Until Beijing accepts a free press, crackdown on Hong Kong publishers will continue
Bao Pu says the arrest of a Hong Kong publisher is but the latest move in the Communist Party's year-long offensive against publications it objects to, and a media it sees as an enemy
Mainland authorities have arrested Hong Kong publisher Yao Wentian, of Morning Bell Press, apparently to stop him from publishing the book, Chinese Godfather: Xi Jinping. All journalists, editors and publishers in Hong Kong have got the message: there are certain words that the mainland authorities dislike, and if you use them, you too may suffer the consequences.
However, suppose we all "behave ourselves", self-censoring to print only what we think the mainland authorities approve of. Would that help appease them? Would they then allow Hong Kong publications entry to the mainland, with access to that huge market?
The answer is definitely "No!"
One of the reasons is that the Hong Kong media (labelled "overseas media") has become one of the usual suspects, to be taken out and blamed when needed. The Chinese authorities have never officially acknowledged that public demonstrations have roots in internal political, economic and social affairs or that they are often the direct outcomes of government policies. From self-immolation protests by Tibetans to demonstrations against the building of a waste incineration plant in Guangdong, the "overseas media" have consistently been accused of playing an "instigating" role. An easy target; not only convenient, but necessary.
In fact, the ruling Chinese Communist Party has a long track record of fighting imaginary enemies. During the 27 years of Mao Zedong's reign, the party made seeking out and destroying the "bourgeois class" top priority in the Leninist state, often from within its own ranks.
Old habits die hard. The institutional impulse to seek out and destroy enemies persists to this day. Last year, the party's propaganda ministry decided to take on Hong Kong publications as one of its top enemies.
In March, it issued a nationwide "special action" to inspect and blockade "Hong Kong's politically harmful publications". One of its mobilisation directives says: "Hong Kong has become the major source for politically harmful publications; a large number of reactionary media outlets established by hostile organisations and individuals are gathered there, many supported or financed by the United States and [other] Western countries…"
At least 12 lists of publications were issued last year alone to the "Offices of Anti-Pornography and Anti-Illegal Publications" at local levels. According to a report by the office in Sanya city, Hainan province, the task was given the highest priority throughout 2013. The result: the office inspected and confiscated 689 politically harmful books, dealt with one case involving pornography and two cases involving piracy. (Never mind the rampant piracy in mainland China!)
Moreover, all mainland tour groups to Hong Kong are warned of potential punishment for anyone who purchases Hong Kong publications. Books are confiscated in large quantities by customs at all ports of entry into China. Nevertheless, the actual list of banned titles is deemed a state secret. Even when one well-known scholar went to court to sue customs, authorities still refused to show him the list.
While travellers are kept completely in the dark about what is permissible, customs officers themselves are not familiar with the official list, either. Instead, they act on a vague assumption that overseas books on Chinese contemporary history, which feature humanist values or are on religious topics, are all to be blocked. These have included Time magazine, The Cambridge History of China and even Noam Chomsky.
Book sales in Hong Kong plummeted last year. Some distributors estimate a 20 per cent drop compared with 2012.
Indeed, mainland authorities proudly proclaim that the crackdown on overseas publications is "a war without explosion or smoke" (in their own words). In this unilateral war, the army is the Communist Party's vast bureaucracy; the objective is pointlessness; the victim is any interest in humanity's most enduring ideas.
For an individual caught in the crossfire, however, it's clear now that the experience can be brutal.
In battle, soldiers must sometimes improvise to achieve the seemingly impossible. In the case of Morning Bell Press, the seemingly impossible was to stop a Hong Kong publication before it had even been printed.
The improvised tactics included exploiting a decades-long friendship: when Yao's friend asked him to take some industrial paint from Hong Kong to Shenzhen, he did as he was asked. At customs, on October 27 last year, Yao was arrested for "smuggling".
Yao is 73 and suffers from chronic heart problems. His wife, now 74, must endure his absence while facing a mission impossible: getting him released. From this end, it is very difficult to understand how so much suffering can be justified by a book that has not yet even materialised.
No one expects the mainland's war on Hong Kong publications to stop. The truth is that there is nothing the Hong Kong media can do to stop it. Only the Chinese Communist Party can do this, by changing its general attitude towards a free press.
Meanwhile, the Hong Kong media must uphold the highest professional standards, stick to the truth, and be faithful to our beliefs.
Bao Pu is a publisher at New Century Press Hong Kong