Xi Jinping Tightens His Grip, and China’s Tech Giants Feel the Squeeze


The police have used technology from WeChat’s parent company, Tencent, to monitor crowds at public events. JD.com, Alibaba’s main rival in online shopping, is helping China’s military to upgrade its procurement and logistics systems, state media reported recently. (A JD.com spokesman said, however, that its military cooperation was limited to the procurement of goods available to all customers on its site.)

In scientific research — a focus for Mr. Xi as economic growth becomes harder to sustain — tech giants have joined with government institutes to run labs in fields like quantum computing, deep learning and human-computer interaction. Soon, Chinese citizens may even be able to use their accounts on Tencent’s and Alibaba’s apps as digital versions of their national ID cards.

American tech firms also do business with governments, of course. And they, too, are sometimes asked to hand over user data to law enforcement agencies.

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President Xi Jinping’s government is harnessing Chinese tech companies’ capital and knowledge to realize its goals for the country. Alibaba, the e-commerce giant, is helping cities like Hangzhou manage traffic.

Credit
China Stringer Network, via Reuters

But in the United States, disagreements can be hammered out in court. China’s judiciary is controlled by the Communist Party. Making themselves useful to the government is often the price that Chinese firms must pay for regulatory and financial blessings — even for the very right to exist as a business.

“If you see the situation clearly and are able to move in sync with the state, you will get great support,” Wang Xiaochuan, chief executive of the internet search company Sogou, said in a recent interview with Phoenix Satellite Television. “But if it’s in your nature to say, ‘I want freedom, I want to sing a tune different from the state’s,’ then you might suffer, more so than in the past.”

Phoenix subsequently removed that portion of the interview from its website. A Sogou spokesman declined to comment.

Chinese tech companies have found a variety of ways of moving in sync with Beijing. Last year, they injected money into a struggling state telecom carrier, precisely the kind of company they had long sought to disrupt.

Regulators picked Tencent and Ant Financial, an Alibaba corporate sibling, to build credit-scoring databases, though their role in those efforts has since been curtailed. Still, their systems and data would be key, analysts say, for China’s ambitions to build a broader “social credit” system that would track people’s financial activities, police records and other public behavior.

Until recently, Tencent’s website said its cloud services helped the Communist Party “standardize and streamline party-building work.” But that page was removed after The New York Times asked Tencent about it. The original web address now points to a page that describes how Tencent can help local governments manage data.

“He’s scared the absolute bejesus out of everyone, which doesn’t normally work in tech,” said Ryan Manuel, a fellow at the University of Hong Kong, referring to Mr. Xi, who has been more willing than past leaders to purge officials and arrest high-profile businessmen. “That fear is the antithesis of creativity.”

For many years, as Chinese companies became major players in online services, telecom gear, drones and more, the government neither boosted them nor meddled much in their operations. Now, though, as Beijing aims to make China a world technology leader, it is trying to steer private companies more directly, particularly in research and development.

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Pony Ma, left, Tencent’s chief executive, and Jeff Bezos of Amazon with Mr. Xi in Redmond, Wash., in 2015. Mr. Ma is one of a growing number of Chinese tech leaders who have joined the country’s rubber-stamp Parliament.

Credit
Ted S. Warren, via Associated Press

The government’s “Made in China 2025” plan, which seeks to upgrade national capabilities in electric cars, robotics, semiconductors and other advanced industries, is a big factor behind the spiraling trade tensions with the United States.

In areas such as supercomputers, satellite navigation and drones, Mr. Xi has pushed Chinese companies to work alongside the military to chase breakthroughs. At a speech last month in Beijing, Mr. Xi said that the internet and information technology represented the “most dynamic and promising area for civil-military integration,” according to the state news agency Xinhua.

China’s internet titans have already been roped into the government’s plans to lead in artificial intelligence. Alibaba was designated, in November, as the national champion for developing “smart city” infrastructure. Tencent was picked to fill that role in medical imaging; the search giant Baidu is to lead for self-driving cars. A fourth company, iFlyTek, was named to spearhead voice recognition.

Divvying up an industry before it has matured risks stifling competition, though. And shoehorning companies into specific activities could discourage them from exploring others.

“Having the state define and pick winners and losers is not how long-term sustainable innovation really happens,” said Tai Ming Cheung, a professor at the University of California, San Diego, who studies technological development in China.

Countries that have tried it, from the Soviet Union to Japan, “haven’t really fared well over the long run,” Mr. Cheung said.

China’s record is mixed. In the 1960s and ’70s, Mao’s “two bombs, one satellite” program helped the government develop a nuclear bomb, a ballistic missile and its first satellite. More recently, state guidance has helped Chinese companies gain ground in high-speed rail and renewable power. In other fields, including flat-panel displays and cars, the country’s industrial policy has flopped repeatedly.

For China’s tech giants, working with Beijing has become more important for another reason: Mr. Xi has tightened China’s controls on the internet, and moved with remarkable force against companies that step out of line.

Sina Weibo, a service that resembles Twitter, lost some of its appeal as a raucous forum amid a coordinated crackdown early in Mr. Xi’s tenure on what regulators called rumor-mongering. Last month, regulators clamped down on Bytedance, one of China’s most successful start-ups, shutting down its humor app and ordering it to clean up “vulgar” content on several of its other apps.

As a result, tech potentates are trying harder than ever to keep the leadership happy.

On the third floor of a gleaming Tencent high-rise in Shenzhen, the Communist Party makes its presence within the company literal.

A chart on the wall shows how many employees are party members (more than 8,000 this year). Another display lists the monthly schedule for employees’ party education. (This month’s offering: training sessions on “New Era, New Thought, New Journey.”)

Tencent’s mascot, a jaunty winking penguin, appears throughout with a hammer and sickle on its chest.

Growing numbers of tech industry leaders have also joined the National People’s Congress, China’s rubber-stamp Parliament, and the People’s Political Consultative Conference, an advisory group.

In December, Jack Ma, Alibaba’s executive chairman, announced that the company had started a $1.5 billion poverty relief fund. At a news conference before this year’s legislative session, Pony Ma, Tencent’s chief executive and a returning member of the congress, offered suggestions for improving schools and health care.

“The general secretary’s remarks were very sophisticated and contained a lot of information,” Pony Ma said after discussing innovation with Mr. Xi, according to state media, using one of Mr. Xi’s official titles. “I filled a full six pages with notes.”

Mr. Ma continued: “This is a new opportunity for the rapid development of our innovative companies.”

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China’s Communists Rewrite the Rules for Foreign Businesses


But Cummins’s Chinese partner then rewrote the business’s articles of association to give the party more power, Ms. Hu said. The American manager “has begun to understand it,” she added.

The Communist Party’s rise in the Chinese offices and factories of foreign companies is yet another challenge for multinationals doing business in the country, which has the world’s second-largest economy, trailing only that of the United States. President Trump’s protectionism has put American companies in particular in the middle of a brewing fight between Beijing and Washington.

Foreign companies face growing pressure to share sensitive technology. The Chinese authorities have stepped up efforts to foster a new generation of homegrown competitors meant to someday replace foreign companies.

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A joint venture between Honda and the Chinese automaker Dongfeng builds Civics at this plant in Wuhan, China. Honda changed its legal documents to give the Communist Party a greater role in its Chinese factories.

Credit
Agence France-Presse — Getty Images

Should a trade dispute between China and the United States worsen, Beijing could be moved to intensify the party’s role in foreign business even further, creating yet another headache for businesses operating in China.

The party’s expanding presence in business is part of a broader push by Xi Jinping, China’s president and the party’s top leader, to make it stronger. He has reshaped education to include more Communist Party mythology and increased the party’s role in China’s military. Mr. Xi’s take on Communism — called “Xi Jinping Thought on Socialism with Chinese Characteristics for a New Era” — has been unveiled with great fanfare across the country.

In the business realm, dozens of Chinese state-controlled companies have changed their articles of incorporation to give the party a greater role, including the publicly traded units of some of the world’s biggest companies, like Sinopec, ICBC and China Railway Group. The insurance giant China Pacific Insurance, for example, recently amended its articles of association to say that in key corporate decisions, “the board of directors shall first seek for the opinion of the leading party group of the company.”

“We’ve never seen the party so forcefully articulate its own goals,” said Jude Blanchette, a senior adviser and China head at Crumpton Group. “Companies are now trying to coordinate with the party in a way that doesn’t sacrifice their own shareholder interest.”

The Communist Party has long been part of doing business in China. While party committees are a fixture in many foreign-managed workplaces, they were seen by foreign executives for years as more like social clubs. They would meet to read party announcements, recruit new members, make sure dues were collected and generally keep an eye on operations.

But on at least three occasions in recent months, foreign executives have been approached by their Chinese joint venture partners demanding that they involve internal party committees in strategic decisions, say lawyers and business executives.

“Infiltration by party operatives into the executive circle of foreign-invested enterprises is not extensively apparent at this time but things are certainly going in that direction,” said James Zimmerman, a lawyer in Beijing whose clients include American multinational corporations.

He said several of his clients in joint ventures had received explicit requests to give their internal party organizations a greater say in the company’s operations. At some companies, the requested language requires a board of directors to consult with the committee before making business decisions.

Foreign business associations in China have spoken out. In November, the Delegation of German Industry and Commerce said it was concerned about “proactive calls on foreign-invested companies to promote the development of the Communist Party of China within companies.” The European Chamber of Commerce has called such incidents a “great concern” that would represent “a significant change from the legal framework under which joint ventures were negotiated and under which they have been operating successfully for decades.”

The creeping influence of the party in foreign offices and factories is a sensitive subject in a country where the party seems ready to punish anyone who questions its widening influence. Many companies are loath to discuss the issue.

Cummins, for example, declined to comment on the changes to its joint venture’s articles of incorporation that gave the party greater power. Cummins had not “experienced any challenges or impact due to the structure we have in place and the role of the Chinese Communist Party,” a spokesman said.

Cummins’s Chinese partner, Dongfeng Motor Group, has recently taken steps to intensify the party’s activities at its other joint ventures, according to an article last year from Xinhua, China’s official news agency. They include ventures with Peugeot Citroën, the French automaker; Honda, of Japan; and Dana, the American auto parts maker.

Dongfeng’s other partners, like Peugeot and Dana, did not respond to repeated requests for comment. A Honda spokesman declined to comment about its partnership with Dongfeng.

However, the Honda spokesman confirmed that the party claimed a more assertive role in another joint venture with a different Chinese company, GAC Group.

GAC, an automaker owned by Guangzhou Automobile Group, is pushing its joint ventures to change their articles of association to give the party a greater role, a spokeswoman said. In addition to Honda, it has joint ventures with Toyota and Mitsubishi, both of which declined to comment.

In November, at the most important Communist Party meeting, which takes place every five years, Mr. Xi called on officials to strengthen the party in “government, the military, society and schools, north, south, east and west.” The message was quick to reach party members lower down in the ranks.

Soon after Mr. Xi’s speech, party officials in the central province of Hunan issued a notice to members instructing them to write the party into legal documents for private and state-owned companies alike. The document was accidentally made public when a local state-owned newspaper published it, but it was quickly taken down.

Over the past year, the state-owned oil giant Sinopec has begun to ask its foreign joint venture partners to legally require “party-building work,” according to one executive with direct knowledge of the requests who was not authorized to speak publicly. Party building is an amorphous term that can mean general recruiting and educating but can also refer to more direct, specific activity. The foreign executive told Sinopec that putting the party in the joint venture’s legal documents would pose major problems for the head office overseas.

Sinopec did not respond to several requests for comment.

Dongfeng Motors, Cummins’s partner and one of China’s biggest carmakers, has long had strong Communist Party ties.

Instructors at Communist Party schools have used Dongfeng’s joint venture with Nissan as a model of how the party can be involved with business, according to the book “The Party” by Richard McGregor. When the partnership was negotiated, Dongfeng insisted that the new company give the chief party representative a senior management role, with a salary and compensation for expenses.

Today, Dongfeng’s Communist Party committees are working to expand their influence further. In other Dongfeng joint ventures, committees have tried to make the party more relevant for employees by holding social events.

In 2016, a group of employees from Dongfeng-Cummins traveled to the site of the Communist Party’s first base, according to Dongfeng’s website. On a rainy day, the group dressed in Red Army outfits, huddled together to hold a red flag with the hammer and sickle and smiled for the camera.

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Why China Is Confident It Can Beat Trump in a Trade War


In the political realm, however, Mr. Xi enjoys advantages that may allow him to cope with the economic fallout far better than Mr. Trump can. His authoritarian grip on the news media and the party means there is little room for criticism of his policies, even as Mr. Trump must contend with complaints from American companies and consumers before important midterm elections in November.

The Chinese government also has much greater control over the economy, allowing it to shield the public from job cuts or factory closings by ordering banks to support industries suffering from American tariffs. It can spread the pain of a trade war while tolerating years of losses from state-run companies that dominate major sectors of the economy.

“My impression is that there is in Washington an exaggerated sense of how painful these tariffs might be” in China, said Arthur R. Kroeber, managing director of Gavekal Dragonomics, a research firm in Beijing.

Photo

The highly centralized government under President Xi Jinping and pervasive state control of the news media could allow China to withstand economic shocks from a trade war.

Credit
Kevin Frayer/Getty Images

At worst, he estimated, the American actions could shave one- tenth of a percentage point off China’s economic growth — hardly enough to force a drastic reversal of policies, given the enormous benefits that Chinese leaders see in the state-heavy economic model they have relied on in recent decades.

At the same time, Chinese officials seem to believe they can take advantage of what they consider vulnerabilities in the American political system.

“The American agricultural sector is quite influential in the Congress,” said Wang Yong, a professor of economics at Peking University, explaining why China has targeted farm products such as soybeans with possible retaliatory tariffs. “China wants the American domestic political system to do the work.”

There are already signs it might. Hours after China’s announcement on Wednesday, Trump administration officials sought to calm fears that a trade war was imminent, suggesting that they might not pull the trigger on a plan to impose tariffs on $50 billion in Chinese goods such as flat-screen televisions, medical devices and industrial machinery.

Speaking earlier in the day, Mr. Zhu, the vice minister of finance, even thanked American soybean farmers and the association that represents them for declaring their opposition to the Trump administration’s plan.

In addition to soybeans, China threatened to retaliate with tariffs on American cars, chemicals and other products. The 106 goods, many produced in parts of the country that have supported Mr. Trump, were selected to deliver a warning that American workers and consumers would suffer in a protracted standoff.

“If anyone wants to fight, we will be there with him,” Mr. Zhu said, more or less outlining the terms for an American surrender: the removal of unilateral tariffs and a resolution of any grievances through the World Trade Organization. “If he wants to negotiate, the door is open.”

Globally, China’s strategy has been to isolate the United States, splitting it from allies in Europe and Asia who otherwise share American concerns about heavy-handed Chinese trade policies intended to protect key markets and to acquire technology from foreign firms.

Photo

Ford cars at an automotive dealership in Shanghai on Thursday. American cars could also face new tariffs.

Credit
Aly Song/Reuters

Mr. Kroeber said a united front against China would be more effective than American tariffs alone, but so far Mr. Trump has not managed to build one.

Instead, Mr. Xi has largely succeeded in occupying the high moral ground on the world stage, projecting China as the sober-minded steward of international agreements on issues — from global trade to climate change — that Mr. Trump has been eager to walk away from.

“The American side is ready to launch a trade war at the slightest pretext,” the party’s flagship newspaper, People’s Daily, wrote in a blistering editorial on Thursday, condemning Mr. Trump’s tariffs as “totally against the trend of economic globalization.”

“Today, it targets China, and tomorrow may take aim at other countries,” it said.

The party has also seized on the trade dispute as new evidence that the United States is intent on undermining China’s rise as a global power, a central narrative used to justify the party’s, and Mr. Xi’s, rule.

In December, the state news media also highlighted the new National Security Strategy unveiled by the Trump administration, which declared that China “sought to displace the United States in the Indo-Pacific region, expand the reaches of its state-driven economic model, and reorder the region in its favor.”

The document signaled a bipartisan shift in Washington’s posture toward China after decades of economic cooperation and concessions. The party has argued that the United States is only now challenging China because it fears losing its privileged place in the world order.

“The latest U.S. measures against China carry a sense of containment, which purportedly is commonplace among U.S. politicians,” said an editorial in Global Times, a nationalist state-run tabloid. “But they have overlooked the fact that China has grown to be another economic center of the world.”

It went on to note that China’s market was now “no smaller or less attractive” than the American one — a bit of an exaggeration perhaps, but not as big as it would have been a decade ago. And that makes the country a more formidable opponent than Mr. Trump may have anticipated.

“To take China down,” the editorial said, “would mean an unimaginably cruel battle for the U.S.”

Continue reading the main story

Why China Is Confident It Can Beat Trump in a Trade War


In the political realm, however, Mr. Xi enjoys advantages that may allow him to cope with the economic fallout far better than Mr. Trump can. His authoritarian grip on the news media and the party means there is little room for criticism of his policies, even as Mr. Trump must contend with complaints from American companies and consumers before important midterm elections in November.

The Chinese government also has much greater control over the economy, allowing it to shield the public from job cuts or factory closings by ordering banks to support industries suffering from American tariffs. It can spread the pain of a trade war while tolerating years of losses from state-run companies that dominate major sectors of the economy.

“My impression is that there is in Washington an exaggerated sense of how painful these tariffs might be” in China, said Arthur R. Kroeber, managing director of Gavekal Dragonomics, a research firm in Beijing.

Photo

The highly centralized government under President Xi Jinping and pervasive state control of the news media could allow China to withstand economic shocks from a trade war.

Credit
Kevin Frayer/Getty Images

At worst, he estimated, the American actions could shave one- tenth of a percentage point off China’s economic growth — hardly enough to force a drastic reversal of policies, given the enormous benefits that Chinese leaders see in the state-heavy economic model they have relied on in recent decades.

At the same time, Chinese officials seem to believe they can take advantage of what they consider vulnerabilities in the American political system.

“The American agricultural sector is quite influential in the Congress,” said Wang Yong, a professor of economics at Peking University, explaining why China has targeted farm products such as soybeans with possible retaliatory tariffs. “China wants the American domestic political system to do the work.”

There are already signs it might. Hours after China’s announcement on Wednesday, Trump administration officials sought to calm fears that a trade war was imminent, suggesting that they might not pull the trigger on a plan to impose tariffs on $50 billion in Chinese goods such as flat-screen televisions, medical devices and industrial machinery.

Speaking earlier in the day, Mr. Zhu, the vice minister of finance, even thanked American soybean farmers and the association that represents them for declaring their opposition to the Trump administration’s plan.

In addition to soybeans, China threatened to retaliate with tariffs on American cars, chemicals and other products. The 106 goods, many produced in parts of the country that have supported Mr. Trump, were selected to deliver a warning that American workers and consumers would suffer in a protracted standoff.

“If anyone wants to fight, we will be there with him,” Mr. Zhu said, more or less outlining the terms for an American surrender: the removal of unilateral tariffs and a resolution of any grievances through the World Trade Organization. “If he wants to negotiate, the door is open.”

Globally, China’s strategy has been to isolate the United States, splitting it from allies in Europe and Asia who otherwise share American concerns about heavy-handed Chinese trade policies intended to protect key markets and to acquire technology from foreign firms.

Photo

Ford cars at an automotive dealership in Shanghai on Thursday. American cars could also face new tariffs.

Credit
Aly Song/Reuters

Mr. Kroeber said a united front against China would be more effective than American tariffs alone, but so far Mr. Trump has not managed to build one.

Instead, Mr. Xi has largely succeeded in occupying the high moral ground on the world stage, projecting China as the sober-minded steward of international agreements on issues — from global trade to climate change — that Mr. Trump has been eager to walk away from.

“The American side is ready to launch a trade war at the slightest pretext,” the party’s flagship newspaper, People’s Daily, wrote in a blistering editorial on Thursday, condemning Mr. Trump’s tariffs as “totally against the trend of economic globalization.”

“Today, it targets China, and tomorrow may take aim at other countries,” it said.

The party has also seized on the trade dispute as new evidence that the United States is intent on undermining China’s rise as a global power, a central narrative used to justify the party’s, and Mr. Xi’s, rule.

In December, the state news media also highlighted the new National Security Strategy unveiled by the Trump administration, which declared that China “sought to displace the United States in the Indo-Pacific region, expand the reaches of its state-driven economic model, and reorder the region in its favor.”

The document signaled a bipartisan shift in Washington’s posture toward China after decades of economic cooperation and concessions. The party has argued that the United States is only now challenging China because it fears losing its privileged place in the world order.

“The latest U.S. measures against China carry a sense of containment, which purportedly is commonplace among U.S. politicians,” said an editorial in Global Times, a nationalist state-run tabloid. “But they have overlooked the fact that China has grown to be another economic center of the world.”

It went on to note that China’s market was now “no smaller or less attractive” than the American one — a bit of an exaggeration perhaps, but not as big as it would have been a decade ago. And that makes the country a more formidable opponent than Mr. Trump may have anticipated.

“To take China down,” the editorial said, “would mean an unimaginably cruel battle for the U.S.”

Continue reading the main story

Feature: The Case of Hong Kong’s Missing Booksellers


Across the table, Lam recognized one of the officers from his run-in at the same border crossing three years earlier. His name was Li. Beside him sat an older man who identified himself as a member of the national police and who handled the questioning. Why were you bringing books across the border? he asked. “I’m a bookseller,” Lam responded. “There’s no treason in having books while crossing the border.” Li answered with an icy glare.

Partway through the questioning, the older officer got up for a break, leaving Lam alone with Li. The two men sat in awkward silence until Lam, reaching for the conviviality of their last encounter, offered a joke. Li exploded. Lam, he said, was trying to disrupt the Chinese system, and as part of a special investigative unit, it was his job to dismantle Hong Kong’s illicit publishing scene once and for all. Lam was stunned into silence.

Over the next eight months, Lam would find himself the unwitting central character in a saga that would hardly feel out of place in one of his thrillers. His ordeal marked the beginning of a Chinese effort to reach beyond the mainland to silence the country’s critics or their enablers no matter where they were or what form that criticism took. Following his arrest, China has seized a Hong Kong billionaire from the city’s Four Seasons Hotel, spiriting him away in a wheelchair with his head covered by a blanket; blocked a local democracy activist from entering Thailand for a conference; and repatriated and imprisoned Muslim Chinese students who had been in Egypt.

The campaign signaled the dawn of a new era in Chinese power, both at home and abroad. At a national Communist Party congress in October 2017, President Xi Jinping made clear the party’s expansive vision of control. “The party exercises overall leadership over all areas of endeavor in every part of the country,” he told delegates. No corner of society was out of reach. Even books — “socialist literature,” in Xi’s words — must extol “our party, our country, our people and our heroes.” A few months later, the government erased presidential term limits, opening the way for Xi to rule indefinitely, and put control of all media, including books, in the hands of the Communist Party’s Central Propaganda Department.

The Chinese government has long sought to shape and control information, but the scope and intensity of this effort was something new — and its origins could be traced to a 61-year-old bookseller and a few stacks of forbidden titles. “I never expected anything like this, just as a poor man never dreams of striking it rich overnight,” Lam said. Throughout his ordeal, he had to remind himself that in China, as in his books, the line between the outlandish and the ordinary is often too thin to register. “Contemporary China,” he said, “is an absurd country.”

Ask a publisher in Hong Kong and he or she will tell you that the phrase “banned books” is something of a misnomer. No one within Hong Kong, a semiautonomous Chinese territory, wanted to squash the publishing industry. That dictate came from Beijing and held limited legal force in Hong Kong. For 60 years the city had protection from direct interference, first as a British colony and then, since 1997, under an agreement with Beijing known as “One Country, Two Systems.”

The first important book to be banned was by Chang Kuo-tao, a founder of the Chinese Communist Party and a Red Army general who was both a colleague and competitor of Mao Zedong. Mao ousted him during the power struggles of the 1930s, and Chang settled just across the border in Hong Kong. After years in exile, living in poverty and anonymity, he was discovered by American researchers — still the same handsome, square-jawed man he had been in his youth — and they provided him with a stipend to translate and publish his memoirs.

Photo

Censored in China: “My Memories,” by Chang Kuo-tao, a general and a founder of the Chinese Communist Party.

Credit
Sim Chi Yin for The New York Times

Chang’s autobiography, released in Hong Kong in the late 1960s, offered a glimpse into the beliefs, motivations and obsessions of Mao at a time when the mainland was almost totally inaccessible to outsiders. Chang portrayed Mao as a ruthless leader, paranoid and inured to the use of violence in pursuit of his goals. Mainland censors denounced the book almost immediately, but in Hong Kong, it was an instant best seller. Aided by an air of forbidden allure and the indication of a huge, untapped market, an industry of similar books began to form.

Bao Pu, the founder and publisher of New Century Press, is one of Hong Kong’s most respected independent publishers. When I visited him in November, he found his copy of Chang’s book, “My Memories,” easily, even amid the rows of overflowing shelves that house his personal collection. “Here it is,” he said, carefully turning the yellowed pages. “The very first banned book.”

Chang’s memoirs spawned an entire subgenre of Mao biographies, with onetime insiders racing to share every detail of their experience with Communist China’s revered founder. Bao reached for a title written by Mao’s longtime personal physician. “This was the first big banned book after the reforms in the 1980s,” he said, handing me a red-and-black hardcover titled “The Private Life of Chairman Mao,” published in 1994. The book gave an insider’s account of party politics and high-level scheming, but it was the description of Mao’s sexual interests that readers found irresistible. “It was the first time the mainland-owned stores refused a book, and the independent bookstores made a killing,” Bao said. I thumbed through its pages of Chinese text:

At 67, Mao was past his original projection for the age at which sexual activity stops but, curiously, only then did his complaints of impotence cease altogether. It was then that he became an adherent of Daoist sexual practices, which gave him an excuse to pursue sex not only for pleasure but also to extend his life. He was happiest and most satisfied with several young women simultaneously sharing his bed. He encouraged his sexual partners to introduce him to others for shared orgies, supposedly in the interest of his longevity and strength.

In Bao’s library, you could read an alternate history of China, each neatly arranged stack a turning point in modern Chinese politics. The Chinese elite “can’t leak out information in official channels,” says Bruce Lui, a senior lecturer in the Department of Journalism at Hong Kong Baptist University. “So what they can do is use Hong Kong as a platform” to spread gossip anonymously, praise their own camp and belittle opponents. Hong Kong’s publishing houses became an extension of the political battlefield in Beijing.

Photo

Bao Pu, the founder and publisher of New Century Press, at a book warehouse in Hong Kong.

Credit
Sim Chi Yin for The New York Times

In 1966, at the start of the decade-long spasm of violence and mass purges known as the Cultural Revolution, universities were closed and millions of supposed bourgeois sympathizers were “sent down” to the countryside for re-education through labor. Dissidents and defectors smuggled out pamphlets, firsthand accounts and other forbidden materials, which circulated in Hong Kong and beyond. During the crackdown that followed the Tiananmen Square protests in 1989, Hong Kong’s magazines, newspapers and bookstores were once again a haven for “nonofficial” information. In Bao’s repository, there was an entire shelf devoted to liu si, “6-4,” a reference in Mandarin to the date of the Tiananmen crackdown. For Bao, that shelf alone proved the worth of the industry. He was a college student in Beijing in 1989 and witnessed the whitewashing that followed the Tiananmen protests. “I hate it when history is lost or revised away,” he told me. “The erasure of what happened at Tiananmen is something I won’t allow. It’ll happen over my dead body.”

One memoir, by a high-ranking Communist official who had been ousted and placed under house arrest for backing the demands of the student demonstrators, revealed in a firsthand account how the leadership grappled with what to do as the protests grew more popular and widespread:

In the end, Deng Xiaoping made the final decision. He said: “Since there is no way to back down without the situation spiraling completely out of control, the decision is to move troops into Beijing and impose martial law.” … On the night of June 3, while sitting in the courtyard with my family, I heard intense gunfire. A tragedy to shock the world had not been averted and was happening after all.

Alongside the scholarly works and memoirs on Bao’s shelves were tawdrier titles, many of them simply compilations of online gossip. For some members of Hong Kong’s literati, these books were a stain on the city’s reputation. Bao had no interest in publishing fictitious tales of sex and corruption, but he saw a larger purpose in their plotlines. “They reach a different audience, and in their rumor-mongering, they share glimpses of truth,” he said, as he traced his finger across the spine of a salacious, anonymously published work. “They tell the Chinese people that their leaders aren’t saints,” he said. “They’re just like you and me — they’re petty, they make mistakes, they don’t act morally.” Xi Jinping himself was a popular target in titles like “Xi Jinping and His Lovers,” which claimed to reveal the president in his most intimate moments:

Outside the door, Lingling shouts, “Big brother Xi, please help me, I’m in the kitchen cooking dumplings.” Xi Jinping hurriedly runs out, enters the kitchen and embraces Ke Lingling. “My father will be back soon. My father is about to be rehabilitated.”

Lingling quickly pushes him away, saying, “Oh, my, the way you embraced me, others would tease us.”

Bao grew somber as he looked over his collection. After Lam’s disappearance, he said, the mainland had cracked down on banned books with its full might. He knew from his Tiananmen experience what that meant. “There is no way to resist,” he said. “Except to die.”

Photo

“The Private Life of Chairman Mao: The Memoirs of Mao’s Personal Physician,” by Li Zhisui.

Credit
Sim Chi Yin for The New York Times

The morning after his interrogation, Lam was blindfolded, handcuffed and put on a train for an unknown destination. His captors didn’t say a word. When the train came to a halt 13 hours later, Lam’s escorts shoved him into a car and drove him to a nearby building, where they removed his hat, blindfold and glasses. He took stock of his situation: He was in an unknown location in an unknown city, being held by officers whose identity and affiliation he could not ascertain. He still hadn’t been charged with a crime. A doctor arrived to perform a cursory health check. Lam was shown to a cell with a bed and a desk, handed a change of clothes and told to go to sleep.

Lying awake, Lam wondered whether anyone in Hong Kong realized he was missing. What would his family think? Who would tell his ex-wife or his girlfriend in Shenzhen? For years, Lam had owned and managed his bookstore independently, but he had recently sold the shop to a publishing house — maybe his predicament had something to do with their titles? The publishing house, called Mighty Current Media, entered the banned-books market in 2012, with impeccable timing. An ambitious Central Politburo member named Bo Xilai, who some China-watchers thought could be the country’s next leader — ahead of the rising star Xi Jinping — had been implicated, along with his wife, in the murder of a British businessman named Neil Heywood in a Chongqing hotel room. In less than two years, Bo was denounced, demoted and expelled from the party. His wife was convicted of murder and Bo of corruption. A potential future president had been deposed with the world watching.

For Hong Kong publishers, Bo’s downfall was a dream: a real-life soap opera playing out at the very pinnacle of Chinese power. As the market for information on Bo reached a frenzied peak, Mighty Current churned out books chronicling every new development in the scandal. In just one year, there were more than 100 books published in Hong Kong about him, with Mighty Current accounting for half. Bookstores reported sales of 300 copies a day. Mighty Current’s co-owner, Gui Minhai, is believed to have earned more than $1 million in 2013 alone. He bought houses, cars and a property in a Thai resort town. Lam’s bookstore was filled with eager new customers, and in 2014 a group from Mighty Current came inquiring about the store in a bid to combine their prolific publishing output with the shop’s reputation and large customer base. As part of the deal, Lam agreed to stay on as manager — just until he could retire.

At sunrise, Lam was questioned by a tall, dour man named Shi. Who were Lam’s customers? What did they buy? How often did they come in? Later that day, he was presented with forms waiving his right to a lawyer and to contact his family. Still unaware of the severity of his situation, Lam signed them, hoping his cooperation might shorten his detention. The interrogations by Shi and another official continued. As days turned into weeks, Lam began to mark time by secretly pulling a thread off his orange jacket and tying one knot in the string each day. He pretended to use the toilet in his cell in order to climb atop the seat and peer out the window at a few distant hilltops and a handful of nearby buildings, but he saw nothing that would answer the question of where he was being held. In January 2016, more than two months after he began counting the length of his detention, Lam was informed of the charge against him: “illegal sales of books.”

Eventually, the questions shifted to Mighty Current’s anonymous authors. Sitting across from Lam, his interrogators produced a stack of banned books, all published by Mighty Current and shipped to China by Lam. One was the company’s risqué “Xi Jinping and His Lovers”; another, published in 2013, outlined the party’s so-called Seven Taboos, a list of forbidden topics and ideas like “press freedom” and “civil society”; a third book remarkably predicted the ouster of a once-powerful general named Xu Caihou.

Who wrote these books? Shi demanded. Lam replied that he was just the bookseller and had never communicated with any of the authors. This was true — most authors requested anonymity from publishers, and it was almost always granted to protect any well-placed sources. Lam had no idea who the authors were.

Lam’s interrogations would end as abruptly as they began, and he would be left alone in the same solitary cell. “From day to night, no one would talk to me,” he said. “You have a complete disconnection from the outside world. You don’t know what will happen. They can do anything to you.” He grew increasingly desperate. “The wait destroys you.”

In January 2016, unknown to Lam, news of his disappearance spread. Other members of Mighty Current’s staff and its owners had also mysteriously vanished. But sitting in his cell, Lam thought he was alone. It was only after several weeks of solitude that he was allowed even a book to pass the time: “Dream of the Red Chamber,” a classic 18th-century novel. Lam’s captors wanted him to read something wholesome.

That March, more than four months into his detention, Lam met with his interrogator to sign a guilty plea as a precondition for a possible bail arrangement. A few hours later, to his shock, he was put on a train back to Shenzhen, just north of Hong Kong, where he was taken to the Kylin Villa, a sprawling, sumptuous hotel complex usually reserved for foreign dignitaries and high-level delegations from Beijing. The next night, Lam entered an elegant dining room and saw three familiar faces seated at a large circular table — fellow staff members from Mighty Current. Places were set, and the men were served a dinner.

The group chose their words carefully. With a guard and three security cameras monitoring every whisper, some topics were tacitly off-limits, like the fate of the one person missing from the table: the co-owner Gui Minhai. As the meal progressed, they established that they had all been held in the city of Ningbo, on China’s southeastern coast; three, including Lam, on different levels of the same building, and one, the company’s other co-owner, Lee Bo, in a secluded villa outside the city. “If we cooperate,” Lam remembered Lee telling the other men, “we’ll be released very quickly.”

Lee handed each of his colleagues 100,000 yuan, or roughly $15,300 — an “exit fee” to mark the dissolution of Mighty Current. As the men departed, they did not hug or shake hands. “There was no need to hug,” Lam told me. “We already knew how lucky we were to make it to that point.”

Lam was transferred to a new city for the next phase of his detention. There, he was told he would be permitted to return to Hong Kong, but only on the condition that, upon arrival, he report immediately to a police station and tell them his disappearance was all a misunderstanding. He would then go to the home of Lee Bo and pick up a computer containing information on the publisher’s clients and authors, which he would deliver to China. Only then would Lam be allowed to return to work in his bookstore — but as a mole, the “eyes and ears” of the investigation. He would report who bought which books, documenting each client and sale through text and photos. Lam agreed to the proposal immediately. “After being in prison for so long,” he said, “I was used to their way of thinking.”

On a June morning, Lam arrived in Hong Kong and reported to a nearby police station, as directed. Local officers were expecting him. He cleared his case — telling the police that he had never been in danger — and headed to Lee’s home in order to retrieve the computer. There, finally alone, the men spoke freely about their situation. Lam learned that his bookstore had been bought by a man named Chan, who promptly closed it. According to Lam, Lee also described his own capture and how he had been snatched from the parking lot of Mighty Current’s warehouse building. He urged Lam to comply with the investigators’ demands.

That night, alone in his hotel room, Lam violated the conditions of his limited release, using his phone to search for news about his case. His eyes widened as he scrolled through news reports — hundreds of them, in English, Cantonese, Mandarin, French and Spanish. He saw his name and the names of his Mighty Current colleagues appear again and again. When Hong Kong learned of his abduction, the revelation sparked fear and anger. Headlines denounced the “unprecedented” capture and Hong Kong’s “vanishing freedoms.” Lam saw photos of thousands of protesters marching through the streets, holding posters of the missing booksellers and demanding their release; Lam’s shuttered shop had become a site of pilgrimage. He hadn’t been forgotten but instead had become the center of a movement. Lam sat up all night, the glow of his phone illuminating each new twist in a case that he had lived through but never understood until now.

On the morning he was expected back on the mainland, Lam arrived at the train station with the company computer in his backpack. He paused to smoke a cigarette, then another. Other Mighty Current employees had friends, family or wives on the mainland. “Among all of us,” Lam told me, “I carried the smallest burden.” He thought of a short poem by Shu Xiangcheng that he read when he was young: “I have never seen/a knelt reading desk/though I’ve seen/men of knowledge on their knees.”

After he finished his third cigarette, he searched for a pay phone to contact a local politician named Albert Ho, who was once a frequent customer at the bookstore. A few hours later, Lam was standing behind a lectern amid hundreds of reporters, photographers and news cameras at the Hong Kong Legislative Council. He spoke for more than an hour, describing his capture and detention. His sudden public appearance riveted Hong Kong. Other Mighty Current employees had been spotted in the city, but none spoke about their experience, and when they did, they parroted the same talking points: that their stay on the Chinese mainland had been voluntary and they were now helping authorities with an important case. It was Lam who put words to what the city had feared and suspected all along.

“It can happen to you, too,” Lam said.

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Lam Wing-kee outside his former shop, Causeway Bay Bookstore, which is now closed.

Credit
Sim Chi Yin for The New York Times

At the time of Lam’s abduction, banned books were everywhere in Hong Kong, sold throughout the city at big-box retailers, specialized cafes and corner convenience stores. Within days of his disappearance, they began to vanish, swept off shelves by mainland-owned shops and frightened independent booksellers. Authors were cowed into silence; presses refused to print sensitive material. The latest act of intimidation occurred this January, when the former owner of Mighty Current, Gui Minhai, who had been granted limited release within China, was abducted again, this time while accompanied by Swedish diplomats on a train to Beijing (he holds Swedish citizenship). When the Swedish government pressed China for details on Gui’s whereabouts, the authorities refused to acknowledge that he had been taken. Gui soon appeared in a videotaped confession, apologizing for his supposed crimes and saying the diplomats had tricked him into boarding the train.

China’s aggressiveness continues to rattle Hong Kong. “In the past, at least they tried to comply with one country, two systems,” said James To, a legislator in Hong Kong. “This time they were blatant.” For many local residents, the lesson was clear. “One day they will come and snatch you back,” To said. “There is no protection at all.”

When I met Lam one balmy night on the streets of Hong Kong, he radiated a nervous energy, eyes perpetually darting and a cigarette never far from reach. He had thought about leaving Hong Kong and making a new life in Taiwan or the United States, but he didn’t want to abandon the city where he was born. Still, he knew that the odds of Hong Kong’s remaining autonomous were slim. “I think Hong Kong will return to China,” he told me. “They have the guns, the jails. We have nothing here in Hong Kong. All we can do is protest peacefully and try to make the world pay attention.”

The police protection that Lam was granted following his return had lapsed by then, and he maintained a studied paranoia about his movements and appearance. “I still have to use different routes and be cautious of everything and everyone around me,” he told me in a conspiratorial whisper. His old bookstore was blocks away. He pulled on a pollution mask and hat, obscuring his face, and we navigated the thick crowds. On the subway, he waited until the last second to hop off, and never rode the escalator. “I use the elevator,” he said. “If someone is following me, they have to get in with me.”

We soon reached a small doorway leading to a grimy staircase. On the second floor was Causeway Bay Bookstore, its wooden door hidden behind metal bars. A large yellow sign was filled with the scribbled notes of well-wishers. “Fight for freedom,” one said. “Come back safe, Mr. Lam,” read another. There remained an unanswered question at the heart of Lam’s disappearance: Of all the city’s rebellious publishers, why was Mighty Current targeted? Did the company insult Xi personally? Perhaps fittingly, there are few facts, but boundless speculation. “Our popularity could not be allowed,” Lam told me. “It caught up to us.”

Lam leaned close to peer through the shop window. There were still books inside, scattered on dusty shelves and wooden tables. “I sold over 4,000 banned books in the two years before I was captured,” he said. “This bookstore has always been at the pulse of Hong Kong, and it hasn’t stopped breathing.” He longed for the store’s resurrection, but it wasn’t coming back.

“What you’re doing is writing an obituary,” Bao, the New Century publisher, told me when we met in November. “A post-cremation obituary of these books.” He seemed almost shellshocked by the swiftness of the industry’s downfall. “I didn’t realize it could all disappear so quickly.”

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The Saturday Profile: Shining a Cleansing Light on China’s Dark Secrets


The party frets so much that Mr. Shen — who possesses a blue-ribbon political pedigree — cannot get access even to documents deemed accessible under a law passed in 1996 that said archives would be open to the public after 30 years. The law has never been followed.

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China’s version of President Richard M. Nixon’s visit in 1972 and its accounts of earlier trips by Henry A. Kissinger remain largely unknown because the Communist Party has blocked even Chinese historians from looking into its files.

Credit
Associated Press

Hence, China’s version of Nixon’s visit in 1972 and its accounts of the precursor trips by Henry Kissinger remain largely unknown. What went on between Mao and the North Korean leader Kim Il-sung during the Korean War is only sketchily understood from China’s point of view.

With Xia Yafeng of Long Island University, Mr. Shen is the author of the seminal work on China’s relations with North Korea, “A Misunderstood Friendship: Mao Zedong, Kim Il-sung and Sino-North Korean relations 1949-1976,” which will be published in English later this year. The book relies heavily on the archives in Moscow and Central Europe that tumbled open after the collapse of the Soviet Union.

But he made some lucky finds in libraries in northeastern China, too, while also extracting papers from reluctant librarians at China’s major archives. And through his connections with top party officials, he secured access to a memorandum of conversations between Mao and the North Korean leader, a trove that had never before been made public.

In the book, Mr. Shen demolishes the myth that China and North Korea were tightly allied, “as close as lips to teeth,” as China’s propagandists insisted. He shows that even before the start of the Korean War in 1950, relations between the two newly installed Communist parties were tense. Mr. Kim, the grandfather of the current North Korean leader, Kim Jong-un, invaded South Korea without notifying Mao. The Chinese were informed three days after the fact.

Despite his current pursuits, Mr. Shen is hardly the scholarly sort who has spent his life buried in the stacks. He started out as a crack Navy pilot, but that ended when he was falsely accused of murder by a jailhouse snitch. Mr. Shen was freed after the informer recanted, but was jailed again in the early 1980s on an accusation of spying for the United States.

Mr. Shen says the spying charge stemmed from his giving some articles and documents on Chinese agrarian reform to an American student who, unbeknown to him, was suspected by the authorities of having links to the C.I.A.

During his two years in prison, he invented a way to write by fashioning an empty toothpaste tube into a pen. He asked for books on Mao, Marx and Lenin (“The prison authorities didn’t dare deny that”), and wrote notes for his first work — on Soviet agriculture — in the margins of the Soviet Union’s “New Economic Policy,” using an upturned washbowl balanced on his knees as a desk.

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A picture of Mao Zedong and the founder of North Korea, Kim Il-sung, displayed in Hekou, China, in 2013. In his new book, Mr. Shen demolishes the myth that China and North Korea were tightly allied during the Cold War, “as close as lips to teeth,” as China’s propagandists insisted.

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How Hwee Young/European Pressphoto Agency

When he got out of jail the second time, he had weathered enough to know that his personal diary — a foot-high stack of notebooks going back to high school — was a time bomb, one that the authorities could use for blackmail.

So in 1985, before heading to southern China to begin a career in business, he burned the diaries, tossing them page by page into a coal furnace, an odd act for someone who would later campaign for the preservation of records. “Very bittersweet,” he said. “I didn’t want to leave anything in writing which might cause me further trouble.”

It was the period of China’s economic reforms, and Mr. Shen became a successful gold trader, eventually earning enough to quit the business and devote himself full-time to his historical research.

Mr. Shen grew up in Beijing, the son of a successful Communist Party bureaucrat who rose to become the second in command of China’s prison system. Despite Mr. Shen’s run-ins with the communist system, he holds an almost perfect Communist Party pedigree: his father had joined Mao at his army base in Yan’an during the civil war and his father-in-law was a good friend of the father of the current president, Mr. Xi.

He appreciates that delving into the Communist Party’s past requires functioning like a guerrilla historian, not a starchy academic, so he has taken his drive for transparency beyond China’s borders.

His government-funded Research Institute for Asian Neighborhood Studies in Shanghai allows Mr. Shen and his students to travel to one-party states in Asia and Eastern Europe to collect documents that are then copied and cataloged at the institute.

North Korea would seem a natural hunting ground. On a visit to Beijing, a senior North Korean official invited Mr. Shen to Pyongyang to look at the archives, airfare and lodging paid, but he declined. “I was worried if I went, I wouldn’t be allowed out.”

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Framed copies of communications related to China’s entry into the Korean War hang in Mr. Shen’s living room.

Credit
Bryan Denton for The New York Times

During his travels around China, he is not shy about offering his opinions on the current situation on the Korean Peninsula. He caused a stir last year when he told a closed-door seminar that China would be better off allying with South Korea than the North. (The lecture later circulated on the internet.)

“You can see how much attention and admiration he commands when he speaks at forums in China,” said Charles Kraus, a historian who specializes in China at the Wilson Center in Washington, where Mr. Shen is a senior fellow. “In Changchun in 2015 I remember there were even Shen Zhihua fanboys waiting in the hotel lobby hoping to catch a glimpse of him and get him to autograph books.”

Mr. Shen will never give up the chase for China’s historical secrets. But he wonders if the really important documents even exist at this point.

When they left office, many senior officials ransacked the files. Zhou Enlai’s wife is rumored to have taken archives and shredded them. Mao’s wife is believed to have destroyed documents, too.

The Chinese Communist Party kept far fewer records than the party in the Soviet Union, where the unleashing of the archives led to a whole new industry of Cold War history.

“Russia has a tradition of keeping records,” he said. “The Chinese Communist Party grew out of an underground operation, was very secretive and didn’t record many things. Of the 1950s Politburo meetings there are few records. They never wrote things down.”

He is thankful his political connections have helped him to at least get in the door of important Chinese archives. But being inside is often not enough.

A friend in the bureaucracy once explained the problem, he said: “ ‘You know about the 1996 law,’ ” the friend told him, “ ‘But you don’t know about the 10 no’s. There’s no looking up religion, diplomacy, personal affairs of state leaders.’ I said, ‘What can I look up?’ The person said, ‘Basically nothing.’ ”

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Trump Says Getting Tough on Chinese Trade Will Empower U.S. He Risks the Opposite.


In many major economies, steel makers are contending with a glut of low-cost product, much of it made in China. Western businesses must acquiesce to Beijing’s wishes, sharing cutting-edge technology as a condition of entry to the Chinese marketplace. Frequently, the incoming technology is folded into Chinese goods that land on world markets, forcing innovators to compete against their own creations.

These problems are real and persistent. None are easily solved, despite the political appeal of vows to get tough with China.

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President Trump with President Xi Jinping of China in Beijing last year. Most experts assume that only collective global action can pressure China to change its trade practices.

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Doug Mills/The New York Times

China is an inextricable part of the global supply chain, producing the piece parts of cars, gadgets, bluejeans and practically anything else made by human hands. Its products — and, increasingly, its investment — are crucial components in every economy.

Given this, no single country has the power to force China to reform its ways, the thinking goes. China can get around tariffs in one nation by sending its wares elsewhere. It can buy its way into markets by wielding its largess, building infrastructure and proffering loans.

Most experts assume that the only way to make progress in pressuring China to play fair is through collective action. Major economies must join forces, taking cases at the World Trade Organization and harmonizing their policies.

“There are some grave concerns on China, who are massively subsidizing state-owned companies,” the European Union trade minister, Cecilia Malmstrom, said in January, on the sidelines of the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland. “And there, yes, we could work with the U.S.”

Yet Mr. Trump is pursuing the opposite course.

In one of his first acts as president, he renounced American participation in the Trans-Pacific Partnership, a trade bloc forged by the Obama administration in part as a counter to China’s rise. The pact included prohibitions on state subsidies, in what was supposed to be a template that could eventually influence China’s commercial realities.

Mr. Trump has also attacked the World Trade Organization — the linchpin of the global trading system and the ultimate venue for collective action — even suggesting that he might revoke American participation. In a formal statement to a congressional committee on Wednesday, a top White House trade official called the W.T.O. “wholly inadequate to deal with China’s version of a state-dominated economy that rejects market principles.”

Mr. Trump has, at least for now, exempted Canada and Mexico from the bite of his tariffs on steel and aluminum. But that is conditional on their satisfying his demands for sweetened terms in the renegotiation of the North American Free Trade Agreement.

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A steel mill in Hangzhou, China, before its planned shutdown last year. Potential partners of the United States in efforts to rein in China are instead scrambling to win exemptions to new tariffs.

Credit
Giulia Marchi for The New York Times

Others — Argentina, Australia, Brazil, the European Union and South Korea — have won a temporary reprieve. But they did so only after intense lobbying. Stalwart allies were reduced to effectively begging to be spared from an American offensive. It does not make for fertile conditions for coalition building.

“It takes everybody’s eye off the real issue,” said Chad P. Bown, a trade expert at the Peterson Institute for International Economics in Washington. “Now, no one is talking about China’s overcapacity on steel. When you’re hitting the Europeans and the Japanese and the South Koreans on steel, how easy is it going to be for those countries to cooperate with you on forced technology transfers?”

“You would need all of these countries to agree on these issues, which requires a tremendous amount of cooperation and trust,” he added. “And there’s such a dearth of that now.”

Most fundamentally, Mr. Trump’s decision to cite a supposed threat to American national security as justification for the steel and aluminum tariffs has prompted allies to question the reliability of their friendship with the United States.

China produces only about 2 percent of the steel used in the United States, while Canada is the largest supplier. The national security justification for tariffs rests on the idea that metal is a building block of defense, and that America’s access is so imperiled that it must protect domestic suppliers.

Given that the United States already produces some two-thirds of the steel it uses, most economists dismiss that argument as absurd. In advancing it, they say, Mr. Trump risks dealing a real national security blow to the United States by threatening the durability of its alliances.

Japan and Germany — two major steel producers — are home to American military bases. The vast majority of the European Union’s members belong to NATO. South Korea, another major source of steel, is key to the talks that Mr. Trump has said he intends to hold with North Korea to resolve the nuclear crisis.

“It strikes me as not helpful to put these tariffs on metals against some of our most important military allies,” said Ms. Crowley, the Cambridge trade expert. “Trump is saying, ‘We can’t rely on you to provide high-grade steel in the event of a war.’ That is a very bizarre thing to say to an ally when you have military facilities in their countries. People there might wonder: What does the average American think of my country if their president is saying we can’t rely upon them?”

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Beijing Journal: A Beijing Bookstore Where George Washington Is on the Shelves


A large image of Bertrand Russell, the British philosopher and freethinker, stands out among a galaxy of literary posters lining the wall of the entry staircase, a taste of what’s to come.

“China is not a liberal society, it’s not a free country,” Mr. Liu said, sitting in a quiet corner of the Thinkers Cafe, a mellow hangout within the store that meanders along a side corridor to a small back room furnished with antique Chinese furniture.

“But the bookstore is a way to express our longing for freedom and our hope for the establishment of a free society,” he said.

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The Thinkers Cafe, a mellow hangout within the store.

Credit
Bryan Denton for The New York Times

A new patron would be forgiven for believing the owner had a lively sense of irony. One of the first books to catch the eye on the front table is an 11th edition of “Robert’s Rules of Order.”

The book is a recent hot seller. That is not because members of the Communist Party want to introduce parliamentary procedures written by a 19th-century American Army major to their gatherings. Chinese executives and entrepreneurs buy the volume for business reasons: to learn how to conduct a product conference, or manage a sales convention, Mr. Liu said.

A guide to running a democratic legislature, “How Parliament Works,” by an early 20th-century Canadian politician, Robert Rogers, is also on the front table.

“This is more politically sensitive,” Mr. Liu said. “Unfortunately, it is not as popular as Roberts.”

All Sages has the feel of a well-ordered, smaller version of the Strand Bookstore in Manhattan, though judging from the photos on the walls, Mr. Liu prefers comparisons with the City Lights bookstore in San Francisco and Shakespeare & Company in Paris. Three cats — sometimes tiptoeing over the books on the tables — add some charm.

A People’s Liberation Army veteran is in charge of the floor; he keeps displays in meticulous order and the wood floor noticeably clean. A few canvas bags and T-shirts with snappy slogans are for sale near the front desk, but the focus is on the books. The coffee in the cafe is not for lingering over.

A banner in English under the cash register reads, “I cannot live without books.” A copy of the Declaration of Independence hangs by the front door.

The clientele seems to be as varied as the books. The store is strategically located, within walking distance of China’s premier university campus, but people from all over the country drop by.

On a recent weekend, a manager of a chemical company in the southern city of Shenzhen pushed a trolley full of books to the cashier for dispatch home by air courier. High-ranking military officers, party officials, rich society figures and celebrity entrepreneurs are all customers.

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The books in All Sages are all in Chinese. That makes the selection dependent not only on the owner’s broad-ranging tastes, but on the Chinese publishing houses.

Credit
Bryan Denton for The New York Times

“It’s a secret what they buy,” Mr. Liu said. “But take a look at the books, and you will see.”

The books in All Sages are all in Chinese. That makes the selection dependent not only on Mr. Liu’s broad-ranging tastes, but on the Chinese publishing houses.

They, in turn, are subject to the Communist Party censors who control what is published by Chinese authors and foreign writers translated into Chinese.

The censorship is not a precise art, but it is a constant presence. Internal party guidelines on what is prohibited are passed from the propaganda apparatus to the bosses of the publishing houses, sometimes on a daily basis. They are never made public. Nor is any list of banned books.

Some basic rules prevail, Mr. Liu said. The first motivation of the censors is protection of the Communist Party. “Anything that explains the Communist Party as a threat is a red line,” he said.

This leads to some striking choices. Books about the Soviet Union’s labor camps are banned, but accounts of the Nazi concentration camps are tolerated. Histories of Castro’s rule in Cuba are not translated much; Cuba’s medical system compared too favorably with China’s overcrowded hospitals.

With about 600 large, state-run publishing houses and 3,000 smaller publishers attached to government agencies, some titles that annoy the government sometimes slip through the net. Publishers tend to be liberals and lovers of literature, and some of them want to publish good books. Some push the parameters.

So in an exception to the rule against maligning a Communist Party, one of Mr. Liu’s favorites, Arthur Koestler’s novel “Darkness at Noon,” about the Soviet gulag, was available in China for many years.

It was last published in 2006, however, and now appears to be banned. Secondhand editions of Koestler’s classic are available online for $50. The original price: $1.50.

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A copy of the Declaration of Independence hangs by the front door.

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Bryan Denton for The New York Times

Among the steady sellers at All Sages are books on American history and biographies of the early presidents — Washington and Jefferson in particular — and of Benjamin Franklin. The interest in America’s founding fathers is tied up with a thirst to know how America became a democratic and global power, Mr. Liu said.

Recent political books about presidential election campaigns do not appeal much to his clientele, Mr. Liu said. He said he would read Michael Wolff’s “Fire and Fury,” due out in Chinese soon, before stocking it.

Two standbys for Western liberals — Hannah Arendt’s “The Origins of Totalitarianism” and George Washington’s Farewell Address, which outlines his argument for term limits — have always sold well.

In the last several weeks, both works circulated on the Chinese internet, in a quiet protest against Mr. Xi’s decision to scrap the Chinese Constitution’s two-term limit for presidents. Most likely, the censors never read what Washington had to say, Mr. Liu said.

Weekends are the busiest time at the store, and on a recent Saturday the narrow aisles were packed, especially around the nonfiction shelves. Fiction is not the store’s strength.

There is plenty of Margaret Atwood and Alice Munro but no Joan Didion. Books on feminism merit only two shelves, a function of slow demand.

In the philosophy section, Sue Ping, 29, a Tsinghua University M.B.A. student dressed in a white sweater, jeans and a black beret, was searching for Plato’s “The Republic.” “For me, it’s paradise,” Ms. Ping said of the store. “I buy online but I come because I like the atmosphere. It’s very open, you feel welcome.”

A few shelves away, Daisy Fu, 45, a primary school science teacher, who came with her husband on their motorbike, was deciding whether to buy a book about North Korea. “A bookstore is a symbol of culture; we need it,” she said. “Even though I don’t come often, it’s important to know I can come and walk among the books.”

One book that Mr. Liu knows he will never be able to stock stands out. Works critical of Mao Zedong are automatically banned, and a sensational memoir, “A Life of Chairman Mao” by Li Zhisui, Mao’s personal doctor of many years, is considered a particular abomination. The book describes Mao as a tyrannical personality with a fiendish sexual appetite and appalling personal hygiene who suffered from a motor neuron disease in his last years.

“There is literally no way to get this book in China,” Mr. Liu said. “Just imagine if I put two copies on the shelves. The minimum punishment would be a fine of $3,000. The medium-level punishment would be shutting down the bookstore. And the most extreme would be the bookstore owner jailed for three to five years.”

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