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Pirate E-Book Site Under Pressure in China, Endangering Access To Banned Books
Pirate E-Book Site Under Pressure in China, Endangering Access To Banned Books

Pirate E-Book Site Under Pressure in China, Endangering Access To Banned Books

Z-Library, an online database with tens of millions of pirated and uncensored books and articles available for free download, is closing its Chinese WeChat account. In a statement posted to WeChat, Z-Library claimed that Chinese legal authorities had “attacked” its volunteer staff and intimated that they had refused to comply with censorship demands. The statement also seemed to encourage Chinese users to download virtual private networks (VPNs) (or other “scientific” means) in order to access the website despite “internet surveillance-and-control” policies: 

In our informatized, fast-developing era, voices from every corner can leap across oceans to reach our ears. However, sometimes the restrictions of technology and law still create barriers to communication. Today, we must share important news with you all. Due to the Chinese legal system’s attacks on the volunteers behind our website, fundraising, and social media account, we have had to make a difficult decision: our mainland Chinese social media account will be deleted within seven days. 

This is not a simple farewell—it is the epitome of this era. Over the past years, we have shared knowledge and ideas with hundreds of thousands of Chinese readers. Every interaction, every debate is etched deeply in our memory. We know from the bottom of our hearts that every click from every user was filled with desire for freedom of knowledge and diverse cultures. 

Although our social media account will soon close, our website will continue to welcome users from mainland China. We will preserve our website’s spirit of openness. We will not remove a single book from our shelves. However, due to internet surveillance-and-control policies, you may have to use scientific means to visit our website. We understand that this is inconvenient for you, but we hope that you can understand our hands are tied. 

[…] Goodbye, China. This is not the end, for we will continue—in a new manner. [Chinese]

The official Z-Library account was deleted soon after the statement’s publication. It is unclear whether the account’s administrators took it down early or whether the account was shuttered by WeChat. Underneath the announcement, Z-Library users lamented its departure and compared Chinese information controls to the Berlin Wall:  

阿白:The Berlin Wall cannot stop reunions of the mind. 

戬江苏:I’m bawling… zlib, you saved this broke college student’s life. 

一恒:It feels like I’ve lost a best friend. I can’t speak. I hope you return before long. 

八零后:When I saw your public account on WeChat, I thought I was hallucinating. Even then, I had a premonition this would be the outcome. It was expected. Goodbye. 

Lorenz:My sincere gratitude for all your efforts towards freedom of knowledge. 

夕惕若厉:We will remember you forever. Thank you zlib. 

虔琳:Oof. Without zlib, my Kindle loses its soul and becomes but another brick. Thank you zlib, for providing me with endless satisfaction. I await your return. [Chinese]

China is not the only country to target Z-Library. In 2022, the Department of Justice announced the arrest of two Russian nationals it claimed were behind the site and briefly succeeded in knocking the website offline. Z-Library was also banned in India and in France in 2022. China’s apparent pressure on the site could most charitably be interpreted as intellectual property protection of the kind it has often been accused of neglecting; but the picture is inescapably complicated by the fact that much of Z-Library’s appeal to Chinese users is that its contents are not only “free as in beer,” but also “free as in speech.”

China maintains strict censorship of all material officially published or otherwise distributed within its borders. Last year, a book on the last Ming emperor was recalled from shelves—and all mention of it banned on social media—allegedly because the cover could be construed as a criticism of Xi Jinping. Foreign writers are subject to censorship too. A recent casual survey of history books found that foundational works in international China studies like Jonathan Spence’s “The Gate of Heavenly Peace” and Gail Hershatter’s “Women and China’s Revolution” were no longer being re-printed in China or authorized for distribution, respectively. 

At Lit Hub, the renowned and oft-censored Chinese author Yan Lianke wrote on why he does not find the unofficial title “most censored” to be an honorific

 In contemporary China there are several—or even several dozen—books written every year that cannot be published because they have been censored or banned. Even if we resent this sort of censorship and are willing to go to great lengths to abolish it, we cannot automatically conclude that all books that have been censored are necessarily great works of art.

[…] However, this does not necessarily offer a standard for evaluating the artistic quality of the works in question. Several years ago, a Chinese author spent hundreds of thousands of yuan bribing the Chinese publishing industry so that it would criticize and ban his works. This hilarious example illustrates how censorship is truly a pathway to recognition, as opposed to being a standard of artistic quality.

For this reason, whenever I am abroad and am introduced as China’s most censored author, I simply remain silent, feeling neither pride nor pleasure in this description. I can only treat this sort of introduction as an inappropriate courtesy—such as when you encounter an acquaintance and offer your cheek to be kissed, and the acquaintance merely extends a hand. [Source