The books Hong Kong is purging from public libraries

Here are some of the Chinese volumes that have been removed from Hong Kong public libraries. Photo: Kyle Lam/HKFP.

The original version of this report was published in Hong Kong Free Press (HKFP) on May 26, 2023. The following edited version has been published on Global Voices as part of a content partnership agreement with HKFP.

A fresh wave of censorship reached Hong Kong’s public libraries this month. After a local newspaper axed a long-standing satirical comic strip following government criticism, local media reported that the cartoonist Zunzi’s works and hundreds of other titles had been pulled from library shelves.

Chief Executive John Lee said the government had a duty to identify books with “bad ideologies,” suggesting that the volumes removed were “not recommended” by the government.

The literary disappearances are difficult to monitor owing to a lack of transparency — the government has refused to provide a list of offending titles, and there is no appeals process.

When asked by HKFP if any of the books were, themselves, illegal, the police did not give a clear answer: “Whether specific acts violate the law depends on the relevant circumstances, including facts, related behavior and intentions, evidence obtained, and other factors — and they will be dealt with in accordance with relevant laws,” a spokesperson said on May 25. “The police will take action and handle cases in accordance with the law based on the actual situation.”

While titles relating to democracy and protests in Hong Kong are among the topics apparently targeted, romantic essays and travel literature penned by democratic figures, have also disappeared.

The first round of removals: Activists and advocates of localism

News of citywide library purges first emerged on July 4, 2020 — four days after the Beijing-enacted national security (NSL) came into effect.

At least nine titles were removed, local media reported. Among them were two books by pro-democracy activist Joshua Wong — “I Am Not a Kid” and “I Am Not a Hero.” Both are collections of Wong’s commentaries on social and political issues. Wong has been taking part in local protest movements since 2010 and founded the now-defunct political organization Scholarism and since-disbanded Demosisto. The 26-year-old is now in prison for doxxing a police officer. He is also one of the defendants in the 47 democrats national security case.

Another early removal was “My Journeys for Food and Justice,” travel literature by democratic figure Tanya Chan, published in 2014. Chan was a co-founding member of the Civic Party and served as a legislator for eight years.

The Leisure and Cultural Services Department, which manages all public libraries in Hong Kong, said in July 2020 that it was “reviewing” all books to ensure they complied with the security law legislation.

Among the nine books found to have been removed in July 2020, six were by Horace Chin. Chin, better known by his pen name Chin Wan, is a scholar in Chinese and worked as an assistant professor at the Chinese Department of Lingnan University until 2016.

On the Hong Kong City-State by Chin Wan, published in 2012. Image from HKFP.

Published in 2012, his most famous book, “On the Hong Kong City-State,” was among those removed. It took aim at pro-democracy politicians and laid out a different perspective for local governance. With reference to “polis” in ancient Greece, he suggested that the city should not care about the issue of democracy in mainland China and should — instead — prioritize Hong Kong’s interests and negotiate the boundaries of power with Beijing.

Then-chief executive Leung Chun-Ying condemned the developing ideologies of Hong Kong independence, citing Chin’s “On the Hong Kong City-State” as well as “On Hong Kong Nationalism.” The latter, a little-known political title published by the student union of the University of Hong Kong in 2014, was reportedly banned by public libraries in 2021

The second round of removals: Pro-democracy figures

The year 2021 saw reports of more books being removed from library shelves, the authors of which were mostly pro-democracy figures, including those by Chan, again, and other former lawmakers Raymond Wong and Albert Ho. Ho, who was also vice-chair of the disbanded Hong Kong Alliance in Support of Patriotic Democratic Movements of China, faces a subversion charge under the national security law.

Books by pro-democracy scholar Benny Tai also began to disappear. Tai, who taught at the law school of the University of Hong Kong for nearly 30 years, wrote about the rule of law and first promoted a protest strategy which led to the 2014 Umbrella Movement.

The Future of Constitutionalism in Hong Kong, a book series by Benny Tai published in 2015. Image from HKFP.

Tai’s The Future of Constitutionalism in Hong Kong trilogy, published in 2015, included “The Future of Rule of Law,” “The Future of Democracy,” and “The Future of ‘Two Systems, One Country.'” Tai illustrated his thoughts on the law, civil disobedience, social movements, and the future of the city.

The activist-scholar was described as one of the two “primary movers” of the unofficial legislative primary poll during an ongoing trial concerning 47 democrats. All of his books have been pulled from library shelves.

The third round of removals: Civil society figures

This year saw another spate of removals. In addition to political satires, titles by civil society figures, politicians, and humanity scholars also disappeared.

Margaret Ng — a journalist-turned-barrister who co-founded the Civic Party — had published numerous volumes of prose, a memoir on her political life, and studies related to Jin Yong, a renowned Chinese martial arts novelist.

She also published “Beneath the Keystone – 18 Years in Politics,” an autobiographical recollection of Hong Kong’s transition and her fight for the rule of law as a lawmaker. Local media reported earlier this month that all of her work had been removed from libraries.

Ng was among five people convicted of failing to register a defunct protester relief fund as a society last November.

Aside from titles by politicians, academic work by local scholars was also removed. All titles by Hui Po-keung — who was an associate professor at the Department of Cultural Studies at Lingnan University until 2021 — have vanished from the shelves. He wrote a variety of books on the wealth gap, identity and Hong Kong history and was among the five convicted over the protester relief fund.

The Politics of Emotion by Hui Po-keung, published in 2018. Image from HKFP.

Hui’s 2018 volume, “The Politics of Emotion,” analysed the emotions and trauma in the city following 2014 pro-democracy Umbrella Movement. It was dropped from libraries along with numerous other titles on local democratic movements and protests dating back to the 1980s.

Reportedly all titles written by a political scholar, Ma Ngok, were removed. One of his books, “An Oral History of the Democratic Movement of Hong Kong in the 1980s,” published in 2012, consists of interviews with ten key democrats of the 1980s, and discusses how they fought for democracy in the colonial era.

As an associate professor in the government and public administration department at the Chinese University of Hong Kong, Ma continues to study elections and party politics. The public can no longer access any of his work at public libraries.

Forty years of satire

As for political satirist Wong Kei-kwan, better known as Zunzi, he has been working with local media outlets since 1978. Each weekday, he took aim at local political events with cutting satire.

Since 1989, he has published ten books of political cartoons, including two published in 2019 — “Hong Kong, the Light Soy Sauce” and “China, the Old Soy Sauce.” As of this month, one of his volumes can be found in public libraries.

Hong Kong, the Light Soy Sauce by political cartoonist Zunzi, published in 2019 by publisher Subculture Ltd. Photo: Kyle Lam/HKFP.

“Hong Kong, the Light Soy Sauce” compiled satirical takes ranging from the UK–China negotiations over Hong Kong, to the 2019 protests and unrest. It won the 13th Hong Kong Bookprize, a Chinese-language book award jointly organised by government-funded broadcaster RTHK, the Hong Kong Publishing Federation, and Hong Kong Public Libraries.

Works on the Tiananmen Crackdown

Released on the eve of the 20th anniversary of Tiananmen Crackdowns, Prisoner of the State: “The Secret Journal of Zhao Ziyang” (The Secret Journal) immediately became a bestseller in the city in 2009. The first print run of 14,000 copies sold out within hours, Reuters reported.

Zhao Ziyang served as the General Secretary of the Communist Party of China between 1987 and 1989. During the protests of 1989, he showed empathy to student protesters and tried to engage in dialogue with student organisations. He faced a political purge after the bloody crackdown on June 4 and remained under house arrest until he passed away in 2005.

The publisher New Century Press in Hong Kong obtained a secret recording of Zhao after his death, where he recalled his political reform efforts and the Tiananmen crackdown.

Forbidden in mainland China, Zhao Ziyang’s The Secret Journal used to be a long-running bestseller at Hong Kong stores which sold “forbidden books.” These bookstores were popular among mainland Chinese visitors, but the industry no longer exists.

Prisoner of the State: The Secret Journal of Zhao Ziyang by Zhao Ziyang, published in 2009. Image from HKFP.

Pao, who founded the New Century Press publisher, told HKFP that he understood The Secret Journal could always be accessed at public libraries until recently.

Another Bookprize winner taken down from the shelves is “Big Rivers Going to the East” (2011). Szeto Wah — a prominent politician and icon of Hong Kong’s democracy movement — recalled his life in politics over 60 years, and his reaction to the Tiananmen crackdown.

Ronny Tong, a non-official member of the Executive Council, told Ming Pao last Monday that he could not see any content in the book that involved splitting the country, subverting the government or inciting harm to national security. He added that he owned a copy.

Aside from autobiographies, Hong Kong public libraries used to collect books documenting and analysing the crackdown. The city was once considered a free and safe place to exchange information and debate the incident, which remains heavily censored in China. As of this week, only a handful of titles were listed when searching for “June 4,” “Tiananmen incident,” or “Tiananmen crackdowns” on the library website.

Romance essays

“Banned” books are not only political — some apparently innocuous romantic tomes have also been targeted. Roy Kwong, a democratic politician and novelist, published at least seven romantic titles over a decade. Among them was “There is a Kind of Happiness called Forgetting,” which is about bidding farewell to emotional trauma.

Roy Kwong was arrested under the national security law over the democratic primary elections in January 2021. He was released on bail later without charge.

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