Have airport book stores become the new battleground?

March 29, 2016 15:21
Page One is exiting its Hong Kong airport business and making way for a Chinese state-controlled book store chain. Photo: Baidu

Airport stores appear to have become the latest targets in Beijing's campaign to remove politically-sensitive titles from Hong Kong bookshops and replace them with offerings glorifying the state. 

The fears are not misplaced, given the latest news surrounding the bookshops at the Hong Kong International Airport. 

According to reports, the Airport Authority has decided on a new plan for airport bookstores, which will see the exit of an independent foreign group and the entry of a Chinese state-owned book store chain.

Under the plan, the number of book stores at the airport will be cut to 10 from the existing 16, with mainland-based Chung Hwa chain operating five of the outlets.

Meanwhile, Singapore-based chain Page One, which has been running six stores at the venue, will no longer have a presence at the airport.

The other existing bookstore operator at the airport, French-owned Relay, will see its store number reduced by half from 10.

Under the overhaul, the two biggest book stores at the airport -- one operated by Page One and the other by Relay -- will make way for luxury retail shops.

The plan, which will take effect in April, comes after the Airport Authority called for bids last year from interested parties for new leasing contracts for the book stores.

The move has resulted in Chung Hwa, a unit of Sino United Publishing, grabbing the rights for five stores, offering a chance for Beijing to serve up state propaganda to airline passengers.

Now, we come to this question: why is Page One retreating from the key international gateway?

Has it been given a signal that it is no longer welcome at the airport? 

Page One has been scaling down its business in Hong Kong in recent years, citing high rental costs. Last year, the book store chain closed a key outlet at Times Square mall, disappointing book lovers.

But quitting the airport business may not be a pure commercial decision.

The company has earlier this year removed politically sensitive books from its shelves in the wake of a controversy in Hong Kong over the disappearance of some local booksellers. 

The book store chain, which was earlier brave enough to sell titles critical of China and its leaders, was now seen to be exercising self-censorship in a bid to avoid the ire of Beijing and its supporters.

The disappearance of five men involved with a firm that published books banned in mainland China appears to have prompted Page One to rethink its operations and strategy in Hong Kong.

Pulling sensitive books in January, Page One never gave Hong Kong public a valid explanation as to why it made such a move.

Given that there was no legal challenge or court injunction on the sale of political books, why did the book store chain remove controversial titles, observers questioned. 

Now, with the decision to exit airport operations, doubts will only grow that it has either succumbed to political pressure or chose to exercise self-censorship.

Banned books, many of them critical of China's leaders and purporting to reveal secrets of their personal lives, have been among top souvenirs for mainland visitors during their Hong Kong visits.

In Hong Kong, it is not illegal to sell such books as long as there is no court injunction against the sale or legal action related to a particular title.

Anyone can publish books on any topic if they believe the content does not violate local laws.

But the growing self-censorship suggests that the Communist regime in China is exerting all kinds of pressures to browbeat Hong Kong book shops.

The Airport Authority, as a government-controlled entity, might have felt that it would be serving the national interests, given that airport book stores have emerged as a key channel for the so-called illegal publications to make their way into mainland China.

While Hong Kong has no law banning the sale of the titles, what authorities can do is to replace the foreign-owned book stores as well as reduce the number of book stores at the airport to avoid people's exposure to sensitive publications.

As Page One has been selling sensitive political titles at the airport for many years, one can presume that the Airport Authority may have faced pressure from some higher-up to "clean up" the shops.

Meanwhile, the entry of Sino United Publishing into the city suggests that Beijing is keen to step up its own propaganda offensive in Hong Kong.

The outlets of the Chung Hwa book store chain won't sell any publications criticizing Beijing leaders, but will push tomes that extol the Communist leadership and their achievements. 

It marks one more step in the undermining of Hong Kong's publishing industry and free flow of information.

We can understand Beijing's compulsions, but what about our airport operator? 

The Airport Authority has tried to justify its moves by citing commercial reasons and the changing reading habits of people.

The explanations, however, seem to be only half the truth.  

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EJ Insight writer