Book fair starts new, post-security law chapter

The Hong Kong Book Fair returned on Wednesday, after the coronavirus pandemic put paid to efforts to hold the annual event in 2020, but there were noticeably fewer political books on sale with exhibitors wary of falling foul of the national security law.

Visitor numbers for the seven-day fair are restricted because of the pandemic, and attendees are required to use the ‘LeaveHomeSafe’ app or write down their personal details before entering.

Organisers are giving away 35,000 free tickets to visitors who have had at least one Covid jab, and there were several dozen people in line in the hours before the fair opened its doors.

“I think the Hong Kong government has done a very good job of controlling the situation. Just having this kind of book fair is a signifier of success because we are able to roam around freely without being concerned about the virus,” said one of those in attendance, Aldrin Cheung.

But the enactment of the national security law last year represents a new chapter for the book fair, with publishers telling RTHK that they are taking a more cautious approach.

One attendee, who gave her name as Wing, said she had noticed fewer political titles on sale than in previous years even in the short time she was at the fair.

“Most of them are about the Chinese government or how wonderful they are,” she said of the political books she had seen on display.

“Quite sad about it,” she said. “Although I’m not a big fan of political books… but it’s a freedom of people to express themselves as Hong Kong has freedom of speech and publishing. But due to the political environment, people start limiting themselves. It’s quite sad.”

Local publisher, Jimmy Pang from Subculture, said exhibitors are withholding certain titles to avoid trouble.

He said book sellers aren’t sure where the bottom line is under the national security law, so would rather not sell titles that could be considered sensitive, such as ones written by journalists who covered the 1989 Tiananmen Square massacre, the 2014 pro-democracy ‘umbrella movement’ and the 2019 anti-government protests.

Pang said he expected business to drop about 20 percent because there would be no mainland visitors, and people had less purchasing power because of the economic downturn.

Another publisher, Raymond Yeung from Hillway Culture, said they have done a lot more preparation work this year, as they had to check with authors to make sure their books comply with the law.

“There are authors who have participated in the political or social movements before, but the content of the books are not actually about the movement,” he said of what he described as the more sensitive titles on display.

“So we want to show the people that actually these people are still Hong Kong people, they have the freedom to publish. So we, as a publisher, want to help them.”

Yeung said it was clearer where the ‘red line’ is than it was a year ago when the national security law was first enacted, and feels it is important to exercise what freedom they do have.

“As long as we have freedom of press in Hong Kong, we have to try to exercise it, no matter what. If we are confident our books are legal, then why not?”