Unofficial history finds voice in Hong Kong
Last Wednesday, two Hong Kong publishers launched Decadence Mandchoue, a book of racy memoirs by a British nobleman who lived in Beijing from 1898 until 1943 and had an intimate knowledge of life in the Imperial Court.
Many companies on the mainland wanted to publish the book but could not because of a large amount of sexually explicit content, which the censors would not accept.
So the book will join the high pile of volumes aimed at the mainland market but which cannot be sold there. Instead, they sit on the shelves of bookshops and kiosks at Hong Kong airport and at rail stations waiting for mainland visitors to buy them. Last year, 22.7 million mainland tourists visited Hong Kong, an increase of 26.3 per cent over 2009; a majority were married, educated and between 25 and 44 - a good target audience.
Among the books they bought were a memoir and a biography of two senior figures in the People's Liberation Army, Qiu Huizuo and Huang Yongsheng, published in January by New Century Press, which is also publishing the Chinese version of Decadence Mandchoue.
Huang was head of the general staff of the PLA from 1968 to 1971 and Qiu commander of its General Logistics Department from 1960 to 1971, making them famous on the mainland - but almost unknown in Hong Kong. The books attempt to clear the name of the two, jailed for involvement with Lin Biao in his failed coup attempt in 1971, arguing they were in fact loyal and patriotic soldiers. Since the two died in 1983 and 2002, this may be the last chance to set the record straight.
This is the most common genre of 'forbidden book' - accounts of people and events in China that do not accord with official history and cannot be published on the mainland. Among the most famous are The Private Life of Chairman Mao, by his doctor Li Zhisui, published in 1994; the Chinese version of the biography of Mao Zedong by Jung Chang, in 2006; and Prisoner of the State, the memoirs of Zhao Ziyang, in 2009. Thousands of these books have been bought here and taken to the mainland.
Then there are the weekly and monthly magazines devoted to Chinese affairs which sell mainly to mainland visitors. One is Open, whose editor, Jin Zhong, is not allowed to enter the mainland. Before 1997, friends urged him to move with the magazine to Taiwan or the US, but he refused because he was confident in the promise of 'one country, two systems'.
How right he has proved to be: Hong Kong has retained its unique position as the only city in China with freedom of media and publishing. Beijing has allowed this to continue because it was the status quo before 1997.
This freedom in Hong Kong co-exists with the mainland's strict system of censorship and sophisticated internet monitoring. So the leadership is confident of its ability to control the flow of information within the mainland.
Those who take the forbidden books home share them with their family and close friends but the material does not appear in the public media. The information will remain the knowledge of a small minority. Beijing is comfortable with this and so lets Hong Kong go on playing its role.
Take Mao. On the shelves of Hong Kong bookshops, visitors can read of mass killings, personal brutality and a sex life more varied than that of Silvio Berlusconi. But, at home, he remains a revered figure, his face beaming out from banknotes and his unique status confirmed in the second volume of the party's history, published in January.
This is one country, two histories.
Mark O'Neill worked as a Post correspondent in Beijing and Shanghai from 1997 to 2006 and is now an author, lecturer and journalist based in Hong Kong