The Southern Hill Project 南嶺工程

29 January 2017

The Hong Kong book industry has been dealt a serious blow since the disappearance of the five Causeway Bay booksellers, kidnapped outside Chinese jurisdiction, or detained on Chinese soil over a year ago. They have all been punished for having been part of a publishing group that printed critical and salacious volumes about the Chinese leadership – in spite of the fact that their doing so did not break any law in Hong Kong.

Some commentators, while perhaps sympathizing with their plight, have decided that since the books they printed were often based on unverifiable gossip or even fabrications, they had met their just deserts, regardless of the legality of what they did. But speculation about which book or books sparked the unprecedented operation to apprehend the booksellers misses a more important point: the Chinese government had been working continuously to emasculate the Hong Kong book industry since 2010 through a special campaign called the Southern Hill Project (南嶺工程).

Seen in this larger context, the disappearance of the booksellers in 2015 was not just a one-off action against a disliked publishing group, but part of a well-orchestrated, long term political campaign that the Chinese Communist Party is waging to control information published in Hong Kong; a campaign designed to monitor and suffocate Hong Kong’s free-wheeling press and book industry, and by extension the territory’s freedom of expression.

Some political archeology helps uncover how Beijing implements the campaign. The tools that China has been using to quash the Hong Kong publishing sector are part of its classic censorship toolbox. In this particular case, it all started with the Working Group of National Clean up and Rectification of Books, Newspapers and Audio-visual Markets (全國整頓清理書報刊及音像市場工作小組), launched after the bloody suppression of pro-democracy protesters in 1989 – on 24 August, 1989, to be exact (徐焕生<历次全国“扫黄”“打非”会议>,《出版发行研究》, 1998(2):16-17). The government stated that publications and audio products advocating “severely politically mistaken notion of capitalist liberalism” were increasing on the marketplace, and there were too many “sexually indecent, violent, and feudal” publications as well.  The Chinese government proceeded to crackdown heavily on all publications and film material – a stark contrast with the opening up that China had witnessed in the 80s, even in this sector.

Meanwhile, throughout the student demonstrations in 1989, Hong Kong, then under British sovereignty, was home to a stunning array of political publications all of which followed the political events in mainland China very closely.

The “Cleaning Up and Rectification” campaign has since been regularly re-launched and given new resources. In February 2000 the campaign was given even greater importance, and the name changed to the National Working Group of Anti-Vulgarity and Illegal Publications Campaign AVIP (全國「掃黃打非」工作小組).

Its name and publicity suggests a clamping down on pornography and violations of intellectual property. Publicized photos show piles of pirated film DVD’s and pornographic material being confiscated.

However, one need only visit the AVIP group’s own website to get a sense of its deeper mission: To destroy any material the State might deem harmful to its own interests. The mission statement from its website is as follows (translation from Fei Chang Dao blog):

AVIP is a matter of the regime, a matter of the party and the country's future and destiny. China is currently the largest socialist country in the world and the biggest obstacle to the hegemonic powers. Hostile forces are attempting to destabilize and change people's political beliefs, weaken and slow down the rise of China's overall national strength, and deny and overthrow the party's leadership. In order to further political deception, the methods of ideological and cultural penetration become increasingly clandestine.

At the head of the AVIP Campaign is Liu Qibao (劉奇葆), a member of the Communist Party’s Politburo, and currently the head of the Propaganda Department. He is an apparatchik that has spent all his life in the Communist Party: Born in 1953 in Anhui province, he joined the Party in 1971, at 19 years of age, and has steadily risen in its ranks.

In total 27 government bodies work to implement the AVIP campaign -- showing how important the project is to the authorities. Under the leadership of the Central Propaganda Department, we find the Central Political and Legal Affairs Commission, the General Office of the State Council, the Supreme People’s Court and the Supreme People’s Procuratorate, and nine ministries including Public Security, National Security, Education and Culture. Other bureaus listed are more puzzling, but the range of government portfolios involved is indicative of the campaign’s authority.

Anti Vulgarity Chart

Through the years, those who run the AVIP Campaign have apparently decided that the free flow of information published in Hong Kong, now under Chinese sovereignty and easier to access, had to be put under increased control. This became all the more urgent after 2003, the year in which the Hong Kong and Beijing governments signed a deal to allow Chinese visitors from a number of selected cities to come repeatedly to Hong Kong, for tourism, without the need to apply for a visa. As the number of Chinese tourists coming to Hong Kong has been steadily increasing, so has that of the number of uncensored publications that they have been buying and, in many cases, bringing back to China upon their return. The problem, of course, is that Hong Kong, in spite of being a Chinese territory, is an autonomous jurisdiction, where freedom of the press and freedom of expression are guaranteed under the “One Country Two Systems” framework of the Basic Law, Hong Kong’s mini-constitution which took effect in 1997.

Enter the AVIP Campaign’s Southern Hill Project): a campaign launched in May of 2010, headquartered in the city of Zhuhai, on the border with Macao, with the express purpose of increasing efforts to crack down on illegal publications from the “South”. A joint conference between representatives of Beijing, Shanghai, Anhui, Jiangxi, Hunan, Fujian and Guangdong would be held once a year to exchange information and take unified action, so that a comprehensive “strategic defense and coordination mechanism” could be implemented.

In 2012 Hong Kong was targeted very explicitly, with the adoption of the Special Action Against Hong Kong's Politically Harmful Publications (查堵反制香港政治性有害出版物專項行動), which focused on uncovering and blocking “reactionary propaganda,”(《关于转发<关于进一步约束内地企业对香港反动出版传媒机构经济行为的通知>的通知》陇扫黄打非办法[2012]14号) in particular materials from the outlawed spiritual movement Falun Gong (which is not illegal in Hong Kong, and holds regular, peaceful activities in the locations most frequently visited by Chinese tourists). Publications containing statements critical of Party personnel arrangements, that spoke unfavourably of Party and State leaders, “sowed disorder in the public's ideology” and that advocated for Tibetan or Xinjiang independence would particularly be targeted.(襄垣县政府信息公開

The reach of the Southern Hill Project was then strengthened further in the summer of 2014, with a comprehensive program aimed at enhancing the effectiveness of entry inspections in key regions of China. Starting in 2014, port of entry customs officials have had to follow a new directive that subjects all incoming travelers to much stricter checks on their luggage. At the Gongbei Customs – the Zhuhai immigration checkpoint – X-ray inspection of passenger luggage has been raised to 100%, while open inspection of suspicious luggage has also reached 100%.Meanwhile, the program was also extended to 5 more provinces, adding those of Jiangsu, Zhejiang, Hubei, Guangxi and Hainan. This has now expanded the reach of the Southern Hill Project to a total of 12 provinces.(  掃黃打非辦:“南嶺工程”成員單位增至12個

The methods employed are wide ranging, too, and help explain the reason behind the involvement of such a wide variety of ministries and bureaus. For example, among AVIP’s stated aims we find listed “blocking specific persons from returning to mainland China,” and, in parallel, “Preventing tourists bound for Hong Kong and Taiwan from purchasing politically harmful publications to bring back to China.” Tourists, who have been allowed into Hong Kong and Taiwan in ever greater numbers, are kept under a particularly watchful eye. In order to ensure that they do not purchase any “forbidden” books, the AVIP puts pressure on the tour guides, through the Tourism Bureau, to “ensure that tourists bound for Hong Kong and Taiwan receive warnings and are subjected to propaganda.” The penalties are meted out directly to the tour guides and the tour group agencies, which means that there is a strong economic incentive to applying the directives. In the AVIP language, this is described as tour guides “proactively carrying out their responsibility to remind, discourage and prevent tourists from purchasing politically harmful publications to bring back to China”. (靖安县开展“扫黄打非·清源2014”专项行动实施方案)

In the to-do list for banning certain types of information and literature from reaching China, we can also find that “prosecuting those spreading politically harmful publications using mobile apps, ’Great Firewall circumvention’ software, social media, and micro-blogs,”(苏州相城政府信息公开:〈关于开展深化查堵反制香港反动出版活动专项治理“清源”行动的通知〉) has been ear-marked for action. So has “Using commercial, tax, and other tools to suppress Hong Kong media outlets that engage in reactionary publishing and their operators who come to mainland China to conduct business activities.” Among those that need to be kept under a watchful eye and prosecuted in case they make mistakes are not only regular citizens, whether from Hong Kong or China, but also Party members, who are to be disciplined if they bring politically “harmful publications” back to China from overseas.

Beijing Customs

In Hong Kong as well as further afield, AVIP’s campaign renders the publishing industry vulnerable to pressure through other means also. Given the many printing facilities in China, where printing costs are lower, many publishers around the world – and most publishers in Hong Kong – have decided to cut expenses by printing in China. Even Hong Kong printers often use mainland facilities for the more labor intensive steps of printing a book, such as binding. The AVIP campaign enforcers are clearly aware of this cost calculation by printing companies, so to stop mainland facilities from assisting in the printing of those publications they are averse to, they have made clear that “It is particularly necessary to strengthen oversight and control over those printing enterprises that provide binding and other services for Hong Kong publishing activities, and resolutely ban illegal printing or copying for ‘dens of iniquity.’” (苏州相城政府信息公开:〈关于开展深化查堵反制香港反动出版活动专项治理“清源”行动的通知〉))

Seen under this light, what has happened to the five booksellers of Hong Kong linked to Causeway Bay Books and Mighty Current Publishing appears even more alarming: it is not just a one-off, ad-hominem attack for personal retribution based on the books they published. (It has long been rumoured that the book that finally caused the authorities to go after the five booksellers was a lurid account of the women in the life of China’s President, Xi Jinping, who is also the General Secretary of the Chinese Communist Party). Instead, the disappearance of the booksellers is part of a much wider, much more systematic approach that has as its main objective that of neutralizing the Hong Kong independent publishing industry.

This is producing an outcome that is lamentable in its own right, but which also has repercussions that reach far and wide. For decades now, Hong Kong has been one of the most important centres for researching what is happening in China. Scholars in all disciplines, whether from China or anywhere else, have been able to come to Hong Kong and access information that is heavily restricted in the rest of the country – an advantage that may soon be lost, as publishers are being put under increased pressure from the AVIP Campaign and its Southern Hill Project.

Note: Many of the English translations used in this report are from the Fei Chang Dao blog.