It was perhaps inevitable that Edward Snowden’s autobiography would, like almost everything else, come under the knife of China’s censors—after all, the subject matter pertains to state surveillance and people’s struggles for freedom.
The former US intelligence employee turned whistleblower against US surveillance, however, said that censorship of the simplified Chinese version of his recently released book, Permanent Record, violated the publishing agreement for its sale in China. In a Twitter thread today (Nov. 12), Snowden, who currently lives in exile in Moscow, said he was allowed to see some of the censored passages. He posted some of the excised parts along with the English originals, and invited readers to submit their own examples and help translate them in a bid to “compile a correct and unabridged version” of the book in Chinese.
In a section of the book where Snowden—then working as a lead technologist for Dell on the CIA accounts—recounts events in the Middle East in 2011 as the Arab Spring spread across the region, Chinese censors generously chopped out large chunks of Snowden’s thoughts on how people were driven to the streets because they were living under authoritarianism. The Chinese translation instead contextualizes Snowden’s observations of the turmoil in the Middle East as a matter linked to issues of basic provisions such as sanitation, with no mention of the other factors named by Snowden, such as censorship and a lack of political accountability, which he highlights as hallmarks of undemocratic states.
In another example, Chinese censors scrubbed two paragraphs where Snowden invoked the hypothetical example of a “young kid from Iran” who might be able to skirt internet restrictions to get online through the Tor browser system. Snowden had helped set up a Tor bridge that could help Iranians connect to the outside world.
Though the Arab Spring protests were also the sorts of mass social movements that would ordinarily unnerve the Chinese Communist Party, the matter is one that Beijing feels relatively secure mentioning because of the carnage involved and, to many observers, the failure of many of those movements to achieve peaceful democracies. They’re seen as cautionary tales, rather than models for emulation, and are often invoked by Chinese state media in diatribes against the current Hong Kong protests—where the local government and Beijing have also been at pains to paint discontent as grounded in economic issues, while avoiding the political component.
The book is available for sale on Dangdang (link in Chinese), a Chinese online bookstore. An excerpt (link in Chinese) of it can also be read on Douban, an online forum that attracts a more liberal segment of China’s population interested in arts and culture.
Chinese censors also tinkered with the list of countries that Snowden named when he was deciding in 2013 on a safe location where he could meet a group of foreign journalists to share information.
In the English version, Snowden writes, “Russia was out because it was Russia, and China was China…” The Chinese translation ends at “Russia.” When Snowden finally zeroes in on Hong Kong, the Chinese version only includes the reason that it’s a “reasonably liberal world city,” removing the rest of Snowden’s explanation, which was that Hong Kong was a city with the “nominal autonomy” that would put it at arm’s length from “Beijing ability to take action against me or the journalists.”
Though the book deals with many touchy issues for the Chinese government, the fact that it’s being published at all speaks to the Communist Party’s decidedly complex relationship with Snowden. While the whistleblower is derided by the US government as a traitor, his willingness to stand up to the world’s most powerful intelligence body—while divulging information about how the US was spying on countries including China—is seen by Beijing as “a gift that will be paying dividends for years to come,” according to a 2013 New Yorker analysis of China’s view of Snowden.
One user on Chinese social network Weibo wrote of Snowden: “There are always people like him who can do things others don’t dare to do. Snowden is a person who can turn our boring world into an exciting and adventurous place! His new book has been censored in China, but I’d really like to read it now.” They’ll need to find a way to skirt China’s internet controls to read the crowdsourced, uncensored version being compiled by the author.
Jane Li contributed reporting.