“You’re stepping on my shadow, please back off,” she said.

Sun Yisheng / Nicky Harman

New Restrictions on Publishing "Official Corruption" Novels

First, a word of background on the censorship system in China. Government control happens at two stages, pre- and post-publication. Prior to publishing a book, a publishing house must submit a book proposal to the General Administration of Press and Publication (GAPP) before it is granted an ISBN. After publication, books may be subject to random inspections of quality, editing standards, and content.

Every year GAPP generally notifies state-owned publishing houses of which topics are unlikely to pass the pre-publication check. Discouraged topics commonly include democracy, religion, Communist Party history, Taiwan, etc, with other topics added as necessary—2008 saw the Beijing Olympics added to the "we'd rather you didn't" list. Each provincial Department of Press and Publication may produce slightly differing lists, but this year most have added a new topic: the fictional genre of "Officialdom Novels", also known as "Official Corruption Novels".

The particular genre became popularized on literary websites, and is generally associated with online literature. Over the past decade, particularly the past four years, the genre has been tremendously popular both in digital and book formats. On February 9, Eastern Weekly magazine's cover story on officialdom novels noted the existence of nearly a dozen books with the term "Provincial Governor" in the title alone. Searches on Douban.com, China's largest media-centric social network, resulted in more than 350 books in this genre.

Surveys conducted by Sina and Searchina in 2009 and 2011 showed that 80% of consumers of online literature also read officialdom novels, and that 30.5% of those reads were themselves civil servants: the received wisdom is that Chinese readers are attracted to this genre because they're hoping to learn something useful in their own official careers.

Officialdom novels are generally tolerated by the government because, by and large, their stories fit in with the government's anti-corruption campaigns, and the good guys generally win. But their growing popularity is giving the government cause for concern. In January of this year GAPP conducted quality inspections of 70 books published in 2011, focusing primarily on educational materials, and officialdom novels. 30% of the 40 officialdom novels inspected did not pass muster. Quality inspections are a major component of censorship, and it's no coincidence that the officialdom genre is a new target for inspections.

Early this year Chinese publishing houses began to hear from GAPP and related bodies that officialdom novels were going on the discouraged list, a part of the general added controls being put in place around the 18th National Congress. While it's obviously hard to find a paper trail or hard evidence, reports are that these restrictions are nation-wide, and that some publishers who have recently published officialdom novels are feeling the heat. Expect a visible reduction in this genre over the next year…