Hong Kong, Mainland China, and the Banned Booksellers’ Plight

Banned and Challenged Books, Civil Liberties, Intellectual Freedom Issues, International issues

By: Robert Sarwark

On this blog we often write about specific books that have been challenged, banned, condemned, or sometimes even burned in the United States. And many times — sometimes with help from the Office for Intellectual Freedom itself — these sundry interdictions have been overturned in the name of intellectual freedom, the First Amendment, democracy, etc.

Imagine, then, a land where there is no OIF. No First Amendment either. No democracy even. And while this little mind exercise might seem to be getting a bit trite, it’s worth remembering that many of the systems and laws in place in the U.S. since its founding by no means have counterparts in all nation-states of the world.

The People’s Republic of China, as you may know, is one such state. By definition, since only one party exists — the Communist Party, duh —  China is not considered a democracy. Along with this political reality, freedom of speech, intellectual freedom, and freedom of the press are not guaranteed under the law, to put it sweetly. And while many reforms have taken place in recent years in this country of over one billion people, representing the second-largest world economy, in this regard it and the United States are very, very different.

Hong Kong, though always geographically a part of China, has for much of recent history been a different story. A British colony since 1842, English common law had reigned until it was finally handed over to China in 1997. This erstwhile unique status guaranteed the territory a level of intellectual freedom similar to many other Western jurisdictions. In that sense, for over 150 years Hong Kong was able to develop to where its citizens expected to be able to speak, write, and read quite freely.

Causeway Bay Bookstore, Hong Kong, prior to its forced closure. Source: Wikimedia Commons, User: Exploringlife, URL: https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Causeway_Bay_Bookstore_new_political_books_display.jpg"

Even since 1997, that tradition of free speech has endured. An entire cottage industry of publishing content banned throughout Mainland China emerged to a point of (semi-)national notoriety in Hong Kong, if not actual pride. If you wanted the dirt on the Communist Party’s elite, for example, you headed to Hong Kong and tiny, dusty, but vibrant bookshops like Lam Wing-kee’s Causeway Bay Books. In Mainland China you couldn’t find anything on controversial events such as the brutal Cultural Revolution of the 1960s and the massacre of peaceful protestors at Tienanmen Square on June 4, 1989, neither via the internet nor in officially sanctioned Chinese books. But in Hong Kong, you could. This tiny but densely populated city was an exception to the Chinese rule until almost shockingly recently.

If you listen to the New York Times’ daily podcast “The Daily,” you may have heard April 24th’s episode, which distilled a full-length article in the newspaper format on Hong Kong’s renegade booksellers from earlier that month. Beijing-based journalist Alex W. Palmer’s original piece is certainly worth the read (or the listen, via podcast, if you haven’t the time). But my fascination with this story is that, in 2018, men such as Lam and other banned booksellers are so strikingly similar to what daring impresarios must have faced during the era of the Catholic Church’s Index Librorum Prohibitorum in Europe and its colonies (circa 1600 to 1966). What’s more, in that exact year of the Index’s retirement, 1966, it seemed so uncanny that this was when Chairman Mao Zedong’s “Great Proletarian Cultural Revolution” began in earnest, purging China of any remnants of its outspoken intellectual class, leading to China’s far-reaching censorship policies of today.

Sadly (I reckon, to anyone reading this blog), the free-wheeling Hong Kong of the past may be no more. Since 2015, the mainland’s policies have grown increasingly draconian. No longer can you visit Causeway Bay Books and learn about the unofficial side of both what’s happened and happening in China. The Hong Kong booksellers who were detained, interrogated, had their businesses dissolved, and worse are the kinds of intellectual freedom fighters we may not always think still exist today. But they most certainly do. And — spoiler alert — they’re not giving up quietly either: Mr. Lam’s shop in Hong Kong may now be shuttered, but there’s always Taiwan.


Robert SarwarkRobert M. Sarwark is a librarian at the Art Institute of Atlanta and a 2018-2019 Visiting Fellow in Publishing History at Harvard University’s Houghton Library. He is originally from Chicago and enjoys dogs, pizza, and writing bios in the third person. Find him on Twitter @RobSarwark.

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