Transforming Hong Kong

Bao Pu runs the publishing house New Century Press in Hong Kong that has published politically sensitive books since 2005. In Jojje Olsson’s interview Bao Pu describes a Hong Kong that once had a flourishing book and publication industry, but whose writers and journalists today give witness to  alarming developments whereby the right to free expression is increasingly and drastically being infringed upon. 

June 13 2019 Text: Jojje Olsson Translation from Swedish: Christina Cullhed

In Hong Kong the political thumbscrews have been tightened significantly these past few years. This is especially noticeable in the publishing industry, with Swedish publisher Gui Minhai’s imprisonment without trial for three and a half years as one of many examples. Bau Pu, one of the main remaining actors on the Hong Kong market for politically controversial literature, reveals how the terms and conditions within the publishing industry have changed. 

Not long ago, Hong Kong was described as the city of freedom in Asia. But since the handover from the United Kingdom to China in 1997 a gradual change has taken place. This is noticeable in the World Press Freedom Index issued annually by Reporters Without Borders. Hong Kong was initially ranked inposition 18 when it was introduced in 2002, and already in 2010 it had slipped toposition 34. 

Now the city is listed in the 73rd position, after countries such as Tunisia and the Ivory Coast. In 2014 the discontent over China’s growing political influence was channelled through what became known as the Umbrella Revolution,when almost one million citizens demonstrated in the streets against the growing restrictions of political and civil rights enforced by the Beijing government. 

Not surprisingly, the Communist Party saw this as a challenge. As demonstrations petered out, several demonstrators were prosecuted, and in 2017 the new Chief Executive was elected exclusively from candidates who were pre-approved by China. Also, several members of parliament have been forced to leave Hong Kong’s legislative body on very dubious grounds.

As a result of the protests in 2014, many social institutions, ranging from universities to various media houses, have all experienced growing restrictions and increasing threats of violence. And of course, since Hong Kong has long been an outpost for the publishing of politically sensitive literature in Chinese, the publishing industries have also had similar experiences.

“After the Umbrella Movement there have been visible actions taken by the mainland-controlled agencies including mainland-controlled bookshops returning sensitive books to publishers. But the effort to curb the sale of independent books in Hong Kong started in 2010, with a project called ‘Southern Hill’,” Bao Pu tells The Dissident Blog

Bau Pu founded New Century Press in Hong Kong in 2005, and since then have been publishing politically controversial books with visitors from the Chinese mainland as the main customer group. He says that the stream of Chinese tourists escalated rapidly after 2003 when it became easier for people from mainland China to visit Hong Kong.

In 2002, 6.8 million Chinese tourists visited Hong Kong and in 2014, the year before the Swedish publisher Gui Minhai was kidnapped, the number had risen to 47.2 million. This steadily increasing flow of Chinese tourists were not only interested in skyscrapers and luxury consumption. Many were also curious about what the city’s free press and its freedom of expression had to offer. It was partly with this growing market in mind that Bao Pu established his publishing company. It was also partly connected to his personal background and family history. 

In 1989, at the age of 22, Bao Pu took part in the student protests in Tianamnen Square. At the time, his father Bao Tong was the political secretary of China’s liberal premier Zhao Ziyang, who championed a dialogue with the students. 

However, Li Peng, the second and more conservative premier, instead managed to convince China’s de facto leader Deng Xiaoping that the protests should be met with violence. In the aftermath of what became known as the June 4 massacre, Bao Tong was sentenced to seven years imprisonment in almost total isolation, followed by house arrest in Beijing where he currently lives, now almost 90 years old. 

Bao Pu managed to flee to the USA where he obtained citizenship and lived for several years before moving to Hong Kong. His personal contacts made it possible to publish the bestseller Prisoner of State (2009), based on secret tape recordings with Zhao Ziyang that had been smuggled out of the country. The book’s first edition sold out in Hong Kong in a few hours and the digital version has been downloaded more than 20 million times.

This was during what Bao Pu calls “the first market phase”—from 2005 to 2009—when the publishing of politically sensitive books in Hong Kong was allowed without much disturbance: “At this time the Chinese regime was mainly focusing on stopping any pirating and printing of controversial books on the Chinese mainland.”

Southern Hill was launched in 2010 at a meeting where it was decided that further plans should be made for a “strategic and coordinated defence” against the spread of politically sensitive texts from Hong Kong and Macao to China. 

According to Bao Pu, bookshops selling this kind of literature risked losing their permit to do business on the lucrative Chinese market. At the same time unknown men started to arrive to Hong Kong for ‘meetings’ with Bao Pu, where they tried to convince him to stop the publication of several controversial titles. 

Starting in the summer of 2014, new strict directives were issued to customs officials at the border between Hong Kong and southern China. All luggage now had to be X-rayed, increasing the risk of being caught bringing politically sensitive books to the mainland. The ambition, in President Xi Jinping’s own words, was to stop the “poisonous content” of those books from reaching China.

“All Chinese travel agencies were forced to warn their customers that politically sensitive books are carried across the borderatone’s own risk. Warning signs were put up and the controls became increasingly effective,” says Bao Pu. 

Around the same time, people in the publishing industry were being imprisoned. In 2014, the publisher Yiu Mantin was sentenced to ten years imprisonment for the “smuggling of chemical substances”. He was arrested just after having crossed the border to China. Yiu’s lawyer suspected the sentence was related to his upcoming publication of a book about Xi Jinping. 

Furthermore, in the summer of 2016 editor James Wang, who was an American citizen, was sentenced to over five years in prison for “illegal business operation.” Wang’s‘crime’ was sending about adozen magazines by post from Hong Kong to China.

China’s scaremongering tactics proved very successful. Not only have the majority of the city’s bookshops pulled sensitive titles from the shelf, but publishing itself has also been decreasing dramatically. This is not due to any new laws or rules. For example, there is no official list of books that may not be sold.

Self-censorship—the most efficient form of censorship—has been the most decisive factor. China’s annual book market is worth some US$7 billion, and each year there are approximately 20 million new English-speaking customers in addition to the expected clientele of potential customers.

Bao Pu stresses that the Chinese market is extremely important even for foreign bookshops. Bookshopchains and larger publishing houses do not want to risk being shut out of this market just for selling politically sensitive literature in Hong Kong. 

In 2015, the most widely reported incident in the campaign against Hong Kong’s publishing industry took place, when the Swedish publisher Gui Minhai and four of his colleagues were kidnapped by Chinese police. Three of them disappeared when travelling in China, while one was taken in broad daylight in a street in Hong Kong, and Gui Minhai himself disappeared from his holiday home in Thailand.

The five colleagues were running an independent publishing company together, complete with a bookshop and equipment for printing. Targeting Chinese tourists visiting Hong Kong, independent publishers like Gui didn’t care about being banned from the market on the Chinese mainland itself. Hence, an example had to be set for those independent publishers. It was made by attacking the publishing house of Gui Minhai and his colleagues, who also happened to be the biggest actors in the field.

Soon after their disappearance  allfive colleagues were paraded on Chinese TV making forced ‘confessions’. Gui Minhai has been coerced into making this kind of confession three times, and has now spent three and a half years in prison without trial. The case has, according to Bao Pu, had an enormous deterring effect: “After having seen Gui Minhai and his colleagues paraded on television, Chinese tourists have associated the carrying of controversial books across the Chinese border with a growingdanger—almost on par with smuggling drugs,” says Bao Pu. 

This has of course affected the customer base. Even printing houses understood the message and have stopped printing controversial titles. Bao Pu remembers how in 2016, just after Gui Minhai was paraded on TV for the first time, the printing house that New Century Press had collaborated with for a decade suddenly abandoned him: “I searched for months to find a small printing house that was willing to take the risks associated with working together with me.”

Bao Pu underscores that the kidnapping of Gui Minhai should be seen as part of the Southern Hill project rather than just as an isolated event. Whatever the case may be, the combined development resulted in New Century Press’ sales diving by about 80 per cent in 2016, which was also the second year ever that the publisher failed to make a profit.

The negative trends are continuing, and Bao Pu claims that independent publishing is no longer a viable business model in Hong Kong. Although a few important political books will continue to be published every year in Hong Kong, publishers like the New Century Press need to change their concept.

“We have adopted a new strategy and turned publishing into a non-profit public service, while also transforming our businesses into media consulting and other areas. We are still publishing, but we are no longer the publishing company that we were five years ago,” says Bao Pu.

He adds that it is unclear how this new strategy will work in the long run, and says that the Chinese regime “by and large has succeeded in destroying a whole industry of publishing”.

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Jojje Olsson is a Swedish journalist and writer. Following his MA in Hong Kong he moved to Beijing where he freelanced as a full-time journalist. Due to his regime-critical reporting he was blacklisted in China in 2016 and subsequently moved to Taiwan where he now continues to report on Asia. Jojje Olsson has written five books that focus on China. He also runs the blog InBeijing.