Skip to main content

Hong Kong sellers profit from Beijing's 'forbidden' books

By Corinna Liu and Molly Gray, for CNN
July 25, 2012 -- Updated 0517 GMT (1317 HKT)
Customers sit and read books on Chinese politics inside People's Commune in Causeway Bay, Hong Kong.
Customers sit and read books on Chinese politics inside People's Commune in Causeway Bay, Hong Kong.
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • Bookstores in Hong Kong are now catering to mainland Chinese tourists
  • The books sell literature that is banned in China under the Communist Party rule
  • Topics include political scandals, history books and book about the Party itself
  • Experts say Chinese buy these books to feel a part of the political process

Hong Kong (CNN) -- When a mainland Chinese tourist heard about a bookstore in Hong Kong that sold books banned by Beijing, he knew he had to check it out.

The Beijing native traveled to Hong Kong for a weekend in July and stopped by People's Commune in Causeway Bay to see if the rumors were true. "I want to know the inside stories of the party," said the man, who did not want to be identified because it was illegal to bring the books back home. "It has nothing to do with me personally but there is no way you can get those inside China."

In mainland China the government places strict controls on mass media, which often means that political analysis and controversial accounts of Chinese history are impossible to find within the country's borders.

However, entrepreneurs in Hong Kong -- a special administrative region of China that has freedom of press -- are cashing in on the ban to cater to the millions of mainland Chinese who travel to Hong Kong to shop.

People\'s Commune sits in a bustling shopping district in Causeway Bay, Hong Kong.
People's Commune sits in a bustling shopping district in Causeway Bay, Hong Kong.

Bookstores such as People's Commune stock their shelves with forbidden tales of everything from the Tiananmen Square crackdown of 1989 to the ongoing scandal of ousted Communist Party official Bo Xilai.

Deng Zi Qiang, the owner of People's Commune, has seen a growing flood of mainland Chinese customers since he opened the store in 2003, the same year Hong Kong was opened to an increasing number of independent travelers from China. In 2011, Hong Kong had 28.1 million visitors from the mainland, compared to 13.6 million in 2006, according to statistics from the Hong Kong Tourism Board.

Now, "95% of the customers are from mainland China," said Deng, a Hong Kong native.

The People's Commune has opened an account on China's microblogging site Sina Weibo to inform their Chinese customers of new selections and to take orders. Most buyers are from developed cities like Beijing, Shanghai and Guangzhou, Deng said. They range in age from 30 to 40 years old and are scholars or businessmen.

Even Chinese government officials and police chiefs have come through his doors. "Some of them show me their police IDs when checking out" to prove they are government officials, Deng said.

As a businessman, Deng said he doesn't care too much about political rumors and scandal, but his book selection taps a huge potential market.

"Mainland China is short of information and freedom of expression compared to Hong Kong," Deng said. "Besides luxury goods, I thought it could also be an attraction for mainland Chinese."

He said that he sells between 200 and 300 books a month.

Books on Liu Xiaobo, an activist and political prisoner, are among books banned in China.
Books on Liu Xiaobo, an activist and political prisoner, are among books banned in China.

Zhou Baosong, a political professor at the Chinese University of Hong Kong, said part of the allure for mainland Chinese is that reading such books makes people feel like they are political participants, rather than just helpless observers.

That also explains why many Hong Kong locals don't pay much attention to the bookstores.

In democratic societies like Hong Kong people don't exhibit the same passion for reading political books since they have adequate ways to get information and be involved in politics, Zhou said.

But this information climate also provides lots of room for rumors and falsehoods.

"Mainland Chinese are more keen to read (whatever they can)," said Zhou. "Rumors then get the opportunity to spread."

On a recent Friday night dozens of customers sat in the store browsing selections at People's Commune.

"I found some books ridiculous," said a stock broker from Fujian Province, in Eastern China, who stopped in the bookstore while his wife and daughter shopped nearby. "I think our country is the best place to be."

When returning to China, his customers risk having them confiscated at customs, Deng said. Still, many make repeated trips to obtain the books, he added.

But it's not a defiance of the Communist Party that fuels his desire to read these books, said the customer from Beijing.

"Just because I'm reading these books, doesn't mean I'm anti-Party," he said. "In fact, if the people have more access to the decision-making process they can give suggestions and provide their wisdom.

"As long as it doesn't hurt the fundamental well being of its people, I don't see a reason for the country to ban the information," adds the man, who left with several political magazines in tow. "After all, we want the country to be better and our lives to be improved."

ADVERTISEMENT
Part of complete coverage on
See CNN's complete coverage on China.
July 18, 2014 -- Updated 0230 GMT (1030 HKT)
Some savvy individuals in China are claiming naming rights to valuable foreign brands. Here's how companies can combat them.
July 16, 2014 -- Updated 0911 GMT (1711 HKT)
Is Xi Jinping a true reformist or merely a "dictator" in disguise? CNN's Beijing bureau chief Jaime FlorCruz dissects the leader's policies
July 8, 2014 -- Updated 0344 GMT (1144 HKT)
With a population of 1.3 billion, you'd think that there would be 11 people in China who are good enough to put up a fight on the football pitch.
July 4, 2014 -- Updated 0631 GMT (1431 HKT)
26-year-old Ji Cheng is the first rider from China to compete for competitive cycling's highest honor.
July 7, 2014 -- Updated 1124 GMT (1924 HKT)
China's richest man, Wang Jianlin, may not yet be a household name outside of China, but that could be about to change.
July 4, 2014 -- Updated 0414 GMT (1214 HKT)
Hong Kong's narrow streets were once a dazzling gallery of neon, where banks and even bordellos plied their trade under sizzling tubular signs.
July 3, 2014 -- Updated 2357 GMT (0757 HKT)
When President Xi Jinping arrives in Seoul this week, the Chinese leader will have passed over North Korea in favor of its arch rival.
July 3, 2014 -- Updated 1159 GMT (1959 HKT)
Three more officials have been given the chop as part of China's anti-corruption drive, including former aides to the retired security chief.
July 1, 2014 -- Updated 1305 GMT (2105 HKT)
As thousands of Hong Kongers prepare for an annual protest, voices in China's press warn pro-democracy activism is a bad idea.
June 30, 2014 -- Updated 0437 GMT (1237 HKT)
Hong Kongers are demanding the right to directly elect their next leader, setting up a face-off with Beijing.
July 1, 2014 -- Updated 0656 GMT (1456 HKT)
The push for democratic reform in Hong Kong is testing China's "one country, two systems" model.
June 30, 2014 -- Updated 1156 GMT (1956 HKT)
Along a winding Chinese mountain road dotted with inns and restaurants is Jinan Orphanage, a place of refuge and site for troubled parents to dump unwanted children.
June 26, 2014 -- Updated 0836 GMT (1636 HKT)
CNN's Kristie Lu Stout invites Isaac Mao, Han Dongfang, and James Miles to discuss the rise of civil society in China and social media's crucial role.
June 26, 2014 -- Updated 0334 GMT (1134 HKT)
Chen Guangbiao wants rich people to give more to charity and he'll do anything to get their attention, including buying lunch for poor New Yorkers.
June 26, 2014 -- Updated 1144 GMT (1944 HKT)
Architects are planning to build the future world's tallest towers in China. They're going to come in pretty colors.
June 23, 2014 -- Updated 1147 GMT (1947 HKT)
Anna Coren visits Yulin's annual dog meat festival. Dogs are part of the daily diet here, with an estimated 10,000 dogs killed for the festival alone.
June 19, 2014 -- Updated 0638 GMT (1438 HKT)
People know little about sex, but are having plenty of it. We take a look at the ramifications of a lack of sex education in China.
June 13, 2014 -- Updated 0812 GMT (1612 HKT)
Hong Kongers have reacted angrily to a Chinese government white paper affirming Beijing's control over the territory.
The emphasis on national glory -- rather than purely personal achievement -- is key.
June 16, 2014 -- Updated 1614 GMT (0014 HKT)
A replica of the Effel Tower in Tianducheng, a luxury real estate development located in Hangzhou, east China's Zhejiang province.
What's the Eiffel Tower doing in China? Replica towns of the world's most famous monuments spring up all over China.
June 11, 2014 -- Updated 0013 GMT (0813 HKT)
Rapid development hasn't just boosted the economy -- it has opened up vast swathes of the country, says a man who has spent much of his life exploring it.
June 10, 2014 -- Updated 0654 GMT (1454 HKT)
The World Cup is apparently making a lot of people "ill" in China.
ADVERTISEMENT