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PUBLISHED : Thursday, 31 August, 2000, 12:00am
UPDATED : Thursday, 31 August, 2000, 12:00am

The pen may be mightier than the sword, but in the modern age the camera has often proved the mightiest eyewitness to history. Even so, it is rare for a single photograph to cause an international incident.

The image of the Tibetan spiritual leader, the Dalai Lama, has long been banned on the mainland. But it was nevertheless an extreme and ridiculous decision by Shenzhen officials to seize thousands of copies of a book containing such an image but destined for sale abroad.

The Clinton Years was published by the US President's official photographer and authorised by the White House. Among scores of photographs featured in the book, one captures the Dalai Lama having an intimate conversation with Mr Clinton. The book was printed in Hong Kong and sent to Shenzhen only for binding prior to being sent back to the US for sale. There was no intention to breach mainland rules by distributing it there.

Another old adversary has also been in the line of fire. Lam Shan-muk, publisher of the Hong Kong Economic Journal, has had a collection of his editorial articles banned at a book fair in Beijing. That is less surprising. The media is not free across the border. It would be unreasonable to expect a vocal critic in the Hong Kong media to be given privileges not allowed to mainland journalists.

Mr Lam is a distinguished commentator. His front-page comment pieces in the journal under the pen name Lam Hang-chi were avidly followed for more than 20 years and he still writes a daily column. As the writer is an anti-communist with trenchant views, it was predictable that his journalism would run into trouble there. The Taiwanese publisher was either ingenuous or provocative in taking his books to the fair. Or perhaps it was a calculated plan to boost sales.

The move to seize copies of The Clinton Years comes into a different category. The book was produced in the SAR purely for commercial purposes. Copies were bound in Shenzhen for reasons of cost only. Book printing in Hong Kong is a thriving industry, but incidents of this kind will not bring the orders flooding in.

China is the first to howl over what it considers to be interference in its domestic affairs. This seizure is outside interference at its most gratuitous.