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Mainlanders flock to Hong Kong bookstores to buy books censored back home

By Nectar Gan and Jennifer Lam

It is a weekday evening and Tsim Sha Tsui’s Peking Street is crowded with people and cars. But in an upstairs bookshop, it is extremely quiet. Thousands of books are arranged neatly on the shelves in historical order, from tomes about ancient times to contemporary China. Many of them are banned in the Mainland.

The Central Propaganda Department is the organ responsible for banning books in China. It has the power to censor, prohibit publication and ban the sale of books as well as to censor news, movies and television programmes. Banned books are often about sensitive issues in mainland China. They can range from academic works on political theory to salacious books of gossip about Chinese political leaders to fiction that is deemed morally suspect.

With such strict censorship in place, many mainland readers flock to Hong Kong for books they cannot buy back home.

On the evening of Varsity’s visit to 1908 Bookstore, Tim Wang bought two copies of Lishi de xiansheng, literally Herald of History. The book is a selection of speeches, articles and comments calling for freedom and democracy published by the Chinese Communist Party in the early 1940s, during the rule of the Kuomintang. The book has been banned by the Chinese government since 1999.

Wang grew up in the Mainland and came to Hong Kong before the handover. He is now in his 30s. He works in publishing and has a special affection for books. Wang says he has taken banned books back to the Mainland, either for himself or for friends,more than 10 times.

“I brought banned books as souvenirs from Hong Kong,” he says. In his eyes, banned books are much better gifts than mooncakes.

Wang says he was not always a big fan of prohibited books. He used to think such books were either poorly written or were just politically motivated. But his attitude changed after he read the historian Gao Hua’s acclaimed book on the Yan’an Rectification Movement, How the Red Sun Rises, out of curiosity. Wang recalls how he came to realise things that he had never paid attention to before. The more he read, the more he wanted to know. Soon, he was addicted to banned books.

For Wang, reading banned books is no longer just about satisfying curiosity. As China undergoes seismic changes, mainland society is struggling with many social problems. Wang hopes to get inspiration from books that are forbidden by the propaganda department, and be able to see a way out for the country.

Similar sentiments motivated the owners of 1908 to open the bookshop in March this year. One of the co-owners, Xiao Tian says he hopes the shop can somehow contribute to the development of the Mainland in a positive way. “1908 is the year when the first Chinese constitution was published; it is Qinding Xianfa Dagang (also known as the Royal Constitutional Outlines),” says he. “China has had a constitution for all these years, but it does not have a constitutional government yet. So I hope we can work on that together,” he says.

Originally from the Mainland, Tian came to Hong Kong to study finance at the Hong Kong Baptist University seven years ago and has stayed since his graduation. He is used to smuggling banned books across the border for his friends and has been caught by customs officials several times. “They didn’t do anything to me, they just confiscated the banned books, and then give me a receipt,” he says.

He usually advises his customers to buy fewer books, so as to reduce the risk of confiscation if and when they are checked.

Having grown up under a system of censorship, Tian knows the importance of the free flow of information. “I want the bookstore to convey the truth, and bring good ideas to the Mainland,” he says.

Tian and his partner, his best friend Li, who is based in Beijing, are certainly full of ideals. But ideals are not enough to support a bookstore. The shop has been running at a loss since its opening. In the early months, the monthly revenue was not enough to cover the rent.

On top of the financial pressure, there is also pressure from the mainland. The bookstore used to offer a postal service for mainland customers but Tian was told by contacts in the mainland that they should stop sending banned books to the Mainland, particularly in the sensitive time leading up to the 18th Party Congress. The shop has since stopped its postal service.

Although sales are picking up, Tian is still uncertain about the bookstore’s future. His business partner invested HK$500,000 to set up the store and despite the losses, he still sponsors the operation every month.

They hope to eventually run the bookstore as a social enterprise. If the bookshop starts making profits in the future, revenue will be spent on both local and mainland charities.

Not all shops selling banned books are based on such lofty ideals. Paul Tang Tsz-keung, director of The People’s Bookstore, runs his bookstore purely as a business.

The shop, which is on the first floor of a tenement building in Causeway Bay is decorated with portraits of Chairman Mao Zedong, People’s Liberation Army canvas bags and big posters from the People’s Communes. The interior reminds people of 1950s China.

Tang started the bookstore 10 years ago. Back then his target customers were locals and he sold mainland-published books, including classics and popular titles, in simplified Chinese characters. He thought he was onto a winner because these books were cheaper than identical titles in traditional characters printed for the Hong Kong and Taiwan markets, and because he had a mainland supplier who gave him a good discount and currency exchange rate.

However, his business plan did not quite work and in 2003, Tang added a café to the bookstore in an attempt to survive the keen competition among bookstores. It was not until the Individual Visit Scheme was launched for mainland tourists coming to Hong Kong that Tang finally managed to turn the business around. He began to sell banned books to mainland visitors.

“They are interested in political gossip, for example the secrets of late Chinese leaders,” he says. Asmore customers asked for banned books, his sales in banned books began to grow.

Tang finally started to make a profit two years ago, after losing money for eight years. For Tang, the most important rule for running his business is to follow the market demand. Currently, he also sells Hong Kong souvenirs, accessories and imported milkpowder to mainland customers.

His bookstore also accepts online orders and provides a postal service for mainland customers. The customers are responsible for bearing the risk of confiscation by mainland customs authorities but Tang always chooses the most expensive delivery services,which are less likely to be checked.

Tang says 90 per cent of the banned books he sells are bought by customers from the Mainland. He has noticed the books they purchase follow certain patterns. Younger customers in their twenties prefer books about the Tiananmen Square Protests of 1989 and the Diaoyu Islands; those older than 50 are more interested in secrets of the leaders as well as the hidden truth behind events they have experienced.

Jack Qiu Linchuan, a professor at the School of Journalism and Communication at the Chinese University of Hong Kong (CUHK), thinks the relevance of political events to readers can explain why different age groups are interested in different issues. “The readers of banned books must care about the contents that are banned; if they don’t even know what has been banned, of course they won’t have any interest in it,” says Qiu.

Therefore, younger people tend to be interested in books about the Diaoyu Islands and current social movements, as they are more relevant.

Scholars usually prefer academic works, such as How the Red Sun Rises and businessmen are the biggest spenders, sparing no amount to get the latest information about which way the political wind is blowing in the Mainland, or buying the books to give to government officials as gifts.

Q, a customer of the People’s Bookstore, is a civil servant from the Mainland. He is interested in the state of play in Chinese politics and in the secrets of Chinese leaders and often comes to Hong Kong to read banned books. “I think Hong Kong has the freedom of publication, and thus there is more [political] information,” he says. However, once he gets them back to the Mainland, he does not share them with his friends and only reads them secretly.

Hong Kong readers may take mainland-banned books for granted because they do not hold the allure of the forbidden. But some locals still enjoy reading them.

William, a local educator born in the 1950s who prefers not to give his full name, says banned books help him understand opinions from different groups, especially young people. “The mainstream media in Hong Kong does not provide enough in-depth analysis [on political issues], and their angles are often one-sided,” he says.

The owner of Sun Ah Book Centre, So Keng-chit, has been in the publishing business for over 40 years. He observes that banned books are mainly read by the middle-aged and older people in Hong Kong and attributes the phenomenon to what he calls young Hong Kongers’ “complete despair over mainland China”. As they try to disconnect themselves from the Mainland, what happens there means nothing to them. So thinks this is a pity.

In general, the majority of people who buy banned books, whether they are from the Mainland or local, tend to be middle-aged and above. Young people show less interest in them.

However, the impact of these banned books cannot be underestimated. It has never been easier for Mainlanders to visit Hong Kong, and buying banned books has become a common activity on their Hong Kong shopping circuit. As CUHK’s Jack Qiu says: “The more normalised [banned books]are, the greater their infiltration will be.”