Banned in China: Bill and the Dalai Lama

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Imagine, for a moment, that you’re China. After a decade-long public relations campaign to expunge the ghosts of human rights abuses, you’ve finally realized a moment of truth: The United States Senate is poised to reconsider your trade status, a decision that could open the door to invaluable exchange with the West. Now, teetering on the brink of international acceptance, what’s the worst possible move you could make?

How about seizing 16,000 copies of a coffee-table book featuring pictures of President Clinton taken by his personal photographer?

While it won’t raise the same kind of international outrage as steamrolling a pro-democracy protestor in the middle of Tiananmen Square, the Chinese government’s abrupt seizure of the 200-page photographic retrospective has already raised eyebrows in the U.S. State Department. Monday, as Chinese book-binding workers prepared to send glossy volumes of "The Clinton Years: The Photographs of Robert McNeely" to American distributors, customs officials stopped the shipment and confiscated the books. It appears that one picture in particular may be to blame: A photo of President Clinton exchanging a handshake with the Dalai Lama reportedly piqued Chinese officials’ interest (it's on page 84, for those of you lucky enough to see one of the 8,000 copies that apparently slipped under the censors’ radar).

Chinese leaders have long considered the exiled Tibetan spiritual leader a dangerous political enemy, and apparently even his image is enough to incite fear, even though McNeely’s book was never meant for the Chinese market.

This political stalemate has left Nicholas Callaway, founder of the book’s publisher, Callaway Editions, in a bit of a bind. "At this point, only those first 8,000 copies will be shipped from our warehouse to bookstores," he told TIME.com. "We’ve been forced to ration the books, because the existing copies won’t meet the demand or fill our advance orders." The publishing house, which, like many of its competitors, has worked with Chinese manufacturers for ten years without incident, had planned a major fall lineup to mark its entrée into the world of full-service publishing. Unfortunately, Chinese customs officials have also indefinitely halted production of two other Callaway titles, "Celestial Gallery," a book of Himalayan art, which, according to Callaway, raises spiritual objections from Chinese officials, and "Max: The Photographs of Max Vadukul," which chronicles the legendary fashion photographer’s career and contains several "objectionable" bare-torso shots.

Chinese embassy officials in Washington were unapologetic when confronted with news of the seizure. "It is the consistent policy of the government to actually control the political content of printed materials," one spokesman told the New York Times. But it remains unclear why the Chinese government chose to zero in on this particular book or this publisher. There is speculation that the photo in question, which shows President Clinton gripping the Dalai Lama’s hand during a tete a tete in Vice President Gore’s office (the White House decided to arrange the meeting outside the Oval Office in hopes of quelling Chinese objections), may have raised Chinese ire because it seems to show the Lama in an official role. Such a distinction, however, seems unlikely: Chinese binderies have produced many volumes dedicated to the Dalai Lama’s life, including his views on spirituality and politics.

In the eye of the storm, Callaway is fairly sanguine about the future of McNeely’s book. "We’re developing contingency publishing plans in the U.S. for the Clinton title." It’s even possible, Callaway concedes, that the clamor surrounding the book’s release could help sales, assuming the publisher can find a way to produce more copies. In the meantime, Callaway is left shaking his head bemusedly over the uproar. "We’ve gotten caught in some kind of customs crossfire."