Markos Kounalakis

Books and ideas can be the ultimate threat

Freed bookseller Lam Wing-kee speaks to pro-democracy protesters in front of his book store in Hong Kong on June 18. He says he spent months in detention by mainland Chinese authorities for books critical of China’s Communist leadership.
Freed bookseller Lam Wing-kee speaks to pro-democracy protesters in front of his book store in Hong Kong on June 18. He says he spent months in detention by mainland Chinese authorities for books critical of China’s Communist leadership. The Associated Press

Book publishers are an endangered species. Amazon.com may be the most immediate worry for anyone in the book publishing business, where fear of the internet retail giant’s power over content and distribution is pervasive. As a former publisher, I understand the economic challenges of today’s marketplace.

Global publishing industry fears, however, go beyond the mere concern surrounding profit margins and shelf placement. In Hong Kong, publishers and booksellers have a deeper, more immediate worry. They get kidnapped.

The Mighty Current book publishers in Hong Kong put out juicy books that likely provoked mainland China’s leadership. Kidnapping the messenger has become an effective way to stop the presses and kill the message. Such brazen actions are a clear warning to regime critics – the Chinese state’s long arm can easily reach across borders.

In the Mighty Current case, five Chinese nationals disappeared last year from Hong Kong and Thailand right around the planned release of a critical book on China’s leader, Xi Jinping. The result? No publishers, no book.

One of the booksellers, Lam Wing-kee, was recently released, one awaits Chinese sentencing on unrelated charges this fall, and all of them got the message. The book remains in limbo.

While bookseller rendition is the latest form of literary censorship, it is by no means the only form of book banning in a world where societies and political leaders increasingly want to dictate what is “good” or “bad” speech.

Salman Rushdie wrote “The Satanic Verses” and had a global “fatwa” declared on him during Ayatollah Khomeini’s reign. In Florida, pastor Terry Jones barbecued Qurans in a book burning that singed Americans’ First Amendment sensibilities and challenged their understanding of protected speech. Is book burning a free speech “right”?

Supreme Court Justice Sandra Day O’Connor put it best: “The hallmark of the protection of free speech is to allow ‘free trade in ideas’ – even ideas that the overwhelming majority of people might find distasteful or discomforting.”

“Good” speech seldom needs protection; not so edgy literature or writing that challenges authority. Trickiest of all are books that delve in societal taboo. “Bad” speech is what often gets challenged.

Books are banned and writers condemned for the ideas inside them. They deliver condensed knowledge that incite us and make our thoughts burn with visions of places and circumstances never before seen or experienced. New concepts are created out of thin air.

They can take us to the outer reaches of the universe or down the gutter. And the ideas stick. You can never unlearn something once exposed to it. The only remedy for the mental itch is to scratch it.

Ideas can be revolutionary or reactive. They have no mass but are far from weightless. The only way to contain ideas is to kill them in the crib, before they spread their truth, myth or lie. Ideas are a threat like no other and can reveal that any emperor has no clothes.

The Nazis burned books. Romans and Christians destroyed the greatest library in the ancient world. The Taliban are “students” of nothing other than the Quran.

Nigeria’s Boko Haram are just plain opposed to new knowledge and ideas. Boko hates books. It burns them … and children, too.

In liberal democratic societies, we mostly celebrate the book for its role as a repository of ideas. We revere the book – whether a physical paper product or on a digital device. That is why one of the greatest democratic salutations given is: “Read any good books lately?”

Books are a greater threat to illiberal systems. China may sense that it is losing its confidence or party control and that kidnapping booksellers is an effective way to maintain national security and stability. Such indirect book banning, however, is a desperate act unworthy of any great nation.

In the meantime, the unpublished Xi Jinping biography will not be on Amazon’s website.

Markos Kounalakis, Ph.D., is a research fellow at Central European University and visiting fellow at the Hoover Institution. Contact him at markos@stanford.edu. Follow him on Twitter @KounalakisM.

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