China is acting to protect Beijing’s physical bookshops. The authorities are providing subsidies worth almost £5.7m to help pay for at least 40% of rents and improvements to bookshops. The plan is to encourage more than 700 bookshops to open across the greater Beijing region, bringing the total number to more than 1700.
Zhang Su, deputy director of the Beijing bureau of press, publication, radio, film and television, said: “Brick-and-mortar bookstores are an important part of a city’s cultural infrastructure. They carry the memories of a city, they embody a city’s cultural heritage and they affect a city’s cultural ambience.”
The authorities have decided that bookshops are integral to the city’s future. “We cannot rely on the market to ease the bricks-and- mortar bookshops’ existential difficulties, and a government policy supporting them is absolutely necessary,” Zhang said.
The city authorities want each of Beijing’s 16 districts to have a “highly visible” bookshop, in shopping centres, sightseeing spots, transportation hubs and densely populated neighbourhoods. They can open 24 hours a day and public libraries will also set up branches inside bookshops and vice-versa, bookshops can open in libraries.
The requirement that a bookshop must have been in business for three years in order to receive subsidies has been scrapped, which means that more are eligible to benefit. The city has also extended a clause to exempt all bookstores from sales taxes.
The question of how much the state should intervene in the protection of bookshops is one the book industry wrestles with from country to country. In France and Germany, for example, discounting of books is illegal in order to create a level playing field for smaller outlets. The UK used to have such a system – called the Net Book Agreement – but it collapsed in 1995. The next two decades saw a decline in the number of independent bookstores as a result, though that slow-down has now halted.
China’s move to help the capitals’ bookshops will be watched with interest by the international book community.