Civil Liberties

How Do You Smuggle a Whole Library of Banned Books? In Your Pants!

When a whole library fits on a thumb drive, the job of a censor just sucks



China is one of many countries that restrict books, movies, music—whole topics are considered off-limits for discussion. But it's the 21st century and treatments of dissenting ideas are a whole hell of a lot more portable than they once were. Banned works of all sorts can be converted to digital files which take up almost no space at all, and smuggled across the border into China, no matter what the laws and rulers say about the matter. As Makeshift magazine's Brady Ng reports, China's citizens are actively scarfing up the forbidden on their trips to Hong Kong, Taiwan, and other places with more open societies.

The souvenir counter in Hong Kong's June 4 Museum is stocked with books and iconic photos of the 1989 Tiananmen Square massacre in Beijing. To visitors hailing from Mainland China, these items are off-limits; the Chinese government bans all forms of media referencing that bloody day.

Yet many of these tourists visit the counter as they exit the museum, loading up on banned literature to take home. During the trip back, each piece of luggage is scanned at checkpoints, and guards can tell which suitcases are crammed with books. So how to smuggle thousands of contraband pages across the border? "It's 2015," one museum staffer explains. "We use pre-loaded USB drives."

Tourists tuck them in a folded pair of trousers or slip them in back pockets. In sneakernet fashion, bytes of normally inaccessible data make their way into a land of extreme censorship, where only state-trained propaganda officers can sanction historical and political information.

Banned movies and television shows make the same trips through the same technological end runs.

Enough Chinese are willing to smuggle even physical publications a few at a time, buried in suitcases, that at least one Hong Kong bookstore—People's Recreation Community (which mockingly appropriates the initials of the People's Republic of China for its own uses)—thrives on the business.

Oddly (or maybe not so much), perhaps the first book to be smuggled past censors by modern technology was Le Grand Secret, a tell-all about former French President Francois Mitterand. Banned in France, it was soon scanned and replicated across the then-new World Wide Web.