Raymond Yeung’s announcement that he would plead guilty to a charges of illegal assembly was not made in court, but on Facebook. He faces the possibility of a five-year jail term when he enters that same plea in front of a magistrate on Monday.
“I have an advantage over other protest prisoners – I can make customised books for myself to read in prison,” Yeung told HKFP with a smirk.
Yeung is the founder of Hillway Culture, a publisher known for publishing protest-related books in Hong Kong. He is also known as the “teacher who was shot in the eye.”
The former Liberal Studies teacher at a prestigious girls’ school was left partially blind after being struck by an alleged police projectile during a protest in 2019. A photo of him with blood pouring from his eye went viral, and he became renowned as a victim of alleged police brutality. Yeung lost his teaching position soon after.
With the unexpected media attention, Yeung was touted as a potential candidate in the democrats’ unofficial primary election for the postponed Legislative Council race in 2020. In the same year, he was among those who won a legal challenge against the police relating to the use of officer identification at protests.
“The name ‘Raymond Yeung’ was sold back then,” he said, reflecting on his past. “I felt like I was playing a role that the Hong Kong people needed, who I really was didn’t really matter.”
After the mass arrests of democrats involved in the primaries and the disbanding of countless pro-democracy civil organisations, Yeung returned to work for Hillway Culture, dealing with something he felt more familiar with than elections and politics – books.
“We noticed a great demand for books in Hong Kong in 2019 – particularly works on social and political topics – so we started to expand. In 2020, even as other publishers became more cautious about releasing books as the national security law was introduced, I continued to do more in the publishing sector,” Yeung said.
The company was founded in 2016 with the intention of publishing Liberal Studies materials. However, the supposedly harmless textbooks publisher has become what Yeung describes as a “dangerous” publishing company, making political novels, picture books and biographies that no printing factories dare to print.
“We haven’t done anything more than what we did in the past, we just haven’t done anything less,” Yeung said with a smile of resignation.
Red lines and ‘seditious’ publications
Since the Beijing-imposed national security law was implemented in June 2020, red lines have been drawn around the publishing industry. In July last year, national security police arrested five members of a pro-democracy speech therapists’ union for conspiracy to publish “seditious” children’s books about sheep.
The sedition law, a legacy of the British colonial government, was unused for over half a century until its revival in the aftermath of the 2019 extradition bill protests and unrest. It outlaws incitement to violence, to disaffection and to other offences against the administration while the national security law, enacted in June 2020, criminalises subversion, secession, collusion with foreign powers, and terrorist acts.
“When the security law was announced, the industry was quite alarmed because they believed that, once the law was passed, any publications with political themes and all parties engaged in making them would be prohibited. It’s extremely terrifying,” Yeung said.
At the time the legislation passed, Hillway Culture was planning to publish a protest-themed book called To Freedom: A Year of Hong Kong Protests, which collected the stories of 50 people involved in the protests, including a district councillor, a first aider, a reporter and a protest lawyer.
However, they were unable to get the book printed in the traditional way.
“Not a single printing company was willing to take our order. That was a hard blow for us. I thought to myself: ‘Have we reached the stage where we simply cannot operate?'” he said.
The printers were concerned that the book may be viewed as illegal under the security law, Yeung said, or that their business might suffer as a result of printing it. “At least for us, the red line often comes from the self-censorship of the printers instead of the actual legal risk, as we have received no warning from the police so far,” he said.
But it was Yeung’s first foray into publishing, and he was unable to accept the possibility that it was going to be a flop. He came up with a creative – and unusual – way to produce the book: splitting the printing process into small parts and contracting out those parts to different printing companies, so if printing the book put them at fault legally, at least the blame would be dispersed.
“Some seniors at the printers said it was like we were printing ‘prohibited books.’ One told us that prohibited books used to be erotica or violent publications, instead of political books,” Yeung said. “Who would have thought we would be doing this again in 2020.”
Hillway Culture was able to fulfil the pre-orders and distribute copies to readers, but the experience made Yeung think more about Hillway Culture’s future. It needed to be more independent, and one way of doing that was to purchase its own printing equipment.
Yeung chuckled when he told HKFP that the cost of printing their own books was about HK$50 for each copy, which “simply doesn’t make any economic sense.” However, he said, Hillway Culture has always been prepared for the worst.
Yeung said, as far as he knows, Hillway Culture is the only publisher to have invested ten of thousands of Hong Kong dollars on printing equipment. However, he foresaw that finding printing factories to print political books would become more difficult, especially as Hillway Culture is considered as a “high-risk” publisher, a result of being turned down by the government-supported Hong Kong Book Fair, and having to cancel its own independent book fair.
‘High-risk’ book fair
Yeung, who organised of the Hongkongers’ Book Fair, choked up when announcing the abrupt cancellation of the independent book fair. At the eleventh hour, the venue owner claimed safety concerns and an alleged lease violation.
The idea of the event came to Yeung after at least three publishers, including Hillway Culture, were denied permission to take part in the official Hong Kong Book Fair held in July. The independent book fair was viewed by many as an attempt to take on the government-backed fair, even though the two events did not clash on the calendar.
Yeung asserts that Hillway Culture’s involvement may have been among the venue owner’s concerns. Its name was mentioned during their negotiations.
“The Hongkongers’ Book Fair is not a political activity, even though it comes from a political decision made by the Hong Kong Book Fair,” Yeung told the press during a press conference. “We have put so much effort into the Hongkongers’ Book Fair… we really want this to work.”
After it was cancelled, the fair went online. Sales went much better than expected, Yeung told HKFP, and the profits exceeded the losses incurred by the axed event.
A week later, Yeung accompanied HKFP to the Hong Kong Book Fair, only this time he went as a reader instead of a participating publisher. “I thought I could be chill and just walk around as an ordinary reader, but I can’t. I can’t forget that they shut the door on me,” Yeung said, looking at the unfamiliar exhibition hall.
“It feels strange now, like some parts of me are gone. My presence here was forcefully erased,” he continued.
Yet, Yeung insisted that Hillway Culture is not alone. He said he had imagined the worst case scenario, and even though the situation in Hong Kong now is worse than expected, he is still optimistic. “Even though there may be invisible political pressure, I still feel that many people are willing to support our work despite the current suppression.”
During the interview, Yeung appeared calm, logical and teacher-like. He graduated from the esteemed University of Hong Kong and was earning a stable and satisfying income working as a high school teacher.
However, the ex-educator is now counting down the days to his sentencing, and said he would not be too shocked if additional charges were later brought against him.
Yeung said that when he was rearrested in April, he assumed it was because of Hillway Culture.
“The police came to my home at 5 a.m. or 6 a.m. ringing my doorbell. When I saw the police through my CCTV, I thought to myself ‘which incident is this related to?’… Would it be our news reports that might be deemed as seditious? Would it be our publications? I kept thinking about this as I was walking to my door. What offence would it be?” Yeung said.
“When I opened the door, I realised it was over an illegal assembly dating back to 2019, and I felt relieved,” he said with a calm tone. “I’ve always been mentally prepared.”
Yeung explained that staying in the publishing sector gives his a purpose in life and the strength to avoid feeling hopeless and depressed. The positive feelings outweighed the negative feelings brought on by some of the things he has experienced.
“Finding a profession that I enjoy, am skilled at, can give me satisfaction and is also congruent with social ideals and what many others think is rare. I don’t see why I should be depressed about switching careers,” Yeung said with a smile.
A few days before his sentencing, which could be months or even years in jail, the workaholic smiled again when talking about his plans should he have to spend time in prison. “I’m going to try working in prison too, maybe I can still do the work through letters.” The hope is that Hillway Culture will continue.
“I don’t know what will happen when I finish serving my time in jail, but I hope Hillway Culture will still be here and will continue our work. We failed to hold the Hongkongers’ Book Fair, but we’ve learnt so much through these experiences. Next time, we’ll do it better, and safer,” he said, maintaining his calm, and perhaps with a logical “irrationality.”
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