Burn after reading?
Beijing’s brutal suppression of people’s freedom of expression has created a thriving industry for banned books in Hong Kong. Isak Ladegaard reports
In one of the many bookshops at Hong Kong International Airport, a Shanghainese woman in her mid-30s is browsing the politics section. Asked if these books are available at home, she chuckles. “Of course not,” she says. “That’s why I always buy books when I’m here in Hong Kong.” On the mainland, most non-state-sanctioned literary works about Chinese politics, Chinese society, Chinese eroticism and Chinese leaders – dead or alive – cannot be bought, read or sold. But such books are smuggled over the border from Hong Kong on a daily basis. Indeed, with more than 22 million mainland tourists crossing the Territories last year, many specifically seek out books they can’t find at home. And Hong Kong booksellers are all too happy to meet the demand.
“The publishing industry is in some kind of crisis everywhere,” says Bao Pu, head of New Century Press, a Hong Kong publisher which produced the banned China’s Best Actor: Wen Jiabao. “But here in Hong Kong there’s a particular book market that is essentially thriving: books that cannot be printed in the mainland.” New Century Press is now solely focusing on this market: most of the titles they put out – about 15 a year – are outlawed in China. One of these books, The Secret Journal of Premier Zhao Ziyang, has sold nearly 130,000 copies just in Hong Kong.
From Mao: The Untold Story by Jung Chang and Jon Halliday, to The Tiananmen Papers by Zhang Liang, to Mao Zedong’s insatiable sex life, to the secret memoirs of late CCP secretary Zhao Ziyang, Hong Kong has become the central Asian hub for the free flow of Beijing-sensitive information. Many mainland writers specifically smuggle their manuscripts into Hong Kong in order to avoid persecution, or worse. According to the NGO Independent Chinese PEN Centre, there are currently more than 120 writers and journalists in Chinese prisons. For those who are still free, Hong Kong and its bookshops connect them to their Chinese readership.
In Causeway Bay’s Russell Street is the small but popular bookshop People’s Recreation Community. The shelves are heaving with Chinese titles, the vast majority being banned on the mainland. Co-owner Paul Tang says the shop attracts lots of customers from China. “Hong Kong gets more and more visitors from the mainland, and a lot of them come here to buy books,” he tells Time Out. “We’ve changed our focus to books that are banned in China. Today, these books [count for] almost 90 percent of our sales.”
Sharon Hom, executive director of the New York and Hong Kong based NGO Human Rights in China, thinks the smuggling of banned literature back into the mainland has been seismic. “Imagine the number of potential Trojan Horses carrying banned books,” she says. “The stream of books coming in from Hong Kong highlights this question: Will Hong Kong become mainland-ised or will China become Hong Kong-ised?”
Causeway Book Shop, on Lockhart Road, is also following the trend. “Most of the books we sell are illegal in China,” says owner Lam Wing-kee. “Maybe all of them, actually.” While Time Out was in the shop a mainland customer bought 15 books, enough to fill two plastic bags. “They probably bought them for friends, family and teachers,” shrugs Wing-kee. “It’s a usual sight.”
This pressing demand is keenly felt at People’s Recreation Community. “We’ve increased the volume,” says Tang. “Mainlanders are buying stacks of books. They bring them back to China in private cars which are licenced to drive in both Hong Kong and China. These cars are seldom searched.” He adds that many more people are willing to risk the airport customs, at least for smaller quantities.
How stinging the legal slap would be if you’re caught smuggling banned books into China is unclear. At present there is still no official list released by the Beijing Politburo naming the outlawed titles, which presents a huge grey area for Chinese citizens. If such books are found at customs, they are usually just confiscated. “But if you bring in too many it can be dangerous,” warns Tang. “It’s a different risk.”
“I’m always worried when I bring these books home,” says the Shanghainese woman at the airport. “I was caught once. Customs found a book and it was obvious by its cover that it was about politics, so the guard said, ‘this one is not allowed’ and took it. It’s all about luck, but you can still get into trouble.”
Bao Pu has had his own taste of trouble. He tells Time Out the Chinese government has monitored his movements in Hong Kong. “I heard he had to go to the very top of the Peninsula Hotel when he had meetings with publishers,” claims Paul Tang. Pu himself says he doesn’t “want to focus on or highlight this” but confirms he has been monitored in the past. The threat is naturally much more serious for mainland publishers. “If they publish something that can have a noticeable influence on people in a way that worries the authorities, they’ll punish you,” Pu says. “There are certain subjects you cannot print in mainland China. Anything related to the great famine, the Cultural Revolution, recent political history [especially Hu Jintao], or the Tiananmen crackdown. On top of this, there is also a list of authors who can’t publish anything at all.”
Adds Pu: “The government basically mobilises people’s fear, and then publishers automatically ‘screen out’ certain topics or sensitive issues. But when I go to Beijing my friends always tell me ‘We’re lucky to have Hong Kong. If there was no Hong Kong, we couldn’t have printed these books.’”