Hong Kong publishers have denounced a “new form of censorship” after sellers selling books deemed politically sensitive were reportedly banned from the industry’s traditional annual trade fair.
With hundreds of exhibitors spread across the city’s vast exhibition grounds, the seven-day event, which began this week, once attracted more than 1 million visitors and was a major business opportunity for the industry.
But this year, publishers that last year featured books about the protests that gripped the city in 2019 were 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 rejected.
The city’s trade promotion council, which organizes the fair, did not want to comment on the rejections, on the grounds that not every application will be successful.
It also said the books on display were not checked in advance, but the sellers were legally responsible for what they were selling.
Hillway Culture’s Raymond Yeung said opinions and books not favored by the government would be kept off official platforms like the Book Fair.
Yeung, who is also a writer, became a socialite after he was injured at a protest in 2019 and suffered partial vision loss in his right eye.
“Publishers like us who put out political and so-called ‘sensitive’ books are beginning to be censored,” Yeung said, adding that some local printers also refused to print their publications after the introduction of the national security law in June 2020.
In the halls of the Hong Kong Exhibition Center on Thursday, a number of eager readers were seen dragging suitcases and trolleys and looking for bargains at the exhibition.
Few of the books on offer dealt with the massive protests that erupted in the city in 2019 in response to a controversial extradition law, becoming the biggest unrest the city had seen since it returned to Chinese rule in 1997. The booksellers refused to be interviewed.
Volumes on China’s Cultural Revolution in the 1960s and others on the 1989 Tiananmen Square raid 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 complaints against publishers who kept books on the protests, claiming they had violated the new security laws.
Blocked from attending the official book fair, Hillway Culture attempted to organize its own “Hong Kongers’ Book Fair” with more than a dozen other independent publishers and bookstores.
However, days before the event, the venue’s landlord canceled the lease with Hillway Culture, claiming that the organizer broke venue rules by sharing the space with other vendors.
Yeung said similar events have 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 law … there are hidden forces preventing these events and books from seeing the light of day,” he said.
“This form of censorship is scarier because there are no rules that we can follow.”
Professor Fu King-wah of Hong Kong University’s Journalism and Media Studies Center said it was difficult to assess whether publishers and their books would be censored by the organizer of the official book fair, since such a process would take place behind closed doors.
However, he warned that the introduction of the national security law could have led to self-censorship among writers and publishers, adding that this does not always take the form of outright bans.
“Over the past year, we’ve seen that some news outlets couldn’t continue their operations, and technically the government hasn’t banned them,” Fu said, referring to the shutdown of news outlets like Apple Daily and Stand News.
Both companies went out of business after executives were arrested and their funds frozen under national security legislation, but the exhibition and distribution of relevant archival material had not been banned.
With the government planning to enact more laws targeting speech, such as the proposed fake news law, Fu said the space for freedom of expression in Hong Kong will “only continue to shrink” in the near future.