One of your first big coups was publishing Zhao Ziyang’s secret memoirs in 2005. How did you do it?
I had been brokering manuscripts by Party cadres who had been victims of the system. I was negotiating with the old Communist Party cadres who had Zhao Ziyang’s recordings. It was a complicated process to convince the cadres to agree to do this. They had the tapes. They wanted to know who would publish. So eventually I said I would. They said, Do you know how to do publishing? So I published a few books to prove that we could. That’s how we did it. We did poetry books and intellectual books. It was all professionally done—just to convince them.
And then after you published the secret journals, a lot of people got in touch with you. You published analyses of political reform in the 1980s, a biography of the reformerChen Yizi, and memoirs of reform-minded generals, such as Qiu Huizuo, and Ding Sheng.
In the mainland many former officials or their families had grievances against the Party, so I thought maybe it’s time to preserve it.
Publishing these kinds of books seems increasingly sensitive with the recent kidnappings of employees of a Hong Kong publisher. Are you worried you’ll be next?
They’re in a different business. They’re selling a product, and whatever sells they’ll sell. I was irritated by the media because they kept grouping all independent publishers together in one “banned books” category. But booksellers just publish whatever they want [without regard to facts]. Truth and fabrication are different.
How do you make sure your books are accurate?
Most importantly, I insist that authors of non-fiction use their real names; no pen names. Even though there is risk, they must be willing to take the risk and responsibility for their writing. I find people who know the subject in question to edit and fact-check. I have a Cultural Revolution guy. A guy who does early Mao. Others.
And the books are printed in Hong Kong. Have any been shipped to the mainland?
That’s difficult to do. People buy them in Hong Kong and carry to the mainland, but this has become tougher recently because of stronger border controls. This has hurt our sales.
You’ve been publishing fewer books in recent years. Last year, you published only three books. Why have you scaled back?
The main problem is the new generation doesn’t want to know. They don’t know about the Mao era or who Deng was. Another big problem is there aren’t interesting manuscripts.
The hongerdai [the “second red generation”—the children of the founding generation of Communist leaders] are liberated under Xi Jinping. In the past they had grievances, but now they feel that this is the best time for their interests: “We don’t want to rock the boat.”Much more in the New York Review of Books.
Ian Johnson on what spiritual values the Chinese are looking for
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