New freedoms for banned books

By Lin Meilian Source:Global Times Published: 2013-7-25 20:23:01

Readers browse books at the Hong Kong Book Fair on July 20. Photo: IC

Readers browse books at the Hong Kong Book Fair on July 20. Photo: IC

The annual Hong Kong Book Fair that closed on Tuesday saw thousands of visitors from the mainland browse works that have been banned by authorities in Beijing.

The week-long book fair broke its attendance record with visitors reaching 980,000, or almost one for every seven Hong Kong residents. Many local publishers said that political themes were popular at this year's fair due to Hong Kong's growing unease with the mainland.

Ever since July 1, 2003 that saw the largest protest in Hong Kong since the 1997 handover, books on sensitive topics about China, often banned on the mainland, have been a draw for the Book Fair.

Over the years, the annual Book Fair has fed mainland readers that are thirsty for information and has become a must-go event, as popular as Ocean Park and Disneyland.

"Hongkongers are usually not that interested in reading political books and magazines, it is the visitors from the mainland who save these publications from oblivion," political commentator Lau Yui-siu told the Global Times. "That is a consequence of allowing individual mainlanders to visit Hong Kong that many people did not anticipate."

However, Lau said mainland readers do not take the matter too seriously.

"I don't think these publications are particularly influential as many readers only read them for fun," He said. "Just like watching a movie, they don't take it too seriously."

Sensitive themes

The so-called banned books are mainly works by Chinese authors that have been outlawed by the authorities, such as Yang Jisheng's Tombstone: The Great Chinese Famine, 1958-1962, in which the author spent 20 years investigating the reasons that led to mass starvation, including the death of his own father. They can also be books that had some politically sensitive content removed from mainland versions, such as historian Zhang Yihe's The Memories Haven't Vanished, in which she tells the stories of prominent intellectuals who suffered from brutal attacks during the Cultural Revolution (1966-76.)

Many mainlanders who buy political books at the Book Fair told the Global Times that they did not feel comfortable talking about it as they were afraid their comments might land them in hot water.

Those who could not make it to the fair often ask their friends to bring banned books back for them. A college student surnamed Li from Shenzhen, Guangdong is among these.

"Some books that fabricate facts should be banned," Li told the Global Times, adding that sometimes the authorities may worry too much about other books.

More than 530 exhibitors from 23 countries and regions took part in this year's edition. Over 400 cultural events and about 300 speakers were organized under the theme "Reading the World, Reading for a Better World."

"The advantage of the Hong Kong Book Fair is it offers a diversity of books and events from serious topics to comics, which is rarely seen at any book fair on the mainland," Lau said.

This year, some special counters were set up for political books and many books about politics were placed very obviously to attract attention. But Li said he carefully chooses what he reads.

"You can't really trust those books, they might tell you something that you don't know, but you have to wonder if they are telling the truth," he said.

Getting through unseen

The biggest concern of buying banned books from Hong Kong is how to pass through customs and the consequence faced if people are caught doing so. 

Every day, customs officials play hide-and-seek with 60,000 visitors returning from Hong Kong. It is almost impossible to search all their bags for "illicitly printed materials," a term that referred to pornographic and superstitious materials in the 1980s but now is replaced by "materials harmful to China's politics, economy, culture and morality."

Tricks on how to pass through customs with banned books are available on many online forums, with would-be smugglers warned "not to look at customs officials in the eyes" or to "keep your head down."

If a person is unlucky enough to get caught, the sites say they should just hand over the book and leave, without putting up a fight or arguing.

However, when Beijing-based lawyer Zhu Yuantao was caught bringing in a copy of a banned book by Gao Hua, he sued the Beijing Airport Customs Office and won the case. However, two months later the court reversed its decision and upheld the seizure.

Individuals who are caught but hand in "illicitly printed material" will face no further punishments but their travel agencies might, according to a warning issued by the Beijing Tourism Administration. That is probably the reason why many travel agencies have cancelled trips to the Hong Kong Book Fair.

Some people argue the customs should publish a list of banned works so that they know what the standards of illicit printed material are.

Lau suggests the authorities relax a little bit. "The regulation can't really stop people from buying banned books," He said. "Just leave it up to the readers to decide what they should read or not."

Signing up

As the readership for political books grows, some small publishers that never published books related to Chinese politics before have jumped on board. Whenever political changes are afoot in Beijing, books with sensational titles and unconfirmed contents appear very swiftly in Hong Kong.

Many publishers say these kinds of political books have a negative influence in building trust with readers from the mainland.

Sun Lichuan, deputy editor-in-chief of Hong Kong publisher Cosmos Books, told the Global Times that his firm only publishes books that help readers think rationally.

"As a publisher, we don't take sides, we only publish books that are true and thought-provoking," Sun said. "We hope our country can move forward."

This year they published the Hong Kong version of a book by 22-year-old college student Zhong Daoran, entitled I Do Not Forgive: China's Education after Criticism and Reflection.

Zhong's book pilloried the education system and was first published last year on the mainland. Over 10,000 copies were sold within a month but its mainland publisher halted any further runs without providing a reason. Sun decided to republish it in Hong Kong.

"We respect rational discussion that provokes new avenues of thought. If an author writes something that we think is inappropriate or might cause a misunderstanding, we'll suggest the author remove that particular content," Sun explained.

But Hong Kong residents are slowly gaining an interest for reading books related to Chinese politics.

Back in 2010, only 14.8 percent of 500 respondents said they enjoyed reading books about political and social issues, with business themes topping the list at the time, according to a survey conducted by Democratic Alliance for the Betterment and Progress of Hong Kong.

But this year's Book Fair saw many young buyers interested in serious topics such as national education or the Occupy Central movement. Occupy Central is a proposed civil disobedience protest which would take place in Central, Hong Kong in July 2014 to show support for universal suffrage.

Hong Kong publishing house Sub-Culture published eight books related to Chinese politics this year, and owner Pang Chi-ming said the business is up 10 percent compared with last year. "This is a very political year for Hongkongers, many of them have become aware of the fact that they need to have their voices heard," Pang told the Global Times.

"The political books we published before were full of folklore and humor, this year we prefer those that can make a strong point and provoke deeper discussion," he continued.

This doesn't mean they are abandoning standards. As Pang explains, "we don't publish those who just say good things about the government."

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