The Hong Kong Book Fair returned on Wednesday after a one-year delay because of the coronavirus pandemic, but self-censorship concerns cast a shadow over the event, with publishers fearing the impact of the national security law.
It is the first fair since the Beijing-imposed legislation came into force last June, and critics fear the law, which bans acts of secession, subversion, terrorism and collusion with foreign forces, could be used to limit free speech.
Those concerns were evident at the event, with far fewer books penned by opposition figures on display than in years past.
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Dozens of attendees had already arrived at the Convention and Exhibition Centre about three hours before the event opened at 10am, with many bringing along suitcases and trolleys to carry home their purchases.
“It’s better to follow the government policy,” said Fung, a 58-year-old housewife, when asked about potential self-censorship at the event.
She and her husband were first in line at the ticket office, having arrived at 7am. Both planned to take advantage of the free entry offered to vaccinated residents.
“I plan to buy fashion magazines like Elle, as well as travel books and CHOICE magazine,” she said. “I think I will spend about HK$1,000 to HK$2,000.”
Most book sellers would do their best to avoid trouble, said Jimmy Pang Chi-ming, a cultural critic and boss of maverick publisher Subculture. He was referring to fears of law enforcement being involved if complaints emerged against politically sensitive books.
“We are not against the law, but we are afraid of trouble,” Pang said, adding that he expected sales to drop by 20 per cent because Covid-19 restrictions had stopped book lovers from mainland China attending.
Hillway Culture was among the publishers selling books written by authors with political backgrounds, including Voices From Within by former opposition lawmaker Shiu Ka-chun, and a book about the Yuen Long MTR station violence during the 2019 anti-government protests by former television journalist Ryan Lau Chun-kong.
A Journey Through the Brick Wall written by Raymond Yeung Tsz-chun, Hillway’s founder, was also for sale. The former teacher rose to prominence after suffering an eye injury during the protests.
“I don’t think we should hide books from the public simply due to fear,” Yeung said. “If there is anyone who alerts police about our books, we will try to go through the process. If we never try, we’ll never know where the red line lies.”
Organisers said the city’s publishers did not vet books before printing and selling.
Benjamin Chau Kai-leung, deputy executive director of the Trade Development Council, said at a press briefing on Tuesday, that “as a trade body, we also don’t have the power to conduct inspections”.
Exhibitors could ask the government if they were unclear about the suitability of material to be displayed at the event, he added.
Asked whether books penned by arrested opposition figures would be available, Chau said that as long as they abided by the law, he felt they had “the right to choose to display or exhibit at the fair”.
The event comes nearly a month after the closure of Apple Daily newspaper following the arrest of five top executives and its lead editorial writer for allegedly violating the security law.
Authorities later launched an investigation after a public library displayed books written by Jimmy Lai Chee-ying, jailed founder of the tabloid-style publication. Titles penned by pro-democracy activists Joshua Wong Chi-fung and former lawmaker Tanya Chan were also removed from public library shelves just days after the national security law came into effect last year.
“I don’t think there will be an absence of books related to politics this year. I think publishers like Passion Times will still be here, but I won’t buy their books,” Ikki To, a logistics worker, said.
To and his friend Roy Wong, both in their 30s, were also at the front of the line and said they were fans of author Lam Wing-sum.
“I will buy two of her new books, one with an autograph and one without,” To said.
The fair, seen as a hallmark of the city’s vibrant freedom of publication, has been repeatedly postponed since July last year because of the coronavirus, after attracting nearly 1 million people in 2019.
The event will run until July 20, involving about 544 publishing sector exhibitors, down 20.7 per cent from 686 two years ago.
Overseas publishers were not able to attend because of border restrictions, Chau said, while small publishing houses might have been forced to close down amid financial strain arising from the pandemic.
Organisers will only be able to accommodate 85 per cent of the venue’s capacity, based on current social-distancing measures. At least 100,000 fewer visitors are expected.
Additional reporting by Rachel Yeo
This article Hong Kong Book Fair returns after long delay due to Covid-19, but self-censorship fears persist first appeared on South China Morning Post