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Mainland Chinese Visiting Hong Kong Buying More Banned Books - 2003-10-22

Tourists from mainland China are coming to Hong Kong in increasing numbers. Many come to sightsee and shop and, on average, spend more than the typical European or American tourist in the city. But the money not only goes toward jewelry and designer labels. An increasing number of Chinese tourists are snapping up books banned on the mainland.

In Hong Kong's Causeway Bay area, wall-to-wall shops sell everything from platform shoes to Hello Kitty dishware.

Tourists from China visiting Hong Kong gaze at handbags, perfumes and cosmetics. But many stop outside a doorway plastered with posters of the latest novels.

A bookshop owner, who simply goes by the name of Mr. Li, says books related to China's leaders, politics, and past events are particularly popular with mainland customers. "These books sell because mainland Chinese want to find literature that reflects the truth and facts hidden from the public in China," he said.

Many of these books are either banned or heavily censored in China, while they are widely available in Hong Kong, where freedoms and personal liberties are protected. Although the former British colony reverted to Chinese sovereignty in 1997 - it maintains strict border controls, a separate government and economic system, to the mainland.

Mrs. Li, who runs the shop with her husband, points to one title in particular - The Final Years of Zhou Enlai by Gao Wenqian. The book sheds new light on China's former leader Mao Zedong's closest political allies and gives an inside picture of Sino-American rapprochement.

Mr. Li says that this book is very popular because "it tells about the true face of the Communist Party."

Mr. Li says business is good and he expects it to get better as more mainland Chinese come to Hong Kong. Rules regulating mainland visitors have been relaxed in recent months. Mainlanders no longer need to follow a pre-arranged tour group around the city; they can come alone if they wish.

"Many [mainland customers] are actually government officials. Others are academics, scholars, researchers and historians," said Mr. Li. "Some are concerned about being discovered in the act of buying the books or taking them back to China."

But the fear of being caught by peers or customs officials at the border does not deter mainland Chinese from snapping up copies of books like The Private Life Of Chairman Mao, a biography written by the former leader's doctor. The book reveals intimate details of the former dictator's sex life. Or works by Li Shenzhi, an intellectual critical of China's Communist Party.

Anthropologist Joseph Bosco at the Chinese University of Hong Kong says only a small proportion of mainland visitors are interested in these books. He believes the books themselves might impact individuals but probably do not have too great an influence on the public in general.

"It's a little bit like Americans maybe when they hear that John F. Kennedy had affairs while he was president," suggests Mr. Bosco. "They may feel a little sad that it besmirches the reputation of their hero. But it doesn't necessarily take away from the ideals and their images."

However, Chan Kin-man, a professor of sociology at the same university, says the influence of these books should not be underestimated. He says many Chinese officials want better information about incidents in recent history.

For example, they want to know more about the government crackdown on the 1989 student-led pro-democracy demonstration in Tiananmen Square, which ended in bloodshed. "Some of these books are specifically on politics in China," said Mr. Chan, "looking at incidents like the June Fourth movement during 1989 when they did not have … enough information through the official media."

Professor Chan also says it is not just the banned books that influence mainland visitors to Hong Kong. He says the city's free media often touches on topics and ideas still considered taboo on the mainland.

"Other books and newspaper report on social issues like homosexuality, the debate on the national security law in Hong Kong so on and so forth [and] ... enlighten them that a good society should tolerate different points of view. To them this is really a new experience," he said.

Professor Chan says information and news is tightly controlled in China because authorities fear discussion of sensitive issues could lead to instability.

But he says Hong Kong provides a model - the lesson being that a Chinese city can prosper and remain socially stable - even with public debate over politics, laws and social issues.