Hong Kong leader defends removal of politically sensitive books from libraries

Hong Kong's Chief Executive John Lee (AP)
Hong Kong's Chief Executive John Lee (AP)

Hong Kong’s leader has defended pulling politically sensitive books from the city’s public libraries, saying residents will not be recommended titles featuring “bad ideologies”.

Books referencing the 1989 Tiannmen Square massacre, which saw troops in Beijing violently crack down on pro-democracy protesters, have been removed from library shelves without a clear explanation, along with others written by pro-democracy politicians and political commentators.

Critics say the move will further undermine Hong Kong’s reputation for having free access to information and freedom of expression.

But Hong Kong’s chief executive John Lee defended the sweeping law at the legislature, saying the city’s freedoms are protected by the its constitution.

“The books we offer for residents to borrow are those that we recommend,” he said.

“We would never recommend books that are illegal and violate copyrights. We would never recommend those that we deem to be featuring bad ideologies.”

Mr Lee did not elaborate on what are considered “bad ideologies”, but said residents can still find such books to read elsewhere.

The removal of the books from libraries was reported by local media outlets after a Chinese newspaper stopped publishing works by the city’s most prominent political cartoonist on Sunday, following government complaints.

Comic strip collections by the cartoonist were also no longer available in public libraries.

Hong Kong is a former British colony that returned to China’s rule in 1997, promising to retain its western-style freedoms.

But the city’s cultural and creative sectors said freedoms have shrunk since Beijing imposed a tough national security law in 2020, following massive pro-democracy protests the previous year.

Since the sweeping law was enacted, the city’s art and media communities have learned to be wary of crossing vaguely defined red lines in producing art and other content that might be perceived as challenging the Chinese Communist Party’s control.

The group that formerly organised an annual vigil in Hong Kong in remembrance of the Tiananmen Square massacre also voted to disband in 2021 under the shadow of the security law.

The vigil was the only large-scale public commemoration of the event on Chinese soil and was attended by massive crowds until authorities banned it in 2020, citing anti-pandemic measures.

Supporters say the group’s closure shows the freedoms and autonomy promised when Hong Kong returned to China in 1997 are diminishing.