Publisher’s Connection With China Could be Behind Snowden Book Censorship

Andrew Zirkle | @theandrewzirkle

On late Monday night, Edward Snowden announced on Twitter that his new autobiography, Permanent Record, had been censored for its release in mainland China. The book follows the life of Snowden and the actions behind his 2013 whistleblowing incident, which implicated the NSA a massive illegal mass surveillance program. The book has achieved positive critical reception since its release in September, peaking at number four on the Amazon bestseller. 

Despite the initial rosy release of the book, things quickly turned sour when Snowden accused his publisher, Metropolitan Books, of violating the publishing agreement. Over Twitter, Snowden showcased a number of instances where passages relating to China either had their meaning changed or were redacted entirely. Little is known about the publishing arrangement. However, publisher Metropolitan Books and its parent companies, Macmillan Publishers and Holtzbrinck Publishing Group, have a complicated relationship with censorship and the Chinese government.

Macmillan and Snowden’s Book

Much of the marketing material surrounding the release of Snowden’s Permanent Record was centered on telling the truth. As soon as the book was released, the US Government went after the publisher. A legal battle ensued. The purpose of this suit, which was carried out by the Department of Justice, was to deprive Snowden from profiting off of his work due to NDA violations. Macmillan Publishers, the parent company of Metropolitan Books, immediately backed Snowden in the suit. In response to the lawsuit, Macmillan Publishers stated:

We are proud to publish Snowden’s … uncensored story … worldwide. We are very disappointed that the government has chosen to sue Edward Snowden for telling the deeply personal story about his decision to speak out about our government’s unprecedented system of mass surveillance.

Macmillan has also spent the last few years touting the first amendment and the importance of a free press. In a 2017 address, Macmillan CEO John Seargent stated that:

The very act of drawing a line, and making that decision [to censor], runs counter to our obligation to defend free speech. It also runs afoul of the belief that in a free society, it is always better to expose than to censure.

I hope we will decide to stand for what is right, not for what is easy. I hope we will apply the principles of the First Amendment and have the courage to resist the great power of polarized opinion. I hope we are brave and I hope to be brave.

Macmillan also chose to combat censorship in 2018 when President Trump threatened to sue a subsidiary of the publisher over the publication of the book Fire and Fury. An internal memo to the company, written by CEO John Seargent, stated that: 

We cannot stand silent. We will not allow any president to achieve by intimidation what our Constitution precludes him or her from achieving in court. We need to respond strongly for Michael Wolff and his book, but also for all authors and all their books, now and in the future.

Macmillan Publishers seemed straightforward in their fight against censorship. Yet, their unabashed commitment to the truth took a two-faced turn in light of Snowden’s book. On the one hand, Macmillan’s public image and private doctrine appear to be heavily centered around the protection of published works in the face of government pressure. However, the company was willing to censor the content of Snowden’s book to avoid a PRC crackdown on a Chinese release.

Bowing to the Chinese Government?

Further complicating this choice to censor Snowden’s work is the relationship of Macmillan Publishers parent company, Holtzbrinck Publishing Group, and the Chinese government. Holtzbrinck Publishing, a German company, is headed up by Stefan von Holtzbrinck and has a legacy hailing from the Nazi party. Holtzbrinck is a worldwide juggernaut of publishing and thus, like many other international corporations, it is seeking to enter the Chinese market no matter the cost. Over the past few years, Holtzbrinck Publishing, as well as Stefan von Holtzbrinck himself, have been cozying up to the Chinese regime.

On August 20th of this year, one month before the debut of Snowden’s memoir, Stefan von Holtzbrinck met with the Chinese Vice Education Minister, Weng Tiehui. Weng Tiehui, who is a loyal communist party insider, discussed the prospect of cooperation between the two parties with von Holtzbrinck. In addition, von Holtzbrinck met with Prof. Bai Chunli, the president of the Chinese Academy of Sciences (CAS) on August 21st. The Chinese Academy of Sciences is the national academic governing body in China, tasked with researching and educating on issues related to the national economy and social order in China. According to a press release by an affiliated Chinese organization, Alliance of International Science Organizations, the meeting revealed that:

[Bai] pointed out that CAS and the Springer Nature Group, a subsidiary of the Holtzbrinck Publishing Group, have a long history of close cooperation and a great working relationship. CAS is always willing to deepen the collaboration with Holtzbrinck Publishing Group in science and publicity. Moreover, CAS welcomes its active participation in the construction and development of ANSO

These two meetings show that von Holtzbrinck is personally very close to the Chinese government and willing to work with them. However, the ties between Holtzbrinck Publishing and the Chinese government-run far deeper than their founder. In 2015, Springer Nature, a scientific publishing subsidiary of Holtzbrinck Publishing, launched a journal in China in partnership with the Chinese Academy of Sciences.

Although this initial partnership with the Chinese government seemed benign, it reared its ugly head when in 2017, Springer blocked Chinese access to articles it had published about Taiwan, Tibet, and the ultra-elites of China. These visits and partnerships with the Chinese government may have played a role in the decision to censor Snowden’s book. Had the book not been censored, it is likely that Holtzbrinck Publishing Group would have risked partnerships with the Chinese government. They would have risked partnerships that have the potential to reap billions of dollars for the company.

Neither Macmillan Publishers nor Holtzbrinck Publishing Group immediately responded for comment. 

China’s Economic Hegemony

The story of Snowden’s censorship will likely become lost and be forgotten. At first glance, it seems as though it is just another corporation bending over to China in a day and age where China’s market size commands even the largest of corporations to bend to their will. It’s important to recognize the hypocrisy of American companies that choose markets over morality and censorship over truth. If anyone needs Edward Snowden’s message, it’s the people of China. Without the ongoing outside efforts to properly translate the book, it’s unlikely that they will ever receive it.


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