Just over a year after five publishers and booksellers disappeared from Hong Kong in mysterious [strange] circumstances, the city's book industry has been shaken to the core [very worried, upset].
Bookshops have closed. Publishers have left. Authors have stopped writing. Books have been pulped [sent for recycling]. Printers are refusing political works. Translators have grown wary [scared] of being associated with certain topics. Readers have stopped buying. And the whole industry is wondering if hard-hitting [negative] books on Chinese politics still have a future in the former British colony.
The booksellers involved, formerly [before now] known only to a small niche [pronounced neesh; meaning a small set] of insiders [people with information not everyone has], have now become household names in Hong Kong: Gui Minha, a Swedish citizen, remains jailed in an undisclosed [information not made public] location [place] on the mainland after he was kidnapped from his holiday home in Thailand. Lee Bo, a British national who was lifted [taken] off the streets of Hong Kong and taken to the mainland against his will has been released and allowed to return, but has consistently [always in the same manner] refused to give a full account [all the facts] of what has happened to him.
He remains [is still] in on the mainland. Lui Por and Cheung Chi-ping, two clerks [people who work in offices] at Causeway Bay Books, the bookshop at the centre of the case, disappeared while on a visit to Shenzhen. They are also formally free, but live across the border where they have refused to entertain [answer] calls from the press and former associates [people they know].
The booksellers were pressured into televised confessions broadcast on national TV, in which they admitted to a variety of crimes – from a hit-and-run incident [when a driver knocks someone over with his car or truck and does not stop to help or report it to the police] to mailing to sending Chinese clients forbidden Hong Kong books without a licence. Only Lam Wing-kee has jumped bail [run away from a court case] while on a visit to Hong Kong in June to retrieve [get back] a computer database. He has since spoken out against his ordeal [bad time], which included “isolation [being kept alone] and psychological torture”, threats and being denied access to a lawyer.
Nobody knows exactly why the authorities on the mainland decided to crack down on Causeway Bay Books, though it is thought that the final straw [the last incident that caused the trouble] is likely to have been a salacious [rude or too sexy] work about President Xi Jinping’s relationship with women that was about to be published.
Bao Pu, co-founder of New Century Press (a publishing house that specialises in highbrow [for educated people] political books), says that controls at the border with Hong Kong have been getting stricter in the past few years – “and ever more so since the establishment of the Southern Hill Project in 2010”.
This refers to the code name of a campaign launched by the Chinese authorities to counter [move against] the influence of the Hong Kong publishing industry, which was seen as growing exponentially [very quickly].
As more Chinese visitors had been allowed to travel to Hong Kong without visas, shopping for politically revealing books forbidden in the rest of the country had become widespread.
Some had been dubbed “democracy tourists” by activists who’d see them also taking part, or observing, pro-democracy demonstrations in Hong Kong.
Until the Causeway Bay case, these books were easy to buy, allowing mainland citizens a glimpse [quick look] – not always truthful – of the inner workings of their opaque [unable to see through, not transparent] leaders. At the airport, in 24-hour convenience shops and in regular bookstores, political books about the Communist party, the People’s Liberation Army and individual leaders were readily available next to milk powder and traditional medicines, two of the other items particularly sought-after [wanted] by mainland tourists.
This is no longer the case. Since April, the 16 bookstores at the Hong Kong International Airport have been cut down to 10. The biggest five are now controlled by Chung Hwa Book Co, a company that was established in Shanghai in 1912 and is now under Sino United Publishing, a mainland-backed conglomerate [group of companies] that owns most Hong Kong bookshops – and where the “forbidden” books are mostly unavailable.
Critical, gossipy books have also disappeared from the ubiquitous [to be found everywhere] 7-Eleven stores and other 24-hour mini-supermarkets. A clerk at a 7-Eleven in Hollywood Road, a central street well-known to tourists for its antique [valuable and old] shops, only says that this was a decision by the management, as the books were “still selling”. She declines to give her name, and 7-Eleven, now owned by Dairy Farm, a pan-Asian retailer part of the Jardine Matheson Group, has not replied to a written request for an interview.
Independent bookstores, on the other hand, have been deserted by their former customers, and some have had to close down. One of them is 1908 Books , a bookstore in the Tsim Sha Tsui district that stocked only political books and magazines. It shut its doors earlier this year without any public announcement. In November, Page One, a large Singapore-owned bilingual [using two languages] chain [having multiple shops] that occasionally carried political books in Chinese, withdrew from Hong Kong entirely.
A handful of independent bookstores do survive, but they all belong to the “second-floor bookshops” category: operating from higher floors of commercial buildings and harder to find for visitors unfamiliar with Hong Kong. One example is People’s Coffee and Books, also in Causeway Bay, which doubles as a cafe. It is still carrying all the troublesome volumes, but owner Paul Tang says it is seeing far fewer customers than at this time last year. And in an unexpected twist, the Causeway Bay Books shop – still closed to the public – was purchased [bought] by a Chinese national [mainlander, although Hongkongers are nationally Chinese too].
One aim of the Southern Hill Project is to put pressure on tour guides: “The Tourism Bureau ensures that travellers bound for Hong Kong and Taiwan receive warnings and are subject to propaganda, and tour guides are given the responsibility to remind, discourage and prevent tourists from buying publications that are deemed [thought to be] politically harmful to bring back to China,” says Bao.
The clampdown [move to restrain] is not only affecting what bookstores can sell but the books that are now available to them, with fewer books being published in the first place.
“The bookseller incident not only sets new boundaries but also reinforces the norm, [strengthens something which is usually done] which is to publish in journals instead of books,” says Edmund Cheng, an associate professor at Hong Kong Baptist University.
“The former’s audience is restricted to peers and students but matters a lot in academics’ livelihoods and in the ranking of universities. But in this way, academic publication’s usage in the public sphere is undermined. So authoritarian [undemocratic] protocol [rules] and market logic work quite well together.”
It has been a slow shift [move] away from freer days, as Cheng underlines: “The self-censorship started before the booksellers’ case: after the umbrella movement [the pro-democracy protests that began in September 2014], it was no longer easy to publish critical books written by academics,” he says.
“Titles, in particular, can no longer carry certain words, like ‘social movement’. If you have those in your title, you are no longer invited to conferences, especially on the mainland.”
Timothy O’Leary, head of the school of humanities at Hong Kong University, confirms this: “The effect is more likely to be a slow undermining [eating away at from underneath] of willingness to publish in politically sensitive areas,” he says, as academics and writers alike shy away from potential trouble.
Even translators have become weary. Mei Fong, author of One Child: The Story Of China’s Most Radical Experiment, a book about the one-child policy and its consequences [results, effects] published in English this year, tried unsuccessfully to have her book distributed in Chinese.
“I wanted to reach the audience that has been most touched by the topic I analyse,” she says. But “after trying unsuccessfully to have the book published in China, I looked for a Hong Kong publisher, which is how books on ‘banned’ topics used to reach readers in the mainland. I was told that the problem with the book was not so much the sensitivities [upsetting people], but the difficulty in finding a distributor [someone to sell the book to bookshops]. Yet even before that, my translator pulled out [refused to go on],” she says. “So I commissioned [found and paid for] my own translator, who asked to remain anonymous [unnamed], but even then I could not find a publisher, neither in Hong Kong, because of the consequences of the five booksellers’ disappearance, nor in Taiwan, where books about China are not very popular.”
She decided to attempt a new approach, allowing the Chinese version of her book to be be downloaded for free, with the possibility of contributing a voluntary [freely given, not to buy something] fee to cover costs. It’s not clear how long her experiment can last before the mainland censors pull the plug on [stop] her website.
“Everybody is scared,” says Renee Chiang, of New Century Press. “The printers … are not willing to print political books. And the bookshops are not willing to stock political books, because now it is considered dangerous. But since the majority [most] of the readers of this kind of work are visitors from the mainland, now that the customs officers have increased their surveillance and confiscation [taking away] of political books, they are no longer buying them. So at both ends of the chain we have problems.”
Given the climate [general feelings] in Hong Kong, printers do not see their refusal to print as a political decision, but purely a business one. AsiaOne, which used to print political books without worries, has ceased [stopped] doing so – but nobody at the company agreed to be interviewed. Jason Chan, of printing company Sun-Design, says that “truly speaking, the booksellers’ case has a bad influence on the publishers and the booksellers still working in Hong Kong. I still believe that Hong Kong is a safe place to work, so I haven’t rejected [said no to] any book’s printing yet because of political reasons. Nowadays, the volume of books printed is going down, but the impact has been great only on specific bookstores and publishers,” he says.
Authors, too, are feeling the pinch [hurting, usually to do with money]. Yu Jie, a mainland author of politically sensitive books, saw his contract for a new book on Xi with the publishers of Open Magazine – a monthly that tries to follow the party’s power struggles – rescinded [taken back] after the chief editor, Jin Zhong, left Hong Kong under pressure from his family. The book was eventually published in Taiwan to a much smaller audience.
Meanwhile, given the prohibitive [expensive enough to stop someone or something] costs of keeping unsold stock, some publishers have resorted to pulping political books that had no chance of getting distributed.
According to [so says] the South China Morning Post, Hong Kong’s main English language paper, Sophie Choi – Lee Bo’s wife – ordered “45,000 books critical of the Communist party destroyed” in the hope of facilitating [helping] her husband’s release. Other publishers, too, have privately admitted to destroying political books that cannot be distributed and sold.
The damage done to the Hong Kong publishing industry is unprecedented [never happened before]. “Since 1949, Hong Kong had always been the place where books about China could be published. Its role was huge, way beyond the size of Hong Kong and its readership. This is why to this day scholars from China and from all over the world come to Hong Kong: to be able to see sensitive material,” says Bao. “This is now disappearing.”