Hong Kong’s publishers self-censor in wake of national security law

Hong Kong publisher Alan To has been combing through his books to remove any titles that might get him into trouble.

The city used to revel in its reputation for its free press and as an outlet for open criticism of Beijing. But China’s imposition of a national security law aimed at quashing political protests in the territory has also sent a chill through Hong Kong’s once vibrant publishing and media industry.

Last week, the New York Times said it would move its digital publishing operations, representing about a third of its journalists based in the city, to Seoul in the wake of the new law.

Mr To, the managing editor of Cup Magazine Publishing Limited, said he was increasingly anxious about the encroaching restrictions and has decided to self-censor.

He began by pulling sensitive books from his catalogue for the city’s now postponed book fair. One title that failed to make the cut was a satirical comic that criticises the local government’s response to Hong Kong’s 2014 pro-democracy protests.

The national security law, which is aimed at combating subversion, secession, terrorism and colluding with foreign elements, wields a maximum penalty of life imprisonment. It states that the Hong Kong government must strengthen “supervision and regulation over matters concerning national security”, including the media.

“The situation now is that you keep on reflecting whether what you have done previously is right or wrong or whether you have violated the law. The fear is always with you,” he said in a meeting room lined with bookshelves. He worries that anyone credited in a book could be arrested for their involvement. 

The new regulations imposed this month were set to be tested at the popular annual book fair, until a surge in coronavirus infections forced organisers to delay the event. The fair drew more than 1m visitors over seven days last year, despite disruption from anti-government protests near the venue.

A group that supports Junius Ho, a pro-Beijing lawmaker, had called on visitors to the fair to report any books on Hong Kong independence or products that endangered national security.

The new law is the latest in a series of blows to the city’s book industry after falling sales and high rents forced the closure of many bookshops. Beijing-backed stores and publishers now dominate in the territory.

But the threats have not been just economic. In 2015, five men linked to Causeway Bay Books in the city disappeared. The shop specialised in sensationalist gossip about the Chinese leadership and was popular with mainland tourists.

Lee Bo, who worked at the shop, was snatched from Hong Kong, while publisher and author Gui Minhai vanished from Thailand. He later appeared in custody in mainland China. 

Jimmy Pang, director of publisher Subculture, said Hong Kong had lost its reputation as the world’s freest Chinese-language publishing community. “The boundary of the national security law is very unclear. The red line is a moving one,” he said.

He fears potential penalties under the law are too great for publishers to risk a mis-step. 

Within days of the new law being imposed, public libraries pulled a handful of titles from the shelves for review, including two books written by Joshua Wong, the pro-democracy campaigner. Mr Pang’s company had published some of the books under review.

“In just one month, the national security law has overturned Hong Kong. Hong Kong’s freedom has faded,” Mr Pang said.

A lack of clarity on what might be deemed illegal means Mr Pang has opted not to sell 6430, a book about the 1989 Tiananmen Square massacre, at the fair when it does open. The book includes interviews with dissidents in exile. 

King-wa Fu, associate professor at the University of Hong Kong’s journalism and media department, was more optimistic. He noted that independent book shops still carried titles on alleged scandals involving Chinese president Xi Jinping.

“It’s not very Hong Kong to just remove everything,” Mr Fu said. “Of course if the national security office rushes into the warehouse, [the owners] will follow [the stipulations], but if not, they will continue to sell.” 

Demand for books on the city’s protest movement have grown in recent months, said Albert Wan, co-founder of Bleak House Books, an independent bookshop. He said customers probably rushed to buy the books before the government banned them. 

Mr Wan said there was “heightened scrutiny” of the book industry in light of the legislation, but noted there was no defined “red line” of what would contravene the law.

While staff discussed briefly the merits of selling a book titled Liberate Hong Kong, Mr Wan said he had not removed any publications from his shelves. “Once you go down that path of self censorship,” he said, “there’s no turning back.”