Private publisher of China’s banned books
All of a sudden, books about Bo Xilai, China’s falling political star, are thriving in Hong Kong. They are – literally – red hot. They may look similar in title, cover and perhaps even in contents, but there’s no denying their presence in bookstores, on newspaper stalls and in the hands of MTR passengers.
But this happens all the time, doesn’t it? When books are banned on the Mainland, they become hot property here. Not so, according to Meng Lang, a city publisher who’s behind some of these politically sensitive tomes. “This is very rare,” he says. “Since Wang Lijun’s [Chongqing’s police chief and Bo Xilai’s right-hand man] incident in March, I’ve seen more than 30 different books on the Bo Xilai fiasco. It’s the first time I’ve seen something like this happen in Hong Kong.”
Meng could see this as his time in the sun, with plenty of new Bo Xilai reads on the way and book sales ringing in tills across the city. But he isn’t so sure. “In Hong Kong these books are aimed at a small market. I’ve only published two books on Bo Xilai – compilations of some raw materials. We don’t tell stories because I think it’s better to present readers with original information and let them make their own judgements.”
Owning two publishing houses, Morning Bell Press and Fountain Head Press, Meng, who is also a poet, doesn’t even have an office. He’s what you call a true private publisher. Among his books are A Tiananmen Journal by Feng Congde, and Hu Yaobang and Political Reform in China, written by a group of authors and reprinted this year.
Wearing a thick, Ai Weiwei-style beard, this 50-year-old is hard to miss. In fact he is working on a biography of Ai Weiwei too. “There are biographies of various human rights activists and there is a biography of Ai’s mother – but there’s never been one on Ai Weiwei, one of the most world-renowned Chinese artists and human rights fighters. Hopefully I can get this book out before mid-June.”
Before Meng came to Hong Kong, his publications didn’t heavily involve politics. Born and raised in Shanghai, he was among the first generation of people who went to college after the intellectual-purging Cultural Revolution. From the early 1980s to early 90s, he published several of what he calls ‘underground literature magazines’. “At that time mass communications were tightly controlled,” he says. “Private publications were illegal. Typewriters were also controlled – and you needed a reference letter to buy one.”
Despite the tough environment, Meng managed to publish his first magazine, MN, in 1981 with two of his college friends. “The first issue only had 20-odd pages and the circulation was only 60,” he recalls. “But it was an important victory because such a publication would be deemed as a challenge to authority – and we could have been put into jail. Actually, the magazine was only about poems and journals, with no politics at all. We were just literature guys who wanted to express our own ideology but the society back then would not allow that.”
Meng was invited to Brown University in the USA as a writer-in-residence in 1995 and he stayed in America until moving to Hong Kong in 2006. He calls his time in America – where he was also the executive editor of a Boston-based Chinese literature and humanity magazine – a ‘self-exile’. “Now I’m in a process of home-returning,” he muses.
So why did he start to publish more politically sensitive books? “China is at a turning point,” he explains. “The Communist Party wants to control everything but with the development of the society, the internet being used more widely and people being more open-minded, there are more and more things which are impossible to control. The result is a chaotic status quo. And in the midst of the trend, I want to do something to my home country as a citizen, now that I’m so close.”
The key to changing this chaotic situation, according to Meng, is to create a civil society where people can enjoy freedom of speech, press freedom and judicial independence, where ‘universal values’ are well-respected. “I witnessed China progressing from closed to open,” he says, “and I hope China will have a bright future. It’s not politics but people’s basic hope to survive. It’s the same across the world.”
Another reason, Meng says, is that literature has no market in Hong Kong. “These days, not many people would like to spend time reading online, let alone in print. I always say ours is a sunset industry.” In this sense, does it become a matter of survival? Says Meng: “You can’t pay for your food by writing poems – but you [can] by publishing banned books.” Shirley Zhao