On Hong Kong Shelves, Illicit Dirt on China’s Elite

May 18, 2013

On Hong Kong Shelves, Illicit Dirt on China’s Elite

By CHRIS BUCKLEY

HONG KONG — Visitors from mainland China climb the narrow stairs to a cramped room here filled with forbidden delights: shelves of scandal-packed exposés about their Communist Party masters.

The People’s Recreation Community bookstore and several others on Hong Kong’s teeming shopping streets specialize in selling books and magazines banned by the Chinese government, mostly for their luridly damning accounts of party leaders, past and present. And at a time when many Chinese citizens smolder with distrust of their leaders, business is thriving.

“We come here to buy books that we can’t read in China,” said Huang Tao, a salesman of nutritional supplements from southeast China, who picked out a muckraking volume recently about corruption among senior party leaders. “There are so many things that we’ve been deceived over,” he said, waving toward books on the devastating famine of the late 1950s and early 1960s, an episode that official histories have muffled in euphemisms. “We can’t learn the truth, so black becomes white and white becomes black.”Such publications smuggle corrosive facts and rumors into the bloodstream of Chinese political life. The contraband flow is reinforced by a flow of online publications and downloadable pirate copies. The trade shows the thirst for information in a society gripped by censorship, and the difficulties that party authorities face in trying to stifle that thirst, especially when, people in the business say, officials are among the avid readers of banned books.

“These books are playing a big role in raising the consciousness of the Chinese people,” said a Beijing journalist who visits Hong Kong several times a year and buys armloads of exposés. He asked that his name not be used, fearing punishment. “It’s impossible to stop everything getting through.”

They contain accounts of every conceivable scandal of the past. Then there are the gloomy prophecies about China’s future. One book foretells a war with Japan in 2014, another a toppling of the current leadership that same year. The strongest seller among these feverish jeremiads, “2014: The Great Collapse,” says the fall of the Communist Party is assured, citing what it says are secret party documents. “This is not gossip or soothsaying,” the preface declares.

“Some people take these books very seriously. I had a phone call just yesterday for 20 copies of this book. He seemed to be a Chinese businessman,” said Paul Tang, the proprietor of the store, which in Chinese goes by the more ironic name of the People’s Commune bookstore.

“Right now, more than 90 percent of our sales come from mainland visitors,” said Mr. Tang, 38, who formerly worked for fast food chains. He and three partners opened the store in 2002 and two years later shifted its focus to banned books for visitors from mainland China. “The most frequently asked question is not about the content of books,” Mr. Tang said. “It’s how they can get the books back to China.”

That game of hide and seek takes place daily, as Chinese travelers return from Hong Kong and other destinations, sometimes with contraband. Customs officers are sometimes instructed to stop particular titles, people in the trade say, but often anything with a political edge that is discovered is scrutinized, and decisions on what to confiscate are made on the fly.

Zhou Qicai, a businessman from northeast China, was lugging a suitcase stuffed with 400 copies of a Chinese-language magazine from Hong Kong into China in March when a customs officer inspected his luggage. The magazine, Boxun, had a report about court officials in his hometown who are suspected of being corrupt that he wanted to share with friends.

“He took one look at the magazines and said, ‘These are reactionary publications, they’re illegal,’ ” Mr. Zhou said. The officer seized the magazines, took down his personal details and warned him not to smuggle again. “That didn’t matter,” Mr. Zhou said. “I came back and tried again a couple of days later and brought in 93 copies without a problem.”

A former British colony, Hong Kong became a self-administered region of China in 1997, and despite pressures from Beijing, remains free of state censorship. In 2012, Hong Kong hosted 34.9 million visits by Chinese nationals, many on shopping sprees.

Chinese customs officials often confiscate publications about forbidden themes. But prosecutions of caught travelers are virtually unheard-of these days, because the government would have difficulty explaining its secretive censorship practices, even before tame, party-run courts, said Bao Pu, the head of New Century Press, a Hong Kong publisher of many books by ousted and retired Chinese officials.

“They can never openly justify their rules, because there’s no public list of banned books and these people make their own arbitrary decisions,” said Mr. Bao, the son of a purged Chinese official. “There would simply be too many people to prosecute; there would be a backlash.”

The illicit flow includes memoirs and studies of events and people that the Communist Party would rather forget, like the Great Leap famine and brutal Cultural Revolution under Mao Zedong, and the upheavals that culminated in the crackdown in Tiananmen Square in June 1989. Former officials whose memoirs cannot be published in China, among them the late ousted party leader, Zhao Ziyang, often turn to Hong Kong for an outlet.

Then there are the magazines and books offering salacious accounts of party officials’ private lives. Few members of China’s political elite escape having a book, or at least a chapter, devoted to their suspected plots, mistresses or ill-gotten fortunes.

Some of the hastily written potboilers appear fanciful, even by the generous standards that China has recently set, with a real-life scandal involving a Politburo member, Bo Xilai, who fell from power after his wife, Gu Kailai, was arrested on charges of murdering a British businessman.

“It’s like when your National Enquirer becomes your only form of political discussion,” said Geremie Barmé, a professor at the Australian National University in Canberra who studies Chinese culture and politics. “This is a tragedy that the party has generated for itself. Its processes are all cloaked from the public.”

Yet many readers of banned publications from Hong Kong are themselves Chinese officials, often eager for gossip that can help them navigate treacherous political shoals. The books and magazines are surviving the onslaught of online material in part because so many of their readers are officials who fear using the Internet to look at forbidden material or lack the skill to thwart censorship, said Mr. Tang.

“You don’t have to read the People’s Daily, because that won’t tell you what’s really going on, but you have to read these,” said Ho Pin, an exiled Chinese journalist who runs Mirror Books, a company based in New York that publishes muckraking books and magazines in Chinese. Chinese officials visiting Hong Kong often buy them as gifts for fellow officials, he said. “In the past, you’d give a mayor a bottle of liquor. But that’s nothing these days, and so is a carton of cigarettes,” Mr. Ho said. “But if you give him one of our books or magazines, he’ll be very happy.”

About bambooinnovator
Kee Koon Boon (“KB”) is the co-founder and director of HERO Investment Management which provides specialized fund management and investment advisory services to the ARCHEA Asia HERO Innovators Fund (www.heroinnovator.com), the only Asian SMID-cap tech-focused fund in the industry. KB is an internationally featured investor rooted in the principles of value investing for over a decade as a fund manager and analyst in the Asian capital markets who started his career at a boutique hedge fund in Singapore where he was with the firm since 2002 and was also part of the core investment committee in significantly outperforming the index in the 10-year-plus-old flagship Asian fund. He was also the portfolio manager for Asia-Pacific equities at Korea’s largest mutual fund company. Prior to setting up the H.E.R.O. Innovators Fund, KB was the Chief Investment Officer & CEO of a Singapore Registered Fund Management Company (RFMC) where he is responsible for listed Asian equity investments. KB had taught accounting at the Singapore Management University (SMU) as a faculty member and also pioneered the 15-week course on Accounting Fraud in Asia as an official module at SMU. KB remains grateful and honored to be invited by Singapore’s financial regulator Monetary Authority of Singapore (MAS) to present to their top management team about implementing a world’s first fact-based forward-looking fraud detection framework to bring about benefits for the capital markets in Singapore and for the public and investment community. KB also served the community in sharing his insights in writing articles about value investing and corporate governance in the media that include Business Times, Straits Times, Jakarta Post, Manual of Ideas, Investopedia, TedXWallStreet. He had also presented in top investment, banking and finance conferences in America, Italy, Sydney, Cape Town, HK, China. He has trained CEOs, entrepreneurs, CFOs, management executives in business strategy & business model innovation in Singapore, HK and China.

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