HONG KONG — To prepare for the National Day holiday, retailers here have been stocking up on merchandise like designer bags, gold jewelry — and banned books.
Big downtown bookstores and airport kiosks alike carry paperbacks detailing the latest gossip about Communist Party cadres. More serious fare can be found at the city’s tiny “upstairs” political bookstores tucked above ground-floor storefronts. Inside are stacks of books on the Cultural Revolution, the Great Leap Forward, the Tiananmen Square crackdown of 1989 and almost everything else Beijing does not want people reading.
Twelve years after Hong Kong passed from British to Chinese rule, the territory retains many freedoms unknown in mainland China, an arrangement called “one country, two systems.” In particular, political writings censored in the mainland circulate widely here, and they are hot souvenirs among the nearly 17 million mainland tourists who visit here every year.
“The more mainland customers we had, the more we realized that they wanted things they couldn’t get back home,” said Lai Pok, a staff member at the People’s Recreation Community bookstore, which shares its abbreviation with the People’s Republic of China. “Now we specialize in Hong Kong-published books that are banned on the mainland. The business is better.”
Next to a promotional poster of “Prisoner of the State: The Secret Journal of Premier Zhao Ziyang” — detailing the political struggles leading up to the Tiananmen Square crackdown — were tubs of imported Japanese baby formula, a popular tourist buy after the scandal over Chinese melamine-tainted dairy products last year. Mainland tourists can also exchange currency, check their e-mail and sip a caramel mocha latte.
At the nearby Causeway Bay Bookstore, Lam Wing-kee was unloading new titles on President Hu Jintao and other Chinese leaders.
“We probably get two new titles a week, mostly political, and mostly from Hong Kong publishers,” said Mr. Lam, who has been running his shop for almost 15 years.
When asked to point out a book that was banned in mainland China, Mr. Lam paused and plucked a slim volume out of a large selection.
“Here,” he said with a laugh. “It’s the only one in that pile that is actually allowed.”
Still, even given Hong Kong’s legal freedoms, the publishing industry feels some limitations that filter through from the mainland.
The publisher of the Chinese-language edition of the Zhao secret journal, New Century Press, ran into difficulties recently with another controversial book, “Chinese Civilization Revisited,” by Xiao Jiansheng, a newspaper editor in Hunan Province. The book retells Chinese history from a modern perspective, emphasizing democracy and pluralism.
According to New Century’s editor, the rights activist Bao Pu, the book was originally to be published last year by the Social Science Academic Press, which is based on the mainland and affiliated with the state Chinese Academy of Social Sciences. The manuscript was edited, the cover was designed and it was being advertised online. Then it was pulled.
In August, Mr. Bao and the author discussed publishing it in Hong Kong instead, and they agreed on a release date just before the National Day holiday. Less than a month ago, Mr. Bao said, he got a telephone call from Mr. Xiao.
“He was under some pressure from the authorities,” Mr. Bao said.
A government official went to the offices of the newspaper where Mr. Xiao worked, and his boss spoke to him about the issue as well. Mr. Xiao was warned that Mr. Bao was using him to “ruin National Day celebrations.”
“It’s true that I wanted to get the book out before Oct. 1,” Mr. Bao said. “But it wasn’t to crush National Day celebrations. As a businessman, I simply timed it to when there would be the most buyers in town.
“It’s strange, as a Hong Kong publisher, to be in the same sort of situation that a mainland publisher might be in,” he said. “We’re under similar pressure because I don’t want the author to get into trouble.”
The two men finally decided to go forward with publishing anyway. The book came out on Friday.
Mr. Bao has had considerable experience with mainland pressures. His father, Bao Tong, who was one of Mr. Zhao’s top aides, has been under police surveillance for years. Beijing tightly controls whether Bao Pu is given visas to visit his family on the mainland.
One of the bigger players in the industry is Mirror Books, which was founded in Canada in 1991 and is now based in the United States. Mirror has published more than 200 volumes on Chinese politics and history.
Its creator, Ho Pin, a Hunan Province native who once worked for Chinese state media, said, “Our books are the most popular secret reading materials in China.
“If the Chinese government bans a book,” he said, in a telephone interview from New York, “it’s like they’re informing all of their officials that Mirror has another new title worth reading.”
The mainland authorities, he said, “aren’t going to fine or arrest an individual” caught with a banned book. “The worst that would happen is that the book will be confiscated,” he said, “and it’s probably because the customs staff want to read it themselves.”