Every so often, Hong Kong organisations get a collective rush of blood to the head. Our usual sane and efficient system of administration then whirls wildly out of control. One of those periodic spurts of spring madness is exciting members of our official anti-pornography community. When police statistics showed the numbers of indecent assaults was on the rise it raised fears among members of the Fight Crime Committee. The result was speedy legislation changing the Control of Obscene and Indecent Articles Ordinance. There has since been frenzied activity by the Television and Entertainment Licensing Authority and the Obscene Articles Tribunal. Police have been bestirred to raid bookshops seeking material which to normal people would seem innocuous, harmless or unreadable. Respectable bookshop operators have been reduced to near-terror. The upshot booksellers have removed from their shelves reputable and valuable works for art or scholarship, fearful they may infringe the draconian laws which make innocence almost impossible to prove and which provide fines up to $1 million and jail terms of three years. Changes in the regulations classify books and magazines into three classes. The first is material that can be sold to everyone. The third is hard-core obscenity and pornography, which is banned. It is the middle classification - which labels books and magazines as 'indecent' - which is causing trouble and uncertainty. This includes magazines like Playboy and Penthouse (acceptable for public sale in all grown-up countries) and also embraces many books which few people would find objectionable. Publications in this category have to be wrapped and carry a printed warning that they contain indecent material. It is against the law to sell them to people under 18. But how does a bookseller know if he is likely to offend? If a bookstore stocks a volume that contains what may or may not be offensive material the management faces a difficult choice. Take the case of a book called Chinese Sex Secrets written by British writer Charles Humana and Beijing University graduate Wang Wu. This is a scholarly and academic work first published in 1970 under the title The Chinese Way of Love. It has been on sale in Hong Kong for at least 15 years and has been used by medical and social therapists as a teaching aid. The book is aimed to educate rather than arouse. Illustrations are paintings, sketches or woodblocks, some dating back centuries. It is in academic libraries and art galleries. This volume seems to have thrown the Obscene Articles Tribunal and its long-nosed snoopers into an excited frenzy. Recently, police 'acting on a complaint' bought copies of Chinese Sex Secrets and questioned the sales staff of a bookstore in Pacific Place. It will be weeks before anyone knows if they will be charged and appear in court. Shopkeepers ask the tribunal about guidelines. What can safely be sold? What books may result in staff being harassed and the management charged? If a bookseller seeks an opinion, he must give three copies of a book (which is $675 in the case of Secrets ) to the tribunal, pay a $1,940 'processing' fee and wait six weeks for an opinion. Or he can go to the tribunal repository to 'view' their collection. Surely this is a crime, isn't it, to show such stuff? What idiocy is this? The dangers are obvious. Instead of taking the risk of arrest, heavy fines, being taken off for questioning and going through the childish rigmarole of humbling seeking the opinion of the tribunal, most bookshop operators are going to take the easy way out - they are not going to stock controversial books. If they are in doubt, they will reject questionable volumes. The public's right to read will be eroded. The result is the same as the Spanish inquisition or the book burnings of the Gestapo; people are restricted by an unquestionable and unresponsive authority from being able to read books of their choice. Alan Sargent, senior editor of Asia 2000, which distributes the book in Hong Kong, was planning to order another 1,000 copies. The decision has been put on hold because booksellers are worried about being charged if they sell it in an unwrapped version without prominent warnings. Sargent says 1,000 copies have been sent to Singapore, a society not noted for tolerance of pornography. Trying to discover how the Obscene Articles Tribunal works is enough to drive a bookseller or writer to use language which would surely draw frowns from the tribunal's 174 adjudicators. It took a week for me to get answers about how it operates. So who - exactly - decided that the book was going to get the thumbs-down signal? Is it up to some busybody to decide what is smut and what is genuine literature? Or do they buy copies in a frantic hunt for hints of pubic hair, semi-erections and other signs likely to inflame middle-aged civil servants to impure thoughts? It is laughable. The tribunal wields vast power with little responsibility. Booksellers complain they get no advance warnings on suspect volumes and that it offers no advice. This places a businessman, who may own a bookshop but who has no pretence of being an intellectual arbiter or judge of literary merit, in deciding what the public can read. This is second-hand censorship. Because the tribunal is seemingly too cowardly to publicly lay down strict guidelines or to ban certain books, it is left up to book shop operators to take the risk about what to stock on their shelves. We get to read what they risk to sell. And we worry about freedom of the press in the future? How about now?