Recently, as I was looking for a novel by the Ukrainian writer Andrey Kurkov, I made a little detour in Wanchai to stop by an English language bookshop there.

No matter how successful Kurkov is overseas, or how his slightly dystopian, absurdist novels fit into contemporary Hong Kong, I could not find his works where I was.

Photo: Todd Darling/HKFP.

But I did see a number of copies of The Governance of China, by none other than China’s President and General Party Secretary, Xi Jinping: Volume I, published in 2015, and Volume II, hot off the presses.

I looked on a little bemused at the offerings, took a picture to share on social media as a tongue in cheek joke, and wondered if anybody was buying the books.

On that same evening, early to a dinner appointment in Tsim Sha Tsui, I decided to stroll around a bookstore near where I was meeting my friends, still hoping for a novel by Kurkov.

Once more, no luck with the Ukrainian writer. However, the window display greeted customers and passersby with, you guessed it, “The Governance of China,” Volume II. This time, I decided to be a little bolder, and I asked if Xi Jinping was selling well.

The shop assistant just stared at me, and I did not get a reply. She did type a search for Kurkov, though, and told me that none of his novels were available at any of the bookshop’s branches.

Still, let us note that, in February 2018, “The Governance of China” is nearly ubiquitous in Hong Kong’s bookshops. No matter how scarce bookshelf space can be, in this land of inflated real estate prices, the works of the President and General Secretary are in stock and displayed.

Of course, quite a bit of space must have been freed up by the fact that the books once known as “forbidden” are now no longer distributed in the vast majority of Hong Kong’s bookshops, so I guess even the President’s slow-sellers can be kept, in the hope that people slowly awaken to their literary importance.

Most of Hong Kong’s “second floor bookshops,” where independent books used to be sold, have closed down. It took just a little less than two years: in one fell swoop, the shocking disappearance of five Hong Kong booksellers has managed to completely annihilate an industry that had been going strongly for decades.

Some of these volumes might still be found. Sometimes trashy books that purport to reveal scandals and personal life stories of the mainland’s political and economic leaders, and purport to give an insider’s view of what happens behind the curtains in the perpetually opaque Communist Party, are still to be found occasionally at some 7-Elevens and in a few other places. But basically, nobody really wants to risk so much just for a few books.

Political knowledge, as well as political gossip, are not meant to be the entertainment of choice of an obedient population. Rare exceptions aside, all bookshops in the city are controlled by the Liaison Office, China’s highest representation in Hong Kong. Sometimes through shell companies, the LO controls the totality of Chung Hwa Books, Joint Publishing and Commercial Publishing, fully owned subsidiaries of Sino-United Publishing, which is owned by the LO.

The shock of what happened to the five disappeared booksellers has been such that for a while many well meaning people here and even in the mainland wanted to believe that it had all been a mistake: excessive zealousness on the part of some local cadre, maybe in Guangdong, who had overstepped and disappeared the booksellers, and soon things would have gone back to normal.

The missing booksellers. Photo: HKFP.

Today, we know this was just wishful thinking, and the recent developments in the case of Gui Minhai show just how much.

Gui, the head of the Mighty Current publishing house and a Swedish citizen, was spirited away from his holiday home in Thailand in 2015, only to reappear in China in a televised confession in which he took responsibility for a traffic offence from 2003.

He was formally released – although nobody was allowed to see him, and he didn’t leave the mainland – until he was snatched from a train as he was going to Beijing, in the company of two Swedish diplomats.

For weeks, Foreign Ministry’s spokespeople would only say that  “Gui Minhai broke Chinese law and has already been subjected to criminal coercive measures in accordance with the law by relevant Chinese authorities,” and the Swedish authorities’ protests have been dismissed as interference with Chinese law, and even described as “irresponsible.”

Then, another grotesque development, with an “interview” arranged at a detention facility in Ningbo, Zhejiang province, to which a few select media was invited – once more, using the media as a court of law, in which a citizen who has been deprived of his liberty regardless of all rules (snatched in a foreign country, intercepted on a passenger train) is seen humiliating himself by offering “self criticisms” that bring to mind a mini, but more high-tech, Cultural Revolution.

File photo: HKFP.

Meanwhile, in Hong Kong, readers seem to have stopped resisting: sensitive books are no longer being written, because publishers are unable to count on printers to print them without fear of reprisal.

And even if they did print, distributors are no longer willing to distribute, shops no longer stock certain titles, as it would be dangerous, and anyway readers no longer buy these books.

And of course, independent bookshops themselves have become nearly non-existent.  As the Chinese language ebooks market is not profitable enough to allow publishers to make ends meet and pay their writers, nothing much that strays from the allowed line sees the light of day.

The whole book publishing industry is not just facing a tough market, as in the rest of the world, but it is being swallowed up by fear.

Now we know that whoever decided to use these tactics, that shocked Hong Kong and had a ripple effect much further afield too, must feel that the whole operation was way more successful than they could ever have dreamed.

Not-for-profit, run by journalists and completely independent – thank you for reading Hong Kong Free Press. Contribute to our critical month-long HK$1m Funding Drive, help safeguard our independence and secure our operations for another year. Read how carefully we spend every cent in our Annual/Transparency Report.

Ilaria Maria Sala

Ilaria Maria Sala is an award winning writer and ceramic artist based in Hong Kong. She has been living in Asia since 1988 - first in Beijing, then Tokyo and Hong Kong, with long detours in Shanghai and Kathmandu. Her byline has appeared in Le Monde, the New York Times, the Guardian, ArtNews, El Periódico and La Stampa, among others. Her latest book is Pechino 1989, published by Una Città in 2019. Follow her on Twitter.