Books about Chinese politics, on display at a shop in the Hong Kong airport,… (Barbara Demick, Los Angeles…)
HONG KONG — As the final call for the flight to Beijing crackles over the public address system, Zhang Qian flips through the pages of a book on display across from the boarding gate at the Hong Kong airport.
When somebody looks over his shoulder, Zhang closes the book sheepishly as though he was caught peeking at pornography. Actually, it's a biography of Chinese Vice President Xi Jinping, one of dozens of titles on Chinese politics available in Hong Kong.
"Just looking," said Zhang, a businessman from the Chinese city of Qingdao, as he reluctantly put the book back on the shelf. "It looks interesting, but I dare not buy it."
The political season is in full swing in China, and scandals as juicy as ripe peaches are bursting out with the approach of next month's 18th Communist Party Congress, at which Xi is to be anointed the next president. But if you want to read about it, the place to be is Hong Kong, where a mini publishing industry has sprung up around that-which-cannot-be-mentioned on the mainland.
With bodice-ripper titles and blood-splashed photos, many of the books concern the murder of Briton Neil Heywood by Gu Kailai, the wife of former Politburo member Bo Xilai. ("Slaughter Within the Politburo," "Killing Within the Love Triangle" and "Gu Kailai: The Beautiful Culprit" were among more than a dozen on sale at Page One, a bookseller and newsstand at the airport.)
"Most of our customers are mainland people going back to China. They're curious because they can't buy these books at home," said Wong Yinnna, who was working the cash register at Page One.
Hong Kong still enjoys a healthy dollop of press freedom, despite the 1997 transfer from British to Chinese rule, and receives more than 24 million visitors from the mainland annually.
"Hong Kong is the capital of banned books," said Jin Zhong, a political analyst and editor of Hong Kong's Open Magazine. "This year, especially with the Chinese Communist Party going through its biggest scandal since 1989, there are more books than before."
The quality of the books varies. Some are produced in just a week or two, with the usually anonymous authors compiling gossip from microblogs. The lives and loves of the political elite are a popular topic: "Chinese Princelings and Corrupted Officials" is one title.
"Some of them really aren't much better than pornography sold at a newsstand," Jin said.
Outrageous, perhaps, but the Communist Party censors have only themselves to blame for preventing the publication of legitimate books about the leadership. At the Wangfujing Bookstore in Beijing, one of the largest in the city, there was not a single book about Xi, who is expected to lead China for the next decade.
There was nothing about President Hu Jintao, either. The closest thing to a book about a living political figure was a collection of speeches by former leader Jiang Zemin.
"Chinese people love books. They are hungry for information," said Susanna Cheung, a Hong Kong-based author.
Not all the Hong Kong books are salacious stuff. One of the bestsellers is a fairly mainstream, mildly complimentary biography of Xi, published by Mirror Books.
"This is a very good year. Books about politics are selling very well," Ho Pin, the head of Mirror Books, said in a telephone interview from New York. Ho, a former Communist Party journalist who left China after the 1989 crackdown on pro-democracy demonstrators, said his books are sold at Chinese-language bookstores throughout the world — in the United States, Europe, Taiwan, Australia, Singapore — everywhere except mainland China.
Ho said his customers are mostly businessmen, government officials and intellectuals who take the books back to China. Despite the skittishness of some Chinese travelers, Ho said, possessing the banned books won't lead to jail time or fines.
"Sometimes customs will do a random check of your luggage. If a customs official sees the book, the worst he will do is confiscate it. And then maybe read the book himself."
Nicole Liu in The Times' Beijing bureau contributed to this report.