Is it too late to save Hong Kong from Beijing’s authoritarian grasp?

“They have very complicated attitudes to Hong Kong people – a complex,” said a man in his late 20s who works in corporate relations for a small manufacturer, explaining his support for tighter restrictions on tourism from the mainland. “They say that Hong Kong people are really just Chinese people, and nothing special. Hong Kong people in the 70s and 80s invested a lot of money in places like Shenzhen, and behaved like tycoons. They say you bought prostitutes there. Now we are rich, and it is the Hong Kong people’s turn to be our slaves. When Chinese people come to Hong Kong now, they like to act like they are operating in their colony. They don’t care what you think and are very free, because they have the Chinese government behind them, and the Chinese government controls everything.”

More than any economic statistics, it is this kind of psychological role-reversal that has unsettled people most. And that feeling is exacerbated by the assertive, even swaggering, manner of Xi Jinping. During his four years in power, Xi has established himself as the country’s most powerful leader in decades. Under his presidency, China’s own fledgling civil society has been under relentless attack. Lawyers working on human rights issues have been prosecuted and universities have been ordered to toe a rigid ideological line. In this climate, Hong Kong’s democracy movement has been depicted as a tool of the west, whose ultimate purpose is to subvert China and undermine its stability by encouraging liberalism on the mainland.

When Britain handed over control to China in 1997, Hong Kong was a beacon of freewheeling prosperity – but in recent years Beijing’s grip has tightened. Is there any hope for the city’s radical pro-democracy movement?

by

Early one morning in January, under the veil of darkness, a team of undercover police from China quietly entered Hong Kong’s Four Seasons hotel and made their way into a luxurious residential suite. After sweeping aside the billionaire occupant’s private contingent of female bodyguards, they shrouded the man’s head in a white sheet and bundled him off in a wheelchair.

Xiao Jianhua was one of China’s richest businessmen. He had built his fortune over the past two decades through deals involving the cream of China’s political elite, reportedly including close relatives of the president, Xi Jinping. Because of China’s opaque political culture, one can only speculate about the reasons for Xiao’s abduction, but it seems that he had taken careful steps to protect himself. Not only was he residing and conducting his business outside of China, his country of birth, he had a diplomatic passport from Antigua and Barbuda and had adopted Canadian citizenship, perhaps thinking that this might offer him some extra degree of legal or diplomatic protection.

Hong Kong fields its own police, border control and immigration services, each theoretically separate from China’s own vast security apparatus. But when authorities in Beijing decided to come and get Xiao, none of that mattered. Since then, Hong Kong authorities have not dared to publicly protest Xiao’s arrest, nor has China offered any explanation.

The incident was yet another blow to the idea that Hong Kong has control over its own affairs. Just a year earlier, five publishers and booksellers had been secretly whisked away to China for interrogation. From unknown places of detention, where most of them remain, some were forced to make crude televised confessions. Like Xiao’s abduction, this incident remains shrouded in secrecy, but many believe that the five men were targeted for selling lurid books about rivalries and corruption at the highest level of Chinese politics. Such books were particularly popular with visitors from the mainland, who could never find such uncensored material back home. One of the publisher’s books purported to reveal details of President Xi’s secret love life.

For many Hong Kong residents, the abductions were reminders of the sheer flimsiness of the agreement negotiated between Britain and Beijing when China regained sovereignty of the city in 1997. Indeed, Xiao’s abduction had been preceded by an even bigger blow to the promise of self-rule in Hong Kong. In November, a pair of young, telegenic candidates, who had just won election to the city’s Legislative Council, were denied their seats. LegCo, as it is widely known in Hong Kong, is a semi-democratic, 70-member body that makes laws, approves budgets and can hold the city’s governor to account. No one disputed that the two candidates, who represented a new pro-independence political group named Youngspiration, had prevailed at the polls. The pretext offered to reject them was that they had refused to specifically pledge allegiance to China during their oath-taking ceremonies, instead using the phrase “the Hong Kong nation”. (Establishment politicians also complained that they had referred to China with the derogatory term “Shina”, a word once favoured by Japanese imperialists.)

Hong Kong politicians defy China as they are sworn in

Hong Kong’s staunchly pro-Beijing chief executive, Leung Chun-ying, first sought a court injunction to prevent the Youngspiration candidates from taking their seats. This was a worrying move – but then Leung did something unprecedented and, for many locals, far more disturbing. Eliminating any discretion Hong Kong’s independent courts might have had in the matter, Leung put the issue before Beijing, inviting a leading committee of the Chinese National People’s Congress to rule on the dispute. The pair were duly disqualified from office.

Since the handover, Beijing had rarely intervened in Hong Kong politics so bluntly, and anger over this turn of events quickly spread, especially among younger people. The mood remains tense. On the day after I arrived in Hong Kong in January, a delegation of pro-democracy activists flew to Taiwan, led by the city’s most prominent opposition leader, 20-year-old Joshua Wong. At the Hong Kong airport, just before departure, and then in Taiwan, crowds of pro-China demonstrators jostled Wong’s delegation and showered them with threats and insults. Many commentators described the demonstrators as rent-a-mobs pulled together by organised crime groups acting on behalf of Beijing. The mobs were there to send the message that no one from Hong Kong who preaches separation from China is beyond Beijing’s reach.

If that was indeed the intention, the message seems to have been received. But that is not all that was delivered. I have been visiting Hong Kong since the late 1990s, and after more than a week of scheduled interviews and spontaneous encounters with people of many different walks of life and political persuasions, what I found was an unmistakable, shared sense of foreboding among the people of the city. In formal interviews and over meals in crowded, neighbourhood restaurants, the fear people expressed was that their home – one of Asia’s freest and most cosmopolitan cities – is locked on a collision course with the authoritarian system that governs China.

The freedoms and democratic culture that make Hong Kong so special might not survive. As one prominent lawyer put it to me: “If there is a solution to Hong Kong’s predicament, surely no one has imagined it yet.”


For years, Hong Kong residents have looked forward to 2017, the 20th anniversary of the British departure, as a milestone in their political evolution. According to promises made by Beijing, this was meant to be a moment when they would take a critical step toward direct universal suffrage, under the city’s mini-constitution.

Instead, when the city’s next elections are held on 26 March, rather than ushering in a more democratic era for Hong Kong, they will be conducted under the old terms, leading many people to fear a return of the protests and confrontation that have marked the last three years.

Relations between Hong Kong and the mainland haven’t always been like this. At the time of the handover in 1997, the anxiety that many of Hong Kong’s 6.5 million residents felt about the future under the Chinese Communist party was offset, in part, by a strong surge of pride. It is true that thousands of locals emigrated, or sought second passports as a hedge against the uncertainty of this new era. But many others believed that as people on the mainland grew wealthier, political liberalisation would follow. Rather than Hong Kong being remade as China, China would come to look ever more like Hong Kong. For people of this persuasion, there had never been a better occasion to reaffirm one’s Chineseness.

It helped, of course, that the most vital things had not been left to chance. Britain’s final act of decolonisation, which had been negotiated for decades, appeared to cede control over the city not so much to the Chinese state as to the people of Hong Kong themselves. Under an arrangement with Beijing that became known as “one country, two systems”, Hong Kong would be allowed to govern itself for 50 years with minimal Chinese interference. (Even then, however, there were local critics who bemoaned what they saw as a design flaw, or original sin, even: the people of Hong Kong were given no role in negotiating the new terms.)

Hong Kong was so valuable to Beijing’s state planners that optimists convinced themselves the Chinese Communist party would not risk tampering with it in any fundamental way. The city had been the first source of capitalist investment for China – booster fuel during its initial economic takeoff in the early 1980s. Through the 1990s and into the next decade, Hong Kong remained an all-important source of investment, as well as a conduit through which China hungrily absorbed western technology and management techniques. Western-style institutions, such as the city’s impartial courts, transparent financial markets and free press, moreover, made Hong Kong a halfway house for China’s own nascent global companies. It was the ideal place to set up international operations, giving them the extra credibility they needed to win over skittish foreign investors.

One other factor helped reassure Hong Kongers who felt anxious about their future. To many observers, “one country, two systems” seemed partly designed to appeal to the 23 million people of Taiwan, a self-governed democracy off the coast of the Chinese mainland. Bringing Taiwan into the fold of a unified China had been a sacred goal for the Communist party ever since 1949, when Mao defeated China’s Nationalist government, which fled to the island. Now, political commentators throughout the region speculated that if Hong Kong was seen to be prospering as a liberal society under Chinese sovereignty, then perhaps the people of Taiwan might also be gradually won over to the idea of uniting with the mainland under a similar arrangement.

During its early years of implementation, many international observers gave “one country, two systems” good odds to succeed. For some, it even looked like a true “shuang ying” (win-win), one of the most cherished stock phrases of Chinese diplomacy. When one factored in Taiwan, it looked like it could even become a win-win-win: something that all three societies might eventually come to embrace.

man on waterfront in Hong Kong
‘It feels like everything is stacked against you’ … many young people in Hong Kong are pessimistic about the future. Photograph: Bobby Yip/Reuters

Today, though, in the 20th year after the handover, this Sino-British arrangement is charitably described as limping along on life support. Many believe it is in danger of collapsing altogether, even as a pretence. As China has grown richer and more powerful, it has also become less patient and less willing to sacrifice control. In Hong Kong, meanwhile, the idea of “one country, two systems” has been riven by the sudden upsurge of enthusiasm for autonomy. Beijing has found itself confronted by increasingly disaffected and radicalised youths, who are as unwilling to compromise over democracy and civil liberties as China is itself.

For its part, Britain – Hong Kong’s old colonial master – has been reluctant to publicly criticise Beijing, as it eagerly courts Chinese business and investment. Chris Patten, the Conservative peer and last colonial governor of the city, recently said: “I feel very strongly that we let down the parents of this generation of democracy activists. I think it would be a tragedy if we let down these kids as well.”

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What China’s Past Says About Its Hegemonic Ambitions

Interview with Jerome McDonnell of WBEZ, Chicago Public Radio World View program

March 23, 2017

We speak with former New York Times Shanghai bureau chief Howard French about what he thinks motivates China’s strategy in the Asian Pacific.

French’s most recent book, Everything Under the Heavens: How the Past Helps Shape China’s Push for Global Power, French asserts we can assess China’s hegemonic ambitions by examining its past and how the Asian power treats its neighbors.

Howard W. French’s Everything Under the Heavens, reviewed: The last empire

For Canada, managing relations with an expansionist and impatient China will not be easy. French’s closing words seem particularly apt for us. He notes, reasonably enough, that China has much to contribute and deserves to be treated as an equal. That’s not a problem. It’s the next part of French’s formula that Ottawa so often either avoids or gets wrong. It is also important, he says, to approach China with “understated but resolute firmness.”

Howard W. French’s Everything Under the Heavens, reviewed: The last empire

  • Title Everything Under the Heavens: How the Past Helps Shapes China’s Push for Global Power
  • Author Howard W. French
  • Genre Non-Fiction
  • Publisher Knopf
  • Pages 330
  • Price $36.95

Donald Trump isn’t the only global leader with wall-building ambitions. China’s President, Xi Jinping, recently called on his officials to encircle restive Xinjiang province, home to China’s Muslim Uyghur population, with a “Great Wall of steel.”

Trump’s Great Wall can be dismissed as an opportunistic policy gambit, but Xi’s wall-building impulse has deeper roots. The default symbol for the United States is the Statue of Liberty, which famously welcomes the huddled masses. China’s most notable structure, the Great Wall, was built to keep the masses out, particularly those with dynastic ambitions.

For China’s mandarins, trouble typically arrives in the form of the twin calamities captured in the gloomy couplet, “Nei luan, wai huan”: chaos at home and invasion from abroad.

Avoiding these linked perils remains a priority for Xi, a preoccupation that shapes his foreign and domestic policy. Xi presides over the world’s last surviving empire, a country that has devoured ethnic rivals such as the Uyghurs and Tibetans whole, and that treats neighbouring states as vassals to be kept in line. All non-Han “Others” are expected to understand and appreciate the concept of tian xia, or “everything under heaven,” the rather ambitious zone of influence that China has traditionally attributed to itself.

Living up to this imposing mandate means that China is forever managing others, walling them in or fending them off, hoping to pacify them with the offer of membership in a China-dominated order.

In his new book, appropriately titled Everything Under the Heavens: How the Past Shapes China’s Push for Global Power, former New York Times journalist Howard W. French makes it clear China’s sense of national superiority is of more than historical significance. While China’s power has waxed and waned, its sense of being the Middle Kingdom has remained constant. So, too, has its inclination to manage those who lie outside the centre. Living up to its awesome self-image has required China to dispatch fleets and armies, and to develop a highly sophisticated diplomatic stagecraft of flattery and intimidation. For centuries, exercising this mandate of heaven has meant relentless efforts to manage and cajole, to pacify and control.

Nothing is quite what it seems. The generous offer of inclusion in a Chinese world masks a condescending disregard for partially sinicized neighbours, such as the Vietnamese and Tibetans, and contempt for the barbarians beyond. The offer of a peaceful place in a Chinese world is inevitably backed up by the sword.

French’s account, not surprisingly, runs counter to the official Chinese narrative. Admiral Zheng He, a Muslim eunuch who led a Chinese armada to Southeast Asia, Sri Lanka and the east coast of Africa, is lauded in China as an unconventional explorer. Unlike his Western counterparts, whose voyages were marked by greed, violence and conquest, Zheng, the story goes, was an ambassador of Chinese benevolence. The reality, as French reminds us, is that Zheng’s massive ships were actually troop carriers, whose menacing arrival conveyed a distinctly different message about the nature of the Chinese deal on offer.

Modern China continues to proclaim this theme of benevolent internationalism, something French challenges with numerous examples. The most chilling is his account of the Chinese navy’s 1988 massacre of flag-waving Vietnamese troops on the disputed Johnson Reef in the South China Sea. The Vietnamese protest is captured on a grainy YouTube video that is suddenly interrupted by Chinese naval gunfire. When the smoke clears, the Vietnamese are, shockingly, gone. It’s worth noting this happened just a year before the Chinese military perpetrated another massacre, this time of student protesters in Tiananmen Square. Nei luan, wai huan.

China is clearly in the midst of a new period of exuberance and expansion, and, as French makes clear, this inevitably involves friction with the two powers, Japan and the United States, that have come to dominate its neighbourhood over the past 200 years.

In recent decades, Japan, seduced by the lure of the China market and by the friendly pragmatism of previous (and needier) Chinese leaders, played down territorial disputes as it helped to rebuild China. The tables have since turned. All things Japanese are now demonized by China, which evokes past Japanese aggression as it steadily encroaches on the rocky outcroppings that mark the beginning of the Japanese archipelago.

Even more worrisome is China’s growing rivalry with its most formidable adversary, the United States. China is rapidly acquiring the weapons and technology to make it highly risky for the U.S. Navy to operate in the western Pacific, an ambition furthered by China’s construction of military airstrips on artificial islands in the South China Sea. French ominously quotes another Chinese aphorism: “When two emperors appear simultaneously, one must be destroyed.”

French suggests the current period of Chinese expansionism is particularly dangerous not just because it involves a clash between two nuclear-armed powers, but also because China’s leaders are in a race against time. The window on their ambitions for regional and broader domination is closing. China’s slowing economy means less money for military modernization. Worse for China is the fact its population will likely peak by 2025, while the United States will continue to enjoy a steadily increasing population, and resulting economic growth, for a long time to come. Much of this U.S. population growth will be powered by immigration. Trump may wish to rethink his wall.

All of this matters for Canadians. Any armed clash between the United States, our closest ally, and China would be devastating. Even if conflict is avoided, we can expect China’s larger ambitions and anxieties will influence the way it manages relations with Canada. The carrots and sticks are familiar.

Trade is one potential motivator. Even though it flows in China’s favour, its partners, Canada included, are all-too-easily persuaded that permission to do business is a benefit conferred only on those who agree to play by China’s rules. And access to China’s leaders is so carefully meted out and stage-managed that it becomes an objective in itself. Leaders refuse to kowtow at their peril. Recall that former prime minister Stephen Harper was widely castigated for declining to attend the Beijing Olympics in 2008, which took place only months after ugly scenes of unrest and repression in Tibet.

For Canada, managing relations with an expansionist and impatient China will not be easy. French’s closing words seem particularly apt for us. He notes, reasonably enough, that China has much to contribute and deserves to be treated as an equal. That’s not a problem. It’s the next part of French’s formula that Ottawa so often either avoids or gets wrong. It is also important, he says, to approach China with “understated but resolute firmness.”

That’s another way of saying that, like China, we need to align our international strategy with a hard-nosed reading of national interest. Let’s hope Ottawa’s mandarins are paying attention.

David Mulroney is the author of Middle Power, Middle Kingdom: What Canadians Need to Know about China in the 21st Century, and is president of the University of St. Michael’s College. He was Canada’s ambassador to China from 2009 to 2012.

My Year in Reading – 2016

As per custom, near years-end, or in this case at the new year’s start, a list of the books I read in the past year. I’ve placed them in alphabetic order, by name of author. A goal for 2017 is to read a LOT more fiction, which I’ve drifted away from as I’ve worked on a couple of book projects of my own. Excitingly, the first of these is due for publication by Knopf in March 2017, under the title: Everything Under the Heavens: How the Past Helps Shape China’s Push for Global Power.

https://www.amazon.com/Everything-Under-Heavens-Chinas-Global/dp/0385353324/ref=sr_1_2?s=books&ie=UTF8&qid=1483401858&sr=1-2&keywords=everything+under+the+heavens

I hope to have more to share about the second of my book projects soon.

The novel that most impressed me this year was Colson Whitehead’s widely and deservedly acclaimed Underground Railroad, which was so much more than I expected it to be. In addition to his extraordinary mastery of language and voice, the book read like an ambitious secret history of the United States, consummately literary but with learned payoffs on most every page.

The Immobile Empire, by Alain Peyreffite (originally published in 1992) was my favorite among many works of history I read this year.

THE LIST:

The Curse of Berlin: Africa After the Cold War

Adebajo, Adekeye

 

Markets and States in Tropical Africa: The Political Basis of Agricultural Policies

Bates, Robert H.

 

When the Walking Defeats You: One Man’s Journey as Joseph Kony’s Bodyguard

Cakaj, Ledio

Bad Luck and Trouble

Child, Lee

 

Persuader

Child, Lee

 

China’s Military Power: Assessing Current and Future Capabilities

Cliff, Roger

 

Known and Strange Things: Essays

Cole, Teju

 

The Cultural Revolution: A People’s History

Dikotter, Frank

 

This Present Darkness: A History of Nigerian Organized Crime

Ellis, Stephen

 

The Most Wanted Man in China: My Journey from Scientist to Enemy of the State

Fang Lizhi

 

 

One Child: The Story of China’s Most Radical Experiment

Fong, Mei

 

The Silk Roads: A New History of the World

Frankopan, Peter

 

Those Who Leave and Those Who Stay: Neapolitan Novels, Book Three

Ferrante, Elena

 

Six Recording of a Floating Life

Fu, Shen

 

Unlikely Partners: Chinese Reformers, Western Economists, and the Making of Global China

Gewirtz, Julian

 

99 Poems

Gioia, Dana

 

Exit, Voice, and Loyalty: Responses to Decline in Firms, Organizations, and States

Hirschman, Albert O.

 

1587, A Year of No Significance: The Ming Dynasty in Decline

Huang, Ray

 

The Age of Trade: The Manila Galleons and the Dawn of the Global Economy

Giraldez, Arturo

 

Inside Rwanda’s Gacaca Courts

Ingelaere, Bert

 

Homegoing

Gyasi, Yaa

 

Mayor of Mogadishu: A Story of Chaos and Redemption in the Ruins of Somalia

Harding, Andrew

 

China’s Coming War with Asia

Holslag, Jonathan

 

China and Global Nuclear Order: From Estrangement to Active Engagement

Horsburgh, Nicola

 

The Woman Warrior: Memoirs of a Girlhood Among Ghosts

Kingston, Maxine Hong

 

The Culture of Narcissism: American Life in an Age of Diminishing Expectations

Lasch, Christopher

 

The Land at the End of the World: A Novel

Lobo Antunes, António

 

They Can’t Kill Us All: Ferguson, Baltimore, and a New Era in America’s Racial Justice Movement

Lowery, Wesley

 

The Accidental Life: An Editor’s Notes on Writing and Writers

McDonell, Terry

 

Memories of Myself

Lyon, Danny

 

After the Circus: A Novel

Modiano, Patrick

 

The Paper Trail: An Unexpected History of a Revolutionary Invention

Munro, Alexander

 

The Sympathizer

Viet Thanh Nguyen

 

the Immobile Empire

Peyrefitte, Alain

 

The Beautiful Country and the Middle Kingdom

Pomfret, John

 

Shanghai Redemption

Qiu Xiaolong

 

City of Thorns: Nine Lives in the World’s Largest Refugee Camp

Rawlence, Ben

 

The Perfect Dictatorship: China in the 21st Century

Ringen, Stein

 

Intimate Rivals: Japanese Domestic Politics and a Rising China

Smith, Sheila A.

 

A Short History of China and Southeast Asia: Tribute, Trade and Influence

Stuart-Fox, Martin

 

Middle Kingdom and Empire of the Rising Sun: Sino-Japanese Relations, Past and Present

Teufel-Dreyer, June

 

Force and Contention in Contemporary China: Memory and Resistance in the Long Shadow of the Catastrophic Past

Thaxton, Ralph A.

 

The Deluge: The Great War, America and the Remaking of the Global Order, 1916-1931

Tooze, Adam

 

China Under Mao: A Revolution Derailed

Walder, Andrew G.

 

Eat the Heart of the Infidel: The Harrowing of Nigeria and the Rise of Boko Haram

Walker, Andrew

 

Harmony and War: Confucian Culture and Chinese Power Politics

Wang, Yuan-kang

 

The Underground Railroad

Whitehead, Colson

 

The Red Guard Generation and Political Activism in China

Yang Guobin

How Old Media Got Rolling Paper’s triumph over other media in China was secured by an explosion of Buddhist teaching.

Mr. Monro gives a generous account of the startling intellectual achievements made during this era of Islamic preeminence, from astronomy and mathematics to geography and medicine, all possible because of paper. The rich scholastic environment in the Islamic world, which often drew strength from Greek classics and Hindu sources, is even more impressive when compared with the contemporaneous stagnation of Europe. As late as the 14th century, the Vatican Library held only 2,000 volumes (private book ownership in Europe was banned). Meantime, libraries with tens of thousands of volumes were common in major Islamic capitals, and a Fatimid Dynasty library in Cairo contained 1.6 million books.

Copyright The Wall Street Journal

The trick of the book about a single commodity is to go from the narrow focus on the nominal topic at hand to a sweeping portrait of how it transformed an era, or—even better—how it exercised an unsuspected influence on the deeply hidden machinery of society or global culture. This feat has been pulled off to varying degrees of success in books about sugar, salt, cotton, coffee and, a bit less obviously, cod—so much so that the genre itself has come to feel a bit like a cliché.

Fortunately, that didn’t stop Alexander Monro from undertaking the latest installment in this unofficial series with “The Paper Trail.” In it, he traces the history of paper from its dim origins in China roughly 2,200 years ago through its gradual emergence as the most indispensable global medium of communication for the last half millennium. Paper is still kicking, but its position has suddenly become precarious, thanks to another revolutionary medium, this one digital.

THE PAPER TRAIL

By Alexander Monro

Knopf, 362 pages, $30

Mr. Monro, to his credit, doesn’t come by his arguments crudely. By the end of his book there can be little doubt that he believes that of the items that have transformed civilization, paper and its offspring, bound books, sit near the top of the pile of humanity’s greatest inventions.

He begins his account with the early history of writing in China. True to his roots as a Sinologist, one gets more than passing depth on the country’s early political culture, the rise of China’s competing indigenous religious doctrines, Confucianism and Daoism, and episodes of military and political history, such as the famous burning of libraries by the tyrannical third-century-B.C. Qin Dynasty emperor.

Mr. Monro tells us that the first known reference to paper dates to 217 B.C., when it appears to have been used in a folk cure. “If a man’s hair without reason stands erect like worms, whiskers or eyebrows, he will have encountered a bad spirit. To resolve this, boil a hemp shoe with paper, and the evil will be dismissed,” reads the reference, written on bamboo and excavated from a cave in 1975 in central China.

The substance was popularized by the Hexi Empress, Deng Sui, a formidable woman who ruled during the Han Dynasty for a decade and a half, during the second century A.D., when China introduced the use of paper in the workings of government for the first time anywhere.

But this was a tentative breakthrough, because prestigious texts like Confucian classics were still written on bamboo, giving that medium an elite aura. The fascinating argument that Mr. Monro develops slowly and methodically is that paper’s rise was driven not by the state but by religion, particularly Buddhism. Paper’s definitive triumph over earlier media in China, which included turtle shells, stones, wood, bamboo strips, silk and something called talipat leaves (and in other parts of the world things like papyrus, vellum and parchment), was secured in a kind of symbiosis with the explosion of Buddhist teaching early in the first centuries of the Christian era.

Buddhism eschewed elitism and aimed straight for the masses, many of whom were illiterate and adopted sutras copied out on paper as talismans. During the second and third centuries, a Buddhist clergy began to flourish in China and monks busied themselves frantically translating and publishing scripture on paper, which was cheaper, easier to write on and less bulky than bamboo.

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By the sixth century, private collections of Buddhist writings dwarfed collections of the Confucian classics. “What this foreign religion might have never achieved in China on bamboo, wood or stone alone—namely, a broad market of reader-buyers—had, thanks to the rise of paper, been delivered.”

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