China’s Book on the Underground campaign: philanthropy or promotional stunt?

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A project based on Britain’s Book on the Underground campaign was launched in China on November 15th, 2016. As its name suggests, the project involves 10,000 books being “lost” on the Beijing, Shanghai and Guangzhou metro, shuttles and cabs so that commuters can read them. Apart from ordinary netizens, the campaign has also received attention from Chinese celebrities. At the same time a heated debate has been raised on whether the campaign is really a matter of philanthropy or just self-promotion.

Many WeChat users expressed their willingness to participate and regarded it as a good attempt to encourage reading. Others however questioned whether the campaign is actually a promotional activity for The Fair (an official WeChat account) and the related publishing company that organised it. In addition, the books left on the tube are seldom read for a variety of reasons, and some complained this would create an illusion that the Chinese do not like reading.

Yang Yuancheng, co-founder of The Fair, responded that the campaign aims at sharing knowledge and beauty and creating a better society through the sharing of books. He did admit that Book on the Underground in China is part of the company’s publicity campaign. However, Yang denied that the aim was to test passenger’s ethics and morality.

In order not to get in the way of people’s daily commute, staff from the Fair avoided rush hour when leaving the books. As books are left in the subway, shuttles and cabs, organisers mainly chose books related to literature and the arts, which are more likely to be read in public areas. “It’s true that some books may be ignored, and we are waiting to see the results of the campaign. Yet we believe that passengers will benefit from the whole process”, Yang said.

Literary critic Bai Ye commented that although the whole campaign may look like a game, it has a positive influence. “Reading is something that is worth the nation’s attention. We should spare no effort to encourage people to read. Though China’s Book on the Underground campaign may have a limited effect on promoting reading nationally, it is still meaningful compared with other activities only aimed at self-advertisement.”