Mon, Oct 26, 2015 - Page 9 News List

Beijing’s clout on display in Hong Kong bookstores

The parent company of the territory’s biggest bookstore chain is owned the Chinese Ministry of Finance, and books that are critical of the CCP are hard to find on the chain’s shelves, if at all

By Michael Forsythe  /  NY Times News Service, HONG KONG

Illustration: Yusha

The tiny book stall next to the popular Star Ferry terminal in Hong Kong does a brisk business catering to the thousands of visitors from China who pass by every day.

About half of its books are political, including titles about the private lives, backroom politics and fabulous fortunes of the Chinese Communist Party elite. The other half are pornographic. Both types are banned in China.

“Political books and pornography books both have market value,” said the owner, Mak Kuen-tat, as he leafed through a tabloid about local celebrity gossip.

However, a few blocks away, a different calculus is at play. The Commercial Press bookstore does not carry the banned political books. Instead, the collected speeches of Chinese President Xi Jinping (習近平) are prominently displayed, as are at least four biographies of former Singaporean prime minister Lee Kuan Yew(李光耀), who was widely admired by Chinese officials.

It is the same pattern in 13 other Hong Kong stores owned by the parent company of Commercial Press, Sino United Publishing, the biggest bookseller and publisher in the territory.

Despite the interest from Chinese tourists, books that paint Chinese politicians in a bad light are either not available or tucked out of sight on shelves far from heavily trafficked areas. As in the US, pornography is not found in most bookstores.

According to Hong Kong corporate records and one of the company’s top executives, Sino United is owned, through a series of holding companies, by the Chinese government.

The company’s dominant position in the territory’s publishing and bookselling industry is a major breach in the wall between China and Hong Kong, a former British colony whose civil liberties — including freedom of the press — were guaranteed by treaty for half a century after it returned to Chinese sovereignty in 1997.

It also illustrates how the central government in Beijing wields influence in the territory not through force, but through its financial clout.

That influence has become even more apparent in the nearly three years since Xi became the top leader in China.

The traditionally rambunctious news media in the territory faces growing pressure to soft-pedal coverage of Beijing and the Beijing-aligned Hong Kong government. Most of Hong Kong’s newspapers and television stations are independently owned, but often by pro-Beijing tycoons. In some cases, top editors who oversaw coverage critical of China have been shunted aside.

The two most vocally pro-Beijing newspapers, Ta Kung Pao and Wen Wei Po, are owned by the same government-owned holding company, Guangdong New Culture Development, that owns Sino United.

The market for books on Chinese politics, which have long been a fixture in Hong Kong bookstores that cater to Chinese visitors, has fallen on hard times. Interviews with booksellers and publishers say that market forces — rising rents and the advent of ebooks — play a part.

However, so does Xi’s government, which is increasingly intolerant of dissent and has warned Chinese tourists that they risk being punished if they return from Hong Kong or Taiwan with banned political books.

During Xi’s tenure, Sino United has curtailed its purchases of political books, said Bao Pu (鮑朴), publisher at New Century Press in Hong Kong, whose titles include the memoir of former Chinese premier Zhao Ziyang (趙紫陽). Sales of New Century’s books to Sino United have fallen by 90 percent since Xi took office, Bao said in an interview.

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