Publishing Debate part 2: Are you sure we're still really free?

by on Wednesday, 16 October 2013 Comments

The Cross-strait Trade on Services Agreement is a mirror into a possible dystopian future, in which appears a undemocratic Taiwan, lacking in freedom. Regardless if you're for or against the opening up, the publishing industry should take this opportunity to reflect on their own problems.

By Sharky Chen (the head of commaBOOKS Publishing House), translated from the original Chinese by Conor Stuart. Photo by 楊忠銘.

Although the Cross-strait Trade on Services Agreement goes under the guise of a 'trade agreement', it is unmistakably a political issue. Taiwan's publishing market has always been a free and competitive one that also publishes mainland Chinese authors. Why has the thought of opening up to the Chinese printing, publishing and book retail industries caused such havoc? The reason is simple: Chinese missiles are still aiming at Taiwan. If we really had such good relations, then would they feel the need to offer us an economic incentive? Wouldn't it be more practical just to stop preventing Taiwan from attending international events?

Maybe reflection is more appropriate than fear

Money will always find a way to circulate, there's no need to sign the Cross-strait Trade in Services Agreement, Chinese money can still flow to Hong Kong, be parcelled as foreign investment and flow on into other countries. If Chinese-backed publishing houses come to Taiwan, we should receive them with open arms. At the most, when copyright issues arise, we'll be overwhelmed by the resources the other side have access to, but we can make good use of our ability to plan content, to develop more interesting topics and offer a platform to local writers. In a publishing battle, the more aggressive the battle, the livelier the publishing industries will be on both sides of the strait, that can only be a good thing.

Some people in the industry are worried that as soon as China's capital is unleashed on the Taiwanese market, they will be able to monopolize both simplified and traditional Chinese publishing, as well as 'harmonizing' - i.e. censoring – translated texts. When I asked someone who works with professional copyright and have found out that this is not the case, at present the copyright for publications in traditional Chinese is only awarded to publishers whose cases are implemented in Taiwan. Foreign publishers recognize Taiwan and China as different countries, and deal with copyright separately for each of them, even if they have money, this doesn't mean they'll be able to buy the rights for the traditional character version. Moreover, as multinational corporations themselves own the rights to some publications, some prefer to set up two branches on both sides of the strait which operate independently with local staff, but they can strategically share translated texts and other resources, this has nothing to do with monopolies. Before we start worrying about whether the translated text will be 'harmonized' or not, we should probably ask ourselves honestly whether Taiwanese publishing houses don't often leave parts out of translations, or translate them erroneously (even famous translators), and after all that fuss, the reader isn't even given a corrigenda to speak of. We ourselves are engaged in 'harmonizing', so who are we to criticize?

The only kind of opponent we need to worry about is the kind that doesn't want to earn money

A bit of friendly competition is nothing to be scared of, but you can't let your guard down, given that, in the market, coming across an opponent that doesn't want to earn money is the scariest thing.

Chinese "publishing houses" are all state-run, it is only "cultural companies" that are privately run. Publishing houses have already become enterprises, responsible for their own losses and profits. They can buy foreign publications, but they have to be approved, those that are judged to go against their ideology must be edited or banned. Moreover, printers must have an approved printing number and a confidential license; imported books must also be approved. One can say that from printing, to publishing to retail, at each stage, the publication in question needs to be approved. For them, books are a very particular kind of product, as they can be used as ideological weapons, therefore as soon as these enterprises are allowed to come to Taiwan, it will be hard to say whether or not they will employ tactics such as picking and choosing information or flooding the market with low price products to intervene in the Taiwanese market.

 Fears that the Book Market will become an Ideological Battleground

To give an example, there is no standardized edition for textbooks from elementary schools up to senior high schools in Taiwan, but rather, they are published by different publishing houses after being approved. The ideological framework of each version of the textbooks often leads to controversy, so what if a Chinese funded publishing house was to package an ideology within a textbook, as well as getting teachers to assign summer readings (these lists do not need to be approved, it's also a great opportunity for publishing houses who do not publish textbooks to make up their annual revenue)? How sure are we that the incident involving the nationalistic textbook in Hong Kong won't be re-enacted in Taiwan?

Even if they do possess cultural meanings, books themselves are still products, anything that involves sales can always run the risk of producing unhealthy competition, in which the market is dominated or monopolized. What's worth pointing out, however, is that as soon as Chinese internet book stores are allowed to set up shop in Taiwan, as well as the possibility of a battle in price-undercutting, they may just offer up the personal information of Taiwanese citizens. Moreover, choosing what goes on the shelf is a form of hegemony, it's also the most effective way of silencing people. If Chinese-funded circulation means only approved publications will make it onto the shelf, would this stop books on sensitive topics, such as Falungong being sold? The consumer wouldn't be aware of this duplicity because they would remain ignorant of the existence of these books. If this were to become the case, then how would we know about concepts and ideas that are completely nonexistent in our lives?

 Interest Groups are the real cause of decay

The state of affairs between Mainland China and Taiwan is far from unambiguous, even if there is no clear sign of military engagement, there is still a lot of sensitivity in their relationship to each other and we should be very cautious, as a basic line of defence. In fact, all of the issues mentioned above, such as Nationalistic textbooks, unhealthy competition, violation of personal information and selective circulation, won't come in with the introduction of Chinese capital, as Taiwan has long already been dogged with these problems, it's just a difference in the scale in which it impacts national unrest. If we look at things in this context, are we really as free as we think we are?

The air of freedom in Taiwan has already gotten gradually thinner; the television news media is full of reports related to China and they seem keener to report on Chinese singing talent shows than to report on social protests in Taiwan; We've even lost the right to know what's happening around us. A marginalized country who has lost its cultural vitality but remains self-important, just like Baudelaire described in Les Paradis Artificiels (Artificial Paradises): "The mind of man is glutted with passions [...] but this unhappy soul whose natural depravity is equal to its sudden aptitude, paradoxical enough, for charity and the most arduous virtues, is full of paradoxes which allow him to turn to other purposes the overflow of this overmastering passion. He never imagines that he is selling himself wholesale: he forgets, in his infatuation, that he is matched against a player more cunning and more strong than he; and that the Spirit of Evil, though one give him but a hair, will not delay to carry off the whole head." (This quote was translated from the French by Aleister Crowley).

The "Spirit of Evil" who carries off our head is not necessarily China, but rather, it is profit. Taiwan has recently used the epithet of "freedom of competition" to embrace capitalism, little shops have disappeared and been replaced by gigantic monopolizing beasts. Many people aren't actually willing to buy books when they go to independent books stores, they just take photos and check in, posting a status update on their facebook something like: "an afternoon encounter with a book, #small pleasures". After their "small pleasures", they brush off their trousers and leave, who really cares about the independent shops that lack the safety blanket of protection provided by the larger corporations. Who really cares just how much pressure they're under just to keep their doors open? And are any publishers really so concerned that prices are too high for independent book stores that they are then willing to negotiate on prices?

Only through resistance can we show our values of freedom

Just as Liu Ji, the one-man publishing house, said "The most help that the Ministry of Culture and the government has given to publishers is to say 'Don't come and bother us.'" The Cross-strait Trade on Services Agreement is a mirror which takes the scales from our eyes, showing us Taiwan's ever-contracting democracy in its true light: The government hurriedly completed the negotiations and immediately made use of its administrative resources to promote the agreement, to the point that it became a case of "whoever blocks its progress, will be taken out of the way", a wholly undemocratic notion. If we accept this, we lose our right to protest forever and it is this right to protest which is the embodiment of our values of freedom.

I'll end not by discussing politics, but purely by thinking about it from the perspective of competition in business. Any business agreement should be equitable to both parties, but this agreement is completely one-sided. Taiwan will be completely open and China will still be closed. It's clear that Chinese publishing and printing groups can easily come to Taiwan and plant their flag, we, on the other hand, have to apply for the right to go to China to plant even one flag, just for this reason alone, I am against the agreement.

Editor's Note: The Cross-strait Trade on Services Agreement does not, nominally at least, extend to the publishing industry, but it has unleashed an explosive debate in the publishing industry. Those in favour and those against both agree that 'freedom' is at the heart of Taiwan's publishing industry and that it's a value that must be upheld, but they hold opposing views of the effect that the implementation of the agreement will have on the industry. This special two part series allows two publishers on opposite sides of the argument to air their views, giving the reader a fuller picture of the possible advantages and drawbacks that the agreement will bring. The first article can be found here.



Sharky Chen (陳夏民)

Sharky Chen


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