Publishing a "PRC historical library" in Hong Kong

Phoenix Weekly, August 2008

Phoenix Weekly's got another eye-catching cover story this week: "Political Books in HK" (Chinese title: "Hong Kong: Chinese 'Banned Book' Capital"), and the story generally lives up to the cover hype, for once

Books about power struggles between party leaders, secret documents revealed to the world, confessions of senior statesmen, and fiction dealing with sensitive subject matter line shelves in Hong Kong. Although the market for "popular books" is contracting by about 5% per year, sales are up for political books, driven in part by increased tourism from the mainland, where such books are unavailable. The magazine remarks, "If 'banned books' are a particular feature of the political landscape in the mainland, it is exactly the opposite in the Hong Kong marketplace, where the label 'banned' is practically a guarantee of sales."

The main article in the feature takes a look at the different types of political books that are marketed in Hong Kong, the problem of copyright and piracy, sensationalism, and the phenomenon of mainland authors willingly seeking Hong Kong publication for reasons other than problems with the censors:

This author said that according to regulations, books published in China cannot be simply taken into the mainland and sold without authorization. Because their books were just collections of essays and poetry without any sensitive material, the government couldn't be bothered with them, and lots of authors ended up doing just that. He explained that they went to Hong Kong because mainland ISBNs were too expensive: "They really gouge authors, and I can't take it. When I buy an ISBN in Hong Kong, it costs me just one-third to one-half of what I'd pay at a mainland publisher."

There's an article in the feature that discusses three individual authors, Yan Lianke, Shu Yun, and Yi Fuxian, who published in Hong Kong for more political reasons, and an essay by noted columnist Leung Man-tao, who writes, "In my estimation, in ten years, mainland works may become the mainstream of the Hong Kong book market."

Translated below is a short article on Ho Pin (何频), founder of Mirror Books, one of the best-known political publishers. Ho talks about balancing commercial sensationalism with a desire to give authors an outlet for works that are unpublishable on the mainland.

Ho and the Books

by Duan Yuhong / PW

Ho Pin claims to detest politics, but he works in political research and publishing. He claims to be ignorant of business, but he's build a publishing empire: Mirror Books. He claims to hate the news, but he founded Chinese Media Net (多维媒体公司), well-known overseas. Ho also made a name for himself by writing New Lords of China (中共“太子党”) and China After Deng Xiaoping's Era (邓小平之后的中国). But his financial and political background are something of a mystery.

Many years after writing New Lords of China, Ho reflected on the work, calling it a piece of trash without any scholarly value. He's engaged in business, but he never looks at the books, so he's not clear about the company's publication and circulation specifics. Nor does he draw any salary from the company. People have called him a businessman, others have said he wants to play at politics. Ho said that he likes the ocean, hiking in the mountains, and drinking: "It saddens me when I'm called a businessman or a political figure." Ultimately, Ho Pin is a controversial individual.

"The existence of Mirror Books for the last twenty years demonstrates the reality of 'one country, two systems.' It is the best proof that Hong Kong guarantees a free press," Ho said with a smile. Hong Kong has many publishers, more than a few of which like to publish political books from the mainland, but only one publisher is so closely connected with Chinese political books: Mirror Books. Ho claims that virtually no mainland intellectual, political, and business elites have never read a book published by Mirror, and if such a person exists, he can't be called an insider.

Open up Mirror Books' homepage and you'll find thrilling titles like The Power of Papa (中国第一家族), Power Plays: Before the 17th Party Congress (中共十七大幕前戏), Seven Tycoons in Zhongnanhai (中南海七巨头), Tombstone (墓碑——中国六十年代大饥荒纪实), The Later Years of Zhou Enlai (晚年周恩来), Historic Destiny: Socialist Democracy (历史潮流——社会民主主义), In Memory of Hu Yaobang (人民心中的胡耀邦), Witnessing the Secret History of the Communist Party (中共历史的见证——司马璐回忆录) date, Mirror Books has published more than 200 books on Chinese political history.

From an index card to a publishing legend

One day in 1990, a Chinese-Canadian director in Toronto gave Ho an index card on which was written the synopsis of a novel. "This novel is really something. It's too bad no one reads fiction these days," the woman said to Ho.

Ho was captivated by the summary of the novel. He wrote up a review of it for the Hong Kong media, causing a sensation, and then hatched the idea of starting a publishing house. But he had no funding. What to do? A publisher in Taiwan that wanted the novel published came to Ho wondering if it could help him. "How about this: we'll put out a Taiwan edition and then help you do one for Hong Kong. What do you say?" Ho accepted the Taiwan publisher's proposal.

At the same time, despite knowing absolutely nothing about the publishing business, Ho spent a small sum to register a limited liability company in Canada. He named it "Mirror" (明镜), taken from Qin Shihuang's bright mirror that could reveal the hearts of men (明镜高悬), and the mirror of history (以史为鉴). Before long, Mirror Books published its first title: Yellow Peril (黄祸), in what Ho terms a "borrowed" publishing deal.

Market response to Yellow Peril was good, and the book was closely followed by two more books using the same method, in cooperation with Taiwan's China Times Publishing Company and The Journalist magazine: New Lords of China, and China After Deng Xiaoping's Era. These three sensational works became the foundation of Mirror Books. Flush with victory, Ho wanted to go independent, so he partnered with a painter in Hong Kong who was knowledgeable about the book business, and Mirror Books debuted in the city. Reportedly, that painter held less than a 10% stake in the business.

Ho's friends in the Taiwan media told him that they didn't think too much of the way he was running his publishing house. "You're a mainlander without any money or good books. How are you going to run a press — unless you get Louis Cha to let you publish some of his wuxia novels. Otherwise your prospects are pretty bleak," was what everyone told him.

Moving against the market

At the time, Hong Kong's best-sellers were in mainstream categories; wuxia manga and consumer lifestyle paperbacks were all really popular. But Ho Pin's aims lay elsewhere. His idea to publish a large number of exclusively political and historical titles had his colleagues shaking their heads.

Ho thought those slim paperbacks were naive. Real readers didn't care about a book's thickness or its price. He also thought that the market for books about Chinese politics and history had a good future once Hong Kong returned to China. He set up strategies that went completely against the market at the time: publish thick books exclusively about Chinese political history that were priced 20% more than other books in Hong Kong.

Ho explained that China already had one special economic zone at the time, Shenzhen, and after 1997, it would have a new special administrative region, Hong Kong, which was a publisher's paradise. He'd be able to publish exclusively those books unable to be released on the mainland, so in his judgment, he couldn't let the opportunity slip away. His audience was made up of three sorts of people — government officials, businessmen, and academics — so business would have to be conducted unconventionally.

Mirror Books launched a new business model for publishing: its printing and distribution center was in Hong Kong, but its editorial offices were spread across the globe. The Internet was taking off, so authors could communicate online with the editorial office to discuss manuscript changes, saving a large chunk on operating costs.

Ho wasn't fully confident at the start, because there were so many rumors circulating through the industry in the run-up to 1997. He kept his options open, setting up bases in both the US and Hong Kong, so that if the unexpected occurred he could retreat to America. He said, "Looking back now, my worries were unnecessary. 'One country, two systems' is a long-term strategy of the Communist Party, not just the most expedient option, like many people were saying at the time."

"Beijing is quite tolerant of me"

Mirror Books quickly gained a reputation over its first few years, and practically all of the mainstream western media reported on it. The Mirror name was fairly well known among mainland officials, businessmen, and academics, which allowed Ho to make such a presumptuous statement.

Ho's biggest worry these days is not too few manuscripts, but too many. "I don't have the heart to read most of the manuscripts we're sent, because it's torture: most of them are individual accounts of experiences during the anti-rightist movement and the Cultural Revolution. It's not that the quality is bad, it's just that they marketplace can't absorb so many personal memoirs. We can't make a living publishing them. But if we don't, I can't take the authors' response to being rejected. I feel as if I've let them down."

Mirror Books has published books like those in the past, but they did astonishingly badly, to the point that the company was in jeopardy for a time. After manuscripts are rejected, authors sometimes tell Ho: "This book is the embodiment of my whole life's worth." Others complain, "You're just a businessman out for profit!"

Ho admitted that sometimes he has to think about things from a commercial perspective, but his own personal idealism can be glimpsed from Mirror Books' image. "To tell the truth, my greatest hope for Mirror is just to keep it going, not to expand it," Ho explained. "In all its years, Mirror has never accepted any government funding and it has never taken on any commercial investment. It relies entirely on publishing. I did things this way because I wanted to maintain Mirror Books' identity as an independent news publisher."

Rumors continually swirl around Mirror Books. Once, someone questioned the company's shady financial support, claiming that it had a political background, but Ho himself never made any clear response.

When he was 14 years old, Ho started work in Hunan. At 17 he became a radio journalist. In 1986 he became news bureau chief for a paper in Shenzhen. In his early 20s, he left for the US and became a writer for Taiwan's China Times. Later on he started Mirror Books and Chinese Media Net. He said that his aspiration in starting a publishing company was to establish a "PRC historical library."

"Beijing is quite tolerant of me, and very polite. I've never felt any pressure or harassment." Ho explained that ever since Mirror Books and Chinese Media Net became famous, Beijing has sent people out to treat him to meals and inquire politely as to what books he's going to publish. After communicating with lots of mainland officials, Ho feels that they are far more open-minded than overseas Chinese in their private exchanges.

For the past few years, many overseas commentators have pointed to the fact that Mirror Books and Chinese Media Net have grown milder. Ho said candidly, "We Hunanese have that sort of temperament. If you're polite to us, we reign it in a little! So this might be one of the things putting Mirror and China Media Net on a more moderate road. I don't really want to play the role of the political opposition. What I want to do is establish a platform for the expression of many voices and views."

He revealed that some party leaders are writing memoirs, and that some of them had contacted Mirror Books. Mirror's main efforts in the near future will be to prepare to put out a series of high-quality memoirs.

Links and Sources
  • Phoenix Weekly (Chinese): "He and the Books" (not currently online). 何频与他的“禁书”帝国, 《凤凰周刊》, 2008.08, #300
  • Mirror Books homepage
There are currently 4 Comments for Publishing a "PRC historical library" in Hong Kong.

Comments on Publishing a "PRC historical library" in Hong Kong

Cool, I have heard of Mirror Books for a long time. I'm wondering now how to purchase these banned books and bring them into the mainland China.

Great article. I have been cheated by Phoenix Weekly's alluring covers and lousy articles "n" times. But this one may be worth checking out. My next target is 墓碑 about the Great Leap Forward.

I think these books have a wider space on internet.

Very interesting. I love Mirror books, and I have to admit, having great publishing houses like Mirror (along with a vibrant free press and uncensored internet) is one of the reasons I moved to Hong Kong.

Some of the best Mirror books that I've read:

天葬:西藏的命运 by 王力雄- Probably one of the most authoratative and well-researched books about the Tibet situation. It takes a critical look at the historical and political claims made by both sides.

中国[刘si]真相- The more than a thousand page insider account of that incident,the Chinese version of the "TAM Papers".

中共十七大布局- A great backgorund book on the main players in the Politburo and who was likely (or not) to enter the Standing Committee. It also covered the main issues of the time.

内阁新三角- Very similar to 中共十七大布局, an account of the post-17th Party Congress State Council, and the factions inside, plus good biographical sketchs of the main players. To some degree, this book shows how Wen is relatively weak within the State Council. (What I'm currently reading).

中国改革年代的政治斗争 by 杨继绳 (author of 墓碑). A great insider Bob Woodward-esk look at the main camps and players in the early years of Reform and Opening. More than almost any book I've read, this one gives details about who actually had power and how decisions were made within the top levels of the Party in the 70's and 80's. At this point, the one sentence narrative has been simplified to "Deng Xiaoping changed China through Reform and Opening by giving Chinese people amazing economic growth and greater personal freedoms ", but this book certainly shows that Reform would have been impossible without the help of fellow reformers fighting back the people who were firmly opposed towards losing any control in the state-run economy.

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