Two Hong Kong publishers – who received complaints of suspected national security violations – have decided to keep selling the titles in question at the city’s annual book fair in a bid to “defend” the freedom to publish under the sweeping security legislation.
Local publishing companies Hillway Press and Kind of Culture confirmed with HKFP on Friday that they received a letter from the event organiser – the Hong Kong Trade Development Council (HKTDC) – a day ago, saying some of the titles they were selling at the expo may be in breach of Beijing-imposed security law.
This year’s book fair – which opened on Wednesday and ends next Tuesday – was the first it has been held since the controversial legislation was enacted last June, after last year’s event was cancelled owing to the Covid-19 pandemic.
The head of Hillway Press, Sam – who only wished to give his first name – said the letter mentioned that three of their books were at issue, including A Journey Through the Brick Wall by former liberal studies teacher Raymond Yeung. Yeung was blinded in one eye with an alleged police projectile on June 12, 2019, when thousands of pro-democracy protesters clashed violently with police around government headquarters.
Another book that attracted complaints was Dark Night in Yuen Long by former journalist Ryan Lau, who gave a first-hand account of the mob attacks on July 21, 2019 around the Yuen Long MTR station. A book by internet novelist Lewis Lau was also mentioned in the letter.
Sam told HKFP that when the HKTDC delivered the notice on Thursday, some staff inspected the booth briefly by flipping through some copies, but no further action was taken. The letter he received did not specify why the three titles may have amounted to national security violations. The organiser only reminded the vendor to ensure all the books they sold were in compliance with the law.
‘Stepping on lines’
The publisher said all books were reviewed meticulously to ensure the content did not “step on the line,” or contain any “inappropriate” phrase, as the team did not wish to “break the law accidentally.”
“[The organiser] did not ask us to take the books off the shelf. We absolutely have confidence in our books – they are absolutely legal, they do not touch on any bottom line, and they do not involve any subversive or secessionist [elements],” the Hillway Press representative said, adding the titles were “not political.”
Under the controversial security legislation, secession, subversion, collusion with foreign forces and terrorist activities are punishable by life imprisonment.
A similar letter from the HKTDC was handed to Kind of Culture, saying two books linked to the 2014 Umbrella Movement received complaints for potentially breaching the security law.
Orwell book ‘spreading independence’
The letters came after the pro-Beijing press reported that a group – Politihk Social Strategic – “collected evidence” from the book fair on Thursday and found out that the two publishers sold books “spreading independence.”
The publications they took issue with included a book by 14 online media journalists, who documented their reporting experiences during the 2019 anti-extradition bill protests. A bilingual version of George Orwell’s Animal Farm, a collection of political cartoons by former visual arts teacher VA Wong Sir and a book on local prisons by ex-legislator Shiu Ka-chun were also said to be promoting Hong Kong independence.
Reports said the organisation had filed reports to the police national security unit on Thursday. HKFP has reached out to Politihk Social Strategic for comment.
Ms. Wong, an employee at Kind of Culture who only wanted to be identified by her last name, told HKFP that several books “reported” by Politihk Social Strategic had to be restocked because many customers came looking for them. She estimated that titles such as the journalist book and the Umbrella Movement books each sold over 100 copies per day.
Freedom to publish
She went on to say the publisher had evaluated the potential risks before the expo, and decided to keep the titles in question on the shelves for as long as they could, despite not knowing where the “red line” stands.
“As a publisher, we think we have the freedom to publish books that are worth publishing. We have to defend the right to publish,” she said.
Over at the Hillway Press counter, a projector screen stood at the centre of the booth played a slideshow. One of the pages read: “Freedom to publish.”
Sam, who was manning the stall, said that the line was a key message his company wanted to share with book fair goers this year. He said the they hoped to tell people that some publishers, like themselves, were “using their small effort” to keep going during a “difficult time.”
“We want people to pay attention to the phenomenon that the space for freedom of publishing in Hong Kong is diminishing. We have seen printers refusing to print [certain books], and book shops refusing to purchase certain books… it’s not a healthy social phenomenon,” he said.
“At this moment, we want to sell this message more than copies of books,” the publisher added.
Asked if they were worried that police may act upon the complaints, both Hillway Press and Kind of Culture said they believed it would be unlikely for the Force to search their counters during the expo. Wong said she had concerns that there “may be some trouble” after the event ends next Tuesday.
Sam, on the other hand, remained unfazed by the rumours of possible police action: “Many of these rumours, whether they are real or not, there is no way for me to judge. We just want to focus on the book fair.”
Among the dozens of people who visited Hillway Press on Friday morning was Herbert Chow, founder of local children clothing brand Chickeeduck, who walked away from the booth with a copy of Animal Farm.
The kids’ apparel businessman – known for his support for the 2019 pro-democracy protests – told HKFP that he came to the book fair in search of books on politics for children for sale in his stores. But after touring the expo in the morning, Chow said he only managed to find two.
“I don’t want to wrongly accuse [anyone]. I will walk through the entire fair to make sure there really isn’t any,” he said.
Asked how he felt about two vendors being told that their books may violate the national security law, Chow slammed the complaints as “nonsense.”
“Of course I think it is ridiculous… for the Yuen Long attack book, which part of the national security law does it contravene?” the businessman asked.
Another book fair visitor who asked to be identified as Suet, said she would purchase several books from Hillway Press to show support. The 20-year-old said the authorities could not “blame” the vendors for selling certain titles, as there was still a big question mark over what kind of book content may be seen as illegal under the national security law.
“You can’t ask them to self-censor, and even if they do, they may not be able to filter out all [allegedly unlawful books],” she said.
Xi Jinping books
Books by Chinese leader Xi Jinping also attracted attention during this year’s fair. The book covered topics such as the history of the Chinese Communist Party, alleviating poverty and Beijing’s infrastructure development strategy, the Belt and Road Initiative.
Chung Hwa Book, for instance, put Xi’s books at the front of its counter underneath a banner that read: “Promote Chinese culture, construct modern civilisation.”
Cherry Chen, the book company’s project director, told HKFP that the sales of Xi’s titles were “no different” from other books they sold. She said customers usually bought an entire collection and the vendor had to keep restocking copies.
“These are newest books from Xi Jinping. They are friendly to the people,” she said.
Aside from books, book fair-goers can also buy souvenirs related to the Hong Kong Police Force and other disciplined services. Vendor Royal Hong Kong Supplier offered products such as posters, pins, miniature figurines about the force, as well as plush teddy bears wearing police uniforms.
The booth also featured a number of “not for sale” items, including a book by New People’s Party chairwoman Regina Ip on Hong Kong’s political landscape, as well as a photobook titled A Historical Account of Hongkong’s Extradition Turmoil produced by the state-owned Ta Kung Wen Wei Group.
Paul Choi, manning the stall, told HKFP that the shop, founded by a retired policeman, first joined the book fair in 2019. He said the social events in 2019 made their products “sensitive,” but he thought the atmosphere at this year’s expo was “much better,” as people visited the shop “eagerly,” and no one came to the booth to “express discontent.”
“Although we sell police items, it is not like we are pro-police. We just think it is righteous, police are righteous. We are just supporting justice,” Choi said.
Update 21/7: “[T]here are pictures and words romancing the terrorist acts such as arson, storming, vandalising,” a spokesperson for Politihk Social Strategic told HKFP. “But they hide the beating up of common citizens, never mention how policemen were attacked. It is definitely not a fair description of an event which we call [a] riot, it is simple single-sided glorification of terrorism.”