For decades, Hong Kong was a refuge for banned books.
The island's bookstores and libraries stocked texts banned in mainland China by the Communist Party. Over the years, that has included political thrillers with undertones of government criticism, scandalous memoirs exposing the sexual activities of government officials and historical accounts of events the government purged from its own history books.
Hong Kong's bookstores became something of a destination for Chinese visitors, who flocked there to find information suppressed from them in their own towns. Some Hong Kong-based sellers even smuggled books across the border.
But in 2015, the Chinese government began to crack down. Booksellers went missing, and it eventually emerged that they were being detained by Chinese authorities. As a result, the industry experienced a significant downturn.
Now, the island is facing a new book crisis. Children's books with LGBTQ themes and titles such as “Daddy, Papa and Me” and “The Boy in the Dress” have begun to disappear from the shelves of public libraries.
Last week, the Leisure and Cultural Services Department confirmed that it had moved the LGBTQ content out of public view, so that it could be read only under parental supervision, according to the Standard, an English-language newspaper based in Hong Kong. Up to 10 titles have been removed.
Critics say the government is bowing to the pressure of an anti-LGBTQ group called the Family School Sexual Orientation Discrimination Ordinance Concern Group, which argued that the books promoted homosexuality and same-sex marriage. “We are shocked by the LCSD’s decision. The LCSD said they removed the books because of readers' complaints, but we know the people responsible are just one anti-gay rights group,” said Brian Leung Siu-fai, chief operating officer of the rights group BigLove Alliance.
On Sunday, representatives from 40 activist groups gathered outside a public library in the Causeway Bay area to protest the removal.
Even a government-funded organization that monitors discrimination is outraged. On Thursday, the Equal Opportunities Commission questioned the move, calling it unnecessary and decrying “new limits on children’s access to books,” according to the Hong Kong Free Press.
“We hope to see the message of respect and inclusion being promoted via as many channels as possible, including libraries,” the EOC wrote.
Despite the considerable outrage over the books, Hong Kong is no stalwart defender of LGBTQ rights. The government does not recognize same-sex marriage or civil unions, and the city's LGBTQ community continues to battle for equal rights.