My Take

Books critical of communist China not unique to independent stores

Even shops in Hong Kong that are affiliated to the state are selling works that challenge Beijing and its practice of Marxism

PUBLISHED : Tuesday, 03 May, 2016, 9:56pm
UPDATED : Tuesday, 03 May, 2016, 9:56pm

Since the 1997 handover of Hong Kong to Chinese sovereignty, press freedom has been a constant worry among Beijing critics. Following the disappearance – and reappearance – of five booksellers, bookstores have become a new battleground.

So it’s interesting that five stores operated by the independent but struggling Page One and Relay at the airport have been taken over by Chung Hwa Books, a sister chain of the mainland-based Sino United Publishing.

Meanwhile, Taiwan-based Eslite, which made much fanfare in 2012 when it was launched in Hong Kong, has failed to make much headway. The high rental and challenging business environment in Hong Kong naturally favours state-financed book chains with deep pockets like Sino United, Commercial Press and Joint Publishing. These big three mainland chains now operate many of the city’s largest bookstores.

It’s still not clear what got the five booksellers in trouble on the mainland, but their now-defunct store in Causeway Bay specialised in selling salacious and sensational exposes about the Chinese Communist Party (CCP).

Of course, not all critical books are equal. Many of those purporting to be insider accounts are badly sourced and full of unverifiable claims. One of my favourite titles may be roughly translated as “Orgy Party”.

Some of those books have been available at the airport, so it will be interesting to see if they will continue to be sold under Chung Hwa. Still, I am not as pessimistic as many people. To be a credible bookstore you do have to sell serious books, including critical ones about China. I was recently browsing in a Joint Publishing store and bought two books: Main Currents of Marxism by the late Polish philosopher Leszek Kolakowski and another one by the Slovenian Marxist Slavoj Zizek.

After 1,200 pages, Kolakowski wrote: “[The CCP] is not a communist state in any recognisable sense but a tyranny that grew out of a communist system.”

On beliefs, Zizek wrote that the exemplary communist cadres today should believe in nothing at all, not even Marxism. For non-Marxist thoughts would be religious or Western-democratic; and any genuine Marxist thoughts would bear little or no resemblance to actual CCP practices and policies today.

With books like these, you don’t need titles like Orgy Party.