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Mar. 10, 2015 - Updated 04:16 UTC



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Publishers Under Pressure

Takuma Yoshioka

Oct. 5, 2015

Some booksellers in Hong Kong are experiencing what they say is a challenge to the freedom of the press. They are finding it harder to distribute publications that are politically sensitive, and attribute blame to the influence of the government in Beijing. The moves are forcing businesses to look for new ways to keep afloat.

A recent book fair in Hong Kong attracted one million readers, representing one in 7 of the region’s entire population. Books are popular, but publishers are sensing a change in the air and are worried for the future.

A book about China's President Xi Jinping that criticizes him as a dictator who is seeking Chinese expansion overseas has its publisher in hot water. Before the title was released into circulation, the Hong Kong publisher was arrested in the mainland. Yao Wentian was sentenced to 10 years in prison for allegedly transporting illegal chemical substances.

Yao's son, who lives in the United States, says the charges against his father are phony. “Phone calls, emails and people followed him. The whole thing was a set-up. I mean, the whole trial was a laugh,” says Edmond Yao.

Printed material that is critical of China is handled mainly by small bookshops. Storeowners used to rely on customers from the mainland, who would buy in bulk. Sales are on the downturn and the booksellers say Chinese officials, who have tightened border inspections, are making it harder to smuggle in publications deemed unfavorable.

"They'll fine you, then detain you if you do it again,” says Causeway Bay Bookshop proprietor Lam Wing-kee.

Small publishing firms are also under pressure. They often produce pro-democracy books, such as titles about the so-called "umbrella movement" that are popular among Hong Kong residents. But major bookstores are now handling only a limited number of copies, if any.

Critics say a large bookstore chain in Hong Kong is now controlled by mainland capital, but the firm denies any political influence. “Lots of books are printed on popular topics. But if people lose interest in a subject, there'll be fewer books published on it. That's the way of the world,” says Sino United Publishing general manager Terence Leung.

Small publisher Lau Sai Leung sees things differently and claims big stores are refusing to handle his books. Lau thinks the backlash started after he put together a collection of essays by academics calling for pro-democracy protests. Even though just 20 percent of Lau's publications deal with political themes, he says the rest of his firm's books are being held back as well.

"Dealers said to me, 'You know what you've done',” says Lau Sai Leung, who is now trying to secure his own sales channels. He contacts people through social media and holds book club events twice a month. "It's not just for profit. We need to pursue what's good for society,” he says. Lau is also considering a move into the Taiwanese market and in ethnic Chinese communities in Malaysia and Singapore.

A fight is set to go on for the sake of Hong Kong's freedom of the press.

NEWSROOM TOKYO anchor Aki Shibuya spoke with NHK World’s Hong Kong bureau chief Takuma Yoshioka in a studio satellite linkup.

Shibuya: We're surprised that the mood is changing so much in Hong Kong's publishing industry. You told us about a publisher who was sent to jail. Do you think it's an indication that Xi Jinping is increasing crackdowns?

Yoshioka: Well, many people think so. Yao's published a number of books criticizing Beijing. His son said his father had received suspicious phone calls and emails in the past. But he said they increased after Xi came to power. He says his father was tailed almost around the clock. He'd never heard of that happening in Hong Kong before. Some people say that Xi also tightened baggage inspections on the border with the mainland. It seems like leaders in Beijing are nervous, and want to make sure that there won't be pro-democracy protests in the mainland, like there were here last year with students.

Shibuya: The man running a small publishing firm said he's using the Internet to attract readers, but that it's still hard to boost sales. How can small publishers survive?

Yoshioka: Well, one idea is to find markets in Chinese communities outside the mainland, such as Taiwan, and Southeast Asian countries. You know, Hong Kong's pro-democracy movement last year appealed to Chinese people living overseas who are worried about the Communist leadership. Last month, Yao gave a lecture in Malaysia on the "umbrella protests." There was a large audience. It included members of local citizens' groups. He said he sold out of sample books he brought, straight away. Twenty five percent of Malaysia's population is ethnic Chinese. Late in August, tens of thousands of people rallied to demand Prime Minister Najib Razak step down over a financial scandal. There's unrest building up over the ruling party, which has been in power since the country's foundation. Yao says there's a growing sense of solidarity between the people of Hong Kong and the Chinese community in Malaysia. He hopes books from Hong Kong will draw interest from many readers in Malaysia.

Shibuya: Some small publishing firms are trying to protect the freedom of the press, as you reported. But industry-wide, do you think there will be suppression of Hong Kong's freedom of the press?

Yoshioka: It's unlikely that the Hong Kong administration will explicitly impose legal regulations on the book industry under the "one-country 2-systems policy." But Beijing's influence will gradually increase in terms of the economy. Publishers may have the freedom to issue books on whatever themes they like, but without places or means to sell them, they cannot maintain their business. The presence of big companies from the mainland is only increasing. That's putting pressure on smaller publishers and book stores in Hong Kong. But the people we interviewed this time are trying to publish books that they truly want, regardless of their profitability. There, we saw their determination to do business in order to pass down their culture and values.