HONG KONG -- The mysterious disappearance of five men linked to a publisher of scandalous books about Chinese leaders has thrown a rare spotlight on the dwindling market of banned titles in Hong Kong.
Tucked away in an old commercial building in the Causeway Bay shopping district, People Book Cafe has been a haven for curious mainland Chinese searching for juicy titles. Artfully adorned with colorful propaganda posters, the tiny shop has carved a niche selling books and magazines on taboo subjects in China such as politics, religion and the private lives of the country's leaders.
But the owner of the bookshop Paul Tang Tsz-keung has recently been counting on phone chargers and accessories to compensate for the drop in book sales, which have almost halved since 2012. His shop also sells baby formula, a highly sought-after product since China's tainted milk scandal in 2008. "Even they're adding just HK$300 ($38) to HK$500 to our sales every day," he said. "The book market is already a difficult one; selling banned books is much tougher."
Plagued by surging rentals and a falling number of mainland tourists, the once-lucrative business of banned books in the former British colony is facing a grim outlook with heightened political pressure from Beijing after the city's handover to Chinese rule in 1997.
Local publisher Jin Zhong, who has produced banned titles including "Chinese Godfather Xi Jinping" and "Charter 08," said the case of the missing booksellers has dealt another heavy blow to the business. "It's like adding hail to snow now," he told Nikkei Asian Review. "The chilling effect on other publishers is inevitable."
"You don't want to risk your life just to get a book published," said Jin, who is leaving for the U.S. to join his family in February. "I'll still be in the business, but I'll think twice before publishing any book that will bring political risks."
Hong Kong is home to a handful of publishers that specialize in banned books about Chinese politicians. Apart from these specialized publishers, independent bookstores and newsstands also sell such books. Some of them are based on serious investigative reports; some are memoirs of prominent politicians. Others are gossipy, salacious tales about Chinese leaders. In fact, the missing booksellers are said to have been planning a book about Chinese President Xi Jinping's love life when they disappeared, according to people familiar with the matter.
Two shareholders and three employees of Mighty Current Media, which owns Causeway Bay Books have been missing since October. Lee Bo, a British national, was the latest to disappear in late December. He had allegedly written to this wife that he was in China to assist with an investigation by "relevant authorities," although he had left behind the travel permit that he would have needed to cross the border from Hong Kong.
Jin, who knows some of the missing booksellers, said his business is unlike that of Lee's, whose company can "churn out several new juicy titles every month," making it one of the major providers of banned books in Hong Kong.
The Global Times, China's state-run newspaper, has slammed Causeway Bay Books for spreading "evil influence" and "creating trouble" for the country. It said in a recent editorial that "power organs" should be able to circumvent the law to seek cooperation from an individual for investigation.
In 2014, a Hong Kong publisher Yao Wentian, who was preparing to publish a book critical of Xi, was also reportedly detained for three months before he was given an unusual 10-year jail sentence for smuggling paint to Shenzhen in southern China.
China has a history of burning books from the first emperor Qin Shihuang to the Cultural Revolution in 1960s and 1970s, during which valuable classics and religious books were considered by the Chinese Communist Party as "old" thinking to be eschewed.
"This episode fits better, not with the banning or burning books, but with burying alive scholars [by Emperor Qin]," said Minxin Pei, a professor of political science at Claremont McKenna College, commenting on the disappearances.
"Punishing publishers, as the Communist Party does on the mainland, is far more effective as a deterrent and solution," he said. "A single book is too many for them."
Major bookstore chains in Hong Kong have largely distanced themselves from the controversial business. Banned books are not sold in popular local bookstores such as Commercial Press. Singapore-based PageOne, which primarily sells English-language books in its Hong Kong stores, have reportedly pulled sensitive titles from its shelves since November. PageOne has not responded to requests for comment.
Other sellers are reticent about the disappearances. "I don't think we should associate it too much with the sales of banned books in our shop," said a shopkeeper at Cosmos Books, who refused to be identified. "They cater for a very small audience anyway."
The Hong Kong-based bookstore carries some of the banned titles, such as books related to Xi and Zhang Chunqiao, a "Gang of Four" member who led the Cultural Revolution, which the shopkeeper said are popular among mainland readers. Owners of the bookstore have declined to be interviewed.
The banned books business boomed after China loosened travel restrictions to Hong Kong and Macau in 2003. The surge of mainland tourists to Hong Kong created huge demand for politically-sensitive literature that is almost inaccessible in China.
That business peaked in 2012 during the controversial case of Bo Xilai, a top party leader who was ousted from power just before the 18th Party Congress. But sales declined after Xi embarked on a sweeping anti-graft campaign and tightened the grip on free speech, making it harder for mainlanders to smuggle banned titles into the country.
A newsstand worker who only wanted to be identified as Cheung said the margins from selling banned books used to be high. With a price tag of around HK$160 each, "they are good trades compared to local newspapers yielding only HK$2 to HK$3. You can pocket HK$40 to HK$50 for banned books," she said. But Cheung quit selling those books two years ago as the number of Chinese tourists fell and vendors received less discounts from publishers due to declining profitability.
As such, publishers of banned books have been trying to revive their businesses by selling online. So far, there has been little success for Jin, who published an e-book about former military commander Luo Ruiqing in October, but pirated copies soon spread online, killing sales. "The Internet is little help for us," Jin said. A staff member at a Hong Kong-based online bookstore said banned books only account for less than 10% of total sales.
People Book Cafe's Tang sees little opportunity to expand his business to other destinations popular with Chinese tourists such as Taiwan and Japan. "We are only familiar with customers here. Overseas investment would be too risky for us," he said, adding that overseas booksellers already sell banned books in their airport stores.
The market may have shrunk but it is, nonetheless, too early to sound the death knell for banned books in Hong Kong. As long as censorship is imposed in China, Tang said there will be demand for banned books in Hong Kong. "There are still many small sellers like us. They can't kill us all," he added.
Nikkei staff writer Joyce Ho contributed to this story.