Emma Watson-inspired book-sharing drive stumbles in China

Commuters read books on the underground in China Image copyright The Fair
Image caption All quiet off-peak, but Chinese netizens say it is far too crowded during peak hours for reading

Inspired by Harry Potter star Emma Watson, a Chinese firm launched a large-scale book-sharing campaign this week. But instead of winning praise, the innocuous campaign has drawn ridicule from netizens, says the BBC's Grace Tsoi.

The Fair, a content production company based in Beijing, kick-started "the book-dropping battle" campaign on Tuesday in major cities.

While Emma Watson left about 100 copies of Maya Angelou's Mom & Me & Mom across the New York and London transport networks as part of a community project, the Chinese campaign has become much larger in scale.

The media-savvy organisers have placed more than 10,000 books around the underground, taxis and planes in Beijing, Shanghai and Guangzhou. The campaign will soon expand into other cities.

Image copyright @emmawatson
Image caption Emma Watson shared pictures of herself hiding books on the New York and London transport networks

The activity has earned the endorsements of A-listers such as actors Huang Xiaoming and Xu Jinglei, and the sponsorship of several large publishers.

However, the campaign experienced plenty of hiccups.

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Some books were left untouched because passengers thought they had been left there by people wanting to save the seats; some books were taken away by cleaners; people also complained that they couldn't get to the books because the carriages were too crowded.

Shanghai Metro has urged passengers not to participate during peak hours, saying that the campaign could affect commuters. Guangzhou Metro also said it might also disrupt public order.

But many social media users took issue with the motives of the book-sharing drive itself, criticising it as an eye-grabbing marketing event that did little to encourage reading.

"I think the most probable outcome is that people will take photos and selfies when they pick up the books. They will write a post on WeChat [a popular chatting app in China]. Feeling satisfied, they will bring the books back home and put it in the back of the bookshelves," said "Guo Qing aaaa" on Weibo.

Some social media users pointed out that Watson has studied at Brown University and Oxford University; she is an avid reader that has her own feminist book club. But Chinese celebrities endorsing the campaign didn't seem to be reading much.

Image copyright Weibo
Image caption Chinese actor Huang Xiaoming is one of the stars participating in the book-sharing campaign

A Weibo user wrote: "Isn't it embarrassing that the campaign is now promoted by stars who apparently don't read?"

Chinese people don't read?

An average Chinese person read 4.58 paper books in 2015, according to a nation-wide survey conducted by the Chinese Academy of Press and Publication.

That is much lower than the Canadians, at 17 books a year, and 12 in the United States.

Murong Xuecun, an acclaimed Chinese writer, told the BBC that he thought having a Chinese version of the book-sharing campaign was not at all a bad thing, but that the campaign will do little to address the deeper reasons why Chinese people don't read.

"In the past three decades, the Chinese economy has been developing rapidly and people don't have much leisure time. Everybody is in a rush and busy with work. They don't have time for reading."

Even though Chinese society values education, Murong said that Chinese people had a target-oriented attitude towards reading. It is not seen as something to be enjoyed, or something that serves a higher purpose.

"When Chinese students study for gaokao [the national university entrance exams] or for high scores when studying overseas, they have an obvious goal."

Image copyright The Fair
Image caption Publishers provided the bulk of the books, including Wu Chuan is a Yellow Girl by Yan Geling, Have Book Will Travel, Everything I never Told you by Celeste Ng and The Storied Life of A.J.Fikry by Gabrielle Zevin

"People always ask what kind of use the book has. Books related to culture are not read by many."

Zhang Wei, the co-founder of The Fair, didn't seem bothered by the flurry of criticism.

"We are a company. We are not saying businesses cannot do charity works, but as a company, there must be commercial considerations behind our actions," Zhang told the BBC.

Zhang said they had not received any money from the publishers, but admitted that it brought a lot of good publicity to the one-year-old company.

"Just because Chinese people don't read regularly it doesn't mean that we should do nothing to encourage reading."

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