Australian thriller novelist L.A. (Louisa) Larkin was working on her next novel on March 24, when the phone rang. On the line was a senior editor at Reader’s Digest, which was scheduled to print a condensed form of her last novel, “Thirst.”
The company that prints Reader’s Digest in China had stopped the presses, and demanded that Reader’s Digest remove references to Falun Gong and torture from Larkin’s work. Larkin was given two choices: censor her novel or lose the deal.
“I almost felt this was part of a story because it was so unexpected, and so unheard of,” Larkin said in a phone interview from her home in Sydney.
What was particularly concerning, she said, was that the edition being printed was not for China. It was for Reader’s Digest markets in Australia, New Zealand, Singapore, Malaysia, and India.
“This is about censoring extra-territoriality, and it is a way of controlling a world view of China, according to how China wants it to be,” Larkin said.
She refused to censor her work, and Reader’s Digest removed her novel from the edition.
A Reader’s Digest representative said it had no background on the issue. There was no immediate response from its Australia office.
Social Media Buzz
Twitter has been ablaze, however, with writers and authors around the world expressing their dismay.
Philip Patterson of Marjacq Scripts, Larkin’s agent, said authors have a clear reason for concern. He said in an email, “The implication for writers are that they then start asking their publisher or representatives, ‘Will my work be changed?’”
“I doubt any writer with an ounce of integrity would be a willing party to this,” Patterson said.
Larkin was told by Reader’s Digest it considered having the edition printed in Hong Kong instead, where it wouldn’t be subject to China’s censors. Doing so, however, would cost $30,000 more.
In the end, the $30,000 was more valuable to Reader’s Digest than preserving freedom of speech for its authors.
“What has happened here is that Reader’s Digest has used a Chinese printer, and they have pretty much told a very large American and international publisher what they can and cannot do, and I find that very worrying,” she said.
The mentions of Falun Gong and torture are only a small part of Larkin’s novel.
“Thirst,” which was published in 2012, is a thriller about a group of mercenaries who besiege a team of scientists at an Antarctic research station.
One of the characters trapped in the station is a Chinese-Australian named Wendy Woo. The character fled to Australia from China because her mother was arrested for practicing Falun Gong, and she later learned of the tortures her mother endured from Chinese authorities as a consequence of not renouncing her beliefs.
“If I submitted to China’s censorship and removed the references to Falun Gong, I’d feel I had betrayed my own beliefs, but also betrayed the character and her mother in the novel, and also what my readers expect of me,” Larkin said.
A Targeted Belief
Falun Gong is a traditional Chinese meditation practice that teaches adherents to live according to the principles of truthfulness, compassion, and tolerance. It has been violently persecuted by the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) since 1999.
Falun Gong is also among the five groups that have become the main focus of Chinese censors. The others are Tibetans, Uyghurs, Chinese democracy activists, and proponents of Taiwanese independence.
A 2013 report from Freedom House explains why the CCP focuses on these topics, stating, “These issues touch on some of the most egregious and systematic abuses taking place in China today, pointing to the CCP’s nervousness of regime violence being exposed, as well as the human costs of international silence.”
The report also warned that Chinese censors were trying to expand their censorship abroad—particularly on these topics. Cases range from the French satellite company Eutelsat cutting the signal of overseas Chinese television network New Tang Dynasty to “show a good gesture to the Chinese government,” to reports in November that Bloomberg News was self-censoring its articles to avoid angering Chinese authorities.
Larkin was told by Reader’s Digest that it had been pressured by China previously to censor a nonfiction work that mentioned Tibet.
She said, however, that the attempt to censor her work was the first she has heard of that applied to a work of fiction for distribution outside China’s borders—and she finds the implications deeply concerning.
Larkin said, “It shows the vulnerability to authors and publishers when they use a country where freedom of speech is not available.”
Additional reporting by Matthew Robertson.