Here’s the rub: Monitors pay closer attention to material that might be consumed by the average person than to cultural products seen as highbrow and intended for educated groups. (An internet forum versus an old novel.) As a result, Chinese writers are watched more closely than foreign ones. (Liu Xiaobo versus Orwell.) Another rule of thumb is that more leeway is given to imaginative works about authoritarianism than ones that specifically engage with its manifestations in post-1949 China. (1984 versus a book on the Dalai Lama.)
When a book crosses some lines but not others, censors generally use a scalpel rather than a sledgehammer. That explains the status of Brave New World Revisited, Huxley’s nonfiction work in which he argued that autocrats in the Soviet Union and China were combining the rule-through-distraction techniques outlined in Brave New World and the rule-through-fear methods detailed in 1984. Chinese readers on the mainland can find copies of this highbrow book by a foreigner pretty easily—but censors have surgically excised all direct references to Mao’s China.