Hong Kong public libraries over the past 12 years have removed 29 out of 149 books about the Tiananmen Massacre from their shelves, a total of 263 individual copies, a review by HKFP has found.

Of the 120 titles still stocked, just 26 are displayed on the shelves and immediately available for borrowing. The remaining 94 are only available on request, are stored in off-site book reserves, or are housed in reference sections where they can be read but not borrowed.

Hong kong public library June 4 book publication tiananmen square massacre
A book documenting the work of public broadcaster RTHK reporters during the 1989 protests available on shelf. Photo: Selina Cheng/HKFP.

In June 2009, the Home Affairs Bureau made public a spreadsheet of 149 titles about the 1989 June 4 massacre that were in Hong Kong’s public libraries at the time, with a total of 1,162 copies available for lending or reference. By inputting each title into the current online catalogue for public libraries, HKFP found that 29 of the titles — 26 in Chinese and three in English — were no longer available as of November 9.

The spreadsheet was originally made public in response to a request from former Democratic Party lawmaker Andrew Cheng. “Borrowing such books from public libraries is one of the means by which members of the public and students get to know about this episode in history,” Cheng told the legislature.

Hong kong public library
Photo: Selina Cheng/HKFP.

Florence Hui, acting secretary for the Home Affairs Bureau at the time, said in a statement that the government had ordered an extra 250 copies of some of the existing 149 titles “in response to the demands of the reader.” The addition would have brought the number of copies on the topic to 1,412, of which 82 per cent would be available for loan.

Twelve years on, the number of June 4 titles that can be borrowed — including those that must be retrieved from reserves or requested from library staff — has dropped to 34 per cent, or 41 titles.

With the exception of 17 titles which saw an increase in the number of copies thanks to the 2009 order, most titles spared from removal now have fewer copies available. In total, the public libraries now have 392 fewer copies of books about the massacre than they did in 2009.

Readers must make an enquiry with a librarian and wait for over 30 minutes to retrieve a title from on-site reserves, library staff told HKFP. For a HK$3.3 fee, readers may place requests for the titles in advance, but would have to wait about a week for delivery.

List of titles on the 1989 massacre removed from Hong Kong public libraries – click to view
Titles deshelved as of Nov 9, 2021AuthorPublication year
六四日記 : 廣場上的共和國封從德2009
從六四到伊拉克戰場 : 熊焱牧軍日記熊焱2009
天安門之子 : 最新政治評論集余杰2005
中國「六四」真相 = June fourth : the true story. 上冊張良2001
中國「六四」真相 = June fourth : the true story. 下冊張良2001
天安門事件後中共與美國外交內幕 : 一位中國大陸外交官的歷史見證陳有為1999
見證屠殺 尋求正義 : 六四傷殘者和死難者家屬證詞六四傷殘者和死難者家屬證詞1999
六四的內情 : 未完成的涅槃包遵信1997
腳印與戰叫 : 支聯會「六四」七周年紀念圖片集麥海華1996
末日倖存者的獨白 : 關於我和[六.四]劉曉波1992
漆黑將不再面對 : 八九中國民運專輯 : 香港支援民運圖片集香港市民支援愛國民主運動聯合會1991
八九中國民運見証報告專輯 = Witness reports on the democratic movement of China ’89香港市民支援愛國民主運動聯合會1990
柴玲 : 中國的和平鬥士陳靖偉1990
歷史的創傷 : 1989中國民運史料彙編. 上冊寒山碧編1989
The factual account of a search for the June 4 victims (vol. 1 – vol. 2)Ding, Zilin.1994-95
The eyes have it = 六四見證Liu, Melinda.1989
June Four : a chronicle of the Chinese democratic uprising1989

See detailed statistics on the June 4 collection compiled by HKFP here.

The existing collections of public libraries are reviewed during Collection Development Meetings chaired by the chief librarian (collections & technical processing) and attended by chief or senior librarians from different districts.

Their decisions are not made public.

The Tiananmen Massacre on June 4, 1989 ended months of student-led demonstrations in China calling for democracy and other reforms. It is estimated that hundreds, perhaps thousands, of people died when the People’s Liberation Army was deployed to crack down on protesters in Beijing.

Information on the event has in the past three decades been heavily censored in mainland China, both on and off the internet. Hong Kong’s freedom to commemorate the event, report on it or read books about it is seen as a litmus test of whether the city can safeguard its freedoms after the handover from Britain to China in 1997.

In recent months the group which for decades organised annual candlelight vigils, the Hong Kong Alliance in Support of Patriotic Democratic Movements of China, has disbanded following a police probe and several of its leaders have been arrested. Some have been charged under a national security law imposed by Beijing in the wake of the 2019 protests.

library catalogue censosrship
A title published by the Hong Kong Alliance returned no results in the public libraries catalogue. Photo: HKPL Screenshot.

Prominent pro-democracy figures such as Joshua Wong, Albert Ho and Lee Cheuk-yan have been sentenced to jail under other laws over their roles in an unauthorised candlelight vigil in 2020, and other protest-related offences.

Three others who pleaded not guilty to inciting the vigil – Apple Daily founder Jimmy Lai, former vice-chair of the Hong Kong Alliance, and activist Gwyneth Ho – were on trial this month and are awaiting a verdict.

‘No results were found’

Among the June 4 titles now purged from public libraries are ones published by the Hong Kong Alliance, as well as works by a former leader of the group who was handed a suspended jail sentence for his role in last year’s unauthorised vigil, and by former leaders of the 1989 protests now in exile overseas.

A search for these titles on the public libraries online catalogue returned the message: “No results were found for our search request.”

A Tiananmen Journal: Republic on the Square.

Among the titles removed were 36 copies of A Tiananmen Journal: Republic on the Square, by Feng Congde, one of the leaders of the 1989 protests. Feng fled to France after Beijing’s crackdown and now lives in the US. He told HKFP he was not surprised as he learned earlier that the book can no longer be found in Hong Kong bookstores.

“Readers can see from my books the specific ways through which communist China suppressed the democracy movement, as well as skills and key points that could be used in resistance, and that’s why they may inspire young Chinese and Hongkongers,” he said of the title published in 2009 in Hong Kong.

“The books’ removal from Hong Kong’s public libraries showed that China has violated its promise that [the city] would remain unchanged for 50 years, and has been squeezing the space for freedoms,” he said. “Everyone knows that already.”

Other 1989 activists now in self-imposed exile whose books were removed are Wu Renhua, a scholar and a witness to the crackdown, and Xiong Yan, a student leader in 1989. Both fled to the US in the years following the massacre. Three titles by Ding Zilin, mother of a student who died during the crackdown and the leader of the group Tiananmen Mothers, were also removed.

The cover of 1989 China democracy movement newspaper front pages collection published by Hong Kong Alliance in 1989.
The cover of 1989 China democracy movement newspaper front pages collection, published by Hong Kong Alliance in 1989, now removed from Hong Kong’s public libraries. Photo: HKFP Remix.

Among the five titles published by the Hong Kong Alliance and now purged were anthologies of news photographs, newspaper front pages and political newspaper advertisements about the 1989 protests and massacre, while a sixth was Witness Reports on the Democratic Movement of China ’89. These accounted for 102 copies in 2009.

One of the news photography books was authored by Mak Hoi-wah, former standing committee member of the Hong Kong Alliance. Mak was given a suspended sentence of eight months after pleading guilty to taking part in an unauthorised June 4 vigil in 2020.

“The removals are because some people do not want the public to know what happened then, or what news reports at the time said,” Mak told HKFP. One of the Hong Kong Alliance’s books made up of newspaper front pages during the protests was “not edited,” Mak said, and even included the front pages of China’s state-owned People’s Daily.

“To ban these [titles] is to remove all such historical records from the memory of Hongkongers, as if the 1989 movement never existed, never happened in China, or that nobody in Hongkong participated in it,” he said.

Mak said the Hong Kong Alliance titles which were removed are no longer in circulation and are not available in bookstores.

Hong kong public library
Photo: Selina Cheng/HKFP.

In 2020, Hong Kong public libraries placed nine titles written by prominent democrats and activists under review. In response to media enquiries the Leisure and Cultural Services Department said its libraries adhered to guidelines by the UNESCO Public Library Manifesto, although its collections must comply with Hong Kong’s laws, including the national security law. All nine books have since been removed from library shelves.

The 1994 manifesto drafted in cooperation with the International Federation of Library Associations and Institutions stated that libraries’ “collections and services should not be subject to any form of ideological, political or religious censorship.”

“Material must reflect current trends and the evolution of society, as well as the memory of human endeavour and imagination,” the manifesto read.

In response to HKFP’s enquiries, the LCSD said it conducts “regular weeding” to identify items that are worn out or damaged, as well as reference materials that lost research value. The public libraries will also “review library books as appropriate to ensure they comply with the laws of Hong Kong. Items that are suspected of breaching the National Security Law or relevant laws will be suspended from service,” a spokesperson said in a statement.  

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Selina Cheng

Selina Cheng

Selina Cheng is a Hong Kong journalist who previously worked with HK01, Quartz and AFP Beijing. She also covered the Umbrella Movement for AP and reported for a newspaper in France. Selina has studied investigative reporting at the Columbia Journalism School.