China Is Burning Books Again

The year is 1925, and Shanghai is in flux. Communists, Nationalists, and Triad gangsters are all fighting for control of this vice-laden city, and one “preeminent bon vivant,” Victor Sassoon, is fighting to keep evil at bay. Almost a century later, however, on China’s south coast, Sassoon is burnt to a crisp, a victim of the government’s ever-tightening restrictions on the imaginative world.

Victor Sassoon was a real person—but he’s also the hero of The Sassoon Files, a roleplaying game supplement (think Dungeons and Dragons) designed by Jesse Covner and Jason Sheets, two Americans living in Japan. Last week, via a recorded video message, Covner broke the news to their 511 followers—who had crowdfunded $24,183 to make the book a reality—that the entire print run of The Sassoon Files had been destroyed by the factory in Guangzhou contracted to fulfil the order. A government official had visited the manufacturer and ordered that all the books be destroyed within 24 hours, even though they were scheduled to be shipped directly overseas, with no plans for sale to the Chinese market. “I couldn’t believe what I heard,” lamented Covner. “I’d never heard of China’s government getting involved with printing issues for export to foreign markets.”

The Sassoon Files is the latest casualty of the Chinese government’s ever-increasing political paranoia and determination to control the global narrative. Whether it’s demanding that Cambridge University Press censor its offerings in China, grooming foreign journalists, or expanding its infiltration of Western newspapers with inconspicuous supplements from the state-run China Daily, Beijing’s propaganda drive has gone from the defensive to the offensive.

As the journalist Louisa Lim and researcher Julia Bergin have argued, the Chinese Communist Party has embarked on an “aggressive drive to redraw the global information order.” Part of this drive is controlling what can and can’t be produced in what used to be the world’s workhouse, regardless of who the intended audience is, or of the commercial consequences. The printing industry in China is worth about $93 billion—making up more than 10 percent of the worldwide total, and second only to the United States.

Jo Lusby, a former CEO of Penguin Random House North Asia who now runs her own publishing consultancy in Hong Kong, stresses that rules about what printers in China can print have always been in place, and those with a license to print foreign ISBNs know that they will face extra administrative hurdles and scrutiny. “It’s like trying to print a T-shirt that says ‘Free Tibet’ in China—that factory would get shut down,” she explained. Industry veterans have navigated these murky waters for a long time. What has changed, though, is the expanding list of topics deemed sensitive.

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