Books about the Tiananmen Square massacre, Hong Kong protest movements, and other subjects deemed politically sensitive by Beijing have been removed from the former British colony’s public libraries in the lead-up to the 34th anniversary of the killings.
Hong Kong media have reported a marked increase in the number of book and documentary removals, which have been growing since the authoritarian clampdown on Hong Kong’s pro-democracy movement and the introduction of the national security law in 2020. It has resulted in a significant curtailing of political freedoms in the city and multiple arrests.
Late last month, the government’s audit commission report said the leisure and cultural services department, which operates Hong Kong’s libraries, needed to “step up efforts in examining library materials for safeguarding national security and taking follow-up actions”.
The report said Hong Kong Public Libraries had completed a preliminary review of books that focused on authors and publishers “suspected of publishing books on ‘Hong Kong independence’ previously”.
It said the review of titles, which began in 2021, was ongoing and unlikely to have a clear end date.
On Tuesday, Hong Kong media outlets reported the review appeared to have stripped from public shelves hundreds of books about the massacre of student protesters on 4 June 1989. Photon Media searched for 149 titles that were available in 2009 and found only four still listed.
Ming Pao reported that about 40% of politically themed books, magazines and videos available at the end of 2020 were gone, 96 of them removed this year. It said a number of documentaries, including by the public broadcaster RTHK, were also absent.
A Guardian search of the Hong Kong public libraries’ online catalogue returned some titles related to the Tiananmen massacre but most were shown to have “no lending copy available on shelf”. Four books on the “umbrella movement” protests were shown to have copies available.
“Books with content suspected of breaching the national security law or other local laws are removed immediately for a review,” a spokesperson for the leisure and cultural services department told the South China Morning Post.
Government figures have defended the targeting of books as safeguarding national security.
The Hong Kong chief executive, John Lee, said books were still available for purchase at private bookshops – a claim disputed by activists and residents, who noted that several bookshops have closed or removed sensitive books from their stock in fear of contravening the national security law. School libraries had already removed books deemed to be politically sensitive in the months after the introduction of the law.
“What libraries need to do is ensure that books that may not be suitable for circulation, that they have to do their duties,” Hong Kong’s secretary for security, Chris Tang, said on Tuesday.
“The principles we use, which I support, is first if all to ensure there is no breach of any laws in Hong Kong, including of course copyright etcetera, and also if they spread any kind of messages that are not in the interest of Hong Kong.”
Tang said he was sure that “safeguarding national security is high on the agenda of each and every individual department and bureau”.
In 2021, Tang had said the cultural and media sectors were an emerging source of national security threats, where pro-independence activists might conduct “soft resistance”.
Government targeting of media and literature has continued, with one of the most notable examples being the conviction for sedition of five members of a physical therapists’ union over the publication of a children’s book.
The judge found that the book, which depicted sheep fleeing from invading wolves, aimed to incite hatred against China.
Late last month, Google revealed in its biannual report that the Hong Kong police had sought to have content related to the book taken off the internet because the court considered it to be “seditious”. Google refused.
Increasing censorship under the remit of the national security law has also targeted media outlets, cartoons, films, documentaries, and art exhibitions. In response, a growing number of international projects are archiving or publishing the targeted content.
Several are operating under the radar, according to one operator of a project receiving sensitive books donated by people Hong Kong for foreign redistribution. He said people passed books along from friend to friend, driven by a need to preserve titles and information about Hong Kong society and history.
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