Xi Jinping’s “stubborn, closed-minded” rule is muting free speech and publishing in Hong Kong

Bookseller Lam Wing-kee—not totally silenced yet.
Bookseller Lam Wing-kee—not totally silenced yet.
Image: Reuters/Bobby Yip
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The abduction of five Hong Kong booksellers by Chinese authorities last year has made publishers in the city more afraid to publish sensitive books, according to a report by the PEN American Center, a writers’ group based in New York.

Of the five booksellers, all associated with one Hong Kong publishing house, Mighty Current Media, which published books that were critical of the Chinese Communist Party, four have been released. One, Gui Minhai, remains in detention in China. Another, Lam Wing-kee, came forward after his release this summer to detail the chilling details of his abduction from Hong Kong to mainland China. 

Lam traces the crackdown on Hong Kong publishers directly to Chinese president Xi Jinping. “From his roots to his background and later his speech, it is clear that he is a conservative, stubborn, and closed-minded party member,” Lam said during a Saturday (Nov. 5) press conference about the report. From when he first became leader “he began using an authoritarian, traditional rulers way of ruling China.”

The effects of their abductions were felt deeply at this year’s Hong Kong Book Festival, the major literary event in the city, mostly attended by parents seeking discounted textbooks for their children and young readers of comics, PEN America said in the report. Publishing houses that traditionally had a presence at the fair were conspicuously absent this year, such as Mirror Books. Bao Pu— founder of New Century Press, a Hong Kong publisher that published the secret memoirs of Zhao Ziyang, a former party general-secretary who was purged after the 1989 Tiananmen crackdown—told PEN America that “the great majority of politically sensitive books that would normally be available at the book fair were absent.”

“Although critics may dismiss the books produced by Mighty Current Media as tabloid-style political gossip, it is apparent from those interviewed by PEN America that the repercussions can also result in books of serious public interest or literary merit never being published or distributed to Hong Kong audiences,” the report said.

Books published by Mighty Current include The House Arrest of Jiang Zemin, which claimed that former Communist Party chief Jiang had been under house arrest in his villa in Shanghai since May of 2015, after he secretly disrupting Xi’s anti-corruption campaign. One book that was tentatively titled Xi Jinping and His Six Women is believed to have sparked the current crackdown on the publisher. There “is a possibility” that the book could still be published, Lam said on Nov. 5.

The report also called out Sweden for the ineffectiveness of its “quiet” diplomatic route, citing Angela Gui, the daughter of Gui Minhai, a Swedish citizen.

“It’s been clear for months now that if they wanted to find a quiet exit, they would have done so already. And it’s quite clear to me that what they want to do is keep my father for as long as possible, and if the international community stays quiet, it’s just going to be forgotten about and the Chinese will keep him as long as they like,” Angela Gui was quoted as saying in the report.

PEN America drew a comparison with the case of another Swedish national, NGO worker Peter Dahlin, who had been arrested in China and released after less than a month. “The swift release of another Swedish political detainee, human rights worker Peter Dahlin, while Gui Minhai remains in custody raises important questions about how ethnicity and nationality play into human rights cases,” said PEN America.

Lam, the bookseller, said Hong Kong’s future is bleak unless its citizens stand up to Beijing. “Hong Kong has no democracy right now but we do have certain freedoms we can maintain,” he said. “So it comes down to whether or not Hong Kong people will bow to this oppression or continue to fight for our freedom.”