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As the dead bodies pile up in old Shanghai, a Jesuit priest blames a cholera outbreak. But in the opening act of The Sassoon Files, a new role-playing game book set in 1920s-era China, the bodies have been drained of all blood, and it soon becomes clear that something far more sinister is afoot.

The intrigue of determining what happened propels the story, which blends the real-life personalities who fashioned Shanghai into the “Paris of the East” with fantasy elements: a gate to hell, a demon and “a bloated tentacled beast with the power of foresight.”

It’s not the kind of book destined for bestseller lists. Still, enthusiasts pledged US$24,183 to a Kickstarter campaign to see it printed, and author Jesse Covner, co-founder of the design house that created the story, ordered 320 copies from China Seven Color Group, whose main business is printing books for export. On March 20, the company told Mr. Covner that the printing was complete.

But hours later, the printer called again to say there was “a sensitive issue with the content of the books,” Mr. Covner said in a YouTube video describing how all of his books were then destroyed for falling afoul of an increasingly strict Chinese censorship regime, at a time when Beijing has grown more insistent that the world bend to its view on territorial and other issues.

“I was shocked to learn that a Chinese government officer is required to inspect all book printing, including books that are only meant for export,” said Mr. Covner, who declined an interview request.

The book had “some political problems,” confirmed Lina, a representative of China Seven Color Group who gave only her first name, citing company policy. “They put Zhou Enlai’s photo on a page and used some bad words to describe it.”

Photos of Mr. Zhou, China’s first premier, appears twice in the book, where he is described as a leader “for whom the Chinese people felt genuine affection.” Mr. Zhou died in 1976.

But “in a country like China, where free speech is rare, publishing such a book is risky,” Lina said.

The book is only the latest to be destroyed in China, which has become home to the world’s second-largest printing industry. Earlier this week, authorities ordered the destruction of nearly 30,000 world maps, saying they gave a “wrong depiction of the Sino-Indian border” and failed to show Taiwan as part of China, according to state media.

Last year, China demanded Muji, the Japanese retailer, get rid of a catalogue because a store location map did not include islands whose ownership is disputed by China and Japan, and contained “serious errors” in its depiction of Taiwan.

Chinese demands last year also forced a series of global hotel and airline companies – including Air Canada – to reword the way Taiwan is listed on their websites. Taiwan is an independently governed territory that Beijing claims as its own.

Critics, however, say the destruction of The Sassoon Files stands out.

“This is as clear an indication as we’ll ever get that the Chinese Communist Party will not limit itself to controlling or censoring information within its borders, and that it is bent on refashioning the world for all of us, regardless of where we are,” said J. Michael Cole, a senior fellow at the Global Taiwan Institute who, as a teenager, was himself a fan of the Call of Cthulhu role-playing universe that The Sassoon Files inhabits.

Its destruction is part of “a new normal in China,” said Bao Pu, publisher and editor of New Century Press in Hong Kong. “Today, it’s this book. Tomorrow, it might be a travel magazine,” he said.

China Seven Color Group refunded the money for The Sassoon Files, but Lina warned that foreign publishers should be “more cautious” when turning to printers in China.

“At the moment, religious topics, political topics and pornography are all taboo,” she said. If Chinese officials find such content, the stakes for book printers are high. “There is a risk of being sentenced to jail,” she said.

With reporting by Alexandra Li

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