HONG KONG • China’s new national security law has cast a threatening shadow over Hong Kong’s dynamic book industry, with anxious publishers combing through back catalogues for potentially “subversive” material, and looking to Taiwan as a safe haven for printing fresh titles.
Hong Kong has long been a refuge for intellectuals, free from the grip of the Chinese mainland’s communist leaders.
But that status is at risk of crumbling as Beijing’s security legislation sends fresh jitters through a publishing industry already wary of overstepping China’s red lines.
“Major publishing and printing houses now dare not touch a project like ours,” said Woody, who asked to be identified only by his first name and is one of a group of journalists putting together a book of interviews with witnesses of Hong Kong’s violent pro-democracy protests last year.
The team was forced to review the entire contents of the title – Our Last Evolution – after Beijing served notice of the law in June, and three writers subsequently requested changes.
“For the rest, it’s not that they don’t have any fear, they just don’t know what specifically they should worry about,” he said.
Beijing has made no secret of its dislike of the books that roll off printing presses in Hong Kong, often painting an unflattering and at times salacious picture of many Chinese officials.
In 2015, five Hong Kong booksellers offering gossip-filled tomes vanished – including one from Thailand – before resurfacing in mainland custody making “confessions”. The climate of fear has only intensified under the new law, which targets secession, subversion, terrorism and collusion with foreign forces.
Breakazine, a quarterly magazine exploring social problems in Hong Kong, cancelled publication of its latest issue and suspended production of the next one.
It said it had obtained legal opinion and was forced to act due to “uncertainties” in the implementation of the security law.
The answer, say some publishers, is Taiwan.
Taipei publisher Liu Gi said the Our Last Evolution team was one of a number working on books about the Hong Kong protests that came knocking on his door in June as the law was being formulated.
Mr Liu, who runs Alone Publishing as a one-man operation, said it signalled an ironic switch for Hong Kong, which previously served as a publishing haven for Taiwanese literature when the island endured decades of authoritarian rule.
“It appears to me that history is repeating itself in a reversed way,” Mr Liu told Agence France-Presse. “When Taiwan was under martial law, books banned here had to be published in Hong Kong and smuggled back to Taiwan.”
Mr Liu, who also leads Taiwan’s Independent Publishers Alliance, noted, however, that books about the Hong Kong protests have not made much headway in the local market as big publishing houses with global footprints are fearful of repercussions from Beijing.
“Major houses will have more concerns because they may be barred from markets in Hong Kong and mainland China after publishing these books,” he said.