By Sum Lok-kei
At least three booksellers say they were banned from the annual jamboree as the city embarks on ‘new form of censorship’
People browse a stall at the annual book fair in Hong Kong. Some publishers say they have been banned for political reasons Photograph: Isaac Lawrence/AFP/Getty Images
Hong Kong publishers have decried a “new form of censorship” after vendors selling books deemed politically sensitive were allegedly excluded from the industry’s traditional annual trade fair. With hundreds of exhibitors spread over the city’s major exhibition facility, the seven-day event which began this week once drew more than 1 million visitors and was a staple business opportunity for the sector.
But this year publishers that showcased books last year about the protests that swept the city in 2019 have been banned from the book fair, without explanation. One was Hillway Culture, while at least two other publishers, Humming Publishing and Kind Of Culture, also had applications turned down.
The city’s trade development council, which organises the fair, refused to comment on the rejections, only saying that not every application would be successful. It also said the books displayed were not vetted in advance but vendors were legally responsible for what they sold. Raymond Yeung of Hillway Culture said opinions and books that were not favoured by the government were being kept away from official platforms such as the book fair. Yeung, who is also a writer, became a public figure after he was injured during a 2019 protest and suffered a partial loss of sight in his right eye.
“Publishers like ourselves, who put out political and so-called ‘sensitive’ books, are starting to be censored,” Yeung said, adding that some local printers have also refused to print their publications after the introduction of the national security law in June 2020.
Inside the halls of the Hong Kong exhibition centre on Thursday, some eager readers were seen dragging suitcases and trolleys behind them, hunting for bargains at the fair.
Few of the books on offer were about the huge protests that erupted in the city in 2019 in response to a contentious extradition bill, and which became the most significant unrest the city had experienced since its return to Chinese rule in 1997. Of those available, the booksellers refused to be interviewed.
Volumes about China’s Cultural Revolution in the 60s and others about the 1989 Tiananmen Square crackdown could still be found, as well as publications on Hong Kong’s colonial past. In 2021, members of a pro-Beijing group had filed police reports on publishers who carried books about the protests, alleging that they violated the new security laws.
With their path to the official book fair blocked, Hillway Culture tried to organise its own “Hongkongers’ Book Fair” with more than a dozen other independent publishers and bookstores.
Days before the event, however, the venue’s landlord terminated the lease with Hillway Culture, claiming the organiser had violated venue rules by sharing the space with other vendors.
Yeung said similar events had been held at the venue in the past, suggesting it was political pressure that changed the landlord’s mind.
“This is not a matter of the law … there are hidden forces stopping these events and books from seeing the light of day,” he said.
“This form of censorship is scarier, because there are no rules we can follow.”
Professor Fu King-wah of the University of Hong Kong’s journalism and media studies centre, said it would be hard to judge whether publishers and their books were censored by the official book fair’s organiser, since any such process would happen behind closed doors.
But he warned that the introduction of the national security law could have led to self-censorship among writers and publishers, adding that it does not always come in the form of outright bans.
“Over the past year, we saw some news outlets not being able to continue their operations, and technically the government did not ban them,” Fu said, referring to the closure of news media such as Apple Daily and Stand News.
Both companies ceased operations after executives were arrested under the national security legislation and had their funds frozen, but the display and circulation of relevant archival material had not been outlawed.
With the government’s plan to enact more laws targeting speech, such as the proposed fake news law, Fu said the space for free speech in Hong Kong “would only continue to shrink” in the near future.
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