The library at Hong Kong’s top university has introduced a new system under which readers must register in advance to gain access to some politically sensitive books or archive materials. 

A Hong Kong researcher said the new policy, which follows moves by the city’s public libraries to remove some titles, might impede study of more “sensitive” topics.

The entrance of the Special Collections section of the University of Hong Kong’s main library. Photo: HKFP.

The new system has been installed at the University of Hong Kong’s (HKU) Special Collections, a space separated by a glass wall within the Main Library building. The area “houses a unique collection of Hong Kong materials, rare books, and microforms,” according to HKU’s website. 

The Special Collections section was closed from mid-February till April for what the university described last December as being for “Air Handling Unit and dehumidifier replacement.”

The statement last December did not mention any changes to accessibility after the space reopened. 

On May 18, HKU announced a new booking system for reserving desks in the Special Collections area “to enhance the user experience.” 

Patrons were required to register books which they wished to consult at the counter. Anyone who wishes to take a photo with their smartphone of a book must first fill out a form, specifying the details of the book and the number of photos to be taken.

Previously, users of the Special Collections section did not have to make bookings in advance or register books they wished to consult.

A sign asking library patrons to fill in a form if they want to take a photo of books inside the Special Collections section of the University of Hong Kong’s main library. Photo: HKFP.

The university told HKFP the new booking arrangements were made “to effectively protect and preserve the fragile and irreplaceable materials for future generations of scholars.”

When HKFP visited the library last month, five politically sensitive books – either written by activists or dealing with the 1989 Tiananmen crackdown – were available only in the Special Collections section.

The five titles included the English version of Joshua Wong’s Unfree Speech: The Threat to Global Democracy and Why We Must Act, Now; Nathan Law’s Freedom: How We Lose It and How We Fight Back; Chin Wan’s On the Hong Kong City-state; Mark Clifford’s Today Hong Kong, Tomorrow the World: What China’s Crackdown Reveals About Its Plan to End Freedom Everywhere, and a photobook by the now-disbanded Hong Kong Alliance in Support of Patriotic Democratic Movements of China. 

For three other books on the Tiananmen crackdown, including the Factual Account of a Search for the June 4 Victims by the leader of the Tiananmen Mothers Ding Zilin, readers had to request access online.

Mark Clifford’s Today Hong Kong, Tomorrow the World: What China’s Crackdown Reveals About Its Plan to End Freedom Everywhere (left), and Joshua Wong’s Unfree Speech: The Threat to Global Democracy and Why We Must Act, Now in the Special Collections section of the University of Hong Kong’s main library. Photo: HKFP.

Separately, the city’s public libraries removed 29 out of 149 books about the Tiananmen crackdown from their shelves, a total of 263 individual copies, an HKFP investigation found last year.

The university did not answer questions on how the library determines what books are to be made accessible only on request. 

In addition to contemporary political books, the Special Collections also hosts colonial records including government gazettes, and Hansards, with some of the materials digitalised by HKU and made available online to the public.

Perception of being ‘monitored’

A Hong Kong policy researcher, who requested anonymity, told HKFP the new arrangements may deter some from conducting research on more “sensitive topics.”

“The library still records who borrowed what, and when, they even collect what copies the researchers made. The perception of being ‘monitored’ is still there, and it may deter researchers from pursuing certain sensitive topics,” the researcher said.

The University of Hong Kong. Photo: HKFP.

While some books might still be on the shelves, “researchers may have second thoughts on borrowing them.”

The researcher described the new policy as “disproportionate” since it covers the entire Special Collections, including non-sensitive materials. “It is definitely an unnecessary hindrance to the research community.”

Apart from public libraries, some primary and secondary school libraries have removed books on topics ranging from introductions to the city’s electoral system, to historical titles about the Cultural Revolution, Ming Pao reported.

The Education Bureau in February last year published guidelines requiring schools to ensure that materials do not endanger national security.

A collection of books on the Tiananmen crackdown still freely available at the University of Hong Kong’s library. Photo: HKFP.

While HKU, like the seven other publicly-funded universities in the city, has launched a compulsory national security course, books that are politically sensitive or censored in mainland China such as The People’s Republic of Amnesia: Tiananmen Revisited by Louisa Lim, The Tiananmen Papers by Liang Zhang and a memoir by Ai Wei Wei, are still freely available in the university’s main library,

The Beijing-imposed national security law, enacted in June 2020, criminalises subversion, secession, collusion with foreign forces and terrorist acts, which were broadly defined to include disruption to transport and other infrastructure.

The move gave police sweeping new powers, alarming democrats, civil society groups and trade partners, as such laws have been used broadly to silence and punish dissidents in China. However, the authorities say it has restored stability and peace to the city.


Clarification 31.10.2022: A previous version of this article refers to the English version of Joshua Wong’s Unfree Speech: the threat to global democracy and why we must act, now, being only available at the Special Collections section. The Chinese version of the book is also available at Fung Ping Shan Library.

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