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The People’s Republic of China is know worldwide as upholding strict censorship rules on all publicized material in the country. The country has also proved itself capable of censoring foreign opinions from penetrating national debates and to serve harsh punishment to anyone suspected of dissidence towards the state. Hong Kong was officially handed back to China from British colonial rule 14 years ago, but the city is still one of two special administrative regions, the other being Macau, which enjoys some form of autonomy. In the period of 50 years after the handover in 1997, Hong Kong will retain its citizen privileges, including less restriction on freedom of speech, while its system is being reformed for full incorporation into mainland China.
Jes Randrup, Danish correspondent for Jyllands-posten, took a look at one of the interesting side effects of Hong Kong’s status. He found that the special freedom enjoyed by the region has made the peninsula’s publishing companies an important mouthpiece for alternative viewpoints, controversial political material and other written material that are banned by Beijing. In an interview with Bao Pu, a political commentator and veteran human rights activist, he reported about the work that publishers are able to do under the ‘safety’ of Hong Kong law.
Mr. Bao is the owner of New Century Publishing and has since 2005 been one of the city’s most prominent publishers of non-fiction. “We contribute to a niche in Hong Kong which has been created by Chinese censorship,” Mr Bao explains, “Some subjects and writers are banned in mainland China and there is a range of things you know will not be tolerated so what do people do? They come to Hong Kong to look for publishers.” The best selling book from his repertoire was the sensational ‘Prisoner of the State’ – a memoir written from secret recordings of the former Premier Zhao Ziyang who was purged politically and put under house arrest following an internal dispute with the party leadership in 1989. Mr Zhao remained under house arrest until his death in 2005 and his name has been taboo since his ousting. Bao Pu secured the recordings from his father, Bao Tong, who was once the right hand of Mr Zhao and still lives under house arrest in Beijing.
Despite the book’s sensitive subject, it sold 120.000 copies and it is especially tourists from mainland China who take advantage of the market in Hong Kong, buying a lot of their otherwise banned political literature in the airport book stores. “We know that it is the buyers from the mainland who purchase many of the nonfictional books in Hong Kong. They constitute a significant market segment,” says Mr Bao.
But Bao Pu and others in his trade are also not afraid to admit that their business is not only to publish. Equally important is the message of their work – to challenge the Chinese state. “The censorship provides us with a form of mission. We exist to undermine the censorship. As long as it exists we will too.”
Mr Bao describes Hong Kong as a haven of information which is considered secret in the mainland. Under the 50-year agreement, Chinese leader have found it politically useful to feed the political discourse through Hong Kong during internal power stuggles. “The most important information comes from insiders in the party,” Mr Bao explains. “A number of articles are based on information which has been leaked by one of the wings in the party. It is leaked to writers in Hong Kong where control over the media is nothing like in China. It is very difficult to leak anything to the media in China.”
Despite the special freedom of speech enjoyed in Hong Kong, there are limitations. When Bao Pu announced his plan to publish a secret diary, said to be written by China’s most hated politician, former Premier Li Peng, Beijing mobilized a stop of the printing and seized the material under copyrights. Mr Bao is reluctant to talk about the incident but acknowledges that the future of freedom of speech in Hong Kong is bleak once the implementation of the Chinese mainland system is complete. “I am not sure how long the current situation can last,” the publisher asses.