently deliver” value for money.
A spokesperson for Octopus Books said that not all books with sensitive text details are printed in China. Changes made “are not material and we always ask the author’s permission first to verify that they are comfortable continuing.”
A spokesperson for RR Donnelley said the company operates one of the largest printing networks in the world and “in situations where materials are, or may be, rejected, we can offer alternative manufacturing sites” .
Additional reporting by Alex Barker, Patricia Nilsson and Eleanor Olcott in London