Pandemic, NSL cast large shadow over Book Fair

July 19, 2021 09:10

The Covid-19 pandemic and National Security Law (NSL) have cast a large shadow over the Hong Kong Book Fair which opened on July 14 and runs until Tuesday.

It was the first to be held for two years. The 2020 fair was scheduled twice last year but cancelled both times because of the pandemic. The fair is the most important event of the year for the city’s publishers, giving them a sales platform they can find nowhere else. They offer price reductions to encourage people to spend more.

The travel restrictions caused by the pandemic have cut the number of outside visitors by at least 100,000; many Hong Kong book-lovers are also staying away because they are nervous about mixing at close quarters with so many people. As a result, publishers expect the numbers and sales to fall from the pre-pandemic level in 2019, with sales possibly falling by up to 33 per cent.

The number of exhibitors this year are 763, compared to 740 in 2019, with 5.2 per cent more space than in 2019.

It is the first fair to be held since the promulgation of the NSL on June 30, 2020. Because the law does not set out in detail what books may or may not be published, most publishers have erred on the side of caution and do not exhibit books dealing with mainland or Hong Kong politics, including the protest movements.

They also have excluded books dealing with mainland history, such as the Cultural Revolution (1966-76), the military crackdown on student-led protest in Beijing in 1989 and biographies of Nobel Prize winner Liu Xiaobo. These restrictions will make the fair less attractive to mainland visitors when they return; many come to buy titles unavailable at home.

At a news conference last Tuesday, Benjamin Chau Kai-leung, deputy executive editor of the Trade Development Council, said that, as a trade body, the council did not have the power to conduct inspections. It was up to exhibitors themselves to decide what was legal and illegal.

But a small number of publishers took the risk and put on display books on Hong Kong politics. Last Thursday an organisation called Politihk Social Strategic (香港政研會) protested to the national security bureau of the Hong Kong police about eight books which it said contravened the NSL.

As of Sunday evening, officers from the bureau had not visited the stalls of the two publishers concerned, nor had the police issued a statement on the complaint.

One of the two, Kind of Culture Publishing (有種文化出版社), continued to display the books; it said that they were legal and had not received an official notice to remove them. Its manager Daniel Wong said that the publishing industry was “eating salted fish and having to swallow” (食鹹魚抵得渴) – to tolerate something knowingly.

The other publisher, Hillway Press (山道文化), also continued to sell the titles included in the complaint. The news provoked a run on one of them and it ordered a further 2,000 copies.

Madame Wong, a visitor to the fair, said: “how has Hong Kong come to this? When I heard of the complaint, I wept. I fear that next year we will not able to buy books on the Umbrella Movement. We will lose part of our collective memory.”

Billy Leung, a university student, said that he spent only two hours at the fair, compared to five in previous years. “There are no books criticising the Chinese government and none by non-establishment legislators. With this self-censorship, we have less choice,” he said.

But there were many other books to choose from. Among the most popular were books for children, including textbooks. Parents with their children were among the largest group of visitors. Also popular were books on the history of Hong Kong – which some call “nostalgia books” – by famous authors. There were many talks by individual authors promoting their work.

News analyst Johnny Lau Yui Siu (劉銳紹)said that, in Hong Kong today, nobody knew what the “red lines” were and that even those in the government did not know what books could be published and what could not. “It is up to the publishers themselves to make a judgement.

“Over the last year, since the passage of the law, publishers have been through a period of intense checking, working out what was a ‘safe place’. Before they put books at the Fair, they went through multiple checks and chose those they believe do not contravene the law,” he said.

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A Hong Kong-based writer, teacher and speaker.