Alarm over the disappearance of political books in Hong Kong

Shirley Lau |


Three years ago, several books by pro-democracy authors were already removed from public libraries, alerting Sung, who feared it was a trend toward widespread censorship.

Since then, he has dedicated himself to making lists of titles that have disappeared from the shelves, a trend that has been growing at a slow pace until last week the local press reported that disappearances had suddenly expanded.

the first cartoons

It all started when the Hong Kong Ming Pao newspaper decided to remove cartoons by political cartoonist “Zunzi” after 40 years: government officials had criticized the column for being “misleading”, “ridiculous” or “lacking in fact”.

Thus, several local media discovered that their cartoons have been withdrawn from public libraries, but also that dozens of titles by pro-democratic authors have also disappeared.

“It’s disastrous,” Sung explained to Efe.

“Public libraries have control over the resources to write history in the future. When these resources are gone, the verdicts on historical events may change. Regardless of your political position, you cannot erase what has happened ”, he indicates.

He adds that “we should at least know what exactly has disappeared.”

“If we do not know what is missing, there is no way to understand the past,” he denounces.

Dozens of books withdrawn

The disappearance of political books from public libraries first raised concerns in mid-2020, when Beijing imposed a tough national security law for Hong Kong after a long-running anti-government protest movement.

At the time, at least nine titles written by now-jailed activist Joshua Wong, academic Wan Chin and lawmaker Tanya Chan were withdrawn on the grounds that they were “under review.”

Over time, more titles have been added to this list, although there are no public announcements of such moves: you have to search the catalog to find out what has disappeared.

In November 2022, Efe visited the largest library in the city and found that dozens of political books were still on the shelves, but today all those titles have been withdrawn.

The perpetrators include the late journalist Lee Yee, former lawmaker Wong Yuk-man and radio host Ng Chi-sum, all of whom are highly critical of the government.

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According to the local press, some deleted titles have no relation to politics, but there is something in common among all of them: the authors are critical of the Hong Kong government or Beijing.

An ever smaller space

The semi-autonomous city was known for its vibrant publishing market and for being a “banned-book haven,” when mainland Chinese citizens crossed the border to buy politically sensitive books that weren’t available on the other side.

However, since 2020, the space to publish and circulate this content has been reduced.

“I feel that we are in a time of cultural decline,” the owner of a decades-old bookstore told Efe.

Concern for the freedom of publication in the city has been increasing after the promulgation of the aforementioned security law, to which must be added the closure of three pro-democratic media outlets or the imprisonment for 19 months of five speech therapists for publishing books “seditious” for children.

And in addition to the removal of books from public libraries, mainstream bookstores have also stopped selling titles that could be considered politically incorrect.

fear in the printers

Printers are cautiously refusing to print books with sensitive content, several publishers have ceased operations and some school libraries have withdrawn titles on the 1989 Tiananmen protests, among other topics.

“Our little library has to throw out books every year. Those about democracy and protests have to come out,” a high school teacher told Efe.

For its part, the Government has never expressly mentioned which titles should be prohibited, nor have the library authorities explained their criteria.

Last week, the city’s chief executive, John Lee, limited himself to commenting that the government “has a responsibility to identify books with unhealthy ideologies, which we do not recommend.”

According to a former employee of a local bookstore controlled by the Liaison Office, Beijing’s official representation in Hong Kong, the lack of clarity in the guidelines is “a common practice in mainland China.”

“Without a clear criteria about which books are allowed, people prefer to err on the side of caution,” says the former employee, now an independent publisher specializing in non-political literature. BLAZETRENDS

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