Censorship, Chinese Style

A few years ago one of my books, Genius Moves: 100 Icons of Graphic Design, was censored in China. Had it not been for the eagle eye of co-author Mirko Ilic, I would probably have never found out. We were not told in advance, and since neither of us read Chinese, any text anomalies would have gone unnoticed. Yet when I perused our complimentary copy of the Chinese edition, I missed what was clearly (or rather blurrily) under my very nose. While I was too busy being thrilled to the point of blindness that our book even had a Chinese edition, Ilic noticed that four large images had been digitally distorted. It was no accident: A German poster from 1919 attacking Bolshevism (“Bolshevism brings war, unemployment and famine”) and three 1932 Italian Fascist magazine covers (Gioventu Fascista) had their respective key words, Bolschweismus and Fascista, pixilated so they were incomprehensible. The captions were also altered to bleep out the offending words.

Since no other images in the book were tampered with, we assumed that whoever did the censoring—and we are still uncertain whether it was the printer, publisher, or government bureaucrats—felt that these historical artifacts (in one case criticizing Bolshevism and in the other celebrating Italian Fascism) were unacceptable to the Communist party ideologues. Ilic and I were amused that the Chinese would go to the trouble of censoring German and Italian words (though not the accompanying pictures), which suggested their official, or unofficial, censors had to understand these languages, and presumed readers of this design book would as well. Since this was the first Chinese edition of any of my books, I assumed intervention was de rigeur, and sloughed it off. Nonetheless, we did ask the publisher, North Light Books, who handled the deal for the Chinese co-edition, if they were made aware of this or any other censorship; they insisted they were as surprised as we were. The contract on co-editions further stipulated alterations were not permitted (although co-edition publishers were allowed to design different covers). Yet no official protest was ever made by either the publisher or, I’m sorry to say, me.

Americans have engaged in cultural and business exchanges since Nixon opened Bejing’s doors back in 1971. And now that China’s economic growth has boomed, many Americans who greatly benefit from doing business with the Chinese tend to overlook some of the more ignominious foibles—like censorship. Yet the country is still ruled by one party, and its functionaries are known for repressing dissidents, which can be something of a booby-trap for those like me, who enjoy seeing their books and other intellectual properties produced, distributed, and even sold in China.

Therefore I was not really shocked to learn a Chinese printer recently refused to print two posters in the forthcoming Art Directors Annual 85. I accepted this was the price of doing business in China (and getting cheap printing too boot) until a friend and Art Directors Club (ADC) member who had heard about the incident challenged my complacency. How could I claim to support democratic values while ignoring this abrogation of them? Well, when Genius Moves, was censored I justified it because it was their edition, and their cultural and political concerns must be respected. After all, on a few occasions I have voluntarily toned down one of my saucier lectures, or edited out potentially offensive language from a controversial essay, depending on the context in which I would speak or that the essay would be printed. I don’t do it often, but ethics are nonetheless situational. In these latter instances, I made the decision; in the former, an anonymous Chinese representative made it for me. That alone should have raised a red flag (no pun intended).

The Chinese printer who decided not to publish two posters of Chairman Mao in Batman-type masks by Tommy Li, a Hong Kong-based designer, in the ADC annual was, according to Myrna Davis, director of the Art Directors Club, afraid he would be closed if he failed to act. In a letter to Mr. Li, Davis explained, “I am writing to let you know that when Art Directors Annual 85 went on press in China two weeks ago, we were contacted by our publisher because the printer said he could not print Tommy Li Design Workshop’s winning entry, ‘Heromoism,’ for fear of being shut down. We refused to remove it from the book, and insisted that the publisher move the printing out of Mainland China. At this point, however, such a move would have delayed publication of the book at least a month or more. It is in all of our interests to keep to the schedule because annuals are so time-sensitive.”

What made this ironic is the posters were intentionally political. According to the printed explanation submitted by Mr. Li to ADC: “It's hard to understand what is ‘Mao’ in Hong Kong today. Hong Kong is a metropolis with eastern culture mix[ed] with western capitalism. Definition of ‘Hero for most of the youngster[s] today means comic characters instead of ’Mao’ or ‘Communism.’ Playful means everything. This poster still banned in China for an exhibition or design competition entry. Thus, any international recognition awarded by this poster is very important to expose in mainland China because it is the best way to let them know Hong Kong still [has] creative freedom.

But being censored was still disappointing to Mr. Li, who through a letter from his studio manager, Lancy Chiu, he said he felt pity that “such an unfortunate situation still happens in China.”

The offending pieces were removed after ADC decided not to pull the book off press at the eleventh hour, and Davis notes a compromise was reached to insure the integrity of the ADC that documents this incident for posterity. “The bound-in page still includes the title and credits of the winning piece, with a notation that the page in its entirety can be viewed on the ADC website. A loose page with the credits, explanatory paragraph and images will be inserted into the correct place in export copies of the books, with a notation on the back that it was printed outside of mainland China because of content restrictions.” Nonetheless, given a political climate where a printer can make unilateral censorious demands adversely impacting the content of any book printed in, but intended for distribution outside of, China calls into question the benefits of doing business in China.

The ADC is not, however, alone. Incidents of censorship are on the rise. Recently, a New York design firm has had difficulties with a Mainland China printer who had been producing a substantial amount of high-end art books consisting mostly of photography subjects, some of which containing nudity. “We have been very fortunate in the past to push these subjects through the system,” notes the firm, “but in the last few months we experienced a few cases that become an issue. After we consulted with our production team in China we have concluded that there are two major subjects that may be problematic and sensitive issues for the local Chinese governments. These two subjects include: 1) nude photography including sexual or contemporary art subjects, and 2) internal Chinese political affairs (e.g., issues regarding Tibet, Taiwan and Fa Lun Kung). Standard procedure requires that we first apply for a permit with the local Chinese government and wait for authorization to print. The procedure of obtaining the permit and approval to print the books containing the above mentioned subjects requires us to submit a sample book for a reprint title or a full set of print outs including the covers to the Cultural Official’s Department. It may take the local and/or state government one to two weeks before they grant the permit.”

How can there be any trust under these circumstances? While AIGA Director, Ric Grefé, who has been actively building an AIGA presence in China, finds censorship “heinous at best,” he does believe in constructive engagement. “There have been some who believe we should not be in China because of censorship and human rights violations. Yet, I feel if we take that stand, then we should not be operating in any country that violates fundamental human rights. Hence, we should avoid countries that keep records of what their citizens read, have secret prison camps, condone torture as public policy, that control women's reproductive rights, condemn men's right to choose their sexual orientation, believe in invading other countries without provocation, and lie to their citizens. This would certainly close us down in a hurry. If we are going to continue to advance designing in this country, we should be careful to be too precious in other countries. I do not think abandoning China will change it.”

While trying to influence China’s policies through mutually beneficial exchanges may bear fruit over the long haul, there are grave pitfalls given this arbitrary censorship. I, for one, now scrutinize all co-edition requests from China (I usually get one a year). And while I don’t want to deprive Chinese designers or students content that might be valuable for them, I also have a responsibility to the design community. Given what I know now, I much rather deny permission for a co-edition than to cave, allowing essays be altered or images excised simply because the Chinese bought foreign rights. While most of my publishers have contractual caveats preventing such alterations, many admit they find it difficult to monitor until it is too late. That prospect is horrific, and what happened to the ADC annual must be avoided. “Forewarned is forearmed,” says Davis. “In the future, we will raise the issue in negotiating contracts with publishers.” But as long as the design field is looking to China as the next big market for design practice and education, the specter of censorship is one that cannot be ignored—or justified.

About the Author: Steven Heller, co-chair of the Designer as Author MFA and co-founder of the MFA in Design Criticism at School of Visual Arts, is the author of Merz to Emigre and Beyond: Avant Garde Magazine Design of the Twentieth Century (Phaidon Press), Iron Fists: Branding the Totalitarian State (Phaidon Press) and most recently Design Disasters: Great Designers, Fabulous Failure, and Lessons Learned (Allworth Press). He is also the co-author of New Vintage Type (Thames & Hudson), Becoming a Digital Designer (John Wiley & Co.), Teaching Motion Design (Allworth Press) and more. www.hellerbooks.com