Removal of political books sparks alarm in Hong Kong

By Shirley Lau

Hong Kong, May 23 (EFE).- When several books written by well-known pro-democracy authors were removed from Hong Kong’s public libraries three years ago, teacher Sung Chor-on was alarmed.

Worried of a steady slide towards widespread censorship after Beijing clamped down in 2020 on pro-democracy protests, Sung started to compile a list of book titles being pulled from libraries.

The list had been growing at a leisurely pace, but in the past week it suddenly expanded to more than 200, after local media found that many more titles had disappeared from library shelves.

The revelation was triggered by the axing of a column by political cartoonist Zunzi in Hong Kong newspaper Ming Pao that had run for 40 years.

In recent months, the column had been criticized six times by government officials for being “misleading”, “ridiculous” or “not factual”.

A day after the news broke, a local media outlet found that Zunzi’s cartoon collections had been removed from public libraries. Further media investigations revealed that dozens of titles penned by various pro-democracy writers had also vanished.

“It’s disastrous,” Sung tells Efe. “Public libraries have control over the resources for writing history. When these important resources are gone, the verdicts on historical events may change. Regardless of your political position, you shouldn’t delete what has happened.”

Political books being removed from public libraries first came to light in mid-2020 when Beijing imposed a harsh national security law on Hong Kong to quell a prolonged anti-government protest movement.

At the time, at least nine titles authored by now-jailed activist Joshua Wong, scholar Wan Chin and lawmaker Tanya Chan were removed on grounds that they were “under review”, with more removals occurring since, always unannounced.

In November 2022, Efe visited the city’s biggest library and noted dozens of political books written by local liberals still on the shelves, all of which have since been pulled.

The authors included the late journalist Lee Yee, ex-lawmaker Wong Yuk-man and radio host Ng Chi-sum, all government critics.

A semi-autonomous city, Hong Kong used to have a vibrant publishing market and used to be known as “a paradise of banned books,” with visitors from China regularly crossing the border to buy politically sensitive books that were unavailable on the mainland.

Since 2020 and the national security law, however, publishing and circulating anti-establishment content in Hong Kong has steadily declined.

“I feel we’re in an age of cultural decline. Some facts and information are leaving us,” the owner of a decades-old bookstore tells Efe.

Concerns over publishing freedoms in Hong Kong have been growing since the national security law came into force, fears that were stoked by the closure of three pro-democracy media outlets, and the 19-month imprisonment of five speech therapists for publishing “seditious” children’s books.

Repercussions of the changing political climate have been widespread.

Aside from the removal of books from public libraries, mainstream bookshops have stopped selling politically sensitive titles, while cautious printing firms refuse to issue books with sensitive content.

A number of publishers have ceased operations and some school libraries have cleared titles about the 1989 Tiananmen movement in China, among other topics.

“Every year our small library has to throw away some old books. Copies about democracy and protests will definitely be chucked,” a secondary school teacher tells Efe.

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