Children’s book depicting protest removed from Hong Kong libraries

Two titles by Taiwanese author Sun Hsin-yu are taken down over ‘sensitive’ references to protests, opposition.
By Siyan Cheung for RFA Cantonese
2023.10.16
Children’s book depicting protest removed from Hong Kong libraries “Tour of Hong Kong” by Taiwanese author Sun Hsin-yu contains scenes of demonstrations in Causeway Bay.
Credit: RFA screenshot

Libraries in Hong Kong have removed two children’s picture books published in democratic Taiwan over illustrations depicting a pro-democracy demonstration and a reference to the 1989 Tiananmen massacre, the latest to fall victim to censorship under Beijing’s National Security Law.

“Tour of Hong Kong” by Taiwanese author Sun Hsin-yu was taken off the shelves of the city’s Central Library, according to recent media reports, which said the move was likely due to “sensitive content” in the book.

In what some have called a “war on libraries,” Hong Kong authorities started removing hundreds of titles from public libraries late last year, to ensure nothing in their collections ran afoul of a draconian national security law banning public criticism of both the local government and the ruling Chinese Communist Party.

A search for “Tour of Hong Kong” on the public libraries online catalog on Friday showed no results for the title, although other titles by the same author were listed as available to borrow. No results were shown for another book by Sun titled “Tour of Beijing,” the second book to be taken off the shelves according to local media reports.

Most of “Tour of Hong Kong,” a 40-page picture book that has proven hugely popular with parents since its publication in 2015, consists of fine-drawn illustrations of a child walking through different streets and alleyways in the city.

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An illustration in “Tour of Hong Kong” shows the city’s airport and a boarding gate with the number “64,” a likely reference to the June 4, 1989, Tiananmen massacre. Credit: RFA screenshot

However, in one scene, there is a demonstration in the shopping district of Causeway Bay, complete with a statue of the Goddess of Democracy first seen in 1989 on Beijing’s Tiananmen Square, together with the slogans “Power to the People!” and “Democratic China!”

Another illustration shows the city’s airport and a boarding gate with the number “64,” a likely reference to the June 4, 1989, Tiananmen massacre that ended weeks of student-led pro-democracy protests in Beijing.

Publishing industry insider Tsam Sing said Hong Kong’s national security police have written to printing companies warning them not to print anything that could be in breach of the law, which criminalizes criticism of the Hong Kong and Chinese authorities, and bans references to recent mass pro-democracy movements.

‘We’re only the creators’

Police started visiting medium-sized printing companies door-to-door soon after the law was imposed on Hong Kong in 2020, warning them not to accept any orders containing images from the 2019 protest movement against the erosion of the city’s promised freedoms, Tsam said  

Most printing companies have required publishers to submit PDF files of the book in advance for checking, before accepting a print job, and are carrying out a high degree of self-censorship, he said, adding that he was “unsurprised” by the takedown order for “Tour of Hong Kong.”

“Tour of Beijing” also contains illustrations likely considered “sensitive” by the authorities, including faint traces of Mao-era revolutionary slogans from the 1960s and 1970s, and traces of the Chinese character used to mark buildings for demolition, a sensitive topic as people are forcibly evicted from such buildings to make way for new infrastructure projects.

Sun told Hong Kong’s Ming Pao newspaper she was unaware that her books had been removed from Hong Kong library shelves.

“If so, I can only feel that this is regrettable,” she told the paper. “It’s not something we get to decide — we’re only the creators.”

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The covers of “Tour of Hong Kong” [left] and “Tour of Beijing” by Taiwanese author Sun Hsin-yu. Credit: RFA screenshots

Hong Kong’s Leisure and Cultural Services Department told the paper that public libraries have a duty to remove any book found to “violate Hong Kong laws, endanger national security, contain unhealthy content, or that are obviously inconsistent with the facts.”

Central library workers said “some books may have been removed for review,” without confirming the titles. 

Taiwan books get ‘forensic attention’

Political cartoonist Vawongsir, who lost his high school teaching job over his political art, said such censorship is no longer new in Hong Kong.

“It’s plain to see that Hong Kong’s education system has been getting more and more like that of mainland China, and even a little opposition is no longer tolerated in picture books today,” he said.

“There is no room for opposition, and things are likely to get more repressive in the education sector.”

Current affairs commentator Sang Pu said images of the protest movement are regarded as particularly sensitive by Beijing.

“They will examine books and authors from Taiwan with forensic attention,” Sang said. “They will censor certain ... images particularly strictly.”

He said such illustrations are regarded as “soft confrontation” by the ruling Chinese Communist Party.

The number of books on offer at Hong Kong’s public libraries has fallen amid an ongoing cull of books that includes any titles referencing jailed media mogul Jimmy Lai and his now-shuttered Apple Daily newspaper, while compendiums of political cartoons by satirist Zunzi, whose column was recently axed by the Ming Pao newspaper, have also been taken off the shelves.

Ahead of this year’s politically sensitive June 4 massacre anniversary, 146 titles about the massacre and the democracy movement that preceded it had been recently removed, while keyword searches for “June 4,” “Tiananmen Incident,” “Tiananmen” and “1989” returned either zero results, or showed titles that were marked as unavailable.

Translated by Luisetta Mudie.

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