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It's Actually Really Hard To Figure Out What Counts As A "Banned Book" In China

We tried to figure out what books Hong Kong booksellers aren't allowed to sell and it turns out there's no real list.

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Four of the five Hong Kong booksellers who went missing last year have "voluntarily" confessed on Chinese TV that they'd been detained last October in mainland China for running an "illegal business" of "banned books," Reuters reported on Sunday.

The Causeway Bay Bookstore, where all five booksellers worked, primarily sold political gossip books. Phoenix Television says that the shop crossed the line by mailing "banned" books to mainland readers.

Phoenix Television

Gui Minhai, a citizen of Sweden and the co-owner of the publishing business Mighty Current and the Causeway Bay Bookstore, went missing in Thailand in late 2015, reappeared on Chinese state TV for a primetime confession last month, and is now in detention on the mainland. He was joined by Lui Por, Cheung Chi-ping, and Lam Wing-kee on Sunday.

Despite the TV report using the word "banned," China hasn't actively prohibited any specific books — the country has not gone through any legal process to justify the banning of any book or published any kind of list of banned books.

Lam Yik Fei / Getty Images

The closest the government has come to naming a banned book was when it took action against some "problematic maps" that were banned back in 2011. The only other time that comes to mind was in 2014, when Reuters reported that books by eight prestigious Chinese authors were banned — but Xinhua refuted the story quickly and claimed that the report was false.

Even though there's no official list, reports have stated that at least one other bookstore's staffers have been told to pull "politically sensitive" books off the shelves, while some stores hide the books unless customers ask for them specifically.

Basically, everybody is confused over how to determine what kinds of books are "banned" books, including outspoken and influential Hong Kong writer and TV culture critic Leung Man-tao. "Does China have any regulation or law defining 'banned' book? The answer is no," he wrote in a recent column. If publications with official authorization are legal books, then those without the government's sign-off qualify as "illegal" publications, he explained.

According to China's Customs Bureau, those publications "harmful" to China's politics, economics, culture, or morality are prohibited from entering the country.

Philippe Lopez / AFP / Getty Images

"The Regulation on the Administration of Publication," as the bureau's document is titled, indicates that 10 kinds of publications aren't allowed, including those "endangering the unity of the nation" (although it's unclear what kinds of publication would endanger the unity of the nation), "propagating cults" (without explaining what kinds of religions or activities are defined as "cults"), and those "insulting or slandering others."

One of the books the bookstore is preparing to publish is reportedly centered around secrets in President Xi Jinping's personal life, which could potentially violate the law. But the punishment for breaking the customs regulation in itself isn't defined.

Beimeng Fu is a BuzzFeed News World Reporter covering China and is based in New York.

Contact Beimeng Fu at beimeng.fu@buzzfeed.com.

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