Self-censorship hits Hong Kong book fair in wake of national security law

Booksellers at Hong Kong’s annual book fair are offering a reduced selection of books deemed politically sensitive, as they try to avoid violating a sweeping national security law imposed on the city last year.

The fair was postponed twice last year because of the coronavirus pandemic. It usually draws hundreds of thousands of people looking for everything from the latest bestsellers to works by political figures.

This year, far fewer politically sensitive books are on display. Vendors are curating their books carefully to avoid violating the national security law, which Beijing imposed on Hong Kong in June 2020. Authorities have used it to crack down on dissent, arresting more than 100 pro-democracy supporters in the region.

The law has drawn criticism for restricting freedoms not found on the communist-ruled mainland that were promised to the former British colony for 50 years after it was handed back to China in 1997.

Jimmy Pang, a local publisher who used to sell books about the 2014 pro-democracy demonstrations that became known as the “umbrella movement”, said many books critical of the government had disappeared.

“Every vendor will read through the books that they are bringing to the book fair to see if there is any content that might cause trouble,” said Pang, who is president of the Subculture publishing house.

“We don’t want to get into trouble that will affect the operation of the book fair, so we self-censor a lot this time. We read through every single book and every single word before we bring it here,” he said. Some books published by Subculture were pulled from the shelves of Hong Kong’s public libraries earlier this year. Those books are not available at the fair.

Now that authorities have used the national security law to quash dissent, publishers, distributors and even importers and exporters have become wary about the risks of publishing or dealing with potentially sensitive books, said Hui Ching, research director of the Hong Kong Zhi Ming Institute, a private, independent thinktank.

Political author Johnny Lau, author of a book about the Chinese Communist party and Hong Kong in the last century, said his book was not allowed at the fair this year – because of the political pressure from government policies.

“That‘s why we can only see publications which are (in) favour to the government,” he said.

Benjamin Chau, deputy executive director of the Hong Kong Trade Development Council, which organises the fair, told reporters earlier this week that books written by pro-democracy authors could still be sold as long as they didn’t break the law.

Some visitors, such as Alex Chan, lamented the lack of such books this year. “Is the book fair still a place we can buy any kinds of books? Is Hong Kong still a place with freedom of speech or freedom to publish?” he said.

A number of publishers have gone ahead and displayed books about the 2014 protests and other politically sensitive topics.

“When we publish a book, we put a lot of effort into ensuring the content is legal. That‘s why we don’t think there’s a big problem and would still bring them,” said Raymond Yeung, a spokesman for publisher Hillway Culture Company. “We hope this will be an encouragement to our fellow publishers, to show that there’s still some people publishing books like this,” he said.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

%d bloggers like this: