The recent takeover by Beijing's representative office in Hong Kong of a key publishing house has sparked fears of a widening ideological assault by the ruling Chinese Communist Party on freedom of expression in the former British colony, political commentators said.
The Liaison Office of the Central People's Government in Hong Kong, which formally represents Beijing in the semiautonomous city, recently acquired control of Sino United Publishing Limited, local media reported this week.
Next Magazine quoted official Chinese documents as a source for the acquisition of the company, which wholly owns three major bookstore chains in the city, Joint Publishing HK, Chung Hwa Book Co. and the Commercial Press.
The liaison office already owns a number of Chinese-language media, including the Wen Wei Po, Ta Kung Pao and Hong Kong Commercial Daily newspapers, as well as the online Orange News.
The move has given Beijing control of more than 80 percent of the publishing industry in Hong Kong, which was promised a high degree of autonomy and the continuation of its existing freedoms under the terms of the city's 1997 handover to China, media reports said.
Lai's Apple Daily newspaper accused the Liaison Office of violating the territory's mini-constitution, the Basic Law, which states that Chinese government departments may not "interfere in ... affairs which [Hong Kong] administers on its own in accordance with the law."
The news comes after media reports last month that the three booksellers owned by the chain are banned from selling any publications related to "Hong Kong independence," an oblique reference to last year's pro-democracy Occupy Central movement.
According to the Economic Journal newspaper, independent publishers have already been hit hard by the new development.
Carmen Kwong, editor-in-chief of Up Publications, told the paper that her company had hundreds of books returned by Sino United Publishing through its three bookstores.
Sino United has also rejected books by Up Publications that are not even political in subject matter, Kwong was quoted as saying.
According to Hong Kong independent book publisher and current affairs commentator Wu Yisan, the publishing deal runs counter to the principle of "one country, two systems," under which Beijing negotiated the return of Hong Kong from British rule.
"These three bookshops did once sell a small number of anti-communist books, but now the Liaison Office has moved in to control them via a shell company, probably to tighten its control over Hong Kong generally," Wu said.
"[They will be able to exclude] so-called forbidden books, or books about Occupy Central," he said.
"They have stepped up their control over the freedom of expression and of publication," Wu said.
"We are getting further and further away from one country, two systems, and from Hong Kong people ruling Hong Kong."
Wu warned that the move would further anger an already alienated Hong Kong population.
"It's an extremely stupid thing to do, because all they will do is incite further opposition among Hong Kong people," he said.
Near-monopoly will take its toll
Democratic Party lawmaker Helena Wong said that while a few independent bookstores are still able to sell what they want, eventually the near-monopoly by Beijing-backed publishers will take its toll.
"They are using official and semi-official channels to interfere with Hong Kong's media; that is already a long-standing problem," Wong told RFA.
"We still have other choices with regard to buying our books in Hong Kong, but it has increased the amount of limitation on our future freedoms," she said.
"There are a lot of small bookshops and upstairs bookshops, but they are all facing financial problems, and problems expand the size and reach of their readership," Wong said.
According to Wu, Beijing officials have already publicly hit out at any writings that suggest a "Hong Kong city state" mentality, or even discuss a "Hong Kong identity."
Recent opinion surveys have shown that a relatively small proportion of Hong Kong residents—just 17 percent in 2012—identify themselves as "Chinese," with a larger proportion describing themselves as "Hong Kong people," or "Hong Kong Chinese."
Tensions have also flared in recent years between Hong Kong people and mainland Chinese visitors, who have been criticized in the city for a perceived lack of manners in public places and for bulk-buying essential goods for resale across the internal border with the mainland, in a practice known as "parallel trading."
Wu said Beijing views differences of identity as a political issue in need of urgent attention, and as being dangerously close to ideas of Hong Kong independence, although this was never raised by Occupy Central protesters.
"There are still some independent bookstores selling books about the Umbrella Revolution...so I hope people will support them," Wu said.
‘Gradual spread of ideas’
According to pro-Beijing lawmaker and barrister Lawrence Ma, Beijing has been concerned about the "gradual spread of ideas promoting Hong Kong independence" since the Occupy movement for fully democratic elections brought hundreds of thousands of people onto the streets at its height, and blocked major highways for 79 days.
Chinese officials have since blamed the "illegal occupation" on a lack of patriotic education among the city's young people and called for Beijing-backed programs of patriotic education in Hong Kong's schools.
Ma said he had suggested the authorities pass a law banning movements for "Hong Kong independence" during a recent trip to Beijing, especially by violent or illegal means.
Such a law is similar to controversial subversion legislation proposed by the government soon after the handover, which prompted mass street protests and the early resignation of then chief executive Tung Chee-hwa, the first post-colonial leader of Hong Kong.
"The Occupy Central movement was a result of the Aug. 31 decision [by Beijing]," Ma told a local chat show on Thursday. "You can challenge them, but you shouldn't use violence or illegal methods to do so, such as blocking roads so people can't get past, which is already a violation of civil and criminal codes," he said.
Hong Kong's Occupy Central movement for universal suffrage began on Sept. 28 with clashes with riot police wielding tear gas, batons and pepper spray, prompting hundreds of thousands of citizens to pour onto the streets of the former British colony at the movement's height.
The umbrellas protesters used to shield themselves from pepper spray gave the movement, which occupied major highways in Hong Kong for 79 days before being cleared away by police, its name.
Under the terms of the 1997 handover to Beijing, Hong Kong was promised universal suffrage, the continuation of its existing freedoms, and a "high degree of autonomy."
But an Aug. 31 ruling by China's parliament said that while all of the city's five million registered voters will be allowed to cast a ballot in the 2017 elections for the next chief executive, they will only be able to choose among candidates vetted by Beijing.
Pan-democratic politicians and Occupy campaigners dismissed the ruling as "fake universal suffrage," as it will likely exclude popular pan-democratic politicians, and called on the authorities to allow some form of public nomination.
Both Beijing and Hong Kong officials have said the policy will not change, however.
Reported by Dai Weisen for RFA's Cantonese Service, and by Xin Lin for the Mandarin Service. Translated and written in English by Luisetta Mudie.