As Hong Kong’s Book Fair draws to an end, Life&Style Editor Julia Lee reflects on Hong Kong’s decades-long struggle for democracy, and the importance of the press and publishing houses in calling power to account
The annual Book Fair has long been a staple in Hong Kong summers. The Hong Kong Convention and Exhibition Centre, with its high ceilings and seaside views, creates the perfect ambience for ducking out of the sweltering subtropical heat.
This year’s 2021 Fair faces not only the pandemic, but also the censorship many HongK ongers took to the very same streets to fight against two summers ago. The sweeping national security law (NSL) drew from the long unimplemented Article 23 of the city’s constitution, which ‘[prohibits] any act of treason, secession, sedition, subversion against the Central People’s Government’. This Article had been resisted by Hong Kong citizens; it was the primary subject of the annual July First protests, including the most attended. The NSL, whose contents had remained hidden until it came into force in 2020, claims jurisdiction regardless of one’s citizenship.
Hong Kong has operated on ‘One Country, Two Systems’ since its return to China in 1997, yet the NSL overrides Article 2 of the constitution, one that emphasises the city’s ‘high degree of autonomy and [enjoyment of] executive, legislative and independent judicial power’. The Basic Law further promised universal suffrage and the appointment of officials according to the people’s vote in Chapter IV. Achieving genuine democracy has scarcely left Hong Konger’s minds since the handover was announced in 1984, but this decades-long fight has come to an unceremonious end amidst the COVID-19 pandemic.
The implementation of Article 23 resulted in the expulsion and resignation of elected officials, arrests of prominent activists, and revokement of the right to demonstrate, which now has come for the publishing industry with a vengeance. The infamous disappearances of booksellers have escalated to the forcible closure of the city’s largest pro-democracy newspaper. Apple Daily, named for the forbidden fruit, was established in 1995 and filled the colloquial niche of the Hong Kong news media market. Favouring sensationalist headlines and colourful graphics, the paper was also the most outspoken dissident in mainstream media, reporting in favour of protestors in the 2014 and 2019 movements. The paper’s staff has been a regular target of arrests, most recently of former editor in chief Lam Man-Chung, finally closing its doors in June 2021 after more than 25 years in operation. Many locals showed their support for the paper, queuing around the block to buy its last issue.
A devastating blow has been dealt to the freedom of the press and publishing in the city in the name of law and order. One cannot overstate the importance of this freedom — it is fundamental to holding those in power to account. One may argue for the efficiency in progress granted by bypassing the people’s will, but I must argue then that any perceived legitimacy is but a mirage. One cannot claim to have the consent of the governed without allowing for dissent. If you grew up in a country expecting to have a say in your government by the time you become an adult, I implore you to look past your privilege and empathise with people who may never have that chance.
A few things have always brought this small yet bustling city together in the summer — the June Fourth Candlelight Vigil, the July First Demonstrations, and the annual Book Fair. Only one remains in 2021. Since English bookstore chain Page One pulled out of Hong Kong in 2016, the fair has become increasingly monotonous. The focus of the fair has been pulled from books to stationery, with companies giving away goodie bags, perhaps to distract from their depleted catalogue. Hoping to avoid trouble, many booksellers choose to pre-emptively remove more politically incendiary titles. Meanwhile, President Xi Jinping’s book stands prominently, with many posing for an ironic photo. Independent publishers Hillyway Press and Kind of Culture were warned that some of their titles may be in breach of the national security law. Both kept their titles on shelves stating their responsibility as part of the publishing industry. Many attendees supported them in quiet defiance, a stark contrast to violent clashes with police a mere two summers ago.
You and I are at risk of stepping on the NSL’s toes at this very moment. With this Orwellian homogenization of media, it comes down to our collective memories to keep Hong Kong’s resistance movements from being erased from history.
Read More about Hong Kong’s Fight for Freedom here: