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The slow death of the independent Hong Kong bookseller

For Bao Pu, revealing the last secrets of Tiananmen could be a final flourish

HONG KONG -- Even though the controversial Hong Kong extradition bill has been shelved for now, book publisher Bao Pu has little doubt that Beijing will keep tightening its grip on the city's freedoms.

As one of Hong Kong's few remaining independent publishers still putting out politically controversial books, Bao knows what he is talking about. "Publishing a book is perceived as a dangerous profession here in Hong Kong," he told the Nikkei Asian Review. "People laugh about it."

Bao, the founder and publisher of New Century Press, was speaking in a Starbucks cafe on Hong Kong Island at around the time when the protesters involved in the recent demonstrations against the extradition bill and against the Beijing-backed city government were still on the streets.

Casually dressed in a T-shirt and trousers, Bao has the appearance of a slightly disheveled academic. After buying a bottle of Perrier he sat down and, pausing only briefly for pleasantries, went straight into the topic under discussion. Bao is a serious, self-controlled man -- he does not smile much, nor does he raise his voice even though so much is at stake for both him and for Hong Kong.

Though Bao is able to put out only about three titles a year, not enough to make a profit, he says the knowledge that they will find a home in a library helps keep him going. (Photo by Ken Kobayashi)

When Bao, 52, entered the book-publishing trade in 2005 it was still crowded with competitors. Now he is a lonely holdout with dwindling revenues, still publishing books critical of the Communist leadership of China and touching on mainland political taboos such as 1989 Tiananmen crackdown.

His most recent book, "The Last Secret: The Final Documents from the June Fourth Crackdown," unearthed speeches by 17 top Communist Party leaders and elders at a secret internal meeting 30 years ago, discussing the aftermath of the violent suppression of unarmed students and citizens in Beijing.

Andrew Nathan, a Columbia University political science professor who supported the study by contributing a preface, praises Bao, who obtained the documents and authenticated them through his expertise. "The person who published this is very, very qualified to assess the authenticity," says the American scholar of China and human rights.

Bao's book not only has historical value but also provides hints to understanding the current governance mechanism under Chinese President Xi Jinping. "The party leadership at that meeting drew lessons from the event that had taken place, and those lessons explain the mentality of Xi Jinping's government today," Nathan explains, referring to Xi's authoritarian style.

The book is timely, coming out on the crackdown's 30th anniversary, but, like his other recent publications, it is available only at "a handful of bookstores" in Hong Kong, according to Bao.

"Chain stores refuse to sell any of them," and booksellers who specialize in this type of books are rapidly disappearing, he says. A notable example is Causeway Bay Books, where the owners and management were abducted by Beijing from Hong Kong and Thailand in 2015.

Protesters take to the streets of Hong Kong in June. Bao says China is destroying the territory's freedom "one step at a time." (Photo by Kosaku Mimura)

Hong Kong used to be a haven for publishing books critical of the Chinese Communist Party leadership, which attracted mainlanders denied access to such material by censorship at home.

"We sold lots of books," Bao says. Publishing books that are inaccessible and unthinkable in China was a profitable business, "because mainland travelers want to buy these books -- but not anymore."

The turning point was Xi's accession to power in 2012 and the Occupy Central protest, which gripped Hong Kong for 79 days in 2014. "After Xi came to power, [local booksellers] become reluctant [to take risks] and post-Occupy Central, they suddenly stopped," Bao recalls. Independent online bookstores were also shutting him off. "They were under pressure and deleted all our books from their online sales."

During his heyday, he used to publish at least one title a month, including those that shed light on facts that were otherwise buried by the Communist authorities.

Ten years ago, on the 20th anniversary of the Tiananmen crackdown, he published a memoir based on discovered audiotapes of recorded voices of the liberal former Communist Party Chief Zhao Ziyang, who was ousted by Deng Xiaoping for opposing the suppression of pro-democracy movement and put under house arrest from 1989 until his death in 2005.

But recently, Bao is able to put out only about three titles a year. "I'm losing money," he says. He covers his losses from translation and various media consultancy businesses that he also runs.

Why is he sticking to print when it might be easier -- and cheaper -- to publish his controversial material online? He has a passionate faith in the permanence of books. "The only form that makes certain information stay for a long time. If I put it online, it will disappear the next year," he says. Whenever he publishes a new book, there will always be a library that will stock it. "This is one of the factors that still keep me going," he said.

He is committed to a quest for truth, he says, that is based on his personal experience of the last few decades of Chinese history. "I believe truth has some value," he says. "I see deliberate attempts to erase history, erase events from history, and alter history, which keeps on going. This is exactly what has been done in China."

Bao was in Beijing in June 1989 as a university student, participating in the protest and witnessing what actually happened. His father Bao Tong -- a reformist official and secretary of Zhao Ziyang -- was arrested just prior to the crackdown and later imprisoned for his links to his disgraced boss.

Bao’s father, Bao Tong, holds a photo of former Communist Party chief Zhao Ziyang, who was ousted for his reformist views. Bao Sr., who lives in Beijing, is closely monitored by the authorities.    © Reuters

What the Chinese authorities have diligently done over the last three decades is to constantly and deliberately try to scrub away any evidence of the crackdown. Beijing officially calls it a "political disturbance and a related problem at the end of the 1980s." It does not even mention the events by name or specify the date. The numbers 89 and 64 (for June fourth) or the combination of both -- are considered sensitive and made unsearchable on the tightly controlled internet.

"Revising history and erasing historical events have been done systematically, just like it was predicted in George Orwell's novel '1984,'" says Bao. "I hate it."

But the reality of business for publishers like him is only getting worse in Hong Kong under increasing pressure from Beijing. Bao's remaining peers in the city are a few academic publishers directly linked to local universities, and the publisher run by Falun Gong, a spiritual movement banned and oppressed by Beijing since 1999 and hence a vocal critic of the Communist regime.

Bao no longer feels safe in Hong Kong. "I have no kind of inclination to be here forever ... [and] know there's a threat. I know there's risk. I don't expect the Hong Kong government to protect me. But what I am counting on is that there's no legal way [of punishing me or sending me to the mainland]."

The extradition bill, which would have allowed extradition to places including the mainland, could have been the legal way. It was postponed indefinitely on June 15 after mass protests mobilizing over a million people. But the attempt to pass the legislation was a fresh reminder that the Hong Kong government backed by Beijing is, says Bao, taking "one step at a time" to push the territory's freedom, liberty and autonomy from Beijing to the brink.

These rights are nominally guaranteed under the "one country, two systems" framework, underwritten by the Sino-British treaty under which the colony returned to Chinese control and is enshrined in the Basic Law, the mini-constitution.

Like Lam Wing-kee, one of the abducted Hong Kong booksellers, Bao could move to Taiwan. "It is a possibility," he admits, as the island has taken a liberal path since the late 1980s and is the enclave of democracy and free speech in the Chinese-speaking world.

Bao, however, feels "Taiwan doesn't need another publisher. They've got freedom of publishing," he says. Readers in Taiwan, especially young people, have had very different experiences from mainlanders and Hong Kongers, which make mainland Chinese topics such as the Tiananmen crackdown "too alien" for them.

Moreover, Taiwan does not have the reach that he wants to the mainland audience. "What they (Taiwan) don't have is the ability to influence the mainland. In terms of mutual influence, all you see is mainland influence to Taiwan," he laments.

Bao remains open to sticking with his trade. He says that "if there's anything equally valuable" coming into his hands as his Tiananmen book he will publish it.

But he is quite pessimistic on the outlook. "This was like the last attempt. It's practically over. I don't see any kind of hope that the independent publishing of books will survive any longer in Hong Kong."

It could be that the "Last Secret" turns out to be his last book, he says in a grim joke. "'Last' is the key word -- it may well be the last one."

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