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One by one, the booksellers linked to the Hong Kong publishing firm Mighty Current went missing as of last October. And it would take months before it was revealed that they were being held in China for “illegal book trading”, accused of having sold “unauthorised” works on the mainland via an online platform, as well as evading custom inspections.
The publisher is known for carrying titles touching on sensitive Chinese topics, including scurrilous, gossipy works on the private lives of elite politicians, which are banned on the mainland. In Hong Kong, however, which was exempted from adopting China’s social policies for a period of 50 years upon its 1997 return to Beijing, it has been a booming business for years, in particular attracting Chinese tourists visiting from the mainland.
Although only one of the men still remains in detention, another — Lam Wing-kee — last month spoke out about how he was blindfolded upon his arrest and then kept under constant surveillance in an 18-square room for five months, denied the right to contact either his family or his lawyer.
Lam, who skipped bail during a temporarily granted return to Hong Kong, now lives under police protection after alleging he was being tailed by strangers, according to the South China Morning Post.
Pressure growing on Hong Kong booksellers
Many publishers and China experts alike say the arrests were orchestrated by Beijing in a bid to clamp down on Hong Kong’s freedom of expression, and that pressure on the city’s booksellers to self-censor access to Beijing-related works is escalating.
At the annual week-long Hong Kong Book Fair, which closes Tuesday, several participants spoke of the fear rippling through the industry and how some mainstream bookshops have chosen to remove titles that risk angering mainland authorities.
Jimmy Pang, the head of the small independent publisher Subculture, called it “white terror”.
“If a book is suddenly banned, say after some mainland officials say it is, the whole line of production can get into trouble, from its writer, publisher, to the distributor and even readers. It can happen two or three years after the book is printed,” Pang was quoted as telling AFP on the sidelines of the event.
His observations were echoed by Lam Hong-chin, a political author writing for Subculture.
“People are worried. Some writers don’t even write any more. Some publishers don’t even dare to print,” he told AFP, adding he now fears for his own safety.
‘Very gloomy’ future for industry
Bao Pu, a publisher and editor of New Century Press, spoke of dwindling sales and described the future of the industry as “very gloomy”.
“It was thriving for a while until they [Chinese authorities] clamped down, until they made sure that everybody knows it’s dangerous to buy these books. So when they do that it has tremendous effects,” he told the Associated Press.
But a string of Hong Kong publishers, including Subculture’s Pang, remain determined to defy the pressure from the mainland.
“As a publishing house, I personally think I should not worry… You lose if you start to worry,” he said.
At the Hong Kong Book Fair, the sense of defiance among Hong Kong publishers was evident: a number of booths still chose to put steamy sagas involving Chinese politicians on sale.
Trend expanding beyond China
Johan Lagerkvist, a senior research fellow in the East Asia Program at the Swedish Institute of International Affairs, told FRANCE 24 that last year’s detention of the five Hong Kong booksellers was likely the start of a worrying trend.
“The kidnapping and jailing of the booksellers is remarkable,” he said, adding there is cause for fear among those working within Hong Kong’s Beijing-offending publishing industry.
“Absolutely. This is an open offensive [by mainland authorities]. Up until now, the self-censorship pressure has been subtle, but this open pressure is very visible repression,” he said.
“It’s like there’s a huge [censorship] steamroller rolling in,” adding that Hong Kong’s freedoms under the “one country, two systems” deal with China “are becoming more and more nominal, they exist on paper” but not in reality.
Lagerkvist said that Beijing’s increased intolerance towards Hong Kong’s freedoms is linked to the Communist Party’s worries about the future.
“The Communist Party is trying to act pre-emptively, extending its powers because there are concerns related to the country’s economic growth,” he said, pointing to the possibility of higher unemployment numbers and the advantages of nipping potentially critical movements in the bud.
“And the trend is now expanding beyond just mainland China,” Lagerkvist added.