Bao Pu, founder of Hong Kong-based New Century Press, a publisher of often sensitive books on Chinese politics and history. (Courtesy of New Century Press)

As publisher of the secret journal of purged Communist Party chief Zhao Ziyang and other political blockbusters, New Century Press has grown accustomed to dealing with bursts of rage from Beijing.

But it never expected a fuss over its latest venture: a densely footnoted monograph on political theory by an 83-year-old communist with a heart condition.

“Frankly, this book was never going to be a sensational bestseller,” said Bao Pu, the founder of the Hong Kong-based publishing house.

But there is no telling what will stir anger these days in a country that is increasingly prosperous and powerful but also curiously insecure — so much so that China spends more on internal security than on defense and views as a threat an octogenarian authority on Marxism and believer in democracy.

Bao said he got a late-night call last week from officials in Beijing — who have no jurisdiction over what gets written or read in Hong Kong — demanding that he halt publication of a collection of essays by Du Guang, a retired professor at the Central Party School, which serves as a think tank as well as ideological boot camp for China’s ruling Communist Party.

Chinese officials tried to block publication of “China's Best Actor: Wen Jiabao,” by Yu Jie, which portrayed the Chinese prime minister as a fraud. Yu Jie, who says he was tortured, fled to the United States in January. (Courtesy Of New Century Press)

“This is what happens if you give unlimited power to the security apparatus,” Bao said, echoing a widespread view that the party, though the architect of China’s spectacular economic renaissance, is in thrall to retrograde security organs that see flickerings of subversion in every corner.

Du’s book was originally due to be published March 1 — just before the opening Monday in Beijing of the National People’s Congress, China’s rubber-stamp parliament. Budget figures released at the start of the conclave show that China will this year increase spending on domestic security forces by 11.5 percent to $111 billion — $5 billion more than the military will get.

Bao said he decided to delay publication but still intends to release Du’s book, adding it to a growing list of publications issued in Hong Kong that rattle Beijing. The former British colony, which returned to Chinese rule in 1997 but retains free speech and other liberties absent in the rest of China, has developed a vibrant niche publishing industry geared to mainland visitors eager for information they can’t get at home. Its output ranges from lurid accounts of the mistresses of party officials and “insider” revelations of dubious authenticity to far more serious — and, for Beijing, more disturbing — works on Chinese politics and history by people such as Du.

A study of the party

Unlike student protesters who enraged the party by erecting a statue modeled on New York’s Statue of Liberty in Tiananmen Square in 1989 or the jailed Nobel Peace Prize laureate Liu Xiaobo who championed Western liberties and mocked party dogma, Du is a party member who takes Chinese communism seriously. In some ways, though, that makes him especially troublesome.

His book, an advance copy of which has been reviewed by The Washington Post, doesn’t ridicule the party or call for its overthrow but dissects its theoretical gobbledygook and traces how far it has drifted from its early ideals. The book’s title: “Getting Back to Democracy.”

Contacted by telephone in Beijing, Du, who recently underwent heart surgery, said he couldn’t comment, explaining that he is not allowed to give interviews without permission from the Central Party School’s Old Cadre Bureau, which controls housing, medical care and other services for elderly staff members.

On Monday afternoon, shortly after the opening of the National People’s Congress, officials paid a visit to Du and told him that the school’s party committee had decided that his book must be stopped, according to an e-mail the scholar sent to a Chinese friend in the United States.

New Century Press cancelled publication of “Li Peng Tiananmen Diary,” but the book - in which Li defends his role in the 1989 massacre -has been issued by other publishers in pirated editions. (Courtesy Of New Century Press)

Internet censors, meanwhile, have started blocking his blogs on Chinese Web sites. Furious, Du wrote an angry post, which — in a sign of how difficult it has become for authorities to control the flow of information — has been re-posted on Web sites that are still accessible. “The strangling of free speech is not possible,” Du wrote. “It only . . . makes you lose face before the whole world.”

‘The wrong road’

In his still-unpublished book, Du reflects on how he embraced communism more than half a century ago because it promised an end to dictatorial rule but “slowly came to realize that there is a great distance between the ideals of the past and the road taken by our society and country. I feel a responsibility to cry out to those who lead this country’s ruling party and to common people: we have taken the wrong road.”

The party says that it doesn’t reject democracy but only its Western forms, an argument that resonates at a time of growing Chinese nationalism. It points to the National People’s Congress, which has nearly 3,000 members, allows some discussion of policy and no longer votes unanimously in favor of everything.

But the legislature still invariably approves party-scripted legislation. Its chairman, Politburo Standing Committee member Wu Bangguo, is a fervent critic of what the party scorns as alien Western notions of democracy incompatible with China’s “national essence.” At last year’s session, Wu outlined a doctrine of “Five Don’ts,” denouncing multiparty competition, pluralism and other innovations as heresies that will plunge China “into an abyss of internal disorder.”

Du’s book provides a detailed theoretical critique of Wu’s arguments. His conclusion: “The National People’s Congress is nothing more than a democratic signboard for a one-party dictatorship.”

Criticism of senior party leaders by name is still taboo in China, and Bao, the publisher, thinks this might partly explain Beijing’s sensitivity to the book. Du’s book also hits another raw nerve: It contains a preface by Bao’s father, Bao Tong, a reform-minded senior party official who was purged and jailed after the Tiananmen crackdown.

Other literary targets

While ignoring Hong Kong books about the extravagant sex lives of corrupt officials and other titillating topics, Beijing has repeatedly tried to curb more sober works, usually by pressuring the authors. Bao said Chinese officials have intervened to try to halt five New Century Press titles.

All but one got published, including a work denouncing China’s current prime minister, often viewed as a liberal, as a fraud. Yu Jie, the author of “China’s Best Actor: Wen Jiabao,” fled to the United States in January and said he had been tortured by Chinese security forces, in part as punishment for his criticism of the premier.

Du has been spared physical abuse and has instead been quietly ordered to withdraw his book from publication.

“This is such a depressing story,’ said Bao, the publisher. “The system is so intolerant of criticism it cannot even let a sick man in his 80s say what he wants to say. . . . This is why 1.3 billion people are effectively silent.”