Like millions of young readers around the world, Chinese children have grown up with popular titles such as Roald Dahl’s Fantastic Mr Fox and the Harry Potter series.
But Beijing is now introducing new measures to restrict access to foreign books and publications as it opens a new front in its battle to limit outside influence on Chinese society.
Regulators have given verbal instructions to publishers to limit the number of children’s books written by foreign authors made available in China, according to three people with knowledge of the order. The decision would reduce the thousands of children’s titles published in Chinese translation every year to just a few hundred, one of them said.
Taobao, one of China’s biggest ecommerce sites and owned by Jack Ma’s Alibaba, said on Friday it would prohibit the sale of all foreign publications on its platform.
“In order to regulate the Taobao online shopping platform and to create a safe and secure online shopping environment to enhance consumer confidence and satisfaction, Taobao will add all foreign publications and buyer information to its embargo rules,” Alibaba said in a statement.
Industry experts expressed surprise at the ruling and questioned how it would affect a fast-growing market. “I can’t imagine this restriction to be possible, because its implementation is so difficult, and it also has no benefit whatsoever for the people or the country,” said a senior Chinese books editor, who asked not to be identified.
Jo Lusby, managing director for Penguin Random House North Asia, said: “The children’s market is substantial and growing in China, in particular in the pre-school and picture book area.”
On Amazon’s Chinese site, six out of the top 10 bestselling children’s books were by foreign authors, including Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows, the seventh and final part of JK Rowling’s series about the adventures of a boy-wizard, and Sam McBratney’s illustration Guess How Much I Love You, which has sold 28m copies worldwide since being published 20 years ago.
The children’s market is substantial and growing in China, in particular in the pre-school and picture book area
It is not known which part of the Chinese government is leading the drive to limit the supply of children’s books. It was also unclear whether the ruling was having an effect, as internet searches on Friday revealed hundreds of Chinese vendors selling foreign children’s books.
Ambiguity in the wording of Alibaba’s notice would also allow it to ban the sale of foreign video games, CDs and DVDs. One Taobao vendor wrote to customers: “All we can say is, everyone treasure what you have! From now on, we can be confident in saying that it will be more difficult, more expensive and more rare to buy foreign goods.”
The contents of Chinese bookshelves and magazine stands are strictly regulated. Only eight state-owned importers and their subsidiaries are licensed to bring foreign titles into the mainland.
Consumers eager for banned books have long sought them out in Taiwan and Hong Kong, which enjoy unfettered access to volumes inaccessible to mainland readers.
However, online vendors have offered a loophole, with cleverly worded searches turning up thousands of illicit titles sold by so-called daigou, enterprising intermediaries who buy goods from abroad and sell them on to mainland customers.
Online book sales in China have more than quadrupled during the past five years, even as overall book sales have dipped. Sales of children’s literature in particular have soared as living standards have risen.
The move to cut the list of available books comes as China moves to oversee more strictly the content, both printed and digital, that its citizens can access. Social media platforms including Facebook and Twitter, and many foreign news websites, are inaccessible in China.
Rules passed a year ago have in effect shutout foreign companies and subsidiaries from publishing online content without approval from Chinese regulators, while a much-anticipated cyber security law requiring foreign entities to store personal and business data within China is set to take effect in June.
The country’s minister of education has previously said that western ideas had no place in Chinese textbooks. Last year a group of professors urged the government to cut back on western economics in university courses in favour of Marxist teaching.
Domestically written Chinese children’s literature has struggled to compete with more popular foreign titles. Classic works by authors such as Lao She, one of China’s most famous twentieth century writers, and illustrated books of Tang dynasty poems are still read by children but sales of more contemporary translated works now far outstrip them.
A new crop of Chinese children’s writers have sought to adapt the animal-based plots of their western counterparts by infusing them with elements of Chinese folklore. Shen Shixi’s popular Jackal and Wolf was translated into English in 2012 while Yang Hongying’s Mo’s Mischief series, first published in 2003, has sold 30m copies worldwide.