July 28, 2020
Hong Kong booksellers face an uncertain future under new national security law
by Alyea Canada
It’s been about a month since China passed the wide-ranging and vaguely worded national security law in Hong Kong in an effort to end the pro-democracy protests that have embroiled the city since last summer. The law effectively curtails free speech and protest and represents the most radical shift in Hong Kong governance since the British returned the city to China in the nineties. In response to the national security law, libraries have removed books by pro-democracy activists such as Joshua Wong and Tanya Chen, protest slogans and songs have been banned in persona and online, and protesters have taken to deleting old tweets and Facebook posts for fear that they could be used against them. It’s a truly horrifying curtailing of freedoms in general, and is yet another threat to booksellers and librarians in Hong Kong.
Bookselling in Hong Kong has been a fraught occupation for the past few years now starting with the abduction and imprisonment of five booksellers from Causeway Bay Books who were selling gossip books about Communist Party leaders. One of the booksellers, Gui Minhai, was sentenced to ten years imprisonment in February 2020. Rhoda Kwan talked to a few booksellers for the Hong Kong Free Press about their concerns and the future of bookselling in Hong Kong under the new national security law. One of the booksellers, Albert Wan of the English-language bookstore Bleak House Books, is determined to resist censorship for as long as he can stating that compliance with an order to remove titles would depend on what that order looked like. He told Kwan: “We are very hesitant to go down the path of any kind of censorship, whether it’s self-imposed or whether it’s imposed from outside because if we go down that road there’s really no turning back.” Another bookseller, May Fung of ACO books said that she wouldn’t self-censor until she had no other choice.
Booksellers are right to be concerned, the law is vague enough that Beijing could decide on a whim that a book is banned and there is no recourse to fight it. “If we still lived in a society with rule of law and a legal system we can trust, we can go to court and the court will fairly decide whether or not a certain title contravenes the law. But this new national security agency is outside of the government, so that’s not necessarily the case now; we don’t know whether or not they will be fair,” Fung told Kwan. In contrast to independent booksellers such as Wan and Fung, larger international chains have started to preemptively pull titles from their shelves in hopes of maintaining a good relationship with mainland China. It is not just profits at stake for companies and individual booksellers, there is also the very real threat of arrest and imprisonment. Wan: “My initial reaction will be to tell them to ‘f-off,’ but I also have a bookstore to run… I have responsibilities as a husband and father … It’s a matter of how much I feel like I can keep doing [what I’m doing] and not be a burden and compromise the safety of my family.”
For now consumers still seem to be purchasing as usual and so Hong Kong bookstores will continue the flow of information as freely as possible. Books serve an important role in providing education and escape to those who may otherwise not have access both in Hong Kong and around the world. Wan notes that the ultimate fate of Hong Kong bookstores is directly tied to the fate of the city itself. As governments around the globe continue to grow more conservative and oppressive it will become increasingly important to support and protect booksellers and publishers in an effort to protect free speech. And as we approach a potential second Trump presidency, it may be wise for booksellers and publishers in the United States to keep an eye on what unfolds.
Alyea Canada is an editor at Melville House.