Titles removed from the shelves of Hong Kong public libraries can still be bought from bookstores, Chief Executive John Lee has said, adding that libraries must ensure that books on their shelves do not breach any of the city’s laws.

Lee’s comments during a weekly press conference on Tuesday came after local media reported that political titles by authors including scholars Simon Shen and Ma Ngok, former lawmaker Margaret Ng, and the late prominent democrat Szeto Wah had been taken off the shelves of the city’s public libraries.

Chief Executive John Lee meeting the press on May 16, 2023.
Chief Executive John Lee meeting the press on May 16, 2023. Photo: Tom Grundy/HKFP.

Ming Pao reported that since 2020, around 40 per cent of books and recordings about political topics or figures had been removed from public libraries.

Of 468 political books and recordings identified by Ming Pao, at least 195 had been removed – 96 of them in the past year, the newspaper reported.

Books by Zunzi, a political cartoonist whose comic column was recently suspended by Ming Pao, were also among listings removed from public libraries.

HKFP reported in 2021 that Hong Kong public libraries, over the preceding 12 years, had removed 29 out of 149 books about the Tiananmen crackdown from their shelves, a total of 263 individual titles.

Hong kong public library
File Photo: Selina Cheng/HKFP.

The chief executive said on Tuesday said that libraries had to “do their duties” to ensure that books were not in breach of Hong Kong laws, including copyright legislation, and did not spread any messages contrary to the city’s interests.

“That is an important thing that any government [needs] to do so that the books that we allow for public circulation do serve the interest of Hong Kong,” Lee said.

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Secretary for Security Chris Tang said in a separate press conference on Monday that he was sure the Leisure and Cultural Services Department (LCSD), which oversees the city’s public libraries, had their own policies regarding library books.

The security chief also said that he believed that “safeguarding national security is high on the agenda of each individual department and bureau.”

Last month, government auditors urged the LCSD to “step up efforts” to make sure library materials did not threaten national security.

National security law
A national security law advertisement in an MTR station. File photo: GovHK.

The director of audit said in a report to the Legislative Council that the department needed “to step up efforts in examining library materials for safeguarding national security and taking follow-up actions.”

In June 2020, Beijing inserted national security legislation directly into Hong Kong’s mini-constitution – bypassing the local legislature – following a year of pro-democracy protests and unrest. It criminalised 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.

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Candice is a reporter at Hong Kong Free Press. She previously worked as a researcher at a local think tank. She has a BSocSc in Politics and International Relations from the University of Manchester and a MSc in International Political Economy from London School of Economics.