Mao’s publisher now sells office space to survive

By Devirupa Mitra, IANS

Beijing : In China’s market economy, the once venerable Mao Zedong’s publisher has to rent out office space to keep his firm in the black.

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The gleaming office towers in downtown Beijing or the avant-garde Birds’ Nest Olympic stadium are touted as the emblems of an unstoppable economic juggernaut. But, perhaps, more than them, the fate of the 56-year-old Beijing Foreign Languages Printing House, once the sole publisher of Chinese Communist Party propaganda, rather aptly reflects the shifting values of the world’s largest communist state.

Forty years ago, the government owned printing house was the sole publisher of The Great Helmsman’s famous words. Now, a major slice of its revenue comes from leasing out thousands of square metres of office buildings to multinational companies.

The interiors of the Printing House does not seem to have seen many upgrades since it opened its door in 1951. Long, dark corridors, lined with bales of papers, connect fluorescent-lit rooms and the air is filled with the acrid smell of chemicals.

Sitting in an austere conference room, director of the Beijing Foreign Languages Printing House, Zhang Jun, talks about the early days of his firm, when it was the only factory to produce party literature and tomes on communist political theories.

“Then, most of the task was given by the government,” Zhang said modestly. In fact, the government firm published millions of books and periodicals on communism and state propaganda in about 50 foreign languages, which were exported to 150 countries. Their bestseller of all times was, of course, “Selected works of Mao Tse-Tung”, in both its Chinese and English editions, the latter, of course, exclusively meant for a foreign audience.

Showing a group of visiting Indian women journalists across his factory, Zhang was coy about revealing the number of copies of Mao’s selected works that his firm had printed and sold over the year. “When this factory was the only publisher of the book, the amount (of copies) was very, very big,” he said.

Incidentally, the Red Book, which is the second largest selling single volume after the Bible, was a culled version of quotations from the “Selected Works”.

But his firm lost the monopoly for being the party’s voice in the seventies and the number of orders for Mao’s “Selected Works” came down drastically. To remain profitable, it had go into different avenues, printing periodicals and textbooks for schools and colleges.

After 1978, with the Chinese economic reforms opening up the country, Mao’s publishers found another lucrative source of revenue.

As a key player in the Chinese government’s propaganda plans, it had been allotted extensive grounds in Beijing’s commercial district. But, consequent to its shrinking work order and staff, large swathes of its plot became vacant. In the new capitalist economy, empty space is an instant money-spinner with Chinese and foreign companies snapping them up swiftly.

“We now lease out 30,000 square metres of office space to outside firms,” Zhang said, adding that about a third of its annual revenue of about 20 million yuan (approx $2 million) – comes from real estate.

Mao does have a role in modern China, but only as kitschy trinkets for hordes of foreign tourists – his face is emblazoned on t-shirts, cigarette lighters and his outstretched hand turned into a seconds hand inside a red desk clock. Foreigners have become the largest buyers for Mao’s red books too, some of them touted under the gaze of his giant portrait overlooking Tiananmen Square.

Interestingly, the government printing press continues to print Mao’s “Selected works”, but only in limited editions. Besides, it has also added the ‘works’ of Deng Xiaoping and Jiang Zemin to its pantheon of Chinese communist leaders.

While Mao’s words may still be published from its machines, his “works” have steadily become more expensive over the years – a reflection of decline in government subsidy and interest in Maoist ideology.

“Earlier, the book was sold for just one yuan. Now, it costs 30 yuan,” Zhang said.