British author George Orwell’s dystopian critiques of authoritarian regimes were among the most borrowed books in Hong Kong’s libraries last year, with Chinese versions of the works dramatically rising in popularity.

The Chinese version of Orwell’s 1984 was the tenth most borrowed book last year, after not featuring at all on the the Hong Kong Public Libraries’ annual “Top 100 Most Borrowed Books” list in 2019 or 2018. The work was borrowed a total of 2,934 times, according to the library’s data.

George Orwell Animal Farm 1984
Photo: Barringtonstoke Books.

1984 is a dystopian novel set in a society heavily repressed under a regime of pervasive state surveillance, propaganda and censorship. In the novel, citizens under the watchful eye of an all-powerful “Big Brother” practise a reflexive form of self-censorship called “doublethink” and talk in “newspeak,” a language carefully controlled by the state.

Orwell’s political novella Animal Farm, meanwhile, jumped over thirty places from 46th to 13th this year.

The two works also grew in popularity among English readers, with Animal Farm being the third-most popular English fiction book and 1984 ranking ninth on the list. The two novels had ranked 11th and 12th in 2018.

George Orwell
George Orwell. Photo: British Library.

Animal Farm is a satirical political fable featuring animals who overthrow their human overlord only to become the same tyrants themselves. Orwell had written the two books to warn of the rise authoritarian states after World War II.

The most borrowed book on the list was ‘The Five People You Meet in Heaven‘ by the American author, Mitch Albom.

The jump in popularity in Orwell’s works come amid fears of censorship and diminishing civic freedoms in Hong Kong amid a Beijing-led crackdown on political dissent in the city under a national security law imposed last summer.

Shortly after Beijing passed the law, the city’s public libraries pulled works by prominent pro-democracy figures Joshua Wong and Tanya Chan from its shelves.

‘Much-needed perspective’

Local bookseller Albert Wan of Bleakhouse Books told HKFP he had seen a similar spike in interest in the two novels at his store: “There’s some symbolism to all this, of course… to me this development speaks to the intelligence, savvy, and creativity of the Hong Kong people. That reading relevant books doesn’t necessarily mean reading banned books.”

Wan added that both 1984 and Animal Farm “remain relevant and powerful in their stories and messages.”

“And so Hong Kongers will continue reading these books to gain some much needed perspective on what’s happening now in Hong Kong,” the bookseller said.

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Hong Kong Free Press is a new, non-profit, English-language news source seeking to unite critical voices on local and national affairs. Free of charge and completely independent, HKFP arrives amid rising concerns over declining press freedom in Hong Kong and during an important time in the city’s constitutional development.