GET THE WORD OUT

A Pulitzer winner is giving away her book in Chinese because the topic scared off publishers

As the consequences of the abduction of five Hong Kong booksellers to China continue to ricochet throughout the city’s publishing industry, some authors are trying new ways to reach Chinese audiences.

Mei Fong, a Pulitzer Prize-winning reporter whose book One Child: The Story of China’s Most Radical Experiment, on the many failures and human cost of China’s one-child policy—which was abandoned last year—could not find a Chinese language publisher in China, Hong Kong, or Taiwan. In order to by-pass the stumbling block, Fong decided to launch her book online for free (pdf), asking readers to pitch in a voluntary sum to help with her costs.

“At present, everything comes out of my own pockets,” Fong said. “I tried to get the book published in China, since that is the audience most affected by the topic I write about, but I was turned down. I did not think it was that sensitive anymore, since they amended the policy, yet obviously it still is, so nobody would publish the translation. We tried through Hong Kong, but the situation there has gotten so hard that I did not find a publisher either. Taiwan is a different issue, as it remains quite difficult to get publishers interested in books about China there.”

Through interviews and first hand accounts, the book explores the catastrophic consequences of the one-child policy in terms of demographic imbalances—with millions of men unable to marry given the scarcity of women—and the decades of human rights abuses that have accompanied the policy. These go from forced abortions and sterilizations to heavy fines imposed on those who did not respect the birth quota.

The sensitivities and the perceived risks proved to be such that even a paid translator had to be convinced. “At first I got someone who was happy to do it, but then they asked to remain anonymous, and eventually backed down. I found another translator, also anonymous,” Fong added.

Fong’s difficulties come as the outlook for Hong Kong’s book publishers is becoming increasingly dire.

One publisher who had been approached by Fong, who requested anonymity, said, “We were interested in the book, but could not even cover costs. Recently custom officials at the border between Hong Kong and China have started confiscating books in great numbers, which means people who used to come here to buy books do not do so anymore.”

Renee Chiang of New Century Press, a Hong Kong publishing house that specializes in Chinese language political books, echoed those woes. “Now, we find ourselves unable to print books, since the printers will not take orders for politically sensitive books… all across the book industry things have changed a lot. Bookshops have closed down, and those that remain are not willing to have political books on their shelves.”

Fong is not so sure how long her experiment will be allowed to last. “I have tried to keep this under wraps until the day of the launch. Because I do not know how long it will be before the authorities decide to shut me down, and take the book offline,” she said. “If they do not like it, eventually they will block it, so I hope to reach as many readers as possible before that.”

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