Hong Kong’s bookstores, which once drew Chinese bibliophiles from far and wide in pursuit of some of the city’s most off-beat, salacious and politically radical writings, are being squeezed out by rising retail rents and the growing, suffocating influence of the ruling Chinese Communist Party on the city’s once-vibrant political scene.
The city boasts more than 100 independent bookstores, but most aren’t immediately visible from the street. Canny readers generally know where they are: tucked away on the upper floors of ageing buildings in close-packed business districts like Causeway Bay and Mong Kok, often with no elevator.
Once the denizens of the second and third floors, they are being forced ever higher and further from the street in search of affordable rents, with only a dwindling customer base that still knows where to find them.
One such store, Causeway Bay Books, made world headlines in 2015 when five of its staff members went missing in the course of two or three months.
Swedish national Gui Minhai, who headed the Mighty Current publishing house that owned Causeway Bay Books, “disappeared” under murky circumstances from his holiday home in Pattaya, Thailand on October 2015, only to reappear in China “confessing” on video to a decade-old alleged drunk-driving offense. He now faces further charges of spying after being snatched from a train as he traveled to Beijing in the company of Swedish diplomats.
In the months that followed, store manager and British national Lee Bo, 65, went missing from his workplace in Hong Kong, and the group’s general manager Lui Bo (also spelled Lui Por) and colleagues Cheung Chi-ping and Lam Wing-kei were also all detained, later to resurface in China, accused of selling “banned books” to customers across the internal border in mainland China.
In February 2017, authorities in China’s eastern province of Zhejiang handed down prison sentences to Dai Xuelin, social media editor at the Guangxi Normal University Press, while his business partner Zhang Xiaoxiong was jailed for three-and-a-half years for “illegal business operations” as part of the same operation.
Since then, life has only gotten tougher for Hong Kong’s independent bookstores, according to Lee Tat-ning, who runs the Hong Kong Reader store in Mong Kok.
“We mostly deal in books related to social movements,” Lee told RFA in a recent interview. “We have been in business for 10 years, and during that time, sales have improved.”
“The mainstream bookstores don’t always sell these books, or not in large numbers, so readers will go to upstairs bookstores, that’s to say independent bookstores, to find them,” he said.
Beijing controls 80 percent of publishing’
But the 2015 takeover by Beijing’s representative office in Hong Kong of Sino United Publishing, which wholly owns three major bookstore chains, Joint Publishing HK, Chung Hwa Book Co. and the Commercial Press, gave Beijing control of more than 80 percent of the publishing industry in the city.
And while a few independent bookstores are still able to sell non-mainstream publications, the near-monopoly has taken a heavy toll.
“[Neither Joint Publishing, Chung Hwa nor Commercial Press] sells any of these books, I am quite sure of that,” Lee said. “They would never even order them in the first place … They might say publicly that this is for commercial reasons, but I think it’s hard to explain away like that because … these books actually sell very easily.”
“A lot of people want to read them, and so they come to the independent bookstores.”
Across the harbor, not far from where the now-shuttered Causeway Bay Books once plied its trade, the People’s Commune bookstore is also hoping to fill this gap in the market.
But it’s a risky business against the background of growing censorship by Beijing, and a dwindling pool of customers from the mainland, once an important segment of the market.
“This isn’t very viable, because I predict that that it will get extremely difficult to run this business in future,” store owner Tang Tze-keung told RFA. “There is automatic censorship on [Chinese social media] already now … and the number of customers from mainland China is shrinking.”
“I think maybe they’re afraid, too.”
But Tang said that the banning of Hong Kong’s politically sensitive titles by the administration of President Xi Jinping, who recently changed the constitution to allow himself to rule indefinitely, isn’t the only factor hampering independent bookstores.
“There are customers who want this information, but actually fewer and fewer people are reading books,” he said. “Everyone has a smartphone; if I want to read about the recent constitutional amendments, I can get read it all online.”
Pushing patriotic education
Beijing’s interest in Hong Kong’s publishing industry appears to have been sparked by the city’s 2014 pro-democracy movement for fully democratic elections, during which protesters camped out on major highways and thoroughfares in defiance of a ruling by China’s parliament that Beijing should vet all candidates in future Hong Kong elections.
Pro-Beijing politicians claimed China was concerned about the “gradual spread of ideas promoting Hong Kong independence” since the Occupy Central movement brought hundreds of thousands of people onto the streets at its height.
Chinese officials blamed the “illegal occupation” on a lack of patriotic education among the city’s young people and renewed calls for Beijing-backed programs of patriotic education in Hong Kong’s schools.
Lee Tat-ning said he saw a spike in reader interest in the wake of 2014 pro-democracy movement, known colloquially as the Umbrella Revolution.
“For about a year or two after the Umbrella movement, most of our best-selling titles were about the movement,” Lee said. “At a rough estimate, about a million people took part in it [at some point], so it was a very important event in the city’s history and [in the history of its] social movements.”
“So people kept going over it, analyzing the reasons behind it. At the same time, the Umbrella movement didn’t achieve its aims, so you could say it was a failure, and a great loss for our society.”
Since then, the political climate has become far more restrictive, Lee said.
“The promises of Hong Kong people ruling Hong Kong, and a high degree of autonomy, were pretty reasonable,” he said. “Now, autonomy is equated with independence, and perhaps the high degree of autonomy will also turn into … an official red line that you’re not allowed to mention any more,” he said.
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