Xi Jinping, comic strips, and censorship at Hong Kong Book Fair

Society & Culture

Drawing 850,000 attendees, the 2022 Hong Kong Book Fair came to a close last week against a backdrop of increased scrutiny. It was praised for its offerings, but also criticized for its rejection of certain independent publishers.

Books about Chinese politics for sale at the 2022 Hong Kong Book Fair. All photos by Trevor Tong

Two weeks ago, avid readers in Hong Kong flooded into the Convention and Exhibition Center, the city’s iconic landmark overlooking Victoria Harbor. They were there for the Hong Kong Book Fair, the largest annual event of its kind in Asia. “It’s a very good deal! We have a 65% discount for six books,” said Ms. Ceoi, a 36-year-old kindergarten teacher who bought eight novels for her two sons.

Organized by the Hong Kong Trade Development Council (HKTDC) since 1990, the Hong Kong Book Fair has cultivated a reputation for the quantity, quality, and variety of publishers it attracts. In 2019, before the COVID-19 pandemic, it drew nearly 1 million visitors, who spent an average of HK$875 ($111).

This year, though overseas tourists were a rare sight due to Hong Kong’s travel restrictions, the book fair still had a solid attendance. Roughly 850,000 people turned out for the seven-day event that concluded last Tuesday, where they purchased books, snacks, and other products from more than 700 exhibitors. The number of attendees was up more than 2 percent from 2021.

But the event has drawn criticism for its political choices and its pre-screening of books.

As part of a commemoration for the 25th anniversary of Hong Kong’s return to Chinese sovereignty, the book fair hosted a series of exhibitors and events promoting more positive images of China. A designated counter could be seen giving away complimentary photo albums of Chinese landscapes to visitors who agreed to follow certain social media accounts. At least four book publishers had copies of Xi Jinping: The Governance of China — the latest installment of the Chinese leader’s speeches and writings — prominently displayed in their sections. Meanwhile, literature on the pro-democracy movement in Hong Kong and the 1989 Tiananmen crackdown was noticeably absent.

At least four book publishers placed work by Xi prominently in their sections.

The book fair also turned down applications from at least three independent booksellers — Humming Publishing (蜂鳥出版 Fēngniǎo Chūbǎn), Sun Effort (有種文化 Yǒuzhǒng Wénhuà), and Hillway Press (山道文化 Shāndào Wénhuà) — all of which have published books about the 2019 anti-extradition bill protests in the city.

Sun Effort and Hillway Press took part in the 2021 book fair — although they received a letter from the HKTDC saying that some of their titles might be in breach of the National Security Law (NSL), which was imposed by Beijing in 2020 to snuff out dissent in the city. However, no further legal action was enforced by the police at the time.

Another high-profile publisher, the Subculture Publishing House (次文化堂 Cì Wénhuà Táng), which hasn’t published any books this year, announced its withdrawal from the 2022 book fair, marking the first time it was absent in 30 years. Jimmy Pang (彭志銘 Péng Zhìmíng), the president of the subculture, told the South China Morning Post in June that it couldn’t find authors to work with because “no writer is willing to write in Hong Kong” after the enactment of the NSL.

HKTDC dismissed claims of self-censorship, but it stressed that all items for sale at the book fair must abide by the law. Raymond Yeung Tsz-chun (楊子俊 Yáng Zǐ Jùn), the founder of Hillway Press, insisted that its books had been carefully examined and said the council’s decision to ban it from the event lacked “credibility and morality.”

Following its rejection last month, Hillway Press, along with 12 other publishers, attempted to launch what it called the “Hongkongers’ Book Fair,” in which more independent booksellers could get involved. However, the event was axed a day before its official launch, as the landlord of its venue decided to terminate the leasing contract, citing concerns about “too much attention on social media.”

“Even though the authorities have been saying that Hong Kong people still have the freedom to publish, the reality is that people do have certain fears and pressure, leading to these irrational decisions,” Yeung told the Hong Kong Free Press. In April, Yeung was arrested and charged for participating in an unauthorized gathering in 2019. According to his social media post, he plans to plead guilty in a trial next month and will face imprisonment of up to five years.

The Hongkongers’ Book Fair was held online as a result. One of the books for sale on its website was Yeung’s autobiography, Journey Through the Brick Wall (逆權教師 Nìquán Jiàoshī).

“The legal procedure will end one day and I didn’t let it be my focus in the past two months. Instead, I’ve been focusing on what I could do and need to do before the trial,” Yeung wrote in a Facebook post on July 23. “The Hongkongers’ Book Fair is my ‘farewell work.’ It should have hosted lots of activities, but unfortunately I couldn’t make all of them happen.”

Books for sale at the Hong Kong Book Fair

Drawn by a wide selection of discounted test prep books, school kids and parents were among the most enthusiastic visitors of the fair. Some of them even brought suitcases to cart off their haul.

A bevy of authors took the opportunity to unveil their most recent work. There were also nontraditional content producers such as Pomato Studio, or Xiǎoshǔqié 小薯茄, a local production team known for a short-form video series called “Refrigerator Cold Jokes,” which features two actors making humorous puns in Cantonese. Established in 2016, its YouTube channel now has nearly 500,000 subscribers. At the fair, popular Pamota actors appeared to autograph its recently released book.

People stand in line to buy Pomato Studio’s new book
New releases on display included a biography of Edgar Cheung Ka Long (張家朗 Zhāng Jiālǎng), a fencer who last summer became the second Hong Kong athlete to ever win an Olympic gold medal

Comic books were a major attraction. The Ravages of Time (火鳳燎原 Huǒ Fèng Liáo Yuán), an ongoing series created by Chén Mǒu 陳某 in 2001, was given a promotional stall with the illustrator’s original sketches and a life-sized statue. Featuring characters inspired by historical figures during the Three Kingdoms era, the comic strip has gained prestige over the years not only in Hong Kong, but also in Taiwan and Japan with its subtle drawing lines and astonishing fighting scenes.

A promotional stall for “The Ravages of Time”

Classics were also paid tribute. Ming Pao Publications set up a special exhibition commemorating Ní Kuāng 倪匡, a renowned local novelist and screenwriter who passed away on July 3 at the age of 87.

A special exhibition for Ni Kuang