Hong Kong Government Purges Politically Sensitive Books from Libraries

Local media outlets in Hong Kong report that hundreds of books on political topics including the 1989 Tiananmen Massacre are no longer available in the city’s public libraries, after the city’s Leisure and Cultural Services Department ordered librarians to ensure that their collections contained nothing in violation of the National Security Law. This is the latest example of government censorship in Hong Kong that further restricts free speech and attempts to rewrite history.

Helen Davidson from The Guardian described the extent of the book purge:

On Tuesday, Hong Kong media outlets reported the review appeared to have stripped from public shelves hundreds of books about the massacre of student protesters on 4 June 1989. Photon Media searched for 149 titles that were available in 2009 and found only four still listed.

Ming Pao reported that about 40% of politically themed books, magazines and videos available at the end of 2020 were gone, 96 of them removed this year. It said a number of documentaries, including by the public broadcaster RTHK, were also absent.

A Guardian search of the Hong Kong public libraries’ online catalogue returned some titles related to the Tiananmen massacre but most were shown to have “no lending copy available on shelf”. Four books on the “umbrella movement” protests were shown to have copies available. [Source]

After government complaints last week, Ming Pao axed its satirical artist known as Zunzi following his 40-year tenure at the outlet. Later, his books began disappearing from public libraries. RFA found that around 250 books had been culled, three times as many as during a similar action in 2021. Bloomberg reported that a search of the Hong Kong Public Libraries’ catalog on Tuesday yielded no results for terms related to the Tiananmen Massacre. 

At Global Voices, Oiwan Lam provided a partial list of authors that were purged:

Ma Ngok – a political scientist specializing in Hong Kong politics and democratization. He is currently an associate professor at the Chinese University of Hong Kong. 

Hui Po Keung – a cultural studies scholar and a trustee of the “612 Humanitarian Relief Fund,” which helped protesters pay for their legal and medical bills after the 2019 pro-democracy protests. He was arrested on charges of foreign collusion under the National Security Law (NSL) and is now out on bail. 

Margaret Ng – a barrister and former member of the legislative council. She is also out on bail under charges of foreign collusion as a trustee of the “612 Humanitarian Relief Fund.”

Allan Au – a veteran journalist and journalism lecturer at the Chinese University of Hong Kong. He was arrested, accused of “conspiracy to publish seditious materials,” and is released now on bail.

Szeto Wah – the founder of the Hong Kong Alliance in Support of Patriotic Democratic Movements of China and the Hong Kong Professional Teachers’ Union. The prominent democracy activist passed away in 2011.

Sam Ng – a veteran media worker and a prominent satirical news commentator on the TV news program “Headline News,” which has since been banned.

Tsang Chi-ho – a radio host who also played a major role in “Headline News.”

Justin Wong – is an award-winning artist, political cartoonist, and former assistant professor at Baptist University.

Chin Wan – a prominent writer and localism advocate. 

Simon Shen – a political scientist. [Source]

Defending these changes, Hong Kong Chief Executive John Lee stated that the books removed from the city’s public libraries were still accessible in private shops. But many Hongkongers, including moderate or establishment ones, expressed concern. “If a government cannot even convince its people why certain books – including those apparently non-political – are banned, it might have difficulties in winning trust on other issues,” warned Simon Chu Fook-keung, a former acting director of the city government’s archives from 1999 to 2003. At the South China Morning Post, Natalie Wong reported that John Lee did not clearly explain the criteria for censoring the books in Hong Kong’s libraries:

Hong Kong’s leader on Tuesday defended the removal of more public library books over political sensitivities, saying material circulated had to “serve the interest” of society without breaching the law.

Chief Executive John Lee Ka-chiu, while insisting such publications were still available in private bookshops, did not address whether the city’s freedom of access to information would be undermined if censorship standards were not transparent, as suggested by critics.

[…] “The principles we use, which I support, are to ensure that there is no breach of any laws in Hong Kong, including, of course, copyrights, etc; and also, if they spread any kinds of messages that are not in the interests of Hong Kong.”

He did not address how certain non-political titles could be linked to national security threats but offered his “strong confidence” in the professionalism of colleagues at the Leisure and Cultural Services Department in ensuring public circulation “served the interest” of the city. [Source]

These book purges come just weeks after Hong Kong held a ceremony for World Book Day, at which Kevin Yeung, the Secretary for Culture, Sports, and Tourism, said that “local public libraries have been nurturing reading as a consistent habit of the public through quality and diversified collections,” according to Xinhua. Earlier in March, Hong Kong police arrested two men for possessing children’s books that were deemed to be “seditious.” This marks the first arrest for merely owning the books, after the publishers were jailed last year.

Along with other government measures that wield the National Security Law against citizens’ rights, these book purges contribute to the erasure of Hong Kong memory. In an op-ed for The New York Times, Louisa Lim described how this parallels the state-induced amnesia in the mainland, but argued that such revisionism will be met with fierce resistance:

Revisionism — with its ancillary altering or obliteration of memory — is an act of repression. It’s the same playbook China used after violently crushing the 1989 pro-democracy demonstrations in Beijing. Then, state-induced amnesia was imposed gradually. At first the government churned out propaganda that labeled those protests as a counterrevolutionary rebellion that had to be suppressed. But over the years, the state slowly excised all public memory of its killings.

In Hong Kong the silence has set in much more quickly. The gagging of dissenting voices and editing of the past has happened at warp speed, mirroring the blink-and-you-miss-it modern news cycle. This has its own logic; the faster the blanket of silence is thrown over Hong Kong, the less time there is for criticism to take root, and the faster the next phase of transformation — whatever that may be — can be introduced. The cycle of unmaking accelerates.

[…] But Hong Kongers don’t easily forget.

When the bloody suppression of the Tiananmen movement could not be publicly commemorated in China, people in Hong Kong took it upon themselves to hold annual vigils for those killed and imprisoned in Beijing and elsewhere. Now it falls to a new Hong Kong diaspora to keep alive the memory of what happened to their own city. [Source]


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