He’s 65, lives in China, and in 5 years he’s published 16 books on Cultural Revolution
Ao Benli decided he wanted the truth to get out about one of communist China’s most turbulent decades while those who experienced it were still alive. He says he isn’t worried he’ll be targeted like five other Hong Kong booksellers
It’s 2011 and 65-year-old Ao Benli doesn’t have much to do – but he knows what he wants to be doing. “I wanted to tell the truth about the Cultural Revolution while the people who experienced it were still alive,” he says.
Fast forward to today, and it’s the 50th anniversary of the Cultural Revolution and Ao’s Cultural Revolution History Publishing Ltd, a company he founded in Hong Kong, is marking its fifth anniversary in business.
This month, Ao could be seen sitting in quiet contemplation at his small stall at the Hong Kong Book Fair, where he sold a variety of titles on the Cultural Revolution. One of the most prominent was the memoir of communist theorist and propagandist Qi Benyu, who died a week before it was officially published.
“I had known Qi Benyu since I was 20,” says the 71-year-old Ao, who was born in Beijing and now lives in both the capital and Shenzhen. “But he began writing his memoir when he was 80. It was said that he did many bad things. But I believe he should have had a chance to defend himself because along with the effects, what he did had its causes.”
According to Ao, Qi’s memoir includes important information about senior figures such as Mao Zedong, and about how Qi drafted various documents during the Cultural Revolution. “Qi Benyu was in touch with the top leadership of the Communist Party during the revolution. He had face-to-face conversations with those people.”
Since its inception in 2011, Cultural Revolution History Publishing Ltd has published 16 books, and Ao knew most of the authors. “I myself was jailed in Qincheng prison for four years,” he says of his stint in jail in the 1970s, which he claims was unjust. “The prison is famous for housing political offenders in Beijing and has held prisoners such as Bo Xilai, Jiang Qing and Gang of Four. We were all victims of the Cultural Revolution.
“Books about the Cultural Revolution can be categorised into three types. The first are written by people who were just released from prison and were complaining about the Cultural Revolution and their suffering. The second are written by writers who just speculated about events based on what they heard from who experienced it. The third are written by people such as Qi, who discuss their experiences a long time after their release from prison. We publish books of the third type.”
Ao’s publishing house has released books both for and against the Communist Party, depending on the viewpoint of the author, but Ao doesn’t think his books could have landed him in hot water.
“We publish these books not by breaking the Hong Kong law, but by abiding it and respecting the truth. Hong Kong and mainland China have a ‘one country, two systems’ agreement so the mainland should respect Hong Kong’s legal system. That being said, the mainland has its own rules and if they don’t want the books to be sold there, then we should respect that.”
When asked if he felt threatened by the recent case involving Hong Kong booksellers going missing, Ao says his company was not affected at all. “The Causeway Bay booksellers wanted to run their business on the mainland,” he says. “That’s not right. They can’t violate mainland law just to feed their own interests. Our publishing company does all the editing, layout, printing and issuing in Hong Kong, so we’re not violating mainland law.”
Ao returned to mainland China a few days into the Book Fair and said he didn’t feel under threat for having sold books about the Cultural Revolution there. “We are not publishing for profit,” he says. “I think the Chinese government should support us for preserving precious historical records. They will understand the value of those records as time goes by.”