Date
24 August 2017
Bookstores can always blame the titles for not selling well, giving them a reason to return them to their publishers after only a brief period of exposure. Photo: HKEJ
Bookstores can always blame the titles for not selling well, giving them a reason to return them to their publishers after only a brief period of exposure. Photo: HKEJ

Hong Kong publishers avoid stepping on sensitive Beijing toes

Local publishers are facing another type of censorship as several politically sensitive titles such as those criticizing the Hong Kong and central governments were taken off the shelves of bookstores owned by the Chinese government.

The trend has prompted some publishers to avoid selling such titles to avoid making losses.

Up Publications, a small local publisher, has established a niche in the market by coming up with titles that are highly critical of the administration of Chief Executive Leung Chun-ying. Last year, 80 percent of its new titles were written by political critics, including columnists of Apple Daily. Its books, including one titled “The business world should support true universal suffrage”, were well-received by the reading public.

However, Up’s political books were only sold for about four months in the bookstores owned by Sino United Publishing, which is backed by the Chinese government, after which they were returned to the publisher.  With more than 10,000 copies of such books still unsold, the publisher was forced to cut the price to HK$10 (US$1.30) a copy to encourage readers to buy them.

Up said the new arrangement has raised concerns that Beijing is using a new, indirect way to control Hong Kong publishers and the content of the books they produce.

In pulling politically sensitive titles off the shelves, bookstores can always say that their action is purely a business decision. They can blame the titles for not selling well, giving them a reason to return them to their publishers after only a brief period of exposure.

But Up believes the bookstore’s decision with regard to its political titles was a warning sent by Beijing so that local publishers won’t cross the red line.

Against this backdrop, Up decided not to launch any more titles that directly criticize the authorities to avoid racking up losses. Instead, it publishes titles on how Hong Kong people can save the city’s future under such a highly sensitive political atmosphere.

In fact, mainstream publishers are avoiding coming up with titles on Hong Kong politics, and focusing instead on positive titles such as those on the former British colony’s history and nostalgic accounts of the old city.

Still, several small publishers are filling the gap with series of titles on Hong Kong’s struggle for more autonomy and comic books on the political situation in the city.

Pang Chi-ming, founder of small independent publisher Subculture, said the “white terror” in Hong Kong has been escalating since CY Leung became the chief executive two years ago. He and his team have filed several cases against writers or columnists who wrote negative comments about the administration.

So despite the public’s growing discontent over the government’s policies and performance, many writers and publishers are trying to avoid highly political titles.

Beijing itself has tightened its control over the publishing industry. In May, police arrested two journalists for “operating illegal publications” in Shenzhen, according to a statement issued by the local public security bureau.

Taiwan’s well-known bookstore chain Eslite Book Store in Hong Kong has reportedly pulled off its shelves several politically sensitive books on Tibet, such as the works of Wang Lixiong, a Chinese author and Tibetologist who writes about Beijing’s policies on the country’s ethnic minorities. Eslite plans to open its first outlet in mainland China next year.

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SC/JP/CG

EJ Insight writer

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