Books likely to be the target of censorship by the ruling Chinese Communist Party were on sale on Friday at a bookshop in Hong Kong, which was rocked last year by the cross-border detentions of five people accused of selling "banned" books to customers across the internal border in mainland China.
A pop-up bookstore run by the local branch of London-based rights group Amnesty International is offering for sale some 1,000 books with "censored" passages blocked out in black, in a bid to publicize dwindling freedom of expression in the former British colony.
Described as a form of performance art by the organizers, their pages have sections censored in black ink, torn out or redacted before being put on display.
"The purpose is to show that a lack of freedom of expression is the equivalent of seeing deleted passages or torn-out pages whenever we walk into a bookshop, so that the content is no longer visible," Mabel Au, director of Amnesty International Hong Kong, told RFA.
She said the detentions of the Causeway Bay Books store employees marked the first time that Hong Kong residents had felt the impact of Chinese censorship since the 1997 handover, when the city was promised that its traditional freedoms would continue unchanged for 50 years.
She said the accusations leveled at the booksellers were inapplicable under Hong Kong law.
"There is no such thing as a banned book in Hong Kong, so we don't know which books are allowed and which are not," Au said. "This whole concept of what is sensitive is very vague."
"Naturally, we are opposed to [the detention of the booksellers]," she said.
Gui Minhai still unaccounted for
More than a year after he was taken away from his holiday home in Thailand and held by Chinese police, Hong Kong bookseller and Swedish national Gui Minhai remains in detention at an unknown location.
Gui, who headed the Mighty Current publishing house based around the Causeway Bay Books store in Hong Kong, is the last of five booksellers to be unaccounted for after their cross-border detentions sparked accusations that Beijing had broken its treaty obligations to the city.
He was last seen on Oct. 17, 2015 after leaving his holiday apartment in Pattaya, Thailand, according to the Free Gui Minhai website set up by his daughter Angela to campaign for his release.
In the months that followed, Causeway Bay Books store manager and British passport-holder 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 under opaque circumstances.
The five are all permanent Hong Kong residents, and the now-shuttered bookstore operated under the laws of that city, not Chinese law.
In recent years, the city's media and publishing industry has also been rocked by a series of violent attacks on journalists covering news stories deemed 'sensitive' by Beijing, while others have lost their jobs, or reported growing self-censorship in the industry.
Ever tightening censorship in China
Kevin Lau, the former editor of the Hong Kong newspaper Ming Pao, was seriously injured in a knife attack, in what some believed was a direct retaliation for writing about Chinese leaders' offshore bank account details.
"There is much tighter control on freedom of expression [in Hong Kong] than there was before, as well as an impact on judicial independence, the separation of powers and the fourth estate, press freedom," Au told RFA.
She said the changes come alongside an ever-tightening crackdown on freedom of expression in mainland China.
"Things that you could say before now can't be said," she said. "[This includes] negative news that shows political leaders in a poor light; that isn't allowed to get out now."
Hangzhou-based writer Zan Aizong said there are different gradations of what material is considered 'sensitive' by the Chinese government.
"There's a publications import and export company ... that won't import the [pro-democracy] Apple Daily; Asiaweek newsmagazine used to be allowed, but now you can't subscribe to it," Zan said. "Everything is tighter now, and they won't let you order."
"There are also different grades of people, some of whom can subscribe," he said. "For example, anyone above the grade of county party secretary, mayor or municipal party secretary can order these publications, but ordinary people can't."
He said anything published in China has undergone some degree of censorship, with some books getting banned even after publication.
Reported by Lee Lai for RFA's Cantonese Service, and by Wang Siwei for the Mandarin Service. Translated and edited by Luisetta Mudie.