Fifty shades of red

New list reveals what Chinese elite are reading

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Getting into Oprah Winfrey’s Book Club was “a blessing from the book gods,” the publicist Patricia Eisemann once noted. For more than 20 years, the titles picked by the chatshow queen were almost guaranteed stellar sales. Winfrey revived the concept last year on her own network.

A continent away, China’s ruling elite also seems keen to pass down its own literary tastes. Some of the reading looks a lot heavier-going than The Pilot’s Wife and other Oprah favourites. Premier Li Keqiang recommends The Third Industrial Revolution by Jeremy Rifkin, for instance, a description of how new ways of generating power and innovative communications technologies will lead to fundamental economic change. Anti-corruption tsar Wang Qishan is urging officials to read Alexis de Tocqueville’s The Old Regime and the Revolution to understand how a system can rot from the inside. (Meeting British finance minster George Osborne in 2010, Wang said another favourite is Jane Austen’s Sense and Sensibility.)

Xi Jinping told a class at the Central Party School in 2009 that their reading material holds the key to the country’s governance. As a result, the Party’s Central Committee began sending suggested reading to government officials twice a year and more than 100 titles have received its recommendation. Nor is it just the Party’s 80 million members who pay attention to the lists. They are also made public, with many resultingly becoming bestsellers.

Last month, those 100 or so books were whittled down to the 10 must-reads, making for an illuminating list, although EL James will be disappointed to hear that the Fifty Shades trilogy missed out. PLA general Jin Yinan’s Pain and Glory, recommended by Xi himself, topped the rankings by telling how the Party came to power, while eight other Chinese authors made the cut by discussing history, political economy and geo-strategy.

Only one foreign title features: The World is Flat: A Brief History of the Twenty-First Century, of which Vice Premier Wang Yang is a big fan. The Yangtze Evening News says Wang once made Thomas Friedman’s 2005 bestseller a “New Year holiday assignment” for Party cadres when he ran Guangdong.

China’s wider reading culture presents a major opportunity for foreign authors, despite problems with intellectual piracy across the domestic economy. According to the Huaxi Metropolitan Daily, JK Rowling has earned $2.4 million in Chinese royalties for her novels about Harry Potter, while the New York Times has reported that earnings from e-books published by international authors grew by 56% last year, with Chinese publishers buying more than 16,000 titles from abroad. That compares with 1,664 in 1995.

The literary situation also looks wholly different to the world described in Yu Hua’s China in Ten Words. In the 1970s, works by the likes of Shakespeare were labelled as “poisonous weeds” and banned from libraries. Illegal copies still existed, dating back to private collections formed in the days before the 1949 revolution. They were secretly passed about, with many soon torn or missing pages. Yu recalls that the first “fully intact” foreign novel he was able to get his hands on was La Dame aux Camelias by Alexandre Dumas. It was so exciting that he and a friend spent a day and night copying it out by hand before returning it to the owner.

Publishing books from overseas remains a politically-charged exercise. Foreign offerings have to go through layers of censorship – both in-house and by state agencies – before making it onto the shelves. Politically sensitive and erotic content is usually discarded.

Take Deng Xiaoping and the Transformation of China, Ezra Vogel’s definitive history of the Chinese leader. It has been released in China, but various sections have disappeared from original biography, including passages describing how Deng was so preoccupied with the escalation of Beijing’s student protests that his trembling hands let a dumpling drop from his chopsticks during a meal with then Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev. Other details are missing too. The Chinese version is 53,000 words shorter than the one translated by the Hong Kong publisher.

During a China book tour Vogel said that it is “better to have 90% of the book available here than zero”. And according to the New York Times, such compromises are becoming increasingly common as foreign publishers are drawn to the monetary possibilities of the Chinese market.

Of course, the other option for Chinese bookworms is to look for international editions in their original format. Li Keqiang is said to insist on reading foreign publications in their English original, for example. For those with less privileged access, there is also the freer Hong Kong market. The city’s bookstores are often filled with Chinese tourists looking for banned books. Sometimes they are even smuggled back into China at the request of mid-ranking government officials curious to read them, the New York Times says.

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