Tea Leaf Nation
Chinese Conspiracy Theorists of the World, Unite!
A look at Hong Kong's banned-book scene and its tenuous grip on reality.
HONG KONG — The People’s Commune resides not on a utopian farm in the Chinese heartland, but on the second floor of a shabby building in Causeway Bay, one of Hong Kong’s busiest and most neon-packed shopping areas. Wedged between two watch stores offering timepieces costing tens of thousands of dollars and a money exchange joint, the narrow entryway leading up to the shop is plastered with adverts for its top offerings: coffee, baby formula, and banned books.
It’s an unlikely combination, but one logical for its appeal to the store’s patrons, mostly mainland tourists on shopping sprees. 19.1 million mainlanders, or more than 2.5 times Hong Kong’s resident population of seven million, visited the former British colony as tourists in 2014. Many are looking for things they can’t get at home, or at least not as cheaply. Gucci handbags, cosmetics, and safe baby food make the list, but so does something more risqué: books that Chinese authorities have deemed ideologically unfit.
On the day I visited in early May the little shop was mostly deserted. Two clerks chatted behind the cashier, while a lone customer, an African man, pecked away on his laptop in a corner. The place was not much of a coffee shop — three tiny tables cramped behind a book display case was the extent of its ambitions. The room felt so tight it wasn’t clear where an espresso machine would fit. In its entirety, the store was at most 1,000 square feet, but it was filled to the brim with books.
To browse the wares on offer in People’s Commune is to wade into the unpredictable swamp of political rumors about top-level Chinese politics. All kinds of colorful critters flourish outside the control of the Communist Party. Much of it is bunk; even an adventurous reader would be well-advised to keep careful mental distance from titles like Hu Jintao’s Unsuccessful Suicide, Li Keqiang’s Imminent Resignation, or The Conspiracy to Overthrow Xi Jinping in Five Years. (Hu is China’s former president; Li is its current premier, Xi its current president.)
The sordid and salacious seem to sell particularly well. When I asked the clerk about the types of book favored by the store’s clientele, she pointed to a bestsellers list near the door. Among this month’s leaders was the purported autobiography of Shen Bing, a beautiful presenter at China Central Television (CCTV), who is thought to be a mistress of Zhou Yongkang, the former security czar now being prosecuted for corruption. The account is probably not authentic — it would be virtually impossible for Shen to have written it in 2014, while she was under investigation for the Zhou case. But the combination of sex, fame, and power evidently proved irresistible to many mainland Chinese buyers, whose exposure to an accounting of Zhou’s misdeeds is mostly limited to terse, carefully vetted state media releases.
Hong Kong publishing houses are only too happy to fill the information void that mainland state control creates, churning out a steady supply of books and magazines about the Chinese leadership that usually make no attempt to substantiate any claims beyond throwaway references to “well-placed sources in Beijing.” Street newsstands often peddle the political drama pieces as well, jamming the glum faces of somewhat sinister-looking Chinese men in suits next to porn and Japanese anime.
But I’d not come in search of steamy liaisons and failed coups; I was looking for a memoir by Li Rui, a 98-year old retired Communist Party official now known as one of the party’s harshest internal critics. Li’s book represents a slice of the Hong Kong banned-book genre that offers real value: memoirs by bona fide eyewitnesses to history. One of the best-known examples is Prisoner of the State, a memoir by late, deposed Party Secretary Zhao Ziyang. The reformist Zhao was once among China’s most powerful men, but he made the mistake of openly sympathizing with student protesters amassed in Tiananmen Square in 1989 and spent almost two decades under house arrest. Prisoner of the State is based on tapes of his conversations with friends that had been smuggled out of China. Similarly, Li’s book, Li Rui’s Oral Account of Past Events, is based on a series of interviews and conversations from the early 2000s.
Li’s life is the stuff of legend. Born in 1917 to a merchant family, the still-idealistic Li landed in Yan’an, the “red capital” of China, in the 1940s. The communists had caught a breather in Yan’an after their epic Long March to escape from the ruling Nationalists, who launched a series of “encirclement campaigns” to exterminate the fledgling party. At Yan’an, Li became a newspaper editor and grew close to many of the communist leaders who would go on to govern China, but also had his first taste of the party’s wrath when he spent a year in detention over suspicion of being a Nationalist spy.
After the Communist Party won the Chinese civil war in 1949, Li was charged with directing the country’s (then non-existent) hydroelectric projects, and also served as Mao Zedong’s secretary for a few brief months in 1958. In 1959, Li was purged and sent to labor camp, and spent almost two decades in political wilderness, including six years in solitary confinement at the infamous Qincheng prison, which has held many Chinese notables. In 1978, after Deng Xiaoping came to power, Li was rehabilitated and tapped to be the deputy head of central organization department, the organ that is, essentially, the human resources branch for the party, which now has over 85 million members. Li was tasked with building a pipeline of younger cadres, and the men who would later take top posts in the party, like former President Jiang Zemin, Hu, and Xi all had personal contacts with Li while he evaluated party members for promotion.
Mao was “ruthless,” according to Li, who Li claims did not care about the death of millions during the disastrous Great Leap Forward, which amounted to a “mistake that Communist party made that was unprecedented in human history.” Li also painted Jiang in a negative light; after Li recommended Jiang for posts at key junctures of Jiang’s career, Jiang repeatedly sought Li’s advice and support throughout the 1980’s, but “acted like a stranger” after he becaming party secretary. Li had similar experiences with Hu, who ignored Li’s letters and advice after he ascended the throne. Li had woefully little to say about Xi, probably partly because Xi’s father was a close friend of his, but Li has continued to call for the party to institute democratic process to “save itself.”
As a bona fide party elder, Li has also emerged as a leading voice for political reform. After being sidelined once again after 1989 for criticizing the decision to use force against student protesters on Tiananmen Square, Li began to write extensively on his personal brushes with power, dealings with powerful men, and his having borne witness to the corruptive nature of power. His ripe old age, Yan’an credentials and past contributions to the party have protected him from anything worse than gentle warnings. Li gripes in the closing words to his memoir that his figurative “sons and grandsons in the party are now trying to rein me in.”
Li’s book made international news when his daughter, Li Nanyang, sued Chinese customs for confiscating 50 copies of the book when she tried to cross the border from Hong Kong into mainland China. In an opinion piece about the case, the staunch party-advocate Global Times dismissed Ms. Li’s actions as “divorced from China’s reality,” but acknowledged that bringing one or two banned books into China for one’s own enjoyment is a common, albeit “controversial,” practice. There is little chance that Ms. Li will have her day in court, and she probably does not expect to. If her goal was to call further attention to the informational wall China has built around its citizens, then she has already succeeded.
Since banned books are widely available in Hong Kong at bookstores and newsstands, probability dictates that a fair number of them must have seeped through the porous customs check into China. But a valuable and weighty memoir like Li’s is apparently rarer contraband than the frivolity and smut that’s mostly on offer in Hong Kong. For mainland Chinese readers, flipping through banned books is like peering through a looking glass to a strange world. But what they see seldom takes them any closer to the truth.
Image via Flickr/credit: I’m Goldfish