Independent bookstore Bleak House Books. (Photo courtesy of Albert Wan)
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The vagueness of national security law has sparked “white terror” over book production and publications.

By Kelly Yu

Daniel Lee, owner of Hong Kong Reader Bookstore, an independent shop featuring books on humanities and social sciences, is one of many booksellers in Hong Kong who is concerned about the implementation of national security law. 

“When the bookstore first established in 2007, Hong Kong was still a relatively free and open society. I never thought there would be (a concept of) banned books (in Hong Kong) one day,” Lee says. 

In view of the legislation, Lee says that he has reluctantly removed books about “Hong Kong Independence” from his store shelves. “Publishers have filtered content mentioning independence and rephrased polically sensitive terms. Some book printers have refused to print books related to independence even long before the law (was introduced) in light of the political climate,” Lee says.  

Daniel Lee reading a book at Hong Kong Reader Bookstore.

“I did not expect independent booksellers to become guardians of freedom of speech,” Lee says. “Ten years ago, we did not take politics into consideration. But now, running an independent bookstore and selling books is already like taking a (political) stand,” Lee adds. 

The national security law, introduced by the Beijing government to prevent, stop and punish acts of secession, subversion of state power, terrorist activities, and collusion with foreign forces that endangers national security, took effect on June 30, 2020, the eve of the 23rd anniversary of the city’s handover to China from British rule. 

Following social unrest brought by the anti-Extradition Law Amemdment Bill (anti-ELAB) movement since June 2019, implementation of the law has caused public outcry over Beijing’s tightening control on the semi-autonomous city. 

Soon after the law was introduced, books written by prominent pro-democracy figures, including at least nine titles by localist Horace Chin Wan-kan, activist Joshua Wong Chi-fung and former lawmaker Tanya Chan Suk-chong have been removed from public library shelves, triggering fears and concerns over possible impact of the law on freedom of expression.

Fear over Independent Bookselling

“There is zero guideline from the government, and that is worrying,” Lee says. “Until now, there is no official announcement as to what content might possibly be considered as threats to national security. All we can do is to pay close attention to how the law is being enforced,” Lee adds.

Lee, who still sells political titles such as 1984, On Tyranny and books about the anti-ELAB movement, says his biggest concern over the law is its vagueness. “What if I sell books about Mao Zedong or Marxism which also include issues about freedom of speech? Would it be considered illegal?” he laughs. “We would never know, not until the government knocks on my door one day, which is the scariest scenario,” he says. 

“We would never know, not until the government knocks on my door one day, which is the scariest 
scenario.”

White terror over independent bookstore sector sparked public outcry in 2015, when Lam Wing-kee, owner of Causeway Bay Books and five of his coworkers went missing. Lam later informed the public that he was detained by the Chinese authorities in Guangdong province for more than 400 days for selling books critical of China’s leaders. Lam flew to Taiwan in April 2019 and reopened his bookstore, Causeway Bay Books, in Taipei on April 25, 2020. 

The missing booksellers case has put Hong Kong under the spotlight of international media, provoking widespread concern over Hong Kong’s declining freedom. With the national security law imposed, booksellers are worried that similar incidents will take place again – only this time it is carried out according to the law. 

Chilling Effect 

Wan, owner of Bleak House Books, an independent bookstore that specialises in English language books, shares Lee’s worries. “They did that to the Causeway Bay booksellers without a law in place. Now that there’s a law in place and they have the whole apparatus to enforce the law, … I don’t see those tactics going away, if anything, it is going to be more common,” Wan says.  

On Tyranny being sold at Bleak House Books. (Photo courtesy of Albert Wan) 

As a former US lawyer himself, Wan is most concerned about validity and accountability of the law. “The enforcement of the law is very much up to the political leadership. There is no accountability and no transparency,” he says.

Wan views vagueness of the law as a way to generate a chilling effect. “There is no clear guideline and I think it is intentional,” Wan says. “The government wants us to set our own red lines and instil fear and self censorship among members of the public in terms of not saying things that might possibly offend the regime,” Wan adds. 

Wan thinks there is obviously a certain level of self censorship: “People may still agree with a lot of what they want to publish but cannot do so. At the same time, they have a business to run, they have families too, so they are concerned about their own safety.” 

Persisting in Resistance

Despite the depressing circumstances, both booksellers are committed to upholding what they think is right. “I don’t think we need to do anything especially brave. We just have to keep doing business as usual,” Wan says.      

Citing a quote from German philosopher Hannh Arendt, “There are no dangerous thoughts; thinking itself is dangerous”, Lee explains that he firmly believes in the power of books. “The act of thinking or bookselling itself is a way of resisting the political suppression. All we can do is to carry on,” he says. 

“The act of thinking or bookselling 
itself is a way of resisting the politcal suppression. All we can do is to carry on.” 

Reviewing Textbooks

Apart from books sold in bookstores, publication of textbooks is also facing similar situation. According to a circular issued by the Education Bureau on July 3, 2020, schools are urged to review curriculum and teaching resources, with “a view to reinforcing the learning elements of national security education”. The criteria and guidelines for reviewing materials are not mentioned. 

Controversies emerged when Liberal Studies textbooks were found altered after six local publishers joined a voluntary professional consultancy scheme established by the bureau in 2019. The scheme aimed to “improve the quality of the textbooks to ensure that they are in line with the aims, objectives and learning focuses of the curriculum”, according to a press release issued by the bureau on August 19, 2020. 

The term “separation of powers” was removed and legal consequences of civil disobedience were highlighted in examined textbooks published in August 2020, months after the national security law was imposed. The bureau dismissed allegations about censoring textbooks under the law, saying that the pusblishers “voluntarily participated in the professional consultancy service and refined the textbooks” in the same press release. 

A spokesperson of the Education Bureau tells Varsity that the bureau is seeking advice from relevant policy bureaux and experts in different areas, and has been consulting with the education sector, with a view to providing more detailed guidelines as soon as possible. 

“It is the professional duty of teachers to review regularly their teaching materials for student learning to gatekeep the quality and relevance of the resource materials of the school curriculum,” the spokesperson says. “The teaching materials provided to students by schools should not involve and promote any acts that endanger national security,” the spokesperson adds.

On August 19, the Hong Kong Professional Teachers’ Union issued a statement condemning the government of censoring Liberal Studies textbooks, describing it as an act undermining the learning objectives of the core subject.

Education lawmaker Ip Kin-yuen, who is also the vice president of the Union, raises his concerns over potential threats to academic freedom under the national security law. 

“In the past, we enjoyed freedom of speech in Hong Kong. Now with the law in place, teachers have to be cautious about what they say during lessons. That has a significant impact on teaching and learning,” Ip says. 

“In the past, we enjoyed freedom of speech in Hong Kong. Now with the law in place, teachers have to be cautious about what they say during lessons.

Ip perceives the removal of “separation of powers” in Liberal Studies textbooks as an infringement of academic freedom. “The government should not ban academic discussion,” Ip says. “There should be space for teachers to teach and students to discuss the concept of separation of powers, which is a long-standing model of Hong Kong legal and administrative system,” Ip adds. 

He urges educators not to practice self censorship and teach students independent thinking regardless of the current political climate. 

Liberal Studies teacher Lo Kit-ling, who is also a committee member of the Hong Kong Liberal Studies Teachers’ Association, thinks that schools should be given clearer instructions.

“Without an ‘official’ red line, teachers have no choice but to practise self censorship,” Lo says. “Our immediate action is to review teaching materials thoroughly and filter content that might be seen as possible threat to national security,” Lo adds. 

Lo is most worried about facts being removed from textbooks after assessment. “We are afraid facts will be altered one day. Historical events like the Cultural Revolution are worth mentioning and discussing,” Lo says.

She believes that Liberal Studies has an important role in cultivating students’ critical thinking and ability to analyze current affairs. 

“I hope students can learn in and out classroom with the help of both unbiased textbooks and real life experiential learning,” she adds.

Edited by Emilie Lui

Sub-edited by Howard Li