Hong Kong’s public library system has been in the spotlight recently, with local media reporting that political titles have stealthily been removed from shelves since 2020. While books about civil disobedience were the first to disappear, the genre of those included in the purge were not limited to politics.

Banned books library
Sung Chor-on, a teacher who complied a database to keep track of the removed titles. Photo: Lea Mok/HKFP.

On May 15, Ming Pao reported that at least 195 “political” items had been taken off the shelves in the past two years. Among them were documentaries about the 1989 Tiananmen crackdown produced by public broadcaster RTHK, reference books for defunct secondary school subject Liberal Studies, romantics essays by democrat Roy Kwong, and travel books by veteran journalist Allan Au.

Some of the titles removed from public libraries in recent years – click to view
  1. Hong Kong, the Light Soy Sauce by Zunzi*
  2. China, the Old Soy Sauce by Zunzi*
  3. I Am Not a Kid by Joshua Wong*
  4. I Am Not a Hero by Joshua Wong*
  5. My Journeys for Food and Justice by Tanya Chan
  6.  On the Hong Kong City-State by Horace Chin*
  7. On Hong Kong Nationalism by HKU’s student press Undergrad*
  8. The Future of Constitutionalism in Hong Kong by Benny Tai
  9. Under the Keystone – 18 Years in Politics by Margaret Ng*
  10. An Oral History of the Democratic Movement of Hong Kong in the 1980s by Ma Ngok
  11. Prisoner of the State: The Secret Journal of Zhao Ziyang by Zhao Ziyang
  12. Big Rivers Going to the East by Szeto Wah*
  13. The Inside Information of the Bloody Crackdown on Tiananmen on June 4 by Wu Renhua*
  14. There Is a Kind of Happiness Called Forgetting by Roy Kwong*

* Book titles are translated from Chinese by HKFP.

In the wake of public library removals, primary and secondary school libraries and state-controlled bookstore chains were also found to have also pulled titles from their shelves, according to local media reports.

Responding to questions about the purge, Chief Executive John Lee said last Tuesday that libraries must ensure books did not breach Hong Kong laws. Days later, he told lawmakers that the government had a duty to identify books with “bad ideologies.” 

Banned books library security
Sung inside the Hong Kong Central Library. Photo: Lea Mok/HKFP.

“Titles removed from public libraries can still be bought from private bookstores,” Lee added.

In an emailed response to HKFP, the Leisure and Cultural Service Department (LCSD), which manages public libraries, said it would review and destroy books deemed inappropriate.

The department added that while one copy would be be kept for preservation, copies in the public library system would be “disposed of by way of paper recycling” if they were found to be “not conforming to the library development.”

Scholars and political figures were quick to express their concerns. Former Chinese University of Hong Kong lecturer Leung Kai-chi posted on Facebook offering to help send copies of affected titles to overseas libraries.

Banned books library
Hong Kong Central Library. Photo: Lea Mok/HKFP.

Leung was not alone.

A directory of disappearances

Soon after the news broke, Sung Chor-on, who teaches Chinese, began compiling a list of “vanished books” on Facebook, encouraging others to contribute titles that have disappeared from the library system.

Banned books library
Sung Chor-on. Photo: Lea Mok/HKFP.

“Since public institutes have failed to fulfil their duty, private entities need to step in and fill the void… [I] will try to do whatever I can, save as many books as possible,” the 41 year-old wrote on his page. He added that he welcomed any requests to borrow books from him.

Four years ago, the book enthusiast launched a Facebook page called Teacher Sung’s Books and Archives to share his thoughts on books and newspaper clippings he found interesting. However, since campaigning to keep track of disappearing titles, the fame of Sung’s page has grown.

As of May 24, nearly 300 “disappeared books in libraries” had been catalogued in Sung’s open-to-all database, although many had been input by the public and have not been verified.

Banned books library zunzi
A copy of China, the Old Soy Sauce by Zunzi that Sung bought days before the cartoonist’s comic strips on newspaper was suspended. Photo: Lea Mok/HKFP.

“I don’t know what the booklist can achieve yet. I definitely don’t have the money to purchase all those titles, but book names are also part of our memories,” Sung told HKFP, adding that if one day the books were proven not to be problematic, at least Hongkongers would have an archive.

LCSD has never revealed the list of books that have been removed from the library system since the implementation of the Beijing-imposed security law, saying that making the list available “may lead to wide circulation of such library materials with malicious intent.”

The legislation, promulgated in June 2020 following months-long protests and unrest, criminalised secession, subversion, foreign collusion and terrorism. Officials say it has restored stability to the city, while critics condemn the impact it has had on fundamental rights in the city.

Among the books that have disappeared from libraries are those about the Tiananmen crackdown on June 4, 1989. Hundreds if not thousands died that day after the People’s Liberation Army cracked down on protesters in Beijing. In 2009, the Home Affairs Bureau made public a spreadsheet of 149 books about the crackdown. By November 2021, HKFP reported that 29 were no longer available

At the time of writing, 146 of those 149 titles have been removed from the public library system, according to local media reports.

Calling the practice “pathetic,” Sung said libraries were supposed to be places where collective memories could be preserved. Even if few people ever took such books out of the library, it was important they remained accessible for researchers and in the system for archival purposes.

Banned books library
Sung Chor-on. Photo: Lea Mok/HKFP.

“That was the original function of libraries. People who want to pursue knowledge are the ones who will suffer because of this policy,” he said.

Censorship in the market

Ironically, independent book stores have seen sales of some books – including “prohibited” political titles that were not previously known for selling well – surge after news that books had been removed from public libraries broke, and after Lee’s comments about such titles being available to buy.

“I think the people [who are buying these titles] are not the ones who would have to borrow books from public libraries in the first place, but the libraries’ actions have sparked a sense of urgency – they have suddenly realised they might not be able to buy these books again,” independent bookstore owner Kris Lau told HKFP.

HANS Bookstore Independent bookstore
Have a Nice Stay bookstore in Mong Kok. Photo: Lea Mok/HKFP.

Lau’s bookshop, Have A Nice Stay, sold out of over 50 reprints of a travel book within days of the title being listed among the items removed from public libraries. 

However, he said that it was the only book purged from the public library system that was available in his bookstore, as most of the other titles were either out-of-print or old publications that not many customers would be interested in buying.

“As business owners, our primary focus when ordering books to sell is to meet customer demands… this is the main difference between libraries and bookstores – the function of a library is to keep an archive,” Kris said.

When asked whether he had any concerns about selling books that the government considered unsuitable for libraries, the bookstore owner briefly paused before giving his answer. “If [the authorities] want to censor titles, they should be the one to make a list of banned books. I believe it should not be our responsibility to censor books,” he said. 

Hong Kong Book Fair 2022.
Books about President Xi Jinping were placed at the entrance of Hong Kong Book Fair 2022. Photo: Peter Lee/HKFP.

Kris also described bookstores as “downstream” of publishers and distributors, who were the ones who made the call when it came to which titles were available on the market.

“As much as I would like to thank the chief executive for asking people to buy books from independent bookstores, this situation has also made publishers and distributors more worried about selling books on particular topics. I heard that some have refused to sell certain titles even though they still have them in stock,” he added.

How bookstores survived in China

The owner of second-hand bookshop Prejudice Books, who asked to be referred to by his surname Fan, said he had received hundreds of enquiries about Zunzi’s publications since the political cartoonist’s comic strip in Ming Pao was suspended amid government criticism.

Fan Prejudice bookstore
Fan, owner of the Prejudice Books. Photo: Lea Mok/HKFP.

Fan said he had noticed a trend of people purchasing books about the Tiananmen crackdown and civil disobedience before emigrating over the past two years, but added that demand had slowed. 

Even as some bookstores stopped stocking books that may be considered sensitive, the 52 year-old with long hair said he was “not so worried” about selling such titles. 

“Only the ‘sheep village’ children’s book has been officially outlawed so far, not the books on June 4 and civil disobedience,” Fan said. “Even though everyone knows they can sue you for selling those titles anytime, I feel it’s not good to stop before anything happens.”

Fan Prejudice bookstore
A book about Chinese by Horace Chen. Photo: Lea Mok/HKFP.

The “sheep village” children’s books were published by a defunct speech therapists’ union, five members of which were jailed after being found guilty of conspiring to publish books with seditious intent. Two men were arrested in March over alleged possession of the books.

While Fan said that launching a private library specifically to lend titles pulled from libraries – a suggestion he has made before – would be “suicidal,” there was still room for independent bookstores to survive.

“We are familiar with the book market in mainland China. The ways mainland bookstores survive would be how we survive, too,” Fan said, adding that he thought the Hong Kong government was simply copying mainland authorities.

Fan Prejudice bookstore
Fan. Photo: Lea Mok/HKFP.

“[This bookstore] was never meant to become a ‘political bookstore,’ we wanted to focus on selling literature… you can see mainland officials don’t have problems with literature and films, and that leaves room for bookstores to survive,” he said.

The next step

A number of the titles purged from public libraries were published by the same publisher, the owner of which has left Hong Kong and requested anonymity. HKFP will refer to him as Noah.

💡HKFP grants anonymity to known sources under tightly controlled, limited circumstances defined in our Ethics Code. Among the reasons senior editors may approve the use of anonymity for sources are threats to safety, job security or fears of reprisals.

The decades-old publisher Noah owned published over a hundred titles, including books on the Tiananmen crackdown and Hong Kong’s 2014 Umbrella Movement. However, his company ceased business in 2020 following the city’s political overhaul.

Noah said he predicted that books would be removed from public libraries. “I foresaw long before 2019 that Hong Kong would become just like any other city in the mainland. If a book cannot exist in Beijing or Guangzhou, it cannot exist in Hong Kong, either,” he said.

For Noah, which books are stocked in public libraries should not be up to civil servants, but residents. “However, the power is currently in the grip of the government, which is against the principle of building a civil society,” he said.

As an independent publisher, Noah said he would rather do his work elsewhere, as he saw almost no way to distribute politically sensitive titles in the city anymore.

“The next step for the government, I guess, would be outlawing books, just as they did with the ‘sheep village’ books,” Noah said.

A chain bookstore in Kwai Fong. Photo: Lea Mok/HKFP.

He compared Hong Kong with Taiwan under martial law when books promoting liberal values were banned, saying: “Even possessing banned books could be illegal.”

‘We should do whatever we can’

Despite his outlook, the publisher has worked with libraries overseas to include all the titles he published in their Hong Kong collections.

Book Fair 2021
Hong Kong Book Fair 2021. Photo: GovHK.

“We do not need to feel disappointed, “ Noah said, adopting a lighter tone.

“People nowadays don’t rely solely on printed publications to acquire information. We have YouTube and podcasts to convey messages to the public. I believe the government’s efforts will be in vain.”

Sung also shares the same optimism. When asked about why he chose to be interviewed using his real name, and if he had thought about leaving the city, the teacher expressed his desire to contribute.

“We should try to do whatever we can in whatever position we are in. When we’ve tried everything, at least we won’t have any regrets.”

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Lea Mok is a multimedia reporter at Hong Kong Free Press. She previously contributed to StandNews, The Initium, MingPao and others. She holds a bachelor's degree in Journalism from the Chinese University of Hong Kong.