Publishers brace for police peril at Hong Kong Book Fair

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HONG KONG – The annual Hong Kong Book Fair begins on Wednesday after a year off due to COVID-19 – and in a very busy political atmosphere.

What was once a symbol of freedom of publication for the Chinese-speaking world is being held for the first time since Beijing imposed its national security law in June 2020. The organizer earlier warned that police would be called in to any national security complaint, though she softened her tone on Tuesday, saying exhibitors should be “self-disciplined” over what they show.

Reflecting the official position, industry players said the displays on the ground at the Hong Kong Convention and Exhibition Center would certainly look very different from the past.

Jimmy Pang, director of independent publisher Subculture, predicted that there would be no record of political works espousing pro-democracy ideology. No exhibitor, he said, would risk selling “sensitive books.”

“I had never seen all exhibitors exercise such a high level of self-censorship before,” Asia Pang, a veteran editor who has joined the fair every year since its inception in 1990, told Nikkei. on national security, we no longer know where the line is. So we prefer not to sell books that could cause us problems. “

Pang refrains from showing anything about the Tiananmen Square crackdown in 1989, protests against Hong Kong’s anti-extradition law, or the city’s current affairs.

The fair’s organizer, the Hong Kong Trade Development Council, said last month it would not screen headlines but threatened to intervene with police in response to possible violations of security laws.

Benjamin Chau, deputy executive director of the council, lowered the alert level on Tuesday, saying: “I do not know if the police or the concerned department will come to do random checks.”

Yet he made it clear that those who violate the national security law are not welcome. “I hope exhibitors can demonstrate self-discipline,” he said.

In the event that the organizer receives any complaints, Chau said exhibitors will be notified and they will in turn have to decide to remove the books. “Exhibitors need to know where the queue is,” he said.

Exhibitors expect to be watched. “They claim they won’t censor the books, but it’s easy to find people to report on the books,” Pang said. “If they charge you with subversion under the National Security Act, you can’t file a judicial review. There will be a lot of unnecessary trouble.”

Jimmy Pang, director of independent publisher Subculture, says he has “never seen all operators exercise such a high level of self-censorship before.” (Photo by Stella Wong)

Despite such concerns, avoiding the fair is out of the question for many publishers and retailers. Pang said that for large exhibitors, revenue during the seven-day event will be 30% to 40% of their figures for the full year. For small to mid-sized publishers like Subculture, that can even be half.

The cancellation of last year particularly affected small players. Hopes are therefore high this time. “We must all tolerate this kind of self-censorship, hoping that the book fair runs smoothly,” Pang said.

According to the organizer, the number of book exhibitors is 544 this time, up from 686 two years ago – perhaps reflecting bankruptcies triggered by the pandemic as well as dropouts.

The fair is a microcosm of Hong Kong’s altered literary landscape.

“Books once readily available in Hong Kong are no longer published locally,” observed Daniel C. Tsang, librarian emeritus at the University of California, Irvine. He lamented that even local public libraries “restrict the circulation of books considered to be in some way violating the law”.

At least 70 books have indeed been pulled from library shelves and placed “under review”, including those written by pro-democracy activists like Joshua Wong and Albert Ho.

In another case, a library worker was suspended earlier this month after being held responsible for posting the books of Jimmy Lai – founder of the now-discontinued Apple Daily – in a recommended reading section. Wong, Ho and Lai have all been jailed on various charges since the National Security Law came into effect.

Pang from Subculture said he would avoid selling anything that has been taken down from libraries. Sophie Richardson, China director at Human Rights Watch, stressed that what is not on the fair’s shelves will be revealing.

“Book fairs in general are good things,” she said. But she suggested that an outfit “in an environment in which we have seen authorities removing books from authorities critical of public libraries” would likely not provide the “full scope” of the topics.

“What is not exposed will tell us what the authorities will tolerate,” she said.

The chilling effect has spread to writers. Pang recently invited a few columnists to publish collections of their newspaper articles in book form, but they all declined.

“Columnists don’t know when these articles will become evidence of a crime,” he said. Last month, several Apple Daily columnists were arrested for colluding with foreign powers under National Security Law, based on articles they wrote.

Even before the advent of the Security Law, the distribution of books in Hong Kong was heavily influenced by Beijing.

Company records show that the territory’s three largest booksellers – Joint Publishing (Hong Kong), Chung Hwa Book Company and The Commercial Press – are all owned by Sino United Publishing Holdings. Sino United is ultimately owned by Guangdong Xin Wenhua, who in turn is wholly owned by the Liaison Office, China’s highest official representative in the city. The ownership structure was first exposed in 2015 by Next Magazine, a sister publication of Apple Daily.

Pang said the three chains control more than 70% of the retail market. “If a publisher wants his books to have good sales, he will have to put them in these three bookstores,” he said. Books refused by them are relegated to a small number of independent bookstores with limited marketing power.

For many in greater China, Hong Kong’s literary scene had made it a beacon of free speech. Taiwanese President Tsai Ing-wen once shared on Facebook how, before Taiwan embraced democracy, she took advantage of the city’s selection of books that were not available in her country. “For me and for a lot of people, Hong Kong was ‘the place to buy books’,” she wrote.

Today, Taiwan offers a haven for Hong Kong people like Lam Wing-kee, one of the owners of Causeway Bay Books, who sold titles banned on the mainland but was kidnapped by Chinese authorities in 2015.

Taiwanese President Tsai Ing-wen visits Causeway Bay Books in Taipei in May 2020. The store was reopened by Lam Wing-kee, center, one of the former owners of the original Hong Kong location known for selling titles banned on the continent. (Photo by the office of the President of Taiwan)

Some in Hong Kong are resisting the pressure.

Bao Pu, whose independent publishing house New Century Press deals with sensitive topics like modern Chinese history, doesn’t expect his latest book “Through the Storm: The PLA in the Cultural Revolution” to appear at the fair or in local libraries.

Only two stores in Hong Kong dared to offer historian Yu Ruxin’s book. Intrepid, Bao relies on major libraries around the world to pick up the volume. Harvard University’s Fairbank Center for Chinese Studies confirmed to Nikkei Asia on Monday that it has purchased a copy and will add it to the HC Fung Library collection soon.

“If you have a copy there [in major libraries], people will find it, “Bao said.” I’ll probably lose money on this book, but it’s worth it. “

UC Irvine’s Tsang argued that there was still hope, but safety should be the top priority. “In a time of political repression, the first challenge for publishers, distributors and librarians is to survive,” he said. “Once your own security is not at risk, then I think there are creative ways to provide access to information.”

This could involve archiving books in international libraries like Bao, or looking to foreign publishers to publish titles as e-books.

“Persistence will take years, maybe decades,” the researcher warned. But he predicted that a day would come when banned books could reappear. “Citizens can do their part to preserve the written word. Keep a journal but archive it in the cloud. Later, when the situation improves, it will do incredible reading.”


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